Teaching them our language
Why do we do this job? When I look back over my 22 years in information technology, I ask myself that question a lot. For the most part, it’s a creative endeavour with no residuals, few thanks and few comments at all unless things go wrong. There is a long string of lay-offs, downsizing, re-training, and endless nights looking for that missing semi-colon, and nobody outside of the industry really cares if you’ve read RFC 2616. So why do we do it?
I answered that question one afternoon, and answered it in a way that has remained my image of information technology ever since. The year was 1995, a spring day just after we had opened the Information Highway exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre. This was a time when most everyday people had only passing acquaintance with desktop computers and most knew little more about the Internet than the hype surrounding that phrase, “The Information Highway”. It was the middle afternoon and, like most afternoons, I liked to wander around our exhibit watching the people as they first encountered The Net.
On that particular day, down in the Internet Cafe, I spied an elderly woman sitting at one of our workstations, staring at the introductory screens with a frown. To make the workstations durable, we had replaced the mouse with a large metal trackball and coinco buttons like a penny-arcade machine, and I watched her wrestle with this awkward and inhumane interface, whirling the mouse cursor way past her target link, clicking over and over just beyond the invisible acceptable click region. She was not having fun. I sat down at the next workstation in the row and asked her how she was doing; her eyes remained on the screen, her face in a scowl by now. “It’s not working,” she said.
I smiled and demonstrated the trackball, how it worked best with the finger-tips so your thumb was free to hit the coinco button. I started with the introductory page of links I had created, a sort of static Yahoo page of common-interest links, and I asked her what she liked.
“I was a school teacher before I retired,” she offered, and so I clicked on the Schoolnet page — we had a T1 and her being the only person in the cafe she pretty much had the full bandwidth to herself; the page loaded in a few seconds but I could tell she was not impressed with the speed, it being so much slower than a microfiche or any other text paging machine she may have encountered. I scrolled down the page to a list of academic sites, and clicked on an index link to bring up another page of school sites.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, “I used to know some people there!” and she brushed my hand from the trackball, took the controls and click, click, click … She was gone. So long. Thanks for the fish. She was out there, in there, engaged and oblivious to me. And the machine no longer mattered, it was invisible. It could have required her to enter text carved in stone in Sanskrit, it no longer mattered. She had discovered something _vital_ about the Net. She had discovered that the Internet spoke her language.
I would see that same scenario played out many times that summer. There was the father who sat at the children’s game machine pushing the block and obviously bored while he waited for his kids to finish on the CD-Games arcade. “What do you like?” I had asked. “I like football,” he offered half interested, but once I brought up the NFL page, he too was gone, wandered off into a cyberspace that spoke his language. This is why we do it. This is why we spend all those late and thankless nights ordering bits into grand plays and dramas. We do it for money, sure, sometimes, when there’s money in it, but we would do it anyway, and for another bigger reason: We want to turn you on.
A third instance sealed it for me. It was a day of one of those visiting school trips up from Buffalo NY, and I could see these three young boys headed toward the exhibit. You know the type, little hurricanes who stress-test everything in their path. They were hanging on exhibit handles, smacking the buttons, trying to pry parts off the displays … boys. The three got to the cafe and sat down in a row, 1-2-3, and each started joking with the others and dancing their fingers wildly over the keyboards — I had to laugh: Hellbent on destruction and the worst they could conceive on encountering a computer was not to smash the keyboard, but to try and _confuse_ the machine! Anyway, they continued to pretend to be lightning hackers and one by one, I leaned over behind each and asked my question, “What do you like?” Number one liked sports, and sure enough NFL was his ticket. Number two said he liked space and rockets and by the grace of good fortune NASA’s live streaming video was minutes away from a live webcast of a shuttle launch; number two was gone.
Number three, he liked music. “Rap,” he said as if there was no other kind. “Rap?” I said, and did a few clickthroughs — I brought up an archive of song samples of what we used to call “House Music” and not only was he just as amazed to find that the Net spoke even his language, but he also learned that this very modern thing he called Rap Music was older than he’d ever imagined. One, two, three, instantly transformed from playful hooligan to investigators and explorers in a candyland none of them had dreamt could exist. The three of them gone, vanished into the machine, engaged.
From the distance, a call from a chaperon teacher only familiar with the hooligan trio, “You boys,” she yelled in warning, “you stay away from those computers before you break something!” Too late, ma’am. Something is already broken … I think it’s dawn.
Gary Lawrence Murphy, Sauble Beach, Ont.
‘Oh, didn’t we tell you?’
I was working for a government agency which was running a mission critical application on a fault tolerant VAX system. It was apparently one of only two fault-tolerant VAX systems in Canada. I was not a VAX/VMS expert by any means, but I could handle the basic functions, such as booting, minor configuration changes, etc… I had planned some scheduled down-time for this system with the user community in order to apply a Y2K patch. Every detail was planned out, including anticipated down-time.
