By nerds betrayed

Are there unauthorised Windows XP beta testers on your networks? Make them authorised beta testers. Create a programme. Sign 'em up. That way, they're not breaking the rules. More important, you can keep a close watch on them.

Betrayed --that’s the word to describe the IT people at Xerox. When some users violated company policy and installed Microsoft Windows XP beta software on their PCs, the result was what Xerox called an "isolated network outage."

And then it happened again. And again. All in less than a week, and all at the same Xerox site in El Segundo, California. It got so bad that Xerox warned all 50,000 of its US employees not to install XP betas without permission or they’d face disciplinary action.

What’s worse, it wasn’t ordinary users that brought down the network. It was nerds.

Somehow, we expect ordinary users to foul things up. They do stupid things, or unexpected things, or things that our systems were never designed for. They don’t know the limits of the technology, or they don’t accept those limits. They expect everything to work no matter how badly they abuse or misuse it.

But the Xerox engineers who smuggled in XP betas weren’t naive users. They were our guys. OK, not IT-shop people, but IT-savvy engineers who develop products that use microprocessors and connect to networks.

If anyone should have known better, it’s these folks. And they’re the ones who brought things down.

Then again, maybe that’s what we should expect. After all, regular users aren’t going to futz with this stuff. Shirley in accounting just wants a browser plug-in to open a digital birthday card from her grandson. Phil in sales may be a little more dangerous --he wants to connect his Palm handheld to his PC -- but it’s still nothing earthshaking. A new operating system? That’s out of their league.

But our fellow nerds? That’s another story. Engineers and other power users love playing with technology as much as we do. Betas, freeware, shareware, promoware --if it’s neat stuff, they’ve gotta have it. And they won’t wait for us hidebound fuddy-duddies in IT to make sure it’s safe.

These people are our most tech-savvy users. They should be the IT shop’s closest allies. Instead, that lust for the latest and greatest means that no matter what the rules say, they’ll keep sneaking in unauthorised software. And when something goes wrong, we’ll be betrayed again.

So, what to do? We’ve got a pretty good idea who the likely rule-breakers are. But just enforcing the rules won’t work. We can’t catch all cheaters; we’ll spot them only when something major goes wrong. And the time and effort it takes to try will never be worth the trouble.

Besides, as soon as we’re not looking, they’ll be back at it again. They’ll just be more careful to cover their tracks next time.

But there’s another way. If you can’t beat ’em, co-opt ’em.

Are there unauthorised Windows XP beta testers on your networks? Make them authorised beta testers. Create a programme. Sign ’em up. That way, they’re not breaking the rules.

More important, you can keep a close watch on them. And when something goes wrong, they’ll cooperate in trying to clear it up instead of trying to hide it.

And, yeah, you’ll get some very useful real-world feedback on what XP --or any other beta product --is really like for users. You won’t get that perspective from your IT-shop testers.

But mainly, you’ll be able to keep the surprises to a minimum. And herding these users through early beta tests may be a challenge, but it’s better than having to wonder which one will crash the network next.

So keep those rule-breaking nerds close, and the closer the better. Either that, or be ready to be betrayed --again and again and again.

Hayes, Computerworld US' senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Send email to Frank Hayes.

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