You, the corporate bad guy

Being an enforcer – like it or not -comes with the territory for network professionals.

However, that territory keeps expanding as spam and sexual harassment liability make e-mail and Web-use monitoring commonplace; rogue wireless access points keep an IT posse running building to building; unauthorized software causes unnecessary support headaches; and the government cranks out privacy regulations faster than US$20 bills.

Laying down the law might be part of the job, but diligence can win you a chilly reception in the lunchroom.

Yet most network executives remain perfectly willing to play Dirty Harry (or Harriet) in the interest of keeping their employer’s network up, clean and law-abiding. Yet they’d like to see a little more support from the top brass than Clint Eastwood’s notorious character enjoyed on screen. You might say it would make their day.

“I always had to be the bad guy, and my superiors would dodge the bullet when employees complained to them directly,” says Chey Cobb, who has overseen networks for U.S. intelligence agencies. “Of course, the superiors always felt they were above the rules and engaged in these improper activities themselves,” adds Cobb, now a consultant and author.

Being painted as the bad guy can take a toll, Cobb says. While a network manager:”I was angry, sad and disturbed to find out that my so-called friends were talking me down. In one instance . . . I was uninvited to after-work drinks,” she says.

A network manager at a large manufacturing company describes the typical rank-and-file attitude: “Twice in a week, recently, I had to remove software from two PCs. Someone had installed WeatherBug and the associated spyware, and another had installed a Harry Potter screensaver. When I told the users the software had to go, they both responded, ‘Like I’m the only one.'”

The network manager, who requested anonymity, says, “I thought, ‘No, you’re not the only one making my job harder than it has to be.'” Of course, he adds, “you can never really say what you think.”

Which might explain why some enforcers relish looking for a bit of sport in the role.

“Some of it is even fun,” says Michael Lester, a network professional who asked that his company not be named. “I have hunted down unlicensed software, games, .avi files, sound files, screen savers, all kinds of stuff that does not need to be on company PCs. The look on their faces when they get the ‘Access denied’ message after clicking on the Deer Hunter icon . . . needs to be seen to be appreciated.”

But such sport, which does of course cut both ways, can contribute to adversarial office relationships.

Another network manager, who also requested anonymity, describes what happened when IT implemented an automatic screensaver and computer lockout that activates after 10 minutes of inactivity. After that short period, in order to use the computer, users must hit and then enter their logon name and password. “Some users already have implemented background programs that send a keystroke to the [operating system] in order for the computer to appear as if in use and thereby preventing the screen saver from activating,” the network manager says.

Enforcers consistently cite a lack of commitment as a primary cause of friction with the masses. “Usually, the biggest problem I have is not in imposing a certain practice, but in the attempts by the people who asked for the practice to short-circuit it when it becomes inconvenient for them,” says Bob Taylor, who works in network management for a major municipality.

As for dialing down the end-user whine-o-meter, Tony Podrasky, a network specialist at Hewlett-Packard Co., advises deploying the chain of command as a shield. “When we’ve had to block particular sites, and the users complain to us, we simply say, ‘Have your boss call my boss,'” he says. “That is usually a good way to recalibrate people.”