What not to do when your customers are down

IT consultants and contractors must be careful not to kick their clients when they’re down.

The following real-life story involves an excruciatingly stupid client that owns a Linux box running a variety of packages, including a major mainstream database. The client approaches system administration in an ad hoc manner, fostering the attitude, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Linux doesn’t get hacked right? Well, the open source operating system might not be an easy target but that doesn’t mean the customer’s Web servers and Web programming languages don’t have holes. The result: after two years of not applying patches, this client’s server is hacked.

The client calls in an emergency system administrator to reinstall Linux and everything else. But the sys admin doesn’t know how to reinstall the database. Enter the database whiz, an expensive-per-hour professional. We will call this expert Pat to avoid revealing his true identity. The first thing Pat says is, “You are not on current release levels of the operating system or the database.”

The client has had a critical system down for three days and is exhibiting symptoms of his meltdown: verbal tics in the form of involuntary use of obscene and/or socially inappropriate words and phrases along with matching gestures. Under this kind of stress the client responds (roughly), “I don’t give a rusty nail if we’re running DOS 1.1 and VisiCalc; it worked fine for three years. Put it back.” But looking through the spittle and profanity, the client’s point is that this is a restore mission, not an upgrade.

Naturally, psycho-client must install various security patches to prevent the box from being hacked again. Sadly, the database does not want to run. With the clock ticking and the client’s creative use of profanity increasing, Pat has a choice of looking for a workaround or sticking to the principle that he should bring the software up to current levels.

Just because the vendors don’t support a software revision doesn’t mean it won’t work, nor does it mean the current problem is the result of the version level of the software. Even the client knows this.

In the end the client searches the Internet and finds what appears to be a viable workaround. The client insists on trying it but Pat is uncomfortable. None of the vendors support the software — but then the client really insists. What should Pat do?

It’s crucial not to lecture the client. Phrases like, “There are rules, conventions and a code of ethics that are characteristic of all good businesses,” don’t help — especially not during a crisis. Neither does pointing out past installation mistakes.

Imagine your car has broken down and you are on the side of the road freezing to death. The mechanic who comes to help doesn’t have the right wrench and starts worrying about voiding the warranty. There are three choices for the mechanic, which could also apply to IT consultants facing a similar dilemma:

• Refuse to do the job — simply walk away (but make sure to do this early on);

• Do the workaround but state in writing that it is non-standard and unsupported;

• Do the workaround, smile and keep a lid on the snarky comments.

The downside of the ill-timed application of IT ethics is that even if you are right, it is likely you will have lost your customer. This may not seem bad up front, but that client will inevitably return to the people who referred him and say, “This guy is a jerk. I suggest you never recommend him to anyone ever again — and thanks for asking, my meltdown is under control.”

Ford is a Vancouver-based consultant who does yoga. Send good vibes to Robert@quokkasystems.com.

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