In this, the even more limited release of the second part of the 1997 Bastard Operator from Hell, we have to ask the question, who taught this guy to use VI? Not his mother obviously, that's a dead giveaway. Perhaps we'll never know...
The PFY pauses for a minute. "Hmm...Carter, accounts. Room 402, extension 6473, date of birth June 22, 1963. Married, one child - not yours. A cider drinker. Drive a red Volvo with a faulty rear light and collect beer coasters. Your password is...ahhhhmmm."
"Something to do with fish," I hint.
"Driftnet," the PFY cries.
"Excellent," I respond, turning to our latest visitor. "Can I have a sports question please?"
"No, sports," I reply firmly.
While our user wanders off, I fill out the practical section of the PFY's final exam sheet.
"Let's see. Yes, you achieved the correct amount of disorientation and demoralisation. You also get a couple of bonus points by planting the seeds of doubt with the 'not yours' comment. Now, onto the theoretical section. The hard disk on your personal machine fails out of warranty period. What would you do?"
"Swap it with the boss's so he gets it replaced immediately, then, when the new disk arrives, format the boss's old one and reinstall it in his machine."
"Yeeesss. But remember that you're being marked for proactivity too..."
"Oh of course!" the PFY blurts guiltily. "Then swap it into one of the consultants' machines so that you always have a standby disk for the future."
"Excellent. Now, you're helping users out in your spare time, when..."
The PFY laughs out loud.
"Correct. Next question: the boss has bought a piece of kit that is so old that even the engineers understand how it works. How would you get rid of it?"
"Drop it down several flights of stairs?"
"Flick the mains switch to 115 volts for a little while?"
"He'll replace the power supply."
"Umm... I know, direct a heat gun into its cooling vents."
"Correct. Complete this statement: all power corrupts, absolute power..."
"..is even more fun!"
"Correct. Your boss and a client are plummeting towards the footpath after cornering you for two hours with their thoughts on the future of computing. Who would hit the ground first?"
"Correct. Judging solely by his attitude, how does the boss believe our network is managed?"
"By FM management."
"Be more specific."
"Correct. How long would it take an engineer to change a flat?"
"It depends on how many replacement flats he brought with him."
"Correct. Still on that topic, an engineer happens to mention the words 'that's interesting'. What has happened?"
"Uh, he's either broken your computer, lost his screwdriver inside it somewhere, put it back together with lots of parts left over or encountered some error that he's never seen before."
"Oh, he just says it to pass the time because he's not allowed to say 'bollocks' in the presence of a customer."
"Precisely. One of your users brings his home computer for you to fix. You..."
"Solder the circuit breaker shut, crank the voltage adjustments to full power, swap out any good memory chips for crap and install a virus on their hard disk."
"Whoopsy - charge them mates' rates of 20 quid for your time."
"Yep. Complete this: the meek shall inherit..."
"...what they're bloody well given. And be thankful for it."
"Correct. You have scored a total of 10 out of 10 in the theoretical section, passing on none. As your final task you must generate, then deal with, 50 user complaints in two minutes. Your time starts now!"
An hour later we're observing the smoking remains of the beancounters' comms cupboard.
"Freak wiring mishap?" the PFY asks the fire investigating officer.
"Looks that way," he replies, much to the annoyance of the head beancounter, who is not as stupid as he looks. "It seems that someone had replaced the five amp plug fuse on a portable lamp with a piece of nail resulting in a small fire when the cord insulation became pierced when it got trapped in the door. Just an accident waiting to happen."
"Yes, and how particularly tragic that accounts were storing all the historic purchasing records for the IT department in this very cupboard, even though we warned them of the fire risk," I add.
"Very tragic," the PFY concurs.
Later at a pub in the heart of Soho I congratulate the PFY on his promotion to the position of 'master bastard' by buying him a lager for a change.
"So that's it then?" the PFY comments.
"IT?" I cry. "This is just the beginning. Starting tomorrow it's time for graduate studies." Even at this level, the poor guy still has so much to learn. Like how easy it is to slip a laxative into a lager for a start.
The boss has a bee in his bonnet about my liberal interpretation of the promotional slogan 'delivering what the client needs'. Apparently, my helpdesk instruction sheets on how to deliver 'a damn good kicking' weren't within the intended scope of the motto...
He was in an even worse mood after the hand-proximity sensor on the line printer failed to operate while he was attempting to stop said instruction sheets from printing. The fast moving paper gave him a large and deep paper cut that he won't be forgetting in a hurry. And the PFY and I certainly don't know how that heavily salted water got into the first aid antiseptic bottle.
But his irritation began after spotting a publicity photo of one of the members of the company's football team (sponsored by the IT division) walking around with his football jersey untucked. Beautifully crafted, and costing enough to make a beancounter weep, the jerseys have a lovely little IT crest (a couple of crossed keyboards on a burning PC background, emblazoned on the left breast). The words 'IT - giving you more' are in large letters on the back. When untucked however, the words 'of a shafting' become visible. The boss was not impressed.
The PFY and I make no attempts to escape his wrath knowing full well that he has to pass the head of IT's room to get to us. He's not so keen on doing that since some complete bastard uploaded a new ring sound to the head's cellphone - a sound not dissimilar to that made by a lentil casserole after its trip through the digestive tract.
Accordingly, the IT department managers' meeting he attended this morning was a swift affair, and certainly not one that really should have been 'aired' as a live video conference and PR opportunity. Even the cafeteria staff saw it and wouldn't serve him the onion bhajis at lunchtime.
Not that I feel sorry for the boss. The whole 'improve the perception of IT' initiative was all his fault in the first place for mentioning that it 'must be about that time of the year' to the head of IT.
No-one likes these PR weeks because the bosses like to answer all those stupid user questions such as: 'Can I send 1,000 copies of my CV to the printer? Can I talk to one of your network guys for an hour or two?' and 'Do you know who set my car on fire?' with 'yes', 'yes', and 'no' instead of the far more appropriate 'not if you want to see another birthday, not if you want to see another birthday', and, 'us, we thought it was your birthday.'
But the thing that really puts the boss under the gun is that he's invoked a 'response time' clause in our contracts that was meant for call-out duties which says we have to respond within a reasonable amount of time to a user's problems.
In PR week, 'reasonable' means 10 minutes. Now perhaps the boss can have a good game of MDK in 10 minutes, but a networking professional cannot!
Sure enough, I'm just firing up MDK when the phone goes.
"Yes?" I ask, expecting the worst.
"I've got a problem with my network."
Here we go...
"Hmmm?" Why waste words on these morons? They're much happier with a bit of grunting and a few soothing clucking noises.
"It's a little difficult to explain over the phone - could someone come up?"
I flip the PFY for it and am stunned when I lose. Then I realise that the little bastard has switched my double headed 50 pence for a double tail model.
It really does me proud to see him turning out so well.
Of course, I still won't be telling him that I removed the safety grille from the whirring blades of the cooling fan at the back of his PC, but there you go.
I get to the user's office and it's the same old thing. They moved the PC and the network stopped.
"But it never used to do that."
"No, but now that we don't use thin wire network cabling it does."
"That doesn't sound like a good move."
I manage to extricate myself an hour later (after the story about how technology was much more reliable in the 1950s) and get back to the office.
The PFY chuckles maliciously.
"He rang back - the lead's fallen out of the computer and he's scared to plug it in."
"A separate call," I cry, "that makes it your turn!"
"Toss you for it?" he asks, not understanding where the line should be drawn.
"I'll go for tails for a change."
"Bastard!" Sensibly, the PFY doesn't admit to anything.
"Oh, by the way, make sure to mention how reliable IT is nowadays, especially when compared to the 1950s..."
The PFY grumbles a bit before slouching over to the door.
"Have you seen my access card?"
"Yeah," I reply, "I needed it to get into the comms room this morning. I think it fell down the back of your PC. On the cooling fan side..."
The geeks in the systems department are miles ahead of networks in the popularity stakes after blatantly bribing the users by shoving a terabyte of disk at them and electronically yelling "help yourself." Nothing short of upgrading everyone to 100 Meg Ethernet is going to bring us up to their level. The systems department must be brought down.
The terabyte of disk space is the first to go - about 20 in-depth 'treatments' with the rapid-freeze spray then the heat-gun along the drive electronics is sufficient to introduce the fabled 'random factor' into file safety.
The boss, meantime, is trying to curry favour with the masses by announcing a massive memory upgrade to the applications server to give it some real performance, disregarding completely the bottleneck analysis software pointing to desktop network speed. There's no helping some people.
Sure enough, a few hours later we have an engineer outside our office trying to edge into the computer room.
"What the hell's he doing here?" I ask.
"What do you mean?" The PFY is momentarily confused.
