Taking cost-cutting too far
Consultant pilot fish encourages his clients to request a telecommunications provisioning report every year.
"Too often, I've found clients who contracted with telecommunications carriers years or even decades ago, and never reviewed their provisioning," fish says. "Often, services are cheaper today, and far too often we find a few phone lines no longer in use but still being billed."
One client takes fish's recommendation very seriously, and orders up the provisioning report. Sure enough, she finds a quite a few lines that aren't being used.
But she doesn't call fish. Instead, she just starts highlighting every phone number she doesn't recognise.
Then she sends the list back to the telco, with instructions to cancel everything that's highlighted.
The next day, client calls fish in a panic: The internet is down! Help!
It turns out one of those unfamiliar numbers was the company's DSL line.
Stories by Industry contributors
Taking cost-cutting too far
The rise of mobile devices
Sore point sours boss
Contract programmer pilot fish gets a job supporting an airline that has just gone bankrupt.
"One of the first things they asked me to do was to generate a listing of every vendor they owed money to," fish reports.
"'Certainly,' I said. 'Would you like that in alphabetic or numeric order?'
"The manager jumped from his chair, turned red in the face and said, 'Don't talk to me in all that computer mumbo-jumbo! Just give me the report!'". Clearly he didn't take kindly to the suggestion that the list might be so long that how it should be formatted was an issue.
Catchphrase catches exec
At an IT department, there were some cooperation issues between the networking and helpdesk groups, recalls the CIO pilot fish who has to deal with the problem.
"I called a meeting to mend some fences between the two groups and do some team building," fish says.
"After the typical complaints were aired — 'They don't know what they're doing,' 'They don't give us enough network rights to do our jobs,' 'They never return my calls or emails' — I finally got them to see things from the other group's perspective.
"The meeting was going well. In closing, I reminded them that working as a team is the best way to get things done.
However, the director of the networking group decided he had to get the last word in by mentioning a slogan that emphasises the "it's all about teamwork" directive.
This was his choice of phrase:
"Remember, there is no I in IT."
CIO recalls: "There was a pause as everyone looked around at each other. Then I replied, 'Actually, there is one, in front of the T.'
"We all laughed — except him."
It's a hot day in the un-air-conditioned building where this IT pilot fish works, and the temperature is getting to everyone.
"Everyone on the upper floors, that is," says fish. "It was quite cool and pleasant in my basement office-cum-workshop.
"Then the telephone rang -- one of the bright young men in the marketing department. 'Sorry to be a nuisance,' he said, 'but my screen's just gone dead and I'm on a deadline.'"
Fish trudges up to the open-plan office this user shares with half a dozen others. It isn't exactly cool up there, but there is some air movement from a floor-standing fan.
It only takes fish a few seconds to diagnose the problem. But fish figures he should lead the user to it gently.
Nice fan, fish says. Is it new?
"Scrounged," user says. "Got it for the afternoon from HR."
Where is it plugged in? fish asks.
"The six-outlet power strip under my desk."
And did you have to unplug anything to make room for it?
Sighs user, "I've unplugged my monitor, haven't I?"
Backing-up with blanks
Sysadmin pilot fish draws the task of investigating encryption for his company's backups.
"We have a mainframe that runs our core system," says fish. "Each night we back up to an on-site tape and then make a copy of the tape to go off-site. Couriers shuttle the tape back and forth between the sites each day."
The obvious place to apply encryption is to those off-site tapes, so fish decides to create an encrypted copy of a tape to show how well the process works.
And the encryption process works fine every time. But when fish tries to decrypt the tape, no data comes out.
After fish spends several weeks experimenting, talking to vendors and growing more and more frustrated, one of his co-workers asks whether he has checked the script that generates the copy of the tape.
That seems unlikely to be the problem, the same script has been used for years -- but fish checks the code anyway.
It turns out that, a few years before, the company swapped out the tape drives for newer models -- but the script was never updated.
Sighs fish, "For the last several years our off-site copy was never made. We had couriers shuttling a blank tape back and forth to the sites, as well as a replacement schedule in place for a tape that never had any data on it."
User calls pilot fish and complains, "My PC won't work for any network applications."
What happens when you try? fish asks. "Nothing!" user says. "I just get something like a 'Network not found' error."
Is this affecting anyone else over there? fish asks. "Nope, just me," replies user.
Can you try a couple of things for me? "No, not really. I'm not at my PC and calling from another desk."
"I just changed cubicles and my phone doesn't work yet."
So fish makes the trek to the user's cube. After a quick inspection of the PC and its connections, he turns to the user. Who reconnected your PC? he asks. "I did," says user.
Um, the cable from the PC is connected to the phone jack, and the phone line is connected to the LAN jack.
A vital report
Every week, pilot fish's IT group produces a report generated from a database by an automated script.
