Beware of geeks bearing gifts

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. That’s what I’ve always been told, anyway. I can remember my mother being furious with me one Christmas for telling my aunt exactly what I thought about a hideous pair of pants she gave me.

“Next time, you don’t have to like them. Just look happy and say ‘thank you,'” she fumed. “What if she asks me if I like them?” I protested. “Lie.”

Rules of etiquette like this might make for a pleasant Christmas dinner, but they don’t necessarily apply when it comes to corporate gifts of computer technology. While many companies have been very generous in donating equipment to growing IT departments in schools, not all of these donations are to a school’s advantage. Many of them, in fact, will end up costing more than they are worth.

Our school has been the beneficiary of many corporate technology donations in the past several years. These donations have ranged from extraordinarily helpful to benign to incredibly expensive pains in the neck.

The most helpful donations have come from companies with which we have a long-standing relationship. These companies give us equipment because they want to make an impact on our school, not because they want to reduce inventory or are looking for a tax write-off.

In a relationship like this, I’m able to work closely with the company’s IT department to get machines that meet a minimum hardware standard, and I can call their help desk for tech support when I need it. The company often arranges for the delivery of the machines and helps me find vendors for older parts that need upgrading. Thanks to partners like these, we were able to deploy two mobile laptop labs this year.

A second category of technology donation is what I call the front-door drop. While these donations generally don’t help very much, they generally don’t hurt, either.

Every so often, someone calls me from the front office to say that “some guy came and dropped off a computer for you.” I usually groan and find a couple of kids to retrieve whatever Commodore 64, TRS 80, or Apple IIe was left at my doorstep. If I’m in a good mood, I’ll get a kid out of detention and tell him he can go home as soon as he installs Auto-CAD on it, but usually I’ll just give it away to a student who likes to tinker with things.

I know this gift came from some alumnus who just bought a new computer and thought he’d really be helping his alma mater, so I don’t get too upset about it. It’s no skin off my nose and it really is a nice thing for the kid who likes to tinker. Besides, every once in a while, you come across a machine or component you can use.

There is a third type of donation, however, that is not so painless. These are donations that end up costing me time and money with very little in return. The biggest problem with donations like these is that IT managers sometimes don’t have any choice but to take my mother’s advice by smiling and saying, “Thank you.”

Often, IT managers are pressured to accept corporate gifts. Sometimes political issues come into play and schools are concerned about insulting benefactors who might donate other things down the road. When bond issues for new equipment come before school boards, technology managers might even be called in to explain why they turned down donated equipment.

By reducing technical issues to dollars and cents, however, IT managers should be able to explain to even the most frugal of school boards why some corporate donations just aren’t worth the effort.

Let’s take a hypothetical company that wants to donate 150 machines to the local high school. The company is upgrading its workstations and has decided that giving the machines away will reduce inventory, generate a tax write-off, and be a nice way to help the children in the community. The machines have 486/66 processors with 8 MB of RAM and 250-MB hard drives.

If all the school wants to do is set up DOS and Win 3.x on these machines, they would work just fine. However, this would mean supporting different operating systems and explaining to students about a million times why the document they created in Word 97 won’t open on these machines. And does anyone remember what a pain it was to support both TCP/IP and IPX under DOS?

In order to make these machines even marginally useful, they will need at least 8 more megabytes of RAM and at least a 500-MB hard drive. This will let the school present uniform applications and procedures to its users. Additionally, each machine will need a network card and software. Software licenses are not transferable and NICs become obsolete much more slowly than PCs, so each computer had its hard drive erased and its NIC removed before it left the company’s IT department.

If we do the math now, the financial situation begins to speak for itself:

Network card: $35

8 MB RAM: $50

500-MB HD: $100

Windows 95: $50(MOLP-B pricing)

MS Office: $41(MOLP-B pricing)

When all is said and done, each of these “free” machines ends up costing the school about $275. That’s more than $40,000 for 150 machines.

Our equation doesn’t take into consideration the cost or time it will take to rent a U-Haul to pick up these machines. The manufacturer’s tech support may or may not be of help, as the machines probably are out of warranty, and we won’t even think about what will happen to these systems at midnight on Dec. 31.

Depending on what a school’s needs are, that $40,000 could supply anywhere from 20 to 50 brand new machines that will work great right out of the box. This would be more than adequate to outfit a new computer lab or to deploy in a few classrooms. With new CPUs, a school can truly save money by using donated monitors instead of buying new ones. Monitors, like NICs, become obsolete much more slowly than PCs.

I don’t want to suggest that companies are always acting out of selfish interests when they make donations. These donations often are the ideas of well-meaning managers and principals who don’t fully understand the technical issues involved. Sometimes they are worth a school’s while and sometimes not. In any case, it’s the job of the school IT manager to evaluate costs and challenges in accepting a donation to determine whether a gift is actually worth getting.

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