At the scheduled date/time (very late one weekend evening) I connected remotely to the VMS system and applied the Y2K patch. I then typed in the commands to bring the system down and back up. Everything shut down fine, however upon reboot I could not re-establish a remote connection. I rushed into the server room, and to my horror I saw dozens of error messages on the console screen. Having little experience with VMS, I did not know where to begin in terms of troubleshooting.
I reviewed my one book on VMS administration and figured out that my boot files were completely messed up, and would have to be rebuilt. I decided to call DEC technical support in Canada, and was passed to their United States support line, since the Canadian support had little experience with fault tolerant VAX systems. The U.S. support line told me exactly what I needed to modify in order to get the systems to boot properly. Unfortunately, the console keyboard was not working – I could not type ANYTHING at the console. I asked the support person what could possibly be going on, and they had no clue, and assumed it might be a hardware problem, which would have to be dealt with through a different support line, and any required parts would take more than a day to ship from a US depot.
I struggled to troubleshoot the hardware problem by following the instructions of the tech support person. Nothing seemed to resolve the issue of the inoperative keyboard. After a few hours the user community was getting nervous, and I was getting tired (since I thought this would only be a 20 minute process, and I had now been awake for almost 24 hours solid).
Things get a bit fuzzy after that, but I do recall having a total fury meltdown in the server room cursing up a storm because this damn server would not boot, and the stupid keyboard would not operate. I sat on the floor in front of the servers and stared at the componentry inside the case. I then noticed a tiny switch which I think was labelled with the word “keyboard”. At this stage I was trying anything and everything (I figured I couldn’t break it any worse than it already was!) so I decided to throw the switch and see what happened. To my amazement the server’s keyboard suddenly operated normally.
This made me even angrier since the tech support people never mentioned the existence of this tiny “hidden” switch. I called them and fortunately they stayed on the line as a ranted and raved about their lack of knowledge of this switch. They then proceeded to step me through the boot file rebuild process, and I eventually got the system up and running again.
After sleeping for a few hours, I phoned some people within my organization asking them what could have happened to cause the boot file corruption. One of my contacts casually mentioned that they had copied some start-up files from a different VAX server to the server I was working on, and must have forgotten to move them back when they were finished their tasks. I was in too much shock to say anything, and they quickly hung up.
Rolf M. Gitt, Toronto
Thanks for the error-free memories
In 1982 we were supporting applications running in the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) computer environment. This specific application, which was developed in Assembler language by a different firm, used Memory Mapping and ran on a RSX11S platform on a PDP 11/10 with 16K of memory (yes, that is a K not an M). That in itself seems ridiculous nowadays. The application monitored alarm points for a number of sites in our company.
Our data was stored data consecutively in a data store in order to use Memory Mapping. Then we were told we had to add some alarm points at specific sites, something that was not suppose to happen according to original requirements.
programmer, named Ron, was tasked with developing a program (this would be the largest program in our application) to ‘insert’ these alarms at specific sites. Ron started by drawing out flowcharts and never strayed from those flowcharts to begin coding. After completion and review of the flowcharts, he then coded his program, assembled it and prepared it for testing. The program required to add points in multiples of 16, so the first action in the program was to ask for the number of points and verify that it was a multiple of 16. When you typed a number in your assembler code, the assembler assumed it was an Octal value, unless you put a decimal after the number. Ron had forgot to type a decimal after his number 16 in his source code. That was quickly corrected and then he ran the program.
Ron had been working less than a year for our company. From this point on, this program worked flawlessly for the life of this application. This was the first time and last time I ever saw a computer program developed error free (not counting the typo on the 16.). To me this was quite a feat, considering this was developed in Assembler language.
Gilles Picard, Regina
I make calls to homes and businesses to teach people to use their software effectively. This week (in October) I got a call from a business owner in Kemptville, Ontario who needed tutoring for a few reasons. He obtained the needed information from the advertisement on the back of my car window as he followed me up highway 416 towards Ottawa in August.
June Guild, Mallorytown, Ont.
Have bike, will support
I went to school in 2000, taking a program of network design/support and database design. It was a two year program compressed into ten months – I was 43 at the time and felt that I didn’t have any time to waste. I graduated in November.
I landed a job in February 2001 with a contractor to Shaw Cable doing high speed internet installations. Pretty basic stuff – install the NIC, add protocols and services, set up email and newsgroups, and explain a bit about them and the internet to the customer. It taught me some things about Windows’ version of TCP/IP, IRQ conflicts, and a bit about configuring a BIOS – which I hadn’t had to deal with before on my small home network.
