Mounting discontent leads IT workers to strike back at firms that exploit them

Tempers flared inside a San Francisco datacenter on Friday, June 20, igniting the greatest public spectacle pitting a lone tech worker against management, media, and the law. Tension between network admin Terry Childs and his managers had been simmering for years and reached a boiling point on one of the hottest days of the summer.

Childs allegedly harassed a new manager on that day and, later, held captive San Francisco’s omnipresent data network. This landed him in jail on charges of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act; the judge gave him a punishing $5 million bail.

Like a match falling on dry leaves, the Childs case spurred techies to the blogosphere bearing angry messages and not-so-veiled threats: “Many an IT worker has been cursed with incompetent superiors,” “I’ve seen no-win situations in the past where management set me up to take the fall … and I protected myself, too,” and “This could very well have been written about myself if I decide to go rogue in my city.”

The manager-techie relationship has always been a rocky one. At the heart of the discontent, the two struggle to understand and respect what each other does. Every few years the relationship is further strained by collisions at the intersection of business and technology, from the Y2K debacle to pricey enterprise software to cost-cutting measures like offshoring and outsourcing.

Over the last couple of years, the temperature inside the IT department has risen steadily to an all-time high. With so much uncertainty and angst brought on by a sputtering economy, the tech worker now stews in his cubicle on the verge of a mental meltdown.

Even worse, the complex technology that companies today depend on to run their businesses lies in the firestorm’s path.

The pressures on IT continue to mount-and put the enterprise at risk

Many tech workers toil in lean staffs, face unrealistic expectations, and worry daily about job security. News reports show that more IT cuts are on the horizon, adding to those [fears]. In fact, every tech worker I interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of management reprisal.

Consider the observations of a tech staffer inside the University of California system: “We are continually understaffed and typically not allocated the budget to handle the demands,” the staffer says.

And it’s getting worse as the campus, in a desperate attempt to save money, tries to centralize as much technical work as possible, the staffer says. “This causes more problems than it solves” because the centralized services group is also woefully lacking in resources. “They’re usually in the same state as we are in and unable to handle projects or even services in a constant manner,” the staffer says.

The UC system is hardly alone. “The pressure has increased,” says Nanette Orman, a Silicon Valley psychiatrist who helps tech workers manage their lives. “Workers have been laid off, and those left are being asked to pick up the slack. They are having to work longer, faster.”

Case in point: David Walsh, a former network engineer at Apple, sued the company this month for requiring him to work more than 40 hours a week without proper compensation.

In times like these, many employees hoard critical knowledge to protect their jobs. But IT workers can do more damage than withhold critical information or let it become lost when they leave. Tech workers have a unique advantage: They have access to all sorts of sensitive information and systems they could use as a trump card.

For example, they might run across executive e-mails with sensitive information that gives them a leg up when managers choose who they’re going to lay off. Or they can design systems in a way that can cause damage or that only they can manage and upgrade, giving them an ace in the hole when they feel threatened.

Even technologists agree that San Francisco’s Childs at times operated outside the scope of his work. For example, he allegedly configured certain networking gear so that it wouldn’t reboot after a power outage without his help. “I’m guessing that this was his mechanism for dealing with discomfort,” says psychologist Orman.

The unspoken Achilles heel of cutbacks: More knowledge and power is put in the hands of fewer people-or a single person, as in the Childs case. When this person goes AWOL or worse, there isn’t an understudy with enough knowledge of the system to take over right away. Taxed employees also don’t have time to document in detail everything they do or every change they make, so there’s often no record to fall back on to get things done.

Three strikes, and you’re on the way out: “it’s management by fear”

Like the anonymous UC tech staffer, Yau-Man Chan has seen the temperature level rise among IT staffers at his campus. So the CTO of the College of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley does what he can to reduce the stress.

“If you read them the riot act or burden them with office procedures and paperwork, I don’t think they’ll follow you,” he says. (Chan gained some fame for his ability to lead under pressure last year as a contestant on the reality television game show “Survivor: Fiji.”)

But many companies just turn the screws tighter on an already-suffering IT staff. That’s exactly what IBM’s Applications on Demand (AOD) unit, which offers software from SAP, Oracle, and others over the Internet, did to its tech workers earlier this year, says a staffer. (IBM declined to comment for this story.)

AOD managers felt tech workers were botching too many modifications and updates to core systems, says the employee. And so managers mandated a three-strikes policy, ominously echoing California’s tough “three strikes” law aimed at repeat felons: The first strike for a failed change is a written warning. The second strike is a performance plan-that is, a type of probation. The third strike is the lowest rating on an annual review, which can prevent raises and put the employee more at risk if further layoffs occur. (The July internal e-mail forwarded by the source lists the consequences on employee evaluations for each “offense.”)

“It’s kind of earth-shattering,” says the employee, adding that co-workers labor under a cloud of dread that they’ll be laid off soon. “You’ve got all this pressure building up to do the right thing. Yet when you try to do the right thing, it becomes very difficult-it’s management by fear.”