"Shouldn't he be stuck in a lift somewhere?"
"Oh of course! It completely slipped my mind. You'll be wanting the 5th floor." He indicates a lift only ever used by operational staff and very stupid people.
Ten minutes later, the engineer is back.
"There's no bloody server up there," he snaps, a little agitated at the nasty delay caused by the lift problems.
"Server?" the PFY responds, "I thought you'd come to fix the girder up on the 5th floor."
The engineer looks at him unkindly, then enquires about the processor needing the new memory.
The PFY swipes his card through the computer room reader and receives the much feared 'denied' beep. I try my card and a similar thing happens.
"Security must be having a problem again. We'd better wait for a bit until the system comes on-line. Coffee?"
"Sounds like a bloody dodgy system," the engineer says following the PFY out.
As soon as they've gone I break out the scalpel and the roll of tamper-evident packing tape.
Five minutes after that I try my real card on the reader and we all enter the computer room.
"So, two gig into this baby," the engineer says reaching for the apps server off switch.
"Hell no," I cry, panic-stricken. "We don't want that upgraded, we want that one upgraded." I point to a system so old it makes a 286 look state-of-the-art.
"Two gig for that would take up half this room, if it could address it, which it can't."
"So why did your guys sell it to us?" The PFY elbows in on the act.
"We bloody didn't. I'm here to install memory in this." The engineer is getting agitated now - the little veins are sticking out on his forehead.
"But that doesn't need memory."
"Look, there's obviously been some mix-up here," the engineer says. "I'll need to talk to your systems guy."
"He's off sick." I don't think I need to tell him about the poor guy's skin inflammation, which is completely unrelated to that consignment of tanning machine lamps which was mistakenly delivered to our department a week ago, just after his terabyte of disk battle plans were overheard. The PFY just happened to be monitoring his phone line for clarity. Purely in the name of good service of course.
Suffice to say a few of his brighter staff have taken to wearing sunblock and heavy jumpers, even when the central heating accidentally came on for four hours the other day.
"OK," the engineer crumbles in the face of resistance, "I'll get my boss to contact you."
Ten minutes later he's gone, leaving with a couple of MFM hard disk controller cards sealed with tamper-evident tape in his memory upgrade box.
"I think it might be time that Kamakuza Memory Systems 1997 gave the boss a call with an offer he can't refuse, don't you?" I say to the PFY, wielding a couple of spanking new memory cards. "While I'm about it - couldn't the two central routers do with a processor upgrade?"
By the end of the week network's goodwill stock is high, with the surplus memory upgrade dosh going into 100 Meg Ethernet cards for the key players in the PR stakes. Meanwhile, in the pub, the CEO of Kamakuza Memory Systems 1997 meets with the CEO of Kamakuza Router Upgrades 1997.
"Whose round is it anyway?" the PFY asks. "It's yours isn't it?"
"Yes, I believe it is," I sigh as I go to the bar. It's not all fun and games, this CEO business. Bankruptcy looms at every bar corner, if you play your cards right that is...
"What, onion bhajis?" he asks, his senses dulled by years of soft music and educational films.
"No! *THE* smell".
"NO! Can't you feel it, in your bones?"
"Rheumatism" he replies sarcastically.
"No," I respond, "But there could be a fracture in the wind if you don't tune in your senses ..."
"Well I don't feel anyt... oh yes!" he cries, suddenly enlightened.
"TRADE SHOW!" we cry simultaneously.
"Now we're going to need a convincing excuse to go as the boss is a bit against trade shows for some reason".
"Could it be because of the last time you went to one?" the PFY asks.
"Which time was that?" I ask. "I don't remember anything out of the ordinary?"
"You mean the time you spent a couple of weeks prior to the event at the tanning clinic, then turned up at the trade show calling yourself Sheik El Al Hand Kebab and claiming to want to network up every home in your Emirate State, no expense spared?"
"I can't recall such an inci..."
"When you drank two suppliers into receivership, disappeared for three days along with the boss's car, secretary, Visa card and nude holiday snaps - only one of which ever turned up again - you - claiming you'd been in a skiing accident on the M25?"
"Well now you come to mention it, the skiing accident rings a bell. Yes, I remember now, it was on work time and so technically they were responsible for my rehabilitation..."
"At the Betty Ford Clinic?"
"Only the best for the company's contractors, I'll say that for them. Anyway, there was no proof I was linked to the car, Visa, secretary or holiday snaps"
"The ones in your second to top drawer, in the envelope marked MFM Disk Formatting Instructions?"
Hmm. I appear to be slightly outflanked by the PFY's skills at determining the truth no matter how low he has to stoop. Taught him everything he knows, you know ...
"Well, anyway, that's all water under the bridge," I cry, attempting to change the subject.
"Along with the boss's car if rumours are to be believed," the PFY interrupts. "Still, at least you obviously didn't pull a complete Ted Kennedy, as you're still getting those postcards from Spain ..."
Things aren't working out quite the way I planned. The PFY seems to be holding the upper hand in the conversation - something I'm not altogether used to, or comfortable with.
"ENOUGH!" I cry. "I admit, mistakes were made, not least of which was getting lagered the week after and possibly divulging more of that which transpired to you than you needed to know. "
"I'll say!" the PFY cries. "You could have left the bit about you, the boss's secretary and the train in the Underground Museum right out of the conversation, as far as I'm concerned".
Sadly, I'm all out of verbal conversation modifiers. The use of unnecessary force is mentally approved and I give him a taste of the negative ion generator, dangerously modified to put out a few more amps than is safe in an office situation. And sure enough, the PFY does seem to be a lot calmer afterwards.
"BACK ON TOPIC!" I cry. "We have a trade show to go to, and I don't want any more
The PFY nods obediently.
"Now, we need some foolproof plan to enable us to go".
"I could ring my uncle".
"Yes, yes, but cashing in favours with the CEO isn't the plan. A far better plan is to give the boss absolutely NO power of veto for technical reasons".
"After last time nothing short of an earthquake is going to shift the boss's views ..." the PFY chips.
"OF COURSE! AN EARTHQUAKE! GENIUS!"
"You're going to cause an earthquake??!?!"
"No, no, of course not! Well, not if I don't have to anyway. No, the reason of reasons!
The excuse of excuses!"
"What would that be then?" The PFY asks, unenlightened.
"DISASTER RECOVERY! It's been YEARS since anyone tested our DR kit, and a large
percentage of it would probably catch fire if we powered it up anyway! BRILLIANT!"
The PFY calls uncle and starts the ball rolling.
"Ah!" the boss clucks as he enters the office some minutes later. "You know, I was thinking it was about time we tested our disaster recovery systems!"
"Do we have any disaster recovery systems?" I add, paving the way, "as there's an exhibition on that very topic in two weeks that the PFY and I are keen to go to".
"UNLIKELY!" the boss replies harshly. "We already have two DR rooms upstairs, ready to be fired up. I think we would do that now".
No sooner said than done. About two hours later, as the fire brigade is leaving, I'm taken aside by the CEO to answer the boss's outrageous claims of sabotage.
"Ridiculous!" I cry. "The fire was caused by dust accumulating in the equipment over a period of three years. We were lucky the whole place didn't go up. It's information like this that you find out at DR Trade Shows like the one coming up in tw..."
Two weeks later the PFY and I enter the trade show for a 3 day tour of duty. It's a harsh job, but someone's got to do it. We're greeted immediately by a charming young woman working for a popular supplier.
"Good Morning and Welcome to our Show, Mr, um ..."
"Sheik Ali Mohammed, " I reply "And my son, Ahmed Mohammed. We're here to get some computing for our palace. Only the best will do, naturally ..."
"I take it you don't remember locking yourself in the comms room with your friend from DP Pool for two days with a carton of salt and vinegar crisps, a crate of lime cordial and two flagons of alcohol-based tape head cleaner, claiming you were going to 'clean some heads'?"
"Uhhhh no," the PFY answers confused.
"No, and neither do I," I reply. "I woke up nailed into sickbay with that woman from the router company. I had to look at the security tapes to see how we'd made it back."
"Did you e..." he blurts nervously.
"Sure did, every copy. Suffice to say you owe me one."
"Yes, I suppose I do," the PFY admits with a touch of embarrassment and guilt.
"Still," I say, "bloody good trade show."
"I'm not really sure," the PFY replies. "I'm a bit grey in places. I seem to remember a red strobe light."
"That wasn't actually a strobe light. That was a router that you bet me five quid didn't run on three phase."
"And it didn't?"
"No no, it did - just not for very long. You know what they say about 'the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long'? Exactly the same principle, except a better wording would be the kit that works at thrice the voltage works for about 2.5 seconds. Oh, and you owe me five quid."
