Sean Nightingale, Computer Systems and Operations Manager
Sean has been with DPAG since June 2014 and heads up the IT Services team. He is responsible for facilitating a full range of activities within IT for both staff and students. Prior to this, he spent 2 Years in the Department of Surgical Sciences. Interview on Wednesday 24 April 2019.
How did you come to work in IT Services?
My brother used to run a computer shop. I was in the fortunate position of finishing work at 1.30pm on a Friday, and I would end up down at the shop with him and spend the rest of the afternoon talking about computers and getting to know how things worked. This was back in the early days when CDROM drives were brand new, and we’d often spend our evenings tinkering with new products. I’ve always had a keen interest in setting things up myself, and I managed to find an opportunity to take an IT job where my boss was looking for staff who could relate to their target customers who may find it difficult to get information on how things worked. This was a steep learning curve for me, but I managed to pick up a great deal of depth core knowledge and now have 21 years’ experience in a wide variety of IT, mostly within the charity sector.
What brought you to DPAG?
I’d been working several IT jobs in various charities over the years and came to the end of a big stint in one charity for 10 years. I’d managed to reach the top as IT Manager and was looking for my next opportunity to progress. An opportunity came up in the University’s Surgical Sciences Department, which was great as my wife and I had a 6 month old baby at the time and this was based only ten minutes away from home. During my time there, I met DPAG’s Head of Administration and Finance, Tania Boyt, and she told me there was a new post available here. They were looking to develop the front end of the team and create a strong service desk, which appealed to me so I applied.
What were your first impressions of DPAG?
Coming from Surgical Sciences, a Department of around 150 people at the time spread over a number of sites, I found DPAG really interesting because it is much bigger. The really interesting part was trying to find a balance between the Medical Sciences Divisional systems and in-house servers. Surgical Sciences only used Divisional set-ups, whereas here at DPAG, we did a lot of the IT set-up ourselves. It was fascinating seeing how the two systems could work together, and I find the Department has given me the ability to explore options and understand the wider picture of IT within the University.
What does your job here entail?
That’s a big question as it’s a lot of varied things! The nuts and bolts of it is making sure that computers work, that people can log in, that they have access to storage, and that those systems are managed effectively to make them safe and secure. On top of that, I’m also the facilitator between the activities that people want to do within IT and helping them to understand why essential things like security have to be applied. Ultimately, it’s about trying to work with people to create an environment that makes them happy from a research activity point of view, but also follows the proper processes and meets the University’s security requirements, and then trying to wrap that up in a friendly way so people feel comfortable and able to come to you with a tricky IT issue because they trust you to find the best way to solve it.
What do you enjoy most about the job?
I enjoy building relationships; working through a problem with someone and finding a solution that makes IT work for them. It can be both the best and worst part of the job, because often people come to me when they’re stressed and unhappy over an issue, but it’s never personal. Some experiments here can have £2000-3000 pounds worth of chemical agents involved, and they would go to waste if the researcher can’t resolve a technical problem with their computer, so solving those problems give me a great buzz. For example, I had a complex challenge of correcting some setup issues with an expensive piece of research equipment, and its management computer. It has to be installed in a very specific way, which hadn’t been achieved previously, so I had to spend time with the research team to find a way of resolving this and now it’s working nearly perfectly for them. The key thing for me is making that difference and empowering other people by making things work for them so they can get on with their job.
Is there anything you wish people understood about your job?
The greatest challenge is trying to get people to understand how complex IT is! We all use IT a huge amount in all sorts of things, but to use the iceberg scenario: most people see the 20% that sits on the top of the water, but not the 80% underneath, so they don’t understand why some tasks seem more complicated than they might expect. At home, for example, you just need a WiFi passcode to use internet on your computer, so of course you’d want your IT at work to work exactly the same way. But when you think about it: if a catastrophe happens at home, you’re talking maybe one or two computers, but at work a network of 500 people has the potential for hundreds of people to be affected if something goes wrong even with what seems to be a simple issue like connecting to a printer! So I am trying to help people see that there’s a much bigger picture going on, and everything that goes on with the Department and the wider University is so intertwined that making one small change here may affect another change several steps down the road.
What would you say has been your greatest achievement here?
I would say building trust in IT within the Department. People can have a negative feeling towards IT, and I’ve worked on helping people to understand that we as a team are here to help people, we will always do what we can, although we do have limitations and boundaries we can’t cross. My approach is to sit people down and talk them through the process so they can understand where the pinch points are. In some cases, there are issues that have nothing to do with the Department, it’s due to University requirements, so it’s about coming to a happy medium through flexibility on both sides so we can come to a solution where both parties are happy. I also don’t mind saying no to people because I believe there’s always an amicable solution to most problems. I have a philosophy; is it “no with a full stop” or “no with a comma”? I prefer to say no with a comma, because there’s usually a method to get something done with minimal inconvenience.
What do you do outside of your job?
My wife and I enjoy walking, We also enjoy travelling to visit friends and family; we have lived and worked in many different places between us and it is always good to revisit and catch up.
What do you think would surprise people to know about you?
When I worked for a children’s charity called Viva, I travelled to most corners of the world, which people might not expect: I’ve been to Hong Kong, Philippines, Uganda, Costa Rica and North America. The charity’s remit was to facilitate networks and bring organisations and people together with a similar vision for helping children at risk. I met my wife through this job; she used to meet with these groups and be their facilitator to help get their work done, such as taking kids off the street or launching a new healthy food initiative.
It would probably also surprise people to know that in my job, while you need to know a lot of stuff, you don’t tend to know in depth details about everything. You have a wide breadth of IT knowledge, which is used to explore and review situations. In turn, this allows you to use the best resources available, be those services or specifically skilled individuals.
What's coming up for you and your team this year?
At the moment, DPAG has four different buildings and each building has different tools and processes. My plan is to bring these different systems together to create a more streamlined environment, which will improve file sharing and storage, help foster more collaboration, and allow people to use the same tools regardless of where they are based. So it’s easier to use and navigate for everyone.