When I interviewed, a ‘vehicle’ was required. I’ve been a cyclist for many years, and spent the last couple of years of the eighties and the first half of the nineties racing bicycles as seriously as I could. I couldn’t afford to own a car, expensive bicycles and the equipment, entry fees, etc. needed to race them – so I chose not to own a vehicle. I was very experienced with working around the limitations imposed on me by my method of transport and Vancouver’s climate. I was also aware of the prejudices in North America applied to people who choose cycling as their only means of transport, which is why I didn’t tell the interviewer that my ‘vehicle’ was a bicycle. After being hired, I loaded my saddlebags with network cards, cables, Shaw ‘Welcome to high speed internet’ booklets, contracts, and the few tools I needed. I double bagged my supplies in Ziplock bags, and none of my NICs were ever damaged by moisture or temperature. I finessed my way around the occasional situation where I might be expected to have a car – I went out to the office to pick up more supplies by bus, and a couple of times when they called me in on short notice – ‘my car won’t start!’
I was new so I would frequently get routes in the suburbs – North and West Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Surrey – once I even went out to Langley. This was easy at first as I’d take a bus with a bike rack to get close to the area, travel between appointments by bike (or a bus with a rack if the timing was right), and then return home by bike rack equipped bus.
Then the bus drivers went on strike. I got up earlier to ride to the first appointment – and my days were longer. I remember one day I left the house at 6:30 AM and got home around 11:30 PM (that was probably the day I went out to Langley – a 35 km trip one way). Another day my appointments were on Heritage Mountain in Port Coquitlam – it took me an hour to get to bottom of the mountain (about 25 km) and 45 minutes to ride from the bottom to the top (9 km). Some days I came home so tired that I’d put on a pair of sweat pants (to cover my road dirt encrusted legs) and a clean sweatshirt and crawl into bed and pass out. I stripped off my dirty clothes and showered when I got up in the morning. But my boss never heard about any of this – he thought that I was driving, and I was getting the jobs done. I actually got a few “Well done!” compliments from the office for getting a customer’s Internet access up when previous techs weren’t able to connect them.
But I got tired of the sneaking around necessary to conceal the fact that I rode my bike. So one day in late May or early June I deliberately let it slip to office staff that I was using a bicycle. The bus strike was over by this time, and I told them that I would use the buses as a supplement to my bike.
Then I noticed I was not getting any routes in the suburbs – only in east Vancouver and Vancouver’s West End. Before I was working 5 or 6 days a week – now only 2 or 3. I had a large debt from going to school, and since I needed to service the debt, I asked the office staff why I wasn’t getting the amount of work that I used to. I was told that my boss had forbidden them to give me any routes outside of the city of Vancouver. There were days when I wasn’t senior enough to get a route in Vancouver – so I sat at home. I talked to my boss and said I’d been doing the job to their satisfaction before they knew about my method of transport, and explained some of my cycling background to him (500 kilometers of training weekly etc.), and he said something that led me to believe that he understood and that I would start getting suburban routes again.
But that never happened. I finally left there to employment with a Shaw contractor who did the CATV side – I was to train a few of their CATV guys to do the computer part, and they’d train me to do the CATV part of a high speed Internet install. Two weeks later, Shaw took back a bunch of work from the contractor and he had to lay off half his work force. Guess who was the last hired? I was laid off in December 2001 and was out of work for a while. I came to Edmonton in March 2002 for a cousin’s wedding, and while I was here my stepdad suggested that I move to Edmonton to start a mobile computer services and repair business – he’d be the office/accounting/advertising guy and I’d be the tech. It sounded like a great idea to me, so I went back to Vancouver, sold some goods, bought a rusty 1985 Toyota van, packed and left.
The van was way overloaded and I drove it too hard – and partly blew the transmission’s first gear. It was very reluctant to shift into or out of first gear. Also, for out of province vehicles to be registered in Alberta for the first time, they must pass a safety inspection. My van needed about a thousand dollars in repairs before I could licence it – and I was on a shoestring budget. So I loaded up my bicycle again and went to work for myself this time – only now I was carrying a laptop, too. Fortunately it’s much drier in Edmonton than in Vancouver. I rode long distances – Edmonton is far more spread out than most cities. I went to Beaumont a couple of times, which is about 25 km from where I live. I also went to the St. Albert airport – the last 5 kilometers is gravel road – that’s the day I had four flat tires in one day.
The day I licenced and insured my van was October 29th – we’d had a snowfall about a week previously. I couldn’t shift the front gear and I finally looked down at the changer mechanism and saw a black circular line in the snow around one of the frame tubes where the tubes all come together. I got off the bike and investigated and discovered that I’d broken the frame there. I guess two years of carrying 220 pound me and 40 – 50 pounds of laptop and computer parts was a bit much…luckily the timing was good. Now my business is a year and a half old and is almost a full time job – except in September which always seems to be slow. I’m still driving the Toyota and it’s going strong. It’s in better shape mechanically as I’ve put some parts on it – but it still looks like hell. Rust never sleeps…
Marc Erickson, Edmonton
Tune in, turn on…
I was working as a summer student for a company upgrading client software. One day I arrived back in my office after to find a nasty voice mail message from a manager that I had finished updating. The gist of the message was his printer would no longer print and that he was going for coffee and the problem better be fixed by the time he was done. Not wanting to stir muddy waters, I rushed back to their office to begin troubleshooting.
