John O’Brien, Director of IT
March 21, 2024

March 2020. The world slammed shut, offices emptied, and businesses scrambled to adapt. At Strasz Assessment Systems, a nimble player in the educational assessment field, we faced a common challenge for the time: migrate our entire team to remote work, fast. Security was paramount, but protecting sensitive data with a geographically dispersed workforce demanded carefully thought-out solutions.

Ditching the VPN Tango: Embracing a More Secure Path

Initially, the familiar VPN seemed like the answer. It offered encrypted tunnels for data, but scaling for dozens of simultaneous connections raised performance concerns. More importantly, relying on home network security, notoriously varied, posed a significant vulnerability. A single weak link could unravel everything. We needed a more robust solution, one that wouldn’t buckle under pressure and wouldn’t leave us exposed.

Enter the RDP Gateway: Building a Fortified Bridge

Think of the RDP Gateway as a secure bridge connecting remote devices to our internal network. Unlike a VPN, it eliminated the need for direct VPN connections to our internal network, significantly enhancing security. It not only encrypted data, but also added an extra layer of authentication, creating a secure tunnel just for the RDP protocol itself. Even if someone breached a home network (always a concern), they’d face another hurdle on the bridge before reaching our data. It was like adding a security checkpoint on the bridge, ensuring only authorized personnel could cross.

MFA: Double Down on Defense

Security wasn’t just about layers; it was about choosing the right layers. While standard SMS-based MFA offered an improvement, it wasn’t ideal for RDP connections. Thankfully, our existing solution offered push notifications and app-based options, providing both convenience and robust protection. It was like requiring not just a key, but also a biometric scan to enter the digital castle.

Reverse Proxy: The Unseen Guardian

Another unsung hero in our security arsenal was the reverse proxy. Imagine a fortress with a single, heavily guarded gate. A reverse proxy acts like an additional outer wall, directing traffic to the appropriate internal gate (the RDP Gateway in our case), further adding a layer of protection and masking our internal network structure from prying eyes.

Virtual Desktops: Replicating the Office Anywhere

To ensure consistent performance and security, we virtualized physical user desktops. Each employee accessed their personal virtual environment through the secured RDP Gateway, ensuring they had the familiar tools and access they needed, regardless of their physical location. It was like replicating their office desktops in a secure, centralized cloud environment.

Beyond Tech: Building Trust in a Virtual Landscape

While technology provided the foundation, the human element was equally crucial. The transition to remote work could easily have bred isolation and communication breakdowns. To counter this, we:

Empowered collaboration: Video conferencing, instant messaging, and project management platforms became our lifelines, keeping teams connected and projects flowing. It was like creating virtual watercooler moments and collaborative workspaces even when physically apart.

Nurtured transparency: Regular updates, clear communication channels, and a culture of open feedback fostered trust and ensured everyone felt informed and valued. It was like building bridges of understanding in a virtual landscape.

The Verdict: Lessons Learned and Thriving Remote

Looking back, the transition wasn’t always smooth sailing. There were technical hurdles, security concerns, and moments of uncertainty. But by leveraging innovative solutions like the RDP Gateway, MFA, and virtual desktops, prioritizing communication, and fostering a remote-friendly culture, we navigated the storm.

Today, four years later, Strasz Assessment Systems is a thriving remote-first company. The lessons learned during those chaotic early days have not only bolstered our security posture but also cultivated a more flexible, adaptable, and ultimately, more resilient workforce.

Bonus Takeaways:

  • Don’t underestimate existing security measures like MFA. Adapting them can be surprisingly effective.
  • The RDP Gateway is a valuable tool for securing remote desktop access, especially with its additional authentication layer and elimination of direct VPN connections to the internal network.
  • When choosing MFA, consider the specific needs of your remote access solution. Not all methods are created equal.
  • Virtual desktops can offer security and consistency for remote workforces.
  • Remote work is possible, even for small companies with sensitive data. Prioritizing security, communication, and culture is key.

About the Author

John O’Brien is the Director of Information Technology for Strasz Assessment Systems. He has been with Strasz since 2019 and has over 25 years of experience in IT. When he’s not working, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two stepdaughters, traveling, rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles, and spoiling his three dogs.