"That's hardly fair."
"A bet's a bet, we never said how long it would run continuously for. Hell, if that were the case half the world's software companies would be out of business."
The PFY hands over the dosh while we wait for the boss to storm in. And speak of the devil, Hurricane Halfwit rounds the corner at that precise moment.
"Uh-oh," says the PFY. "He looks worse than he did last time when you took his company car and stuff."
"That might be because you took his company car this time."
"I don't remember that at all."
"That could be because you passed out once you'd got the handbrake off and backed it full-tilt into the basement wall. Which is why you locked yourself in the comms room..."
"Ohhhh yes, I do remember the basement bit now you come to mention it. So I'm in it quite deeply, aren't I?"
"Well," I reply, "to use an analogy, you've ridden the lift of the Tower of Turd to its lowest floor and are still pressing the down arrow."
A crash interrupts our conversation as the boss, fuelled by pure, concentrated anger, bursts into the room.
"Get out!" he shouts, voice breaking slightly under the strain. "Pack up your stuff and bugger off. Now. I want you off the premises immediately, no ifs, buts or maybes."
My attempts at placating him fall on deaf ears, and his tirade is only interrupted by the ring of a phone. The phone, the red phone. I press the hands-free pickup.
"Hello, Gotham City."
As per usual the CEO eats this up with a chuckle. It's the small things that keep them amused.
"I've just been casting an eye over this disaster recovery evaluation you sent me," he says. "It's very interesting, especially the bits about simulating a comms room lockout, and a basement ram-raid as an evaluation of our vulnerability to disenfranchised groups in the community. In fact I've passed it on to the board members and it seems to have been well received all round at this stage."
The boss appears to be having some form of seizure related to dangerously high blood pressure so I rush to his aid.
"Away," he shouts, then calms down sufficiently to address the CEO. "And may I ask why using my company vehicle was part of this simulation?"
"Well I was told you'd volunteered it to make up for the mess you'd made with the fire in the disaster recovery room last week. Is that not the case?"
"Oh yes, that's right," the boss crawls. "But I think the board might be interested in seeing exactly what occurred, as captured by the security cameras."
The PFY's eyes indicate that he once more has that sinking feeling. Whereas I might get off with a reprimand for the unorthodox nature of my actions, the CCTV wiring the comms room has and the sick bay lacks might not reflect so well on him.
"I think my documentation covers everything," I respond. Sadly however, the CEO is unconvinced, so we all troop to his office for a viewing.
The boss savours the moment as he presses play on the executive video machine.
"What the bloody hell do security do all day?" the CEO snaps, as the opening titles of Emmerdale pop up on the screen.
"Did I say one?" I murmur to the PFY. "I think I meant you owe me two."
"As I was saying in my summation," I say, "with the slack security around here, disenfranchised groups are a very real threat."
"Smell that? That's a DR budget with my name on it."
We've been especially good about it too, recommending that we install a 'redundant' satellite dish on the rear of the building, selflessly proposing a test angle that saves the company money by using an established 'test-signal' generated by a Dutch TV company.
"What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?" he blurts, waving the chunky wad of disaster recovery proposals recently given to all and sundry by the PFY and my good self.
"What do you mean?"
"Recommending another satellite dish. We don't even use the first one."
"Yes, but with one at either side of the building, we have a redundant path in case the comms risers at either side of the building lose connectivity - as could happen in an earthquake..."
True, this is less likely to occur than the boss buying a round, but planning demands scrupulous attention to tiny, albeit improbable, details.
For a few seconds he struggles to absorb this. "Don't be ridiculous! We don't have a UPS on the rear of the building."
"Yes, I believe I mention that on page two, between redundant espresso machine with battery back-up and emergency response centre with complete living facilities."
"If you think for one moment that the company's going to pay for you two to have a city flat to drag women back to, you've got another think coming," he snarls, "and as for your bloody coffee machine..."
"...go with the three spout model I think," the CEO finishes, entering the room.
"And while you're still at the planning stage, I was just thinking that this would be a good colour for the carpeting of your emergency response quarters," he holds up a swatch of Axminster with a street value well in excess of most controlled substances. "It's just the right tone to reduce stress in a tense situation."
And just the right tone, if I'm not mis-taken, to reduce the chances of the PFY or I getting a look-in at occupying the room outside the CEO's holidays. Still, sacrifices have to be made for the greater cause.
And this week's greater cause is the pursuit of excellence. True, the city flat would have been nice, along with the 'rooftop coolant storage facility' (complete with diving board), but the PFY and I are going to have to be happy with upgrading equipment.
The boss trundles off - years of experience helping him to recognise defeat when it rings his doorbell - to peruse our proposals further.
"What the bloody hell is this?" he shouts about five minutes later, fingering the proposal to eliminate thin wire cabling. "It'll cost a fortune. And it's not even a disaster."
Strangely enough, seconds later it is. A nasty termination error occurs two floors above us, isolating the human resources server from the rest of the network.
"Ah, we'll be needing someone in for some overtime," the boss says, feigning a casual attitude.
"It'll have to be the PFY. I have a doctor's appointment in half an hour."
"Oh," the PFY replies right on schedule. "I've got a migraine coming on and I don't think I can manage."
"Someone bloody has to - the HR server's gone off the network!"
"But it's happened before," I say, playing innocent.
"But not when the pay cheques are due the next day! The last time this happened the staff went on a rampage and wrecked the place. It was a disaster area." The boss shuts up when he hears the distant tingling of that doorbell once again.
As a networking professional it never ceases to amaze me that the combined bandwidth of FDDI, CDDI and ATM is but a snail's-pace when compared to the speed at which bad news can find its way around the company.
The boss gives in. "How much?" Wearily, he reaches for his wallet.
"What, for our silence, or for the repair?"
"Just pass it over. We'll drop off what's left tomorrow."
One length of thin wire and a loss of memory later, the PFY and I are looking at several 'approved' stamps with accompanying signatures on our proposal. Amongst city flats, Dutch smut and new coffee machines is the dream I've had for years. The end of thin wire is nigh.
"Let's celebrate. Waiter, your finest champagne and when the money in that wallet runs out, start on the credit cards."
Apparently the boss has attended one of those 'progressive management' courses and come back with armloads of manuals on how to increase work levels and reduce stress in the workplace. Personally, I'd feel happier if he stuck to the literature of the same genre that mentions the seven dwarves and three bears so as to allow him to get on with the real tasks of management.
Still, it's a slow day on floor two, so I decide to give it a crack. Sure enough, I get a call from one of the human resources people - almost as soon as I get in at 11am. Apparently, all disciplinary actions require a representative from personnel to be present, so we organise a time and agree to meet in one of personnel's wastes of space on the fifth floor. Oh, I mean interview rooms.
"Right," I start, upon my arrival. "I think we all know why we're here." I turn to the PFY. "Apparently there have been three complaints against you in the past month and it is our task to investigate these to their fullest and decide on the appropriate action."
"I understand," the PFY replies.
"Right, first up we have a complaint from someone in accounts who says that he ordered a software upgrade that you'd agreed to handle."
"Yes, I remember that," the PFY responds.
"In your own words, what did he ask for?"
"Well he called the office at 4.50pm and said he wanted WYSIWYG, and he wanted it before I went home."
"What did you do?"
"I downed the lights and powerpoints on his floor."
"And he could see?"
"And he got?"
"So you filled his order to his requirements?"
"I thought so."
"Excellent," I cry happily. "I don't th..." the personnel guy starts, only to be stopped by a stony stare.
"My show I believe. Now, onto this ATM business. "
"Well, one of the beancounters wanted ATM in his room."
"And what did you do?"
"Well, I got the company architect to move his office to the ground floor next to the cash machine."
"Well you did your best then."
"I think he meant he wanted better networking," Mr Personnel said struggling in the deep end of technology. "After all, that's what you do."
"Really? Hmm, you could be right. But we'll never know because he's left the company. Apparently the machine's beeping drove him mad within a week. I can't think why he asked for it in the first place. Apparently he never got around to finishing those reduction proposals to IT spending...
"Worse luck. Oh well, chalk one up for the client not being specific in describing their needs. But you did your best despite the odds stacked against you, well done. Lastly," I continue, before personnel can interrupt, again. "There's something here about problems with someone being locked in the comms corridor."
"Well, that was my fault," the PFY admits.
"One of the database guys demanded to check that his room was patched into the FDDI and must have let himself into the corridor by accident. I couldn't see him in the comms room and thought you must have let him out."
"An easy mistake to make," I reply. "As I have done on occasion myself, which is why we really should deny any access to the room in the first place."
"This is bloody ridiculous," Mr Personnel snaps in what could be called an annoyed manner. "There's no bloody way that could happen."