After a quick test I found that they were indeed having a printer problem, so after a quick moment of indecision I leaned over and switch their printer on which miraculously fixed the printer problem. Not wanting the user to know that they had an I-D-10-T problem, I placed a small sticky on their monitor that read “Printer Problem Solved”.
Chris Wright, Alberta
Green means print
Managing an IT department and providing services throughout the organization has its moments. One of my employees comes into my office complaining about a user that he is supporting. This user is abusive and not does not want to co-operate in resolving the problem at hand. To make the situation a little more complex the user is 350km from our office.
The problem at hand is that nothing is being printed on the labels. I tell my employee to call back the user and tell the user to send us a sample of the labels. In the meantime I place a call to the plant manager explaining the situation and the steps we are taking to resolve the problem. I asked the plant manager to speak with his employees about this situation hoping that his employees would be a little more co-operative and less abusive.
The following day we receive the labels from the plant. After close examination we determined that the user did not setup the labels properly for printing. I called the plant manager and told him the following: When installing grass sod: Green side is up, the same goes for labels. He apologized for his staff and we all lived happily after.
Walter Pereyma, Laval, Quebec
Very, very floppy disks
In 1979, soon after my partner, my wife, and I had opened one of the first computer retail stores in Western Canada, we were going great guns. Our clientele was growing rapidly, snapping up Apple II’s so quickly we had difficulty keeping them in stock, especially after Apple introduced floppy disk drives. At the time, the drives accepted SSSD 5 1/4″ floppies – they were soft sectored, and held a whopping 108K – which we sold in packs of ten.
On a warm Saturday that summer, a customer who’d bought one of those packs walked into our store with a frown on his face, strode up to me, and with much agitation complained bitterly that “not a @#**% single one of these *%$*# diskettes work!”. He whipped out the box, opened it, and took out all ten diskettes … and sure enough, he was right. He had very carefully cut open the stiff plastic casing of every one, pulled out the now VERY floppy disk within, and tried to stuff said disk into the disk drive.
I somehow managed to keep a straight face while explaining what he’d done wrong … and cut him some slack by giving him a new box of ten for free. After he’d calmed down, we both had a good laugh; it paid us to be flexible, too, because he became one of our best customers over the years.
Griff Hawkins, Calgary
Seriously, baby…I code
It was the late 1970’s and I was a computer programmer for a small Toronto firm. I was young and single and my buddies and I frequented strip clubs for entertainment . We were regulars at the Up Front Lounge and were known to the regular “dancers”, especially “Bambi” – a beautiful blonde. One night Bambi was telling my buddy, Ernie, and me that she and her boyfriend were moving the next day, but they had no truck for the move. As luck would have it, Ernie had a beat up old van perfect for moving stuff, so naturally we volunteered. Now this story isn’t about moving a stripper and her rock-guitarist boyfriend, it was totally uneventful. But this got us “in” with them and a couple of months later we were invited to a birthday party for Bambi.
The party was in the evening; at one point I found myself standing with a half-dozen complete strangers and we were talking about what we do for a living. It should go without saying that Ernie and I, a couple of computer nerds, did NOT hang out with the same kind of crowd as Bambi and the rock band.
One fellow said to me “What do you do? You look like a cop.” I replied “No. I’m not a cop. But you’re not the first person to say that.” “Seriously, man. You could be a narc.” “I’m definitely not a cop.” “So what do you do?” Remember, it was the late 1970’s. IBM had not introduced the PC. No one had heard of the Internet. Windows were only used to look outside a building. We computer programmers were a rare breed by today’s standards.
“I’m a computer programmer.” I answered. The small crowd immediately burst into gales of laughter. I couldn’t have said something funnier if I had tried. The laughter subsided and I repeated, with great seriousness in my voice “No, really. I……am…….a computer programmer.” Even louder belly laughs ensued – Johnny Carson, oops, Jay Leno would have been jealous. No job I have ever held has generated such hilarity as on that evening. Sigh.
Terry Sexsmith, Ontario
At least there’s ample parking
It was back in the early 90’s. I had graduated from college a couple of years back and had held a couple of “normal” I/T jobs as a programmer/analyst. As things would turn out I was looking for a job again and spotted an interesting ad in the local paper. The ad read “leading edge technology company requires a junior programmer for development of custom applications”. I thought to myself this sounds interesting and I was getting hungry at the time so I sent in a resume. I quickly received a call back and they asked me to come in for an interview.
