I started my small surveying business with two (2) part-time team members and two (2) computers. This was a month before Covid-19 shut down the US economy. The COVID-19 shutdown gave my baby enterprise one of its very first challenges:
How to enable access to company and job files when I couldn’t have my two (2) team members in an office?
Two (2) factors led me to solve this problem by taking a “cloud-first” approach to file management for my small surveying business. The first was my familiarity with tools like Google Drive and Dropbox from my personal life. The second was my frustration with the need for more flexible access to files I’d experienced at large engineering companies. (The IT departments at these large engineering companies were definitely not focused on meeting the needs of mid-level managers like myself.)
My small surveying business is nearing its 4th anniversary. Over that period, we’ve found the cloud-first file management approach forced on us by COVID-19 to be a great fit. It is improbable we will ever buy and maintain a traditional on-site file server.
In this article, I’d like to share six (6) best practices for taking a cloud-first approach to file management in small surveying businesses.
The Benefits Of A Cloud-First Approach To File Management
Before we talk about the four best practices of a cloud-first approach to file management, I wanted to briefly list the benefits:
- A cloud-first file management system tends to be more robust and convenient than a “sneaker drive system”. (A sneaker drive is a USB thumb drive run around by a guy in sneakers to share files between computers.) Ditto for a system that resides primarily on a small business’s main desktop computer’s single hard drive.
- A cloud-first file management system is more straightforward and less expensive than a traditional on-site server. (This is because large companies with deep expertise and economies of scale are managing the file servers.)
- A cloud-first file management system supports anywhere-anytime access to company files and job files. This makes a lot of sense for small surveying companies with hybrid workers or field surveyors that are only sometimes in a central office.
Here are the six (6) best practices for a cloud-first approach to file management for small surveying businesses:
- Carefully evaluate your choice of a cloud service provider. Don’t just use the provider that you’ve been using for your personal life. It might not be a good fit for your business. Don’t just focus on the bottom line monthly fee. Each cloud service provider has multiple subscription options with very different features. Take the time to be an educated business consumer.
- Recognize you may need more than one type of cloud service provider for file management. For example: My company uses one service provider for internal file management. We use another service provider to allow large-file downloads for clients and business partners.
- Create a plan for physical backups. Bad stuff happens, even to Microsoft and Google. Servers get hacked. Data centers catch on file. Your 4-year-old niece gets on your phone and deletes all your job folders. Enable swift recovery from these disasters with a regular physical data backup. My company has a regular weekly schedule of backups to external hard drives. This means we never have more than a week of data at risk from a major disaster.
- Help your team members understand how and when to access files. Not all team members will need the same type of access. For example, Field surveyors may need to access files on a mobile device while away from the office. Office surveyors may not. High-level managers may need access to business documents from home, but your CAD technicians may not. Develop a blueprint defining how each team member will access files on the cloud service, then teach them how to do that properly.
- Talk to an IT professional. This doesn’t have to cost $20K. You can find qualified IT professionals online. Many of them will consult on your transition to a cloud-first approach for very reasonable fees. It is worth the money to talk to an expert. Be different from the homeowner who tries to draw their own tentative land subdivision map.
- Plan for synch issues and other gotchas. A cloud-first approach to file management isn’t without tradeoffs or risks. We are still working on solutions to synch issues and other gotchas at my company, even after four (4) years. Things aren’t going to work perfectly – especially at first. Consider a phased roll-out.
It has never been easier to enable robust, simple, and anytime-anywhere access to company files and job files. If implemented carefully, a cloud-first approach to file management can significantly improve your small surveying business’s security, reliability, and productivity.
In a future article, I hope to share more about the potential gotchas of a cloud-first approach to file management and their solutions.
Sidebar: Definition Of Cloud-First File Management
What does “cloud-first file management” mean? In this article, I use the phrase to indicate a system for creating, deleting, storing and accessing files where an external server managed by a third party (the cloud service provider) plays a major role. (Many of these services allow the team member to interact with the operating file system as if the cloud service was largely invisible.)
Sidebar: Company Files Versus Job Files
In this article, I use the term “company files” to refer to files used to run your business that aren’t directly related to technical work on a job. For example, files pertaining to human resources, bookkeeping, or marketing. I use the term “job files” to refer to files used to accomplish the technical services that are part of a job. For example, CAD drawings or data collector files. Frequently, these two different types of files will need to be handled differently in your file management system.
Sidebar: Features Of Cloud Service Providers
There are several features of cloud service providers you should evaluate when selecting a solution for your cloud-first file management system:
- Cost. Cost varies significantly from provider to provider and between subscription packages offered by the same provider.
- Reliability. Downtime from your cloud service provider is costly for a small business with a cloud-first file management system. Know who you are purchasing from. Don’t abuse a personal cloud service as a cloud service for your small business.
- Versioning and backups. Not all cloud service providers have file versioning and backup. Different subscription packages may offer a different level of versioning support. For example, The number of backups available or the length of time a backup is made available.
- Software integrations. There are cloud service providers that will integrate (almost) seamlessly with your computer operating system. Others can only be accessed in a web browser. Some will have support for access on mobile devices with dedicated apps, while others won’t.
- Complexity. The level of configuration and customization in a cloud service provider is usually directly tied to its complexity. Most surveying small businesses without a dedicated IT person should start simply with a “fully managed” service.