"It could," I respond. "Because there are no windows in the secure corridor so you don't know anyone's in there. We've mentioned it to the safety officer more than once and asked for CCTV, but so far no such luck. "
It is a great source of sadness to me that he doesn't trust our word on that.
"Well," I say the to PFY later. "I think there's no grounds for censure here. How about we nip down to the pub for a quick pint?"
"Excellent," the PFY responds. "Should I check the secure corridor?"
"No, I'm sure someone let him out while we were at tea. Just make sure the temperature's low enough in there in case there's an overnight heatwave."
Basic law of networking No.4: Opportunities, like the boss's cigars, are there for the taking...
Sadly, his slides on 'contractor versus permanent staff - ways to increase value for money', lost a little in the presentation after being delivered in a random order...
It also didn't slip my attention that he failed to appreciate my comments about the prudence of numbering OHP slides, nor the PFY's suggestion of using presentation software that does it all automatically - and cheaper.
One would almost think that he'd prepared it all off-line and on permanent media to ensure that no-one was aware of the topic of his talk in advance.
In which case using the transparency printer - dormant for 98 per cent of its life - wasn't a good way of diverting attention from yourself.
Strangely enough, one of his disjointed points did lodge in some moth-eaten corner of the head of IT's brain, and since then our lives have been a misery.
In an effort to suck up to the beancounters while justifying yet another yearly bonus, he's agreed to the proposal of the PFY and myself doing chargeable work for outside organisations...
Sure, after the first few network outages and the odd security breach, demand for our services tapered off slightly - to nil. But credit is due to the boss for not letting a minor setback like that deter him from trying to make us pay. We'd barely got back into the office when three large boxes were deposited at our feet.
My eye for hideously expensive equipment twitched slightly as my gaze alighted on the vendor name and product code emblazoned on the side of one of the boxes. Nor was the PFY slow in detecting the presence of equipment that was the networking equivalent of the Holy Grail.
The boss sauntered in casually and addressed us in our stunned silence.
"Yes," he said smugly. "It's what you think it is. Top of the line switching and routing gear from Teranet, fully propagated with a card for everything in use today, from RS232 to ATM to Gigabit Ethernet. You name it, it's on it. And you two are lucky enough to get to test it!"
"Test it?" I ask, looking at enough power to run a small telecomms provider.
"Hell yes. You don't think I'd buy it do you? You're being paid to run it and produce an independent report for a networking rag. Then we'll send it back to the supplier - once they've checked it against the shipping docket of course..."
"The bastard," the PFY whispers as the boss leaves.
The boss, dare I admit it, has done the unthinkable - he's delivered a blow for the managing class. He knows full well that going back to our equipment after using this treasure trove will be like trading a Rolls Royce in on a Robin Reliant. A mental kick in the goolies from anyone's point of view.
A day later, unable to resist the temptation, the PFY and I play with the kit in question. Sadly, it's not as good as it claims to be - it's better.
The boss just eats it all up - filing our review and our recommendations for purchase in the same shredder tray before wandering off, chuckling, to lunch.
"It can't be like this," the PFY wails, eyeing the vendor's packing crew who've come to decommission the tested kit.
"It's all right, I'm sure we'll get some kit like that some day."
"When it's so bloody obsolete it'll be a cooling system load."
"OK," I mutter. "Tell you what, how about a couple of lagers at lunch. You like lagers at lunchtime remember?"
"I can't," he blurts. "I told Sharon I'd meet her for lunch and she's only got half an hour."
One pull of a piece of string later, all is revealed to the PFY as hundreds of confetti-like pieces of paper are released into the underfloor cooling system. The underfloor smoke
sensors do their magic and back up Plan A roars into action.
After securing comms central, the PFY, Sharon, and I file out along with the rest of the sheep, while on the other side of the building the freight elevator, true to it's fire alarm configuration, returns to ground floor.
The three boxes inside it marked 'Christmas decorations' are sure to be filed away in the appropriate place by stores as soon as the alert's over.
I shouldn't think we'll see them again until long after the boss has accepted responsibility (and organised payment) for some recently lost very expensive on-loan equipment.
"Right," I cry as we step out into daylight. "To the pub. I believe there's a sales rep from Teranet who has several pints with our names on them."
It appears that George from Cleaning and Maintenance has overheard some startling conversations between the head of IT and the boss. They are plotting on winning the CEO's favour with the result of getting shot of the PFY and I.
A small amount of dosh later, George tells us how they intend to accomplish their aim...
So it comes as no surprise when the CEO and IT brown-nose crew (the boss and head of IT) enter the office.
"I'd like to ask you a little favour if I may," the CEO begins benevolently.
"What can I do for you?" I ask, getting a little naso-trouser action in myself.
"Well, it's my grandchild's computer applications class," he says.
"Surely you're too young to have grandchildren?" the head of IT blurts.
The CEO continues: "Well, apparently they'd like to see some of the theory in action and I thought..."
"...that we could show them how a real computer centre works," the PFY finishes.
"No sooner said than done," I say,
taking the lead in the brown-nose hurdles.
"And I'll sort out some souvenirs, lunch and transport," the PFY adds, winning by a length, closely followed by me, and the boss.
Two days later the group of Slightly-Pimply-Faced-Youths shows up at IT Central. Half the department is on the alert as word's got around there's some form of benefit to be had from this sort of activity.
"Before we start, I'd just like to quickly cover the topic of safety in this building."
The CEO smiles gratefully, knowing I have the best interests of his kin and class at heart.
Five minutes later our attentive students are preparing themselves to enter the Comms room when a loud shriek is heard from outside Mission Control.
"And lastly," I say, removing the cable between the step-up transformer and the door handle, "a sincere thanks to our boss for his practical demonstration of the dangers of electricity." I open the door to reveal the boss, with a more vacant expression than usual, sitting on the floor outside the office with a pile of IT ID-cards scattered about him. "You can never be too careful."
The boss is ferried away to sick bay for a quick once-over (and a change of undergarments if my nose does not deceive me) while the head of IT spots an opportunity to join the class as we take them through to the Comms room. He gazes on in awe as we identify the various bits and pieces therein (half of which he signed for) and ask for questions as we wander into the tape and document safe.
"What are they for?" the CEO's descendant asks pointing at some of our equipment.
"Those are for document destruction. This is a bulk eraser and that's a shredder. Would you like to try?"
A couple of students are keen to try their hand at it so we give them some old tapes and a stack of paper and leave them to it.
"What's that TV set for?" asks one of the students, pointing at a 29in monitor.
"That's not a TV set," the head chuckles. "That's a security camera monitor."
"But it's got a stereo video attached to it."
"A security recorder with dual audio channels, isn't it?" the head asks me.
"Well, it looks like a TV and video to me. I still don't know why you ordered it."
"Ordered it?" the PFY pipes up. "He asked me to get stores to deliver it to his home."
"You requested it." The head is losing his calm.
"What on earth for? Anyway, I keep copies of all requests. Until they've been filled, at which time they get shredded..."
The head, in Superman mode, attempts to leap a high tape stack in a single bound, faceplanting the shredding machine. A nasty sight for the young and impressionable, but not as nasty as what follows when his tie slips into the shredder blades... The PFY switches it off at the wall saving the boss further injury, but also disabling the reverse switch.
"Once again we see the dangers of our workplace," I lecture as the boss thrashes around trying to free himself. "Even a shredder can be dangerous. Even this bulk eraser could cause problems especially if you weren't wearing an anti-magnetic watch like our head here."
"Oh. Or if you were wearing one that said it was anti-magnetic, but wasn't, like the boss here. Thank you very much for demonstrating sir."
The CEO smiles, happy in the knowledge that the class has learned something. Situation restored to normal.
As luck would have it, it's my slave- trader come to take me out for the twice-yearly drink-up, food-stuff and pep-talk to guarantee my custom in the years ahead. True, I could go back to contracting direct as I used to, but this way someone else has to foot the bill for a six-monthly night of excess. The PFY and I arrange to skive off early and meet him in a local drinking establishment. The night promises to be interesting...
Sure enough, the next day, the PFY and I are somewhat slow on the uptake. Whilst the idea of doing the Monopoly-Board Pub Crawl sounded like a good idea under the influence of lager at 10 past 5, at 10 past 10 in the morning, enthusiasm has tapered off somewhat.
So much so in fact that the presence of a user in our office provokes only a minor response.
The PFY reaches half-heartedly for the power stapler, only slightly modified with extra torque on the firing spring, a 'rapid fire' setting, and the removal of the safety guard.
"Hang on!" I cry, not wanting to endure several hundred CLACKs and miscellaneous screams in my current condition. "Can I help you?" I ask the user.