This is where things started to get interesting. First they asked me to meet them at a downtown hotel. I was familiar with the location so I asked them where I should park because I knew it was limited in the area. They said to park in the underground lot beneath the hotel. I then asked what room I should meet them in and they indicated that they would just meet me in the parking lot. I thought this a little different but I agreed and went to meet them there the following afternoon.
As I drove down the ramp and turned the corner I didn’t see anyone so I continued on and pulled in front of the automated pay station and stopped. Not seeing anyone and thinking I might be a little early I turned off the car and got out to look around. After waiting for a few minutes I started to hear voices coming from behind the pay station. There was a small unpainted plywood door beside the station and it sounded like the voices were coming from behind that door. After waiting a few more minutes I got up the courage walked over to the door and knocked.
I’m not sure who was more surprised, me to find two guys in jeans and t-shirts hunched over a couple of PC’s working in a room the size of a broom closet or them to see a 6’5″ guy in a suit. After my shock wore off I stepped into the “office” and they invited me to sit on stool. As it turns out the job was as advertised. The company was developing the software to run the automated pay station and they needed somebody who could program and debug the system and also help customers if they had trouble using the pay station.
Tentatively, I accepted the job and was assigned the evening shift programming and assisting customers use the system. It was amusing some evenings when I would be working behind the station and hear a car drive up and stop. As good as the system was some customers ultimately had problems and would start to become agitated. There were quite a few surprised looks when they would start yelling at the station and I would suddenly appear out from behind the station and offer my assistanc e. I lasted six weeks.
Don Smirl, Winnipeg
Call the signal blocker
Earlier this fall a wireless LAN using an external antenna to couple two buildings was giving intermittent service. Two techies (for safety) went onto the flat roof. The one who lost the coin toss had to climb the cold wet tower, about 10 feet, to investigate. He determined the coaxial feed to the antenna had water in it, so a new cable was routed out of the building and up the short tower. In the process of repairs the alignment was off so a third techie was inside the building welling out the readings to the roof techie who welled them to the tower techie.
The building techie could be heard to yell, “that’s it tie it down” quickly followed by “hold it, it’s gone TU.” This was repeated a couple of times before the roof guy welled back ” what are you talking about, he hasn’t done anything??” It turns out the tower guy was getting himself set on the tower and was intermittently blocking and unblocking the antenna with his body.
Andre Baca, Beaverton, Ont.
The Great Wall of VAX
A long time ago I worked for a small engineering firm that produced and sold Digital Image Processing systems. These sophisticated machines were used in the interpretation / processing of Raster Image Data such as that available at the time from the Landsat 3 and 4 satellites.
Most of my time was pent in Asia, installing systems and training customers in the use and maintenance. For large system installations we would make a physical visit as part of a site preparation process. I traveled to Beijing in 1983, to I believe the Institute of Geography, about an hour and half by car from Tianamen Square. Here, I was introduced to everyone and escorted up three floors to where a 7 foot high room had been prepared with a raised floor.
You have to realize that the sophistication of the Chinese was quite good, but the financial capability was rather limited, so inventiveness in developing solutions was really having a renaissance. The group intending to purchase the system had installed a two foot tall raised floor, a most beautiful construction of top quality Teak wood, interlocking pieces that were probably 4 inches by 4 inches in size. It had been sanded and then sealed with varnish and it was gorgeous. Every 3 feet a removable trough had been installed lengthwise in the room, lined with a suspending leather sheet so that this would be a cable run for terminal and printer cables. Proudly standing against one wall of the room was a collection of power regulators, sufficient to power a large data centre, these being all based on a reverse engineered design that made use of tubes. I was later to see this become a standard around China wherever I went. There is something comforting about the warm glow of the cathode filaments in these things. The height of the room though, had now become 5 feet and the cabinets of the to be delivered system were taller than that.
I asked the folks how they planned to get the system from the ground up to the third floor, and the response was that they would carry it up the stairwell, barely wide enough for 2 people. Well, I don’t know about you, but I have yet to see anyone or group carry a VAX 11/780 computer system up a flight of stairs. I told them that they had to redo the raised floor, it was too high for the soon to arrive system and that they would also have to rent a crane and get a bricklayer. The crane to raise the system to the third floor and the bricklayer to knock out a wall at the end of the hall to get the system through and then to seal up the hole once delivery had been done.
I have never ever seen such happy and proud faces become so sad and panic stricken in such a short time, once the translated realization set in. I truly hated having to break the news to them, so much work having been done already. To my knowledge, the work that had been detailed for them was done after I left, and the installation of the first VAX 11/780 in China proceeded with great success.
Richard Tomkins, Ottawa
Word to the wise: it’s your fault
Back in 1965 I applied for a job in Regina firm’s accounting department, as accounting is what I was educated in, and was given an aptitude test. However, I was offered, and accepted, a job in the then Data Processing department as the test showed I had an aptitude for programming.