A hard copy the report is produced and distributed to users. This routine has been in place for years.
But one day, an alert user notices something about the report.
"We got a complaint that the report he had just received was identical to the one from the week before," fish recalls.
"We looked into it and discovered that the script was corrupted. It had generated the exact same report for nine months before anybody noticed.
"We stopped distributing hard copies of the report after that."
A maddening mouse
IT pilot fish at a law firm gets a call from a user who's on the road, who's really mad.
"It took me several minutes to calm him down enough to get the whole story," says fish. "He was in a hotel somewhere trying to connect to the VPN, and he couldn’t use his mouse.
"It was driving him crazy. Every time he moved the mouse it would bounce around, he would lose control, and so on. I finally determined it was an external mouse. I talked him through trying the finger pad on the laptop, and it worked, but he wasn't much of a traveller so his ability to use it was limited.
"After about 20 minutes of this, I asked him to check the bottom of the mouse. Everything seemed fine, the red light was shining. It was then I asked him what he was using for a mouse pad.
"It turns out it was a clear glass table in the hotel room.
"Holding back the laughter, I asked him to get a newspaper, a piece of paper or whatever else was available and use that as a mouse pad. Sure enough, it worked."
Cutting insurance costs
Pilot fish works at a big insurance company that buys a smaller firm.
"The small outfit's sole customer was a city government, which was the only reason we bought it," says fish.
The small firm’s claims application was written in a PC DOS database and the developer of the application ( who is also the former owner of the acquired company) has written it in such a way that, at the end of each year, he has to manually tweak all the menus to add the new year.
So when fish's company buys out the small outfit, the developer is kept on retainer for $12,000 per year to provide the necessary maintenance.
Boss asks fish to look at the app and determine whether it could be maintained internally.
That doesn't take long. "I merely added the next six years to all of the drop-down menus," fish says. "Plus I fixed some rather glaring bugs.
"My boss promptly ended the retainer.”
Bowled by bowling alley system
A new bowling alley opens up near the office where IT pilot fish works, so he and his co-workers decide to try it out — and their manager tags along.
The IT team get part-way through entering their names into the bowling alley's automated scoring/game control system when the screen times out, and they find they can't return to the name entry page.
"We decided the best course of action was to leave it alone and get the people at the alley to fix it" fish recalls.
"This wasn't good enough for our manager, who decided that since he worked in IT, he could fix it.
"At this point we tried to hide and pretend he wasn't with us.
"A lot of typing and hitting of the screen had the expected results: Every single game, in all 24 lanes, stopped for 20 minutes. Every game was cleared and had to be restarted from the first frame.
"And as a group we were politely asked to go to a different bowling alley next time."
Understating the problem
Upgrading in underwear
A major network upgrade is scheduled for the weekend at an IT department, and that means one of the IT staff will have to come in and babysit the process, says a pilot fish in the know.
"It's usually no big deal," fish says. "You come in and start a backup and wait for it to get done, then start the upgrade and wait for it to get done. It involves lots of sitting around. In the past, technicians would bring a book or surf the net to pass the time.
"On Saturday afternoon, one of the senior IT staffers is in the area, and decides to drop in to see how the upgrade is going.
"He walks into the datacentre to find the tech sitting at his desk, playing the guitar, in his underwear.
"The technician ended up leaving for other pastures before long, but not before there were new directives that wearing clothes while at work was required, even during non-business hours.”
Stop that email
The president of a company calls the IT department to ask how to recall an email, reports pilot fish.
Impossible, techie tells him. Once an email has been sent to the server, it can't be recalled, and trying to do so will just draw attention to the email. The president does not want that.
"The next day, my boss calls me and two other members of our department into her office," says fish. "She says that we have to get that email back. And we can't let any of the 70 people it was sent to know what we're doing. Oh, and it was sent two weeks ago."
So fish starts calling the 70 employees, asking them for their passwords and IP addresses and explaining that their computers have to be checked for "viruses and stuff".
One by one, fish remotely controls the employees' PCs to enable remote desktop.
Then the other IT staffers, following fish's instructions, log on to each PC using remote desktop, which locks the PC so the user can't see what's going on. Then the IT people search through in-boxes, out-boxes, deleted items and computer folders, just in case the file attached to the email was saved.
"It took us a day and a half," grumbles fish.
"What was in the email? Apparently, the payroll information for the entire company was accidentally included on the second tab of a spreadsheet attached to the email."
The 2010 Bug
Turns out we have an issue with date rollovers from 2009 to 2010. On our Win95 machines, the date rolls back to 2005 when changing from 2009 to 2010. And no, they cannot be jettisoned or upgraded for quite some time.
Which leaves the question; what dates did everyone use to force Y2K compliance because management did not allow enough time to do it correctly and surely the code won't be in use 'then'?
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