"I'm after a UTP cable for my computer," the user asks, displaying an education in networking that's generally prohibited at user level. (For their own good of course.)
"How long would you like it?" I ask tiredly.
"Well, I'd like to keep it if it's all right with you," he adds, chuckling away at a joke that's so old Noah used it buying wood for the Ark.
"Sure, just grab one from the brown cardboard box in the corner."
The user contentedly wanders off with a cable and the PFY corners me.
"Are you all right?" the PFY asks in a strangely caring voice. "You helped a user?"
"By giving him one of the dud cables that we sell for copper scrap? I was just buying time till my hangover goes. Mark my words, he'll be back."
"Oh," the PFY responds, realising that even on a bad day the old CPU's still ticking over. He pauses for a moment - something plainly on his mind.
"Don't you ever worry that we lie to users too much?"
A Mid-Job Crisis. I should have seen it coming. All the symptoms were there - the care for others, the slow-draw of the stapler.
"Don't be ridiculous!" I cry, wanting to nip the surge of conscience in the bud. "Users expect to be lied to, like Insurance companies and the Inland Revenue. It's your right - no your duty - to misinform in the interests of technological advancement."
"Well, I've been thinking - I don't know if I'm really cut out for this job."
It's worse that I thought. Before the PFY can go on, I ring the helpdesk and give them his number for 'problem calls'. Surprisingly enough, they start putting users through almost immediately.
Two hours later the damage is done and the PFY's back to normal. The user who wanted to know why the 'follow-me' service wasn't working on her phone was probably the straw that broke the camel's back. It took a while for the PFY to realise she was carrying her desk phone around the building with her, but as a veteran hand at these things I expected no less.
He's back on form by the time my amateur networker returns to the office.
"That cable you gave me is broken!" he cries in a distressed manner.
"I don't think so," the PFY says calmly. "We ran a cable check on all of them."
"That's true," I respond. "Except of course we didn't do the humidity differential test because our multimeter's broken."
"Of course," the PFY gasps.
"That'll be it," our user cries, feigning knowledge.
"Tell you what," I say to our ardent amateur. "You grab one end of the cable and go into the comms corridor and just hold the plug in your mouth. You'll feel a slight tingle if the humidity differential's OK and nothing if the cable's broken."
Seconds later the silence of the comms corridor is punctuated by a scream and a series of thuds.
"Whoops," the PFY blurts. "Plugged
it into the 90V AC Phone-Bell test
transformer by mistake."
The thuds next door stop, which can only mean our user's managed to bite through the cable to disconnect himself.
"Good to have you back," I say as the PFY unplugs the evidence. I mean cable.
"Good to be back."
Isn't it funny how things work out for the best?
The bloody boss, stepping out of character, has rekindled the CEO's interest in videoconferencing. Normally this would have me smiling at the thought of spending more company dosh, but we don't have the bandwidth to support the system company-wide.
"Why?" the PFY asks, smelling a rodent-like creature.
"Ah. Well, I'd been meaning to tell you about that..."
"You've sold our bandwidth to a third party haven't you?"
"Not exactly, no."
"You've cranked up the company's ISP service?"
"No, I sold that off ages ago."
"You sold it off!"
"Yup, cashed in the client base and ISP domain name to another supplier. Very lucrative."
"And didn't pay me off?"
"Nope. I didn't even pay me off."
"So what did you do with the dosh?"
"What did I do with the 'venture capital' you mean?"
"Suffice to say that we are the sole partners in InterTelecom Internationale, supplier of cheap telephone calls to the world..."
"And our latest client is a company with offices all over the world. One of which you are standing in."
"You're selling our bandwidth back to the company? Why the hell did they buy it?"
"Well, if you remember the time of the big falling out of beancounters and networks..."
"The one where the head of accounts said that our overheads for providing international calls were too high and that we'd be better off going through a public supplier."
"Ah yes, but I thought you'd engineered that because you had some master plan..."
"So I did. And you'll be pleased to know that InterTelecom Internationale outbid all the other companies by virtue of its low operating overheads."
"Meaning we're stealing bandwidth from the company!"
"Stealing's such an ugly word. We're simply maintaining one hundred per cent usage of the existing links - something the company should be rewarding us for. And they are, every time we collect our bonuses through InterTelecom Internationale."
"Sneaky," the PFY grudgingly admits. "So what's the problem?"
"If we whack in this conferencing stuff we're bound to get congestion problems."
"True, but we know it's a toy and not going to be used all that often after the first time."
"I expect so," I reply.
"Then I have a plan..."
A week later some very expensive kit is brought into the company under the boss's vigilant eye. The PFY has gone to our US office for the testing, and a part-time contractor is to do the same in Rome.
The testing is completed just as the CEO wanders down and electronically greets the PFY and part-timer. Response is good, and the boss and CEO seem fairly pleased with themselves.
"Now I'd like to speak to the rest of the offices please," he says.
Over in the comms room, the telephone exchange suddenly pops a circuit breaker and goes down.
The offices concerned are switched into the picture - and very grainily if I say so myself. The assembled staff listen as the CEO gives a short speech about the wonders of technology. A few comments pass back and forth before the CEO 'rings off'.
"What did you think sir?" the boss asks.
"Well, the testing bit was OK, but the office response wasn't so good."
"Yes," I admit "it's a problem with Heisenberg's certainty principle of video compression."
"You what?" the boss gags.
"Heisenberg's certainty principle of video compression. It's a famous quantum physics experiment which videoed cats in boxes. The more cats, the more certainty that you'll get quantum disturbance in video compression."
"That rings a bell for some reason," the boss blunders.
"How do we fix it?"
"The only way is to eliminate the compression, which would require larger telecomms links..."
"Make it so," the CEO says, having watched far too much Star Trek during office hours.
The boss signs a couple of orders there and then and shuffles the CEO out.
I go next door and show the PFY and part-timer the orders while I reset the breaker on the exchange.
"Shall I call the telecomms providers now?" the PFY asks.
"Yes, and tell them InterTelecom Internationale wishes to expand..."
Fish. Barrel. Shotgun.
What could be easier...
This weeks masterpiece is a set of Client-Solution Buddypersons - that is, everyone in the department gets a group within the department to help.
And being a spiteful and vindictive bastard, the head of IT gives me the distributed consultants group - people with the technical competence of tree tomatoes and social skills to match.
The PFY gets off lightly with the DBA group, who already know that you only call us if you enjoy third degree burns.
The calls start rolling in - something like "The user's printer isn't working so the network must be down," and step through fault resolution only to find the paper tray is empty. At lunch my personal cellphone rings with a consultant problem and I realise the head of IT has been giving out, my private number. I make a mental note to avenge this indiscretion.
Meantime I have a consultant to deal with.
"The application I'm trying to install for a user just comes up with a write error," he moans. "Do you think their system's run out of disk space?"
"Hmmm," I respond thoughtfully, "What have you installed?"
"Office, voice dictation software, 3D design and the Online Encyclopedia. Is that too much?"
"Hell no!" I cry, "That's just a smidgen of the space that must be available on the user's 386. No, I think it's a little worse than that."
"Worse?" they ask, worried that this could be outside their technical expertise (hitting return and floppy insertion).
"Yeah, it sounds like we've got another one," I say ominously. "Another backward masked CD-ROM."
"Well, it slowly but surely makes the software on the system only operate with software made by the same manufacturer. Attempts to install other manufacturers' stuff results in errors. All the big companies do it these days - it's a marketing tactic."
"Wow! What can I do?"
"Well, what CD-ROMs have you got?"
"Loads. All our software's on CD."
"Hmmmm, it's probably worse than I thought. It surprises me you haven't had problems before now."
"Well, now you come to mention it, the encyclopedia was slow to install. Do you think that was related?"
"Undoubtedly. It's obviously the anti-installation virus at work."
"What should I do?"
"Well, I don't know - are you familiar with what happens to computer tapes when we want to remove data from them?"
"You scratch them?"
"Exactly. And that's what you do with CDs, except you want to keep the data but not the anti-install virus so you only scratch a tiny bit of the data, the bit that indicates which programs the software won't work with."
"Well, do you have a micro-surgical ceramic scalpel on you?"
Dummy mode on.
"Oh well just use the blade from a pair of scissors. You want to put two scratches, as close to each other as possible, running around the disk in what we call the 'index band' of the CD. That way the software can't look up the stuff that it won't work with."
"Sure," I respond, pinocchioing for all I'm worth, "Trust me."
"Should I do all the disks then?"
"Every disk you can find."
"But there are hundreds in the media store."
"Do it after hours and you could be up for a night's worth of overtime," I suggest, going for the greed jugular.
"Yeah," he gushes, mentally counting pound notes.