On my first day on the job I was introduced to the General Manager, who in his thick Hungarian accent, gave me these words of wisdom which have never been refuted in my 35 plus years in IT and IT Auditing.. “Charlie, there is only two things you need to know about computers. They are stupid as hell but they never make a mistake”. It didn’t take too long to learn the true meaning of those gems. Computers do no more or no less than they are programmed to do, so if something goes wrong, it’s bound to be caused by human error rather than a computer fault.
So it’s not a coaster?
Working as a senior member of the Network and Desktop Support Group I was normally called for those ” tricky ” calls that required a little tack and an amazing about of patience.
One day I was asked to please take an urgent call from the Executive Assistant to the CEO. This was because all the other members of the team have dealt with her and we a little intimated by her demeanor. She wanted the problem fixed ” yesterday ” and made damn sure the technician knew it. Privately called a ” high maintenance” user by the team they would cringe when she called for assistance. Not having dealt with this person in the past I agreed to take the call and made my way upstairs to ” carpet row ” not knowing that all my team mates watch me go and mumbled amongst them selves that I would return a ” broken man ” shaking from the experience.
Upon my arrival to her Office I could her in this loud Scottish accent, cursing her PC and blaming all the world problems on Tech. Support. I gently knocked on the door and introduced myself as a member of that accursed Support Team. I knew immediately what the problem was just by looking at her completely disorganized desk with paper and other things all over the desk. Before I could tell her the problem and fix it I was scolded by her that all computers are the same. They never work properly when there are deadlines to meet. In desperation, she about to tell the problem, when I quickly removed her coffee cup from the spacebar on her keyboard and all that ” beeping ” from her PC stopped.
With her mouth drooped open, I calmly said have a good day, and please keep you keyboard free from any objects that may interfere with the proper use and care of a workstation. After that day on her attitude towards tech. support changed and to this day we are good friends.
Johnny Frederiksen, Mount Albert, Ont.
A million here, a million there
Back in the days of mainframe computing, I was working for a distributor of jewellery. These were the days when even the most junior of computer-oriented people were held in some degree of awe by the other workers, since you knew the incantations and spells to make that computer thing churn out reports. Once a year, inventory was counted, reconciled with the values in the computer and (hopefully) things were fairly close. As a junior member of the IT staff, my job was to run the reports, print them out, and then pass it on to the finance people.
This particular inventory count, things were not going well. On the first pass through we were more than six million dollars out. Repeated physical checks, validation of packing slips, and many reports were required. I had been in the office for just about thirty hours straight when I finally asked what “fairly close” meant. I was told that this meant that we were less than a million dollars out! By now we had gotten down to about a million and a half, after seven or eight rounds.
When the finance department went out for supper, I was asked to run the reports off, since this took about an hour, and they would start again on the next round of reconciliation. I performed the required task, and printed the four hundred page reports which were now showing a one and a quarter million dollar difference. I knew what I had to do. I carefully copied the entire final page (the one with the totals) into an editor, and then modified the numbers so that it had a better value. Total discrepancy now … $999,999.99. I put the complete reports on the vice-president’s desk in the finance department. Then I put the modified page on top of the reports. When they returned from supper, there was at first joy, and then bewilderment at how the number came to be that particular number. It took about fifteen minutes before they realized that the report had been tampered with.
Robert Forbes, Oshawa, Ont.
The (un)luck of the Irish
I have been in the telecommunications business for almost thirty years now, but I still smile when I think back to the late eighties and one particular support event for a high tech firm.
I received a call from an implementation supervisor working an important account at about 4:00 a.m one day. He was in the middle of a system outage and could not get into the system – he had forgotten the password – or so he assumed. Now I have to admit, although he was very intelligent, and good at his job, he did have a rather broad Irish accent. This in itself is not a fault, however, his spelling sort of matched the way he spoke. In this instance, I knew the password because he and I had worked on the initial implementation together, and for security purposes, he made sure I had knowledge of the password so I could also respond in an emergency if he was otherwise unavailable.
Being big sports fans, the password we agreed upon was “Baseball”. He input the password, and confirmed it on the machine. He then told me what it was and we left the system for a few months until his early morning call. That morning, after confirming that we both agreed as to the password, I went to the site to see if we could troubleshoot the problem together. I had some tools available as the manufacturers representative that could not be given out over the telephone so my only choices were remote login (not available at that time) or on-site support.
After arriving, I proceeded through the “backdoor”, only to discover that the password was still “baseball”, but spelled in the dialect I had come to know so well – it translated into “beseball”, just the way he pronounced it. Two hours of driving for two minutes of troubleshooting and a very expensive spelling lesson. He is still a good friend but we don’t discuss sports anymore without smiling and hoisting one or two beverages to the Irish national sport of Beseball.
Paul Robinson, Ont.
