Bleeping beepers

After working more than 30 years in IT, Gregg Saffer knows the rigours of the pager. He once had to cancel a Disney vacation after he got called in for the December holiday break to implement changes to the payroll system. A software vendor incorrectly programmed the changes, and Saffer needed to reinstall and retest the system to comply with new tax rates going into effect Jan. 1.

Saffer, CIO for Avis Group Holdings Inc. in Garden City, N.Y., says cancelled vacations are common for IT professionals when project pressures often clash with family time. While his children were initially disappointed, open communication was important. His wife understood that his position and tenure with the company meant he was relied on to get the job done.

“There’s an element of trust that you’ll follow through with your promises,” Saffer says, noting that he eventually rescheduled the trip.

Being on call around the clock and on weekends, testing systems at 2 a.m., even working a 35-day stretch – Saffer knows the downsides of the job. It comes with the turf, just as adrenaline surges when he responds to a call. “Sometimes you come in the next morning and feel like you saved the day,” he says.

From malls to playing fields, in restaurants and nightclubs, IT executives are hot-wired to their networks, toting pagers, cell phones and laptops to remotely troubleshoot most support calls.

“It’s a chance to play a critical role in IT, gain a sense of pride and accomplishment,” says Gerald Shields, vice-president for Aflac Inc., an insurance firm in Columbus, Ga.

Shields was paged one Sunday evening last month when a scheduled outage was running behind. The onsite manager handling the upgrade of channel adapters in a storage device followed call escalation procedures when it became apparent that the job was running three hours behind and wouldn’t be finished by Monday morning.

“I recommended they execute the back-out, but they wanted to talk about it,” says Shields, who drove the 40 minutes into the office to confer. In the end, the team decided to reschedule the upgrade.

Shields’ work also has encroached on his vacation. In 1997, during a family reunion in the mountains of North Carolina, Shields was eight hours from home. His office tracked him down at the number he gave them because a new enterprise resource planning system was losing data and having trouble with order-processing.

Equipped with a poor campground phone connection, he had to keep switching the line between his laptop and the phone to remotely monitor systems and talk to the staff. “I spent the whole day working on the problem,” he says.

Debi Mayes, IT manager at Southwest Airlines Co. in Dallas, recalls getting paged at her sister’s 40th birthday bash, for which she was the designated driver. With music blaring in the background of the girls’-night-out club, Mayes called from a pay phone to learn that a financial reporting job was down. She passed along instructions for staff to try and said she’d check back later. Sure enough, she got paged again at 10 p.m. and had to go in to fix the problem. “Word spread fast that I arrived in late on the call. The next morning I had people walking in my office waving dollar bills,” Mayes says.

Pool Party Poopers

Pages happen anytime, anywhere, IT executives say. It’s an awkward intrusion to be paged at the soccer or football field, at pool parties or with your wife, says Kim Yaworsky, IT director for Bay State Milling in Quincy, Mass. “I’ve spent an entire afternoon on my laptop at a pool party,” he says.

Some problems put staff in tight situations. A flawed chipset forced Jon Bascom, vice-president of IT for AutoZone Inc. in Memphis, Tenn., to fly back to a remote office the same day after having just returned from upgrading the equipment.

“It was early evening. I had barely unpacked my bags. I caught the last flight out and put the old chipset back in, just in time,” Bascom says.

Monitoring each individual’s on-call time is critical so that too many hours aren’t spent on the job. But even when you’re not on call, you can get called, staffers say.

“We work as a team. Everyone is here to help each other out,” says Chad Johnston, a telecommunications analyst for Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co. Johnston says it helps when his manager offers him two days off for putting in a long stretch over three days on a mock disaster-recovery call.

But IT executives say they never truly get away. “It’s hard to detach when you feel obligated to check e-mail three times a day while visiting with family,” says Jayson Kim, director of Web applications for J.Crew Group Inc. in New York. “Who’s not going to call and check on issues when you have a US$100 million dollar Web site?”

Recently, Saffer spoke with a weary-looking colleague who was trying to decide whether to take his pager on a four-day family vacation. “I suggested he consider not bringing it,” he says.