"But remember," I add, "If you tell anyone, they're all going to want a piece of the action. But if you were to surprise the head of IT with it tomorrow morning..."
"Mum's the word then," he cries.
"And while you're at it..." I mention
"The head of department has been having problems with his personal audio CDs as well - you might see if you can fit them in if you've got the time."
The rest, of course, is history. The wailing, the gnashing of teeth, the impromptu dismissals - not to mention the destruction of several collector's edition boxed sets of live jazz.
I smell a reorganisation on the horizon.
It would appear that the friendly 'jousting' between myself and the fifth floor cafeteria has been brought to a head by my chance remark to the PFY (within their hearing, unfortunately) that their new motto, like the airborne military, was "Death from Above".
Admittedly, the menu du jour is no worse than one would expect on death row, but perhaps I shouldn't have modified their 'Healthy Eating' intranet Web menu page to main courses of Hungarian Gluelash and Chicken Tikka Diarrhoea. Some people have no sense of humour.
The boss is loving it of course, knowing that any self-respecting contractor would be at death's door ringing for service way before they'd ever call in sick. Legitimately, that is.
No, if I'm going to be spending all day on the porcelain peripheral, I'm going to be doing it on company time. His frequent visits leave me in no doubt that he's gagging for a chance to cross a few hours off my time sheet. My attendance, though uncomfortable, continues.
The only thing I don't understand is how they got the lethal dose to me. Normally quite cautious with my food (prime directive - avoid fish, chicken and pork), the method of my dispatch escapes me.
The smug glances and sincere concern for my health by the cafeteria staff confirm my doubts as I head straight for the bread counter for a low-fibre lunch. A battle plan is called for. And hatched.
As soon as the boss has vacated the area after his usual four buckets of everything, I put phase one into action. "Well I don't really know..." I mouth, as one of the cafe staff passes, seemingly unnoticed, "...but apparently the boss reckons it's this place that did it to me. He said there's better hygiene in a Soho alley."
"Really?" the PFY asks, playing Dr Watson to the full.
"Well, I dunno," I reply noticing an attentive ear in the background, "...but the boss hates the place. Reckons the staff would be lucky to get a job cleaning the toilets of a kebab house."
The next day, whilst nature is calling me for the 11th time, the PFY cranks up the CCTV kit, today's source being the 'thermostat sensor' beside the cafeteria servery.
The boss stops by to see if anyone's up for lunch, but the PFY tells him, without a word of a lie, that I'm supervising some emergency downloads.
I get back in time to see the boss in the cafeteria, negotiating his tray around the obstacle course that is the servery area. "All normal so far," the PFY comments.
"Yes, nothing out of the ord..." I mutter, as something catches my eye.
Under the guise of replacing a bucket of wallpaper paste and beef stock (labelled 'gravy') one of the caff staff has palmed an extra onion bhaji onto the boss's plate. Oblivious to it all, the boss powerlifts his tray to a table and straps on the old nosebag.
"Should we tell him?" the PFY asks.
A cynical glance answers his question.
Culprit Identified, Phase One Complete.
The next day is one of the few that makes this job worthwhile. The boss has called in sick. Word on the street has it that he made it to the tube station before bringing up his breakfast.
The cafeteria staff meantime, are busy with an impromptu Health and Safety check (after an apparently anonymous tip-off), which discovered, amongst other violations, that the ratatouille had real rat in it.
A week later I'm almost back to my usual self, though still food-shy, whilst the boss appears to have made a miraculous recovery after his time away. He gloats for a while about the benefits of the company health plan, sick pay, the benefits of not coming to work, etc., etc.
At lunch he gloats some more as he packs his plate, waxing lyrical about the health entitlements of being a salary-earning company man.
His entitlements don't stop there though, as the PFY helps him bag his quota of onion bhajis.
That afternoon, the PFY talks to him some more through the jammed doors of one of the company lifts. In my hurry to release him, I've accidentally snapped the door release lever off in the keyway, so we've had to call out the lift repairman.
"How much longer are they going to be?" the boss whines. "Shouldn't be much longer," I cry, signalling to the PFY to make the service guy another coffee whilst I take the last entry in the lift-violation sweepstakes.
I give him 10 minutes max...
"Me?" I ask innocently, "Nothing!"
The PFY's waits in silence until I come across with the truth.
"Well, I think I might have worried him slightly..."
"How 'slightly' do you mean?"
I detect a smidgen of annoyance in the PFY's tone which I guess I'll have to deal with later. True, the boss had reached the malleability of fresh putty, however one must always bear in mind that change is good.
"Well, I might have mentioned that living in Tonga would be a better long-term prospect than the UK."
"Well, it all started when the boss wanted to know the status of our year 2000 project. I think he's suspected the truth - that it's a foolproof plan of locking yourself in your office for five months then coming out at the end with a smile, the words "everything is OK now", and bushels of consultancy fees."
"And?" the PFY asks
"And so I happened to mention that there really wasn't any point in worrying about it anyway."
"Why was that?"
"Because I told him that the world had the Year 2000 virus. That it would all be over in 1999, just like Nostradamus and multitudes of religious groups predicted."
"And he believed you?"
"Well you know how likely he is to believe me straight off..."
"You mean since you suggested he take the toaster into the shower with him to save time on making breakfast in the morning?"
"That and using a magnetic strip as a floppy holder, yes. Anyway, so I directed his attention to the fact that some of the oldest Cold War nuclear defence systems are computer controlled, including the ones that are primed to initiate launch if they lose connection to the Pentagon."
"And it would be quite likely that shortly after 11.59pm on 31 December 1999 the time since last successful contact value will go, via date arithmetic, from one minute to thousands of negative minutes..."
"Integer wrap-around, and launch!" the PFY finishes.
"You got it!"
"And he believed you?"
"Well, I happened to notice, after cruising the Web cache logs, that he was a
frequent viewer of certain Web pages."
"You mean the Lycra Lovers home page?"
"Amongst other things, yes, but more importantly he was a frequent visitor to the 'Nostradamus Says' and 'Nuclear Danger Awareness' pages. Armed with this information, it was a simple matter to play upon his fears."
"So now he's moving to Tonga?"
"That, or some other absolutely non-strategic target which is unlikely to receive a circa 1960s warhead around 10 past midnight on 1 January 2000."
"But you don't really think it'll happen do you?"
"It might. But who cares? I'll be drunk as a skunk at a New Years party - besides, my consultancy goodwill will be right down the tubes thanks to my well-financed answer of 'it's all OK now.'"
"So you are working on our millennium project then?"
"Full time since this morning."
"And what have you come up with?"
"I'll let you know in just under five months..."
A week later, things are much worse. The old adage 'the devil you know is better than a kick in the groin on a cold morning' holds true. The boss's replacement is far worse than he ever was, and has canned my year 2000 project out of hand, preferring to go back to our software and hardware suppliers. It's enough to make you weep...
...If you didn't have the root password, control of the telephone exchange and an almost psychopathic hatred of management.
In a matter of days, the new boss seems a little peaky. Apparently some power spike or other set half the dialback numbers on the modem pool to his home phone number and the other half to his cell phone.
If that wasn't bad enough, his phone was already running hot after his paragraph in the weekly IT bulletin Web page about the 'Version Control Server' was misspelled as 'Virgin Control Server' - apparently a lot of the younger beancounters were concerned about what form of control he was talking about...
The PFY and I pass the time by setting the clocks of equipment forward to 31 December 1999 to see what happens. After the trouble we caused with the e-mail server I feel we should be in with a chance for the tender for the resurrected seven month Y2K project...
Change really is good.
His first green and keen move is to organise a meeting between himself and some global network providers to obtain a better bandwidth pricing system - a group of individuals who'd sell their own grandmothers for five quid. The boss is so far out of his depth he needs a diving bell.
To save him from the feeding frenzy (and the company from bankruptcy) I force my way onto the negotiation team. Judging by the voicemail I receive from the various players this isn't a popular move.
"Call me Alan," the new boss gushes as he meets with the various potential suppliers for the first time. He's obviously been on his share of huggy-feely team building weekends and believes that the informal approach will enhance negotiations.
If I had my way, we'd enhance negotiations by locking the suppliers in a room with several half bricks and only deal with the last one standing - a policy that's served me well in the past.
"The proposals all seem to be a little on the steep side," is the boss's opening gambit. He doesn't realise they're about 50 per cent more than we're paying now - what suppliers call the 'initial-shaft' position.
"Well that is with increased bandwidth potential," one responds.
"You mean it's exactly what we've got now, except it has more potential?" I reinterpret for the boss's benefit.
"Potential for growth without extra carrier installation, yes."
"And as we already have over-spec carriers installed it means we'd be paying 50 per cent more for no reason?"