Sleeping the time away
In 1997, during my days as a process analyst working to implement some Oracle applications two co-workers and I visited Oracle’s Head Office in Redwood, California for two weeks to test the newest release of their software. On the evening of the third day of our visit we each went back to our respective hotel rooms after a long day filled with challenges. We agreed to meet each other in the lobby for Dinner at around 7:30. I decided to sit on my bed and dial-in to our corporate network to check my email.
Now from where I lived at the time in Saint John, NB to California is 4 hours difference, so I guess the late evening the night before and the early rise in the morning because of my body’s internal clock caused me to be tired so I fell off to sleep. Later I heard someone pounding on my door so in my groggy state I managed to pull myself to the door. It was my co-workers and I was late. When they looked at me they began to laugh uncontrollably for there in my forehead was the imprint of key from my laptop’s keypad for when I nodded off my head came to rest on the keypad and that is where it stayed for the next hour or more. To add insult to injury, needless to say this would not hold up the other’s dinner plans so I then had to wear the imprint on my head until it gradually went away.
Underwear, beer and fraud…a bad combo
Do you remember the days when Ma Bell would charge $1.00 per minute to call Vancouver from Toronto? I do and it was about that time I encountered an unforgettable character in the Information Technology department.
I was working as the Telecommunications Manager for a major utility with headquarters in North York, Ontario. This utility had over 30 offices scattered throughout Ontario and its long distance bill was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Financial reports showed that the highest user of long distance services was the Head Office. Senior management recognized that controls on long distance usage were non-existent. Long distance bills were given a cursory examination, coded to an administrative cost centre and cost type and paid. There was no allocation or charge back to individual departments since there was no way of knowing who made what calls.
We were aware of Call Detail Recording (CDR) technology that would allow tracking of calls by originating extension. We decided to implement CDR at the seven offices in Ontario that accounted for over 80% of the long distance calling costs. The Head Office was chosen to be the first location to have this equipment and software installed since it had the highest proportion of costs.
The vendor of this technology informed us that the CDR recording devices or call storage units (CSU’s) came in different sizes and that we would have to pick the appropriate size based on an estimate of the number of calls that we expected and the frequency at which we would poll the CSU and download the CDR records to a centralized PC that ran the costing software.
We decided that the simplest way to determine the volume of long distance calls for the head office was to examine the long distance bills for several months and to manually count the number of long distance calls. I assigned the task to one of the departmental secretaries, Rosie.
Rosie faithfully went through a small mountain of Bell invoices compiling statistics on the number of calls placed from the head office for each month of the study. However, Rosie had an inquisitive mind and was not satisfied to simply tally the number of calls. Soon after starting the project she pointed out to me that some of the calls were unusually long in length – the longest was over 200 minutes. We knew that an average business call was about 3 to 4 minutes and that occasionally a call would stretch to an hour if a conference all were under way but over 200 minutes in duration – something was awry.
We started an investigation to learn more about the mysterious calls. We soon learned that the calls were being made to a number in North Bay. That in itself was not unusual since this utility had a large operational office in North Bay plus thousands of customers in that city. Although we did not have any tracking software for long distance calls we were able to quickly find where the calls originated since they all came from a private telephone line in the computer room. Further, all the calls were placed on the weekend or evening shifts. We checked the computer room schedule and found that it was the same computer operator who was on duty during the time of these calls. A few discrete inquiries also revealed that he was having an affair with a female employee in the North Bay office.
Reckless Robbie (name changed to protect the guilty) was the computer operator on duty during this time. Further checking of his payroll records showed that on several shifts when the calls in question were made that he had submitted overtime requests since he was unable to finish his scheduled work! Senior management in the department confronted Reckless with the combination of telephone bills and work schedules. He was unable to deny the facts put before him.
What I did not know was that Reckless had a history of less than perfect behavior during his tenure with the I.T. department. Once, someone found that he had been hiding beer beneath the raised flooring in the computer room so that it would be appropriately chilled for his work breaks. On another occasion some of the female employees screamed when they found Reckless, clad only in his skivvies, asleep in the ladies lounge when they came to work one morning. Apparently a former girl friend had kicked him out of the apartment that they were sharing and he decided to make the ladies lounge his temporary home.
Given his checkered history and then the fraudulent use of long distance, management decided it was time to part company with Reckless. He was dismissed and given his final pay cheque – minus a few hundred dollars for the calls he had placed to his girl friend in North Bay. The CDR project proceeded as planned and no more colourful characters were uncovered!
Keith Roberts, Scarborough, Ont.
A number of years ago, a certain user received a computer, the first for this person. Our school was not networked at the time, and we (the computer people) explained the benefits of putting data into the computer for future retrieval. This person then said “Do I have to do that? Don’t you guys do all the data entry for the school?”
Mark Reimer, Three Hills, Alberta
A hard, but useful, lesson
About 40 years ago, I was finishing a night school course in computer programming, for scientific and business applications. Our primary tool was the IBM 1401 as I recall. On the last day of the course, IBM announced the System 360, which was of course critical to the Apollo moon missions among others. The capability of the new hardware and apps were so much beyond what we had been doing, that our whole class had a feeling that we had wasted our time. Of course it was all valuable background, but it was interesting to have that as an initiation / moment of awakening.