John DeFalco, SR Software Engineer
August 6th, 2021

Ken White is a Scrum Master for one of our Agile development teams. He’s also our Production Support Operations Manager for the same customer. I don’t believe combining these roles is a practice unique to Strasz. What really sets Ken apart from most others is, he is also currently the Fire Chief for the Liberty Corner Volunteer Fire Department1. So, it goes without saying that Ken has both an educational background and practical experience to bring teams of people together with a high likelihood of success. We’ve all heard of the chicken and egg paradox. So was the fire department the chicken and his college degree the egg? Or vice versa?

Ken (left) alongside the Chief (middle) and Deputy Chief (right) of the Liberty Corner Volunteer Fire Department.

Ken White is a Scrum Master for one of our Agile development teams. He’s also our Production Support Operations Manager for the same customer. I don’t believe combining these roles is a practice unique to Strasz. I’m sure there are plenty of other leaders in the field that are holding down both positions. What might be rarer, Ken has a degree in Management Information System & Operations Management that almost exactly aligns with his current job responsibilities. What really sets Ken apart from most others is, he is also currently the Fire Chief for the Liberty Corner Volunteer Fire Department1. So, it goes without saying that Ken has both an educational background and practical experience to bring teams of people together with a high likelihood of success. We’ve all heard of the chicken and egg paradox. So was the fire department the chicken and his college degree the egg? Or vice versa?

James Lipton from The Actor’s Studio is often fond of saying, “Let’s start at the beginning.” Back in the summer of 1986, Ken was working as a lifeguard and snack bar manager at a local pool when a friend approached him about joining the volunteer fire department. He hadn’t previously given it a thought. Yet, he immediately became fascinated by the inner workings of how the organization came together as a team. He was impressed that such a large group of volunteers could be coordinated to achieve great things in the community. The do-it-yourselfer in Ken was also fascinated with the department’s dizzying array of tools and equipment. 

Later that same year, he went off to college at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Ken conveys his choice of UNCG simply as “My parents could afford the school, and it was farther away than Rutgers.” As was previously stated, he pursued a degree in Management Information Systems & Operations Management, which was a natural choice, in retrospect. From early adulthood, Ken had a predisposition towards organizational thinking, technology, leadership, and management.

After graduating from college, Ken began his career at AT&T as a software developer and simultaneously became more involved with the fire department. He started his coding journey with an internal COBOL development program at AT&T. Ken rose through the organization over the next ten years. Ken eventually became a District Manager, with a staff of 80+ and 3 direct report managers. Concurrently, he rose through the ranks of the fire department. He became President, then worked his way up as Assistant, 2nd Assistant, then eventually Chief. At the fire department, Ken leads a multi-faceted team of 60 volunteers. 

The overlap of these two paths is significant. Both have a business and support side that require intense management, efficient organization, and experienced leadership at a high level. A software company’s business revolves around planning and scheduling releases, conducting regular status meetings, managing budgets, and interfacing with customers. The fire department is organized as a not-for-profit business and, as such, has a President that presides over the company’s business. This includes filing tax for

ms with the state, managing donations, fiscal planning, project planning, creating specifications, procurement, politics, and leading public meetings. Both positions require an individual at the top with stellar organizational and planning skills and a positive demeanor supporting customers.

For a software company, every product requires support. Users will encounter defects, and those defects must quickly be researched, verified, and remediated. Customers will occasionally have ad-hoc, high-priority requests in response to their own business’ stimuli, colloquially referred to as “fires” by the production support team. In parallel, the support side of the firehouse handles responding to dispatched 911 calls and extinguishing actual, physical fire alerts sent through an Incident Command System. When asked which fires are harder to control, Ken quipped, “The actual fires … usually”. 

On both fronts, teams are composed of individuals with specific roles and skills. For a software company, those roles are typically developers, designers, quality assurance, and IT. Team members use their varied skills and come together to create solutions. When a challenge arises, Developers will research the code base and provide technical solutions. Production support accesses the logs in production and applies their working knowledge of the system and the user’s workflow to determine how to recreate the issue. IT investigates network, security, and server-related issues. The fire department is similarly multi-faceted. The engine company performs fire suppression, the truck company provides ventilation and search capabilities, and others whose job is to provide a water supply. Clearly, both organizations need a respected and capable leader to coordinate the varied problem resolution activities in a responsive and professional manner.

In the summer of 2021, Ken celebrated his 35th year with the Liberty Corner Fire Department. I’d like to extend the celebration by adding to it Ken’s 35th year of applying, like Liam Neeson (Taken), “a particular set of skills,” both technical and managerial, to every aspect of his professional and personal life.

1 http://www.libertycornerfire.org/ – please help their cause by donating!