"Potential does cost money," another supplier chips in. "And I believe that our plan provides the maximum potential."
"While still actually delivering nothing extra..." I add.
The meeting goes on like this for a while with the boss doing his horse-trader act, fooling no-one. Eventually he manages to think up the final offer masterstroke.
"Well what can we get for this?" The boss asks, being sneaky and writing down a figure which is about 40 per cent of our networking budget.
"I'll give my grandmother a call," one of the supplier responds, reaching for his cellphone.
From then on it goes downhill. At the end of a couple of hours of negotiation the boss is a broken man and liable to replace our current bandwidth with a bank of 300 baud modems via some BT-call boxes.
Strategically, I call for a lunchbreak, and get the boss out of harm's way as quickly as possible.
"It's all quite technical isn't it?" He blurts once we're out of earshot.
"It's a snowjob!" I reply and proceed to educate him on the ins and outs of price fixing - apparently a topic that isn't covered under the Bachelor of Parochial Management Degree. I bring him back to the comms room so the PFY can back me up.
Our comments fall on deaf ears.
"But I'm sure they know what they're talking about," he mumbles naively. "After all, they've been in the business for a long time."
"Because they take advantage of managers," I respond. "Honestly, you can't believe anything anyone tells you in this business."
"That's a terribly cynical attitude," he responds, as expected.
Looks like it's time for Plan B.
"Well it'll cost a fortune to upgrade the potential of our comms risers."
"I think it's best if the PFY shows you the problem we're talking about."
Ten minutes, a scream, and a plummet of one floor later, I'm flying solo in the negotiation processes as yet another boss fails to check that the grating is securely in place on the 'floor' of the comms riser.
"Gentlemen," I begin upon returning to the boardroom. "Due to a workplace accident Alan is unable to be with us for the rest of the negotiations, which puts me in the position of having to make a decision about our next sole global-network provider. I feel it is best that you come to an agreement among yourselves as to who that sole provider will be while I wait outside for your decision. Oh, you'll find the bricks at your feet under the table."
Sometimes you've got to pay a little extra for customer satisfaction.
Being the cautious type I leave instructions with the PFY to e-mail me daily on the events that have occurred. Sadly, my laptop is currently pending upgrade replacement (signed by the Boss in one of his more lax moments) so my only form of contact with the civilised world is via an Internet Cafe.
Like 90 per cent of the cultured e-mailing world, I prefer to read personal communications in the privacy of my office or home without the distraction of Quake playing in the background. There's plenty of time for that during chargeable hours. I'm also not a big fan of waiting for a condescending ponytail-type to log me into the slowest PC on the face of the earth, with so little memory that it has to page just to let you enter your password.
I mention that I'd like to use my favourite e-mail package, only to get a smarmy response.
"First time is it?" ponytail chuckles smugly. "No-one uses that program any more."
I could beg to differ, but what the hell.
"Well, yes it is," I answer, anxiously. "What do you recommend?"
He burbles on about some Alpha release of GeekySoftwareCorp's latest bugpack, and types in the password ('connect', I happen to notice) to enable the desktop machine. He then begins a well-practised 'there's nothing to be nervous about when you've been using computers as long as me' monologue. I restrain my impatience. Eventually he finishes, turns back to the machine and discovers that all is not as it should be, perhaps because I pushed most of his applications into the recycle bin while his attention was diverted.
Couldn't help myself - old habits die hard.
"That's funny," he comments.
"Oh, it's not working is it?" I whine in a manner so familiar to me from my helldesk days. "Computers never work for me."
Convinced that I'm a first time loser, he, as expected, logs into the file server with his own user ID, depending on his 'lightning-fast' typing speed for password security ('girlbait' - tasteless and wildly inaccurate).
While he's performing the reinstall, I shell out £20 and get myself a debit account for access time from another greasy ponytail at the watered-down espresso counter. This one logs me into a desktop and advises me to 'browse a bit' to get the hang of the system. When he's gone and no-one is looking I change out of loser-mode and download my e-mail from work.
Yet another ponytail comes by and chuckles as he monitors my incoming e-mail over my shoulder as it surges in at about 2,400 baud, thanks to a school party watching some real-time video behind me.
A quick scan of my e-mail tells me the Boss is still causing trouble by appointing a temporary senior network analyst in my absence. Definitely something I'll have to get him to keep an eye on.
In the meantime I have smaller fish to fry as one of the ponytails spills an espresso down my back as he waddles past to some unsuspecting customer.
I login to the fileserver as ponytail1 and peruse its contents. To pass the time I find the desktop login script and make a couple of modifications.
While I'm at it I decide the cafe's homepage could do with a bit of jazzing up.
A shocked gasp from behind me moments later informs me that someone's got the new improved version complete with recently uploaded non-real-time video clip.
A little taste of Sweden never hurt anyone - especially not when a quick glance tells me the gasp comes from the teacher of the school group who's trying to drag her students from the display. Methinks that the page was a far cry from the Dangermouse TV homepage they expected.
I tickle the keyboard a moment longer, adjusting my account information then wander over to catch the tail-end of the educational experience that the youngsters have been exposed to.
"That's disgusting," I cry, horrified.
By now a generic ponytail is in situ making profuse apologies. "It's true what they say about the Internet," I mention to the young tutor. "Full of perverts."
"It's just a tool," ponytail responds defensively to the teacher.
"Yes, I saw that," she responds.
It's funny how you can warm to people you hardly know.
A quick cellphone call to the local media later and I'm helping the alluring young teacher and her charges through a bunch of cameramen and reporters. My only stops are to collect a refund of the £200 account balance, and to make an appointment for dinner later that night with the young educator.
Holidays? They're nothing but work, work, work...
Logging-in from home I notice the latest correspondence from the PFY appears to be a long one, so I crank up my espresso machine and set it on stun. I open the PFY's dispatches. It's an epic document depicting the struggle of the competent network engineer in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Apparently the boss's temporary network supervisor moved quickly from the 'humble and unassuming' persona to 'sneaking and conniving' persona in a few short days. True, this is pretty much par for the course and expected of the position, but he could have waited until I'd been fired.
The PFY realised quickly that the new boy's networking and Unix server knowledge was second to none - even nearer than that in fact - none whatsoever.
The PFY's well-tuned nasal instincts detected hint-of-rodent so he slipped a call monitor on the boss's phone. His instincts proved correct - his new supervisor and the boss were mates from way back when electricity was invented.
Further investigation revealed startling similarities between his CV and my own - word for word apparently.
Almost like the boss had e-mailed it to him. Having identified a position worth coveting, my stand-in invested every working hour brown-nosing support and managerial staff, playing up his role to the detriment of my memory. From the PFY's observations, he was either after my job, a Nobel Prize, or both.
Operations resumed with the new me wanting to distinguish himself by discovering evidence of negligence on my part, leading up to a stirring half-hour that will long be remembered. I have to rely on the PFY's version of events...
"Something strange has happened on the mail server machine," he blurted to the PFY, smelling glory, "There's a process running the pop program coming from outside the company. I think we've got a break in."
"Where's it coming from?" the PFY enquired, already suspecting the answer.
"A machine called bofh.DieGeekDie.com."
The PFY, recognising my domain name and penchant for keeping abreast of e-mail, knew it was best to defuse the situation before it got out of hand.
"Yep, it's a hacker all right," he confirms.
"What should we do?" the temp boss gagged, already thinking about the book rights for his Internet crime detection novel.
"Should we disable logins on our machines?"
"Hmm no" the PFY advised. "That'd just annoy them. Best run a disinfectant across the network."
"With the spray command. Use spray: HOSTNAME minus c one million minus l two thousand, AMPERSAND. Do it for all hosts in the hosts file. That should disinfect the network while I get a coffee."
The PFY returned to anguished cries. "The bloody network's down."
"No, no" the PFY commented "It's still up and running, just very slow, for some reason."
From then on, it was all downhill. Convincing him that configuring all the 10/100Mb Ethernet switch ports to 100 non-switched, "for improved performance reasons", was a masterstroke - although the 10 per cent of 100Meg capable users were quite pleased with the performance that a 90 per cent network outage provided.
In an effort to win back some client goodwill, he proactively upgraded the router firmware with some new-release software clearly unaware of the firmware golden rule: never trust an unpatched release of anything.
That accounted for another hefty outage when some obscure bug caused the slip lines to have the highest priority path to the network. Which came as a surprise to the PFY as he hadn't had time to login to the routers to do it manually.
I'm just about to disconnect when a late-breaking news report comes in. Apparently, there's been a nasty workplace accident involving my phone. It appears the receiver cable had been rubbing up against a power cable and had worn through the insulation on both causing my replacement's professional looking headset to become a boost not only to his ego.