On retrospection, there have been other changes in the IT industry, but that was the first big one for me and my classmates in Riverside, Ontario. It was my first lesson on change as a way of life. I am sure there are not many still working who can recall that day, certainly even fewer who were at that very moment embarking on technical careers.
David Grant, Ontario
A truly magnetic quality
Although I’ve worked in IT for about 20 years now, my most interesting experience actually came about as a result of being the ‘technical friend’ of a home computer user. A friend of mine, with 2 children, purchased a new computer some years back, at about the time that tower cases were replacing the flatter desktop style of case. As with any of the computers he owned, he relied on me to help him set it up, show him its new features, etc., etc. Although the system was under warranty, he always called me for a reliable friend’s opinion before taking his system back to the dealer.
After about six weeks’ time, he called me up and described very strange behavior from his desktop. Clicking on some items would do nothing. Clicking on others would open whole different programs, some displaying garbled documents. He was constantly getting General Protection Faults or Read-Access errors. He was losing files. I suspected the integrity of his hard-drive so suggested that he run a defrag. After waiting about 45 minutes for the defrag to analyze his hard-drive, he called me back and informed me that it was reporting his hard-drive to be about 75% fragmented. After confirming that he was not doing anything terribly abnormal as a user, I suggested that he take the system back to his dealer and have them replace the hard drive. This he did and everything was fine . . . for about another four or five weeks . . .
He called me again, saying that the whole thing was starting again, that he had talked to the dealer, and that he was taking it in, but wanted me to come over and take a look at it first. Apparently, the hard-drive manufacturer had not found anything wrong with the original hard-drive returned to them, other than somewhat scrambled data! He wanted to show me how he was using the system, in case the dealer refused his claims. I obliged him and went over to see the strange phenomenon for myself. Indeed! His system was messed up royally! I have never seen such strange behavior and such haltingly appalling error messages in my life! So, he took his system back in, and the dealer begrudgingly replaced both the hard-drive and the controller, cables, and anything else that may affect the data stream to and from the drive. They returned the hard drive to the manufacturer, asking for a detailed analysis of what the problem might be.
Anyways, my friend took his computer home and it worked like a charm . . . for another month or so. Then, another call from a very frustrated friend! The report on the second hard drive had come back negative as well. The dealer had told him that was it for their assistance! So, I went over to see what I could determine. I walked into his office area, and immediately discovered the source of his problems! Having all of that real estate on the side of his new tower case that required decorating, he had allowed his kids to place fridge magnets all over the side of the case! Apparently not enough magnetism to wipe a hard drive . . . just enough to really mess it up over a few weeks’ time! Who knows what the uninitiated will do?
Alvin Murray, Regina
I was working here one night on a server rebuild and it was getting late (or early). My associate and I were talking while we watched a status bar doing it’s thing. I went to the washroom and came back to see the status bar still read 35%. I watched for several more minutes before I realised that the status bar had stopped! Upon further investigating, I discovered my associate had done a screen copy and displayed it on the desktop. We both had a good laugh and it lightened up the looong night for a while.
Mike Sauve, Ontario
Follow the paper trail
Back when I.T. was known as Data Processing, I was an operator of my company’s state-of-the art IBM 360 computer. In those days, any career minded computer science graduate was required to start as a computer operator to “learn the basics”. Like any office of the time the over eager clever types would often be the brunt of practical jokes that would in a way test their ability to handle the high pressure world that awaited them. This was also the era of paper punch card driven computers.
One unfortunate “know it all” novice was the victim of one of these more delightful trials. At the beginning of the night shift, the senior operator obtained a bag of the “punchings” – confetti like paper bits that were removed from punch cards in the “key punch” machines of the time. These where then carefully dumped on the floor in front of the main system unit to give the appearance that they were flowing from underneath the computer. When the recruit entered the room, the senior operator pretended to be very busy with the huge technical manuals and yelled at the victim, “Look the bits are coming out of the computer!!!! Quick call I.B.M. A.S.A.P.” The victim did not notice that there were an unusual large number of visitors to the computer room at the time. When the nervous novice made contact with the IBM “system engineer” trying to explain that the “bits” were leaking from the computer, he did not notice the whole computer staff trying very hard to suppress giggles and laughter as the poor fellow stammered answers such as “on the floor”, “thousands of them”. His hand trembled as he pointed to the pile of paper scrap “leaking” from the bottom of the machine. The rep was unable to help the poor who was almost in tears as he was really trying to make an impression on his peers and supervisor.
It was only when the laughter could not be suppressed any longer that the victim was let out of his misery and learned his first lesson of bits and bytes in the wonderful world of I.T.
Ted Cummings, Toronto