Luckily, it's always been networking operations' policy to have earth leakage detectors on desktop mains, but unluckily one of the PFY's extremely heavy manuals was inadvertently leaning on the reset switch at the time.
The ambulance crew eventually managed to coax him from underneath the desk with a couple of chocolate biscuits and a warm blanket, but it looks like I'm going to be called back early. No rest for the wicked. Or their supervisors.
Now, instead of identifying a piece of equipment that's smoked its last and shoving a well-stacked replacement purchase order under the boss's nose for his 'X' of approval, we have to e-mail all purchase requests for any computing products to the systems purchases software for the systems geeks to peruse, approve and source a competitively priced alternative to...
I'm fit to be tied. The PFY is chainable. Perhaps it's because we received a 'Crisco' brand switch instead of the 'Crisco' one we ordered - straight from Silicon Back-Alley in Venezuela. Judging by its face value the country should have stopped exports at the Miss World Competitor mark. I blame myself for the personal note to our product-of-choice sales rep of "plus all the fruit for 100base-T x20" which appears to have been interpreted literally. At least the cafeteria won't be short of bananas for a year or two.
I confront the boss as soon as possible.
"We can't accept delivery of that," I cry. "The voltage supply settings only have two options: 12 and 24."
"It's obviously a switch printing error," he says. "They left the zero off the end."
As I confront one of the purchasing system's operators with the smoking remains of the aforementioned piece of crap, the boss says defensively: "Well, we can't send it back now! After all, the switch did say 12v and 24v... We'll have to get it fixed! And anyway, you didn't specify that you wanted a 240 volt AC device when you sent your order through to the purchasing system.
"They're not mind-readers you know."
"No, but then I didn't say 'avoid buying thinwire cabling with it' either, did I?"
"Oh, the thinwire cabling's still in the basement," the purchasing geek interrupts, "Actually, we made a killing on Crisco's winter special - 'thickwire-for-thin'."
"See?" the boss says "We're saving money already."
"You bought 4,000 metres of thickwire cabling for office wiring?"
"Yep, and it was dirt cheap," he beams.
In an extraordinary change of character, I take a sick day because I really am feeling ill. The next day, when I tell the PFY, he does too. The following day, we're back at work and determined to make a go of it. I show the boss some thickwire, cabling duct and a large diameter masonry drill.
"Where do we start?" I ask.
"Umm," the boss mumbles, knowing his popularity will be inversely proportional to the noise of the drill slowly whining from one side of the building to the other. "Perhaps we should send the cable back then."
"Perhaps we should," I reply.
"Can't do it," the purchasing geek says. "We have to pay a restocking fee and the system's not set up for that."
Right. It's war.
I write a script to order 20 floppy disks, one at a time. I also set my e-mail return address to the in-mail address of the Purchasing System.
Five minutes later, when the system runs out of memory, the PFY and I have an impromptu meeting with the boss and systems geeks.
"He ran our server out of memory and crashed it!" the combined geeks whine.
"Ran it out of memory?" Clickety-click. "There, I've ordered you some more... uh-oh, looks like it's crashed again. You must be really low. Tell you what, as soon as it comes up I'll re-order some more, just to be safe..."
"Don't!" the boss snaps.
"But we have to put it through the purchasing system," I say.
"OK," the boss sighs. "Put it through in writing to the systems people and they'll enter it into the system themselves."
The PFY chirps up: "But they'll just miss out or abbreviate bits they think are irrelevant and we'll end up with another non-brand piece of crap!"
"No. They will enter it word for word as you request," the boss decrees. "Is that understood?"
The systems geeks nod, and the PFY and I grudgingly concur.
As soon as they're gone I get the PFY to write out a new switch order.
"What should I put, 240 Volt AC 20 port UTP Switch...?"
"Put whatever you like, just make sure it goes past 256 characters because that's the limit of their description field."
"That's a little childish."
"Not as childish as writing, 'A dickhead is typing this in', in the description field of an order."
"Did. Will do again, and planning on documenting it for the rest of the department. Any questions?"
"Right, then get scribbling. And make it as illegible as possible."
Worse still, the head is himself brown-nosing for a Christmas party bonus from one of the mail room women by offering her a technical position in the department. Far more technical that the one he'll be offering her if he manages to drag her to the photocopier room mid-party.
As I'm stalking past the helpdesk to avoid the throng outside the head's office, a phone rings. So, full of Xmas cheer, I answer it.
"Hi, it's Bryce from marketing. Someone's worked out the administrator password for the company Web site and has been modifying our Web pages. I'd like to secure it so that it's safe from hackers during the break."
"Really?" I ask, remembering how easy it was to replace the inline product graphics with ones guaranteed to excite the customers' enthusiasm. "Well you should change the password then."
"What to? Should I make it just a string of characters and punctuation marks?"
"No, don't be silly, make it something no-one will need to write down. The company name for example. I'm sure that'll be secure."
"Really? Because one of the systems bods is saying that we should make it as complex as possible."
"They would do," I remark, remembering all too well the system purchasing nightmare of recent weeks. "They love it when you have to ring up because you've forgotten it."
"Yes, they do don't they," he blurts, remembering the shame all too well.
I swing by and check how the PFY is coming along with the 'customer satisfaction survey' results. A bit of data massage never hurt anyone.
All that remains is for me to cover up a particularly nasty bit of fiddling that the Boss might catch wind of. I arm myself with the IT operational balance spreadsheet, corner him, then regale him with bizarre terms like accounts payable, inwards and outwards goods, trial balances and the like until his eyes glaze over, then point him to the creative bookeeping in question.
"And that's where I converted our holdings into standard European monetary units, as we'll be required to do in 1999. I thought it best to trial the software as soon as possible to see if there were any bugs - so that we could get them fixed well in advance of the changeover."
"Yes of course," the boss responds. "Good idea, and what's this?"
"That's where I converted it back from EMUs to pounds as it all went well and we're not actually trading in EMUs yet."
"But the start and end figures are different by about ten thousand quid."
"Yes, well, with the exchange rate, commission, stamp duty, poll tax and Inland Revenue all taking their cut."
"Oh dear," the boss cries. "Hopefully you won't be running too many of these tests in the future then."
"Well I can't be too sure. I know that there's one more due just before I take my Easter break next year, but apart from that it's anybody's guess - who knows how many tests the auditors might require us to do."
"Hmmm, well, in the interests of the company perhaps we should put a hold on auditing our accounts until the changeover - you can't see any problem with that can you?"
"None springs to mind immediately." I respond.
"Good. But what's this?" he asks, looking at the only figure on the spreadhseet in red.
"That?" I ask, "Oh, that's the money in the systems budget that no-one seems to have accounted for. It seems to have been allocated out in two lump sums which just happen to coincide with the holidays of the two systems guys."
"Oh," says the boss, having cached my excuse for monetary discrepancies and brought it back into memory.
"Funny how it seems to have disappeared just prior to their holidays," I say, clearing his mental cache.
"You mean they've been stealing?" the boss asks as the sun of knowledge comes up over his mental horizon.
"I afraid that's what the facts lead me to believe," I sigh, sadly.
"Shall I call the police?"
"With what evidence?" I ask. "This is just a precis of the accounts. To prosecute someone you'd need a complete audit, with auditors' fees, possible EMU translations, poll tax, compound exhange rates and commission, concession allowance."
"Auditing overtime concession," I ad-lib "For working over the Christmas break. You're probably looking at about 15K, and there's no guarantee they'll be prosecuted."
"So I'll fire them," he cries.
"And without prosecution, be liable for an unfair dismissal action."
"Well something's got to be done."
"True," I comment, "and before the next birthday, which is second week in January if I'm not mistaken."
"What can I do?"
"Well, you could just pay them an end-of-contract bonus and not renew as of 1st January," I suggest.
"Excellent. But ..."
"But?" I ask.
"Who'll look after the systems?"
"Well, there's not that much to it. I mean hell, we could probably handle it if we took on another trainee. We'd probably be up to speed by mid-January."
"Of course you'd be looking at a new contracting rate."
"Which would be much less than you stand to lose on the 10th of January given the current situation."
"All right then," The boss cries, and waddles off to make it so.
I let the PFY in on the latest developments at the booze-up while the systems guys help themselves to a punch - the new security blokes are like that when you refuse to leave the building. Ex-army chaps apparently.
"More bloody work?" he blurts.
"With pay rise attached."
"And you get a new trainee."
"So bloody what."
"Of your choice."
"And isn't it time you started 'interviewing' applicants from the DP pool? Once the head of department finishes his 'photocopying' of course."
"Eh?" The PFY cries, getting a little dose of enlightenment UV himself.
"Ah well, just call me a sentimental old Santa type..."