(IBM did not comment for this story before deadline. After the story first appeared, IBM vehemently denied that any unit, including AOD, has or has ever had anything like a “three strikes” policy.)

Managers also threw up roadblocks to discourage tech workers from making even routine tweaks, such as software patches and updates, the employee says. Sometimes they denied change proposals simply because they couldn’t understand the technical verbiage. All of this has led to a volatile workplace.

At IBM’s AOD unit, tech workers reacted by making unauthorized changes; since managers were unaware of the changes, no strike could be made against the employees’ records. When authorized changes do fail, the tech workers now cover their tracks. For example, if a tech worker unsuccessfully tried to patch a computer bug, he’d blame the failure on the bug-not the patch effort-to avoid a demerit.

The result of this fear-driven workaround to management’s diktats: Many changes are undocumented or incorrectly documented, while other changes simply fall by the wayside.

What particularly galls the AOD tech worker is that a few years ago, IBM managers had instituted a similar three-strikes policy, with troubling results. “People threw up their hands on the small stuff,” the employee recalls. “Systems weren’t patched, which led to vulnerabilities. We had microcode that hadn’t been updated on SAN switches for two years. This resulted in a bug, the system crashed, and we lost customer data.”

Cost-cutting gone awry: “my pager goes off all day long”

A veteran engineer at a large Silicon Valley company says the atmosphere in the IT department has become one of distrust. Senior tech workers have been forced out or fired for alleged noncompliance, only to be replaced by less-capable and cheaper foreign workers. As a result, workloads have doubled. The engineer is now required to work weekends without extra pay to troubleshoot old equipment. “My pager goes off every couple of hours, all day long.”

Even worse, a tech worker who makes the latest mistake is “on the hot seat to be shown the door,” says the engineer, adding that management has moles inside the technical staff to rat out disloyal behavior. Perhaps most telling, the engineer now dreams of working as a cashier in retail. “I’m not motivated by money anymore, just a few thank-yous,” the engineer says.

Despite this volatile situation, the engineer is critical of IT retaliating. “I’m way too ethical to do any damage … but yes, there’re opportunities,” the engineer says. “The greatest sin I’ve seen from my peers is to neglect things, let something sit on the front burner until it goes up in flames. At some point, systems will crash and nobody will be around to fix them.”

Ignorant management makes it worse: “my jaw just dropped”

“When the tech worker is being exploited for his knowledge and skills without being valued or understood, this can lead to anger,” says psychiatrist Orman.

Case in point: a network engineer who’s struggled under a succession of cost-cutting efforts led by brazen managers hell-bent on reducing expenses without having a clue about technology and its role in the business. The last two managers didn’t understand technology. And the current one likes to read trade magazines to stay abreast of trends, the engineer says, which has made him arrogant.

“My new manager literally lectured me-I kid you not-that I should only study optical designs because ‘routing and switching are going away,'” the engineer recalls. “My jaw just dropped, and I haven’t been able to talk seriously with him since.”

The engineer is part of a seven-person team that’s constantly on the go, “putting out fires, solving complex transport issues” and even working on a few cool projects. Given all the effort, the engineer is baffled at management’s lack of appreciation.

“We work for a huge corporation whose entire business is contingent upon its network, and yet we fight tooth and nail to keep our Cisco gear from becoming obsolete,” the engineer says. “We have a huge amount of work ahead of us, especially in terms of upgrading and stabilizing this network.”

A strategy for surviving the fire that could ignite any time

As the Terry Childs case unfolded across the San Francisco Bay, UC Berkeley’s Chan at first dismissed Childs as a bizarre, rogue tech worker. But he soon saw eerie similarities inside his own IT department, including the possible risks that come after being forced to reduce his staff from four to two last year. Now a single network engineer wields a lot of power yet lacks a team to back him up, making him a “single point of failure,” in the parlance of the tech set.

“My own operation is vulnerable to someone who’s so possessive, because he built up the network, that every change you want to make he has to be convinced [to do],” Chan says. “There’s definitely a power shift.” Chan isn’t worried that the highly skilled engineer will lock him out of the network. Rather, the engineer may get fed up one day, quit in the morning, “and have another job in the afternoon,” Chan says-leaving the complexities of the network lost in the smoke.

Chan has responded by educating himself about the intricacies of today’s networks, essentially becoming the backup guy. In the past, as long as the network was humming along nicely, Chan didn’t get involved. Now he meets with his engineer regularly to go over networking issues and changes. When Chan doesn’t understand a technical detail or method, he’ll seek advice from outside networking experts.

While Chan asks his engineer to document activities, Chan understands that it would take months to get it all down on paper. That’s why much of the interchange happens during daily chatter. For the engineer’s part, says Chan, he’s more than willing to share his wisdom about the network.

That’s an instinct that IT managers, and their business bosses, need to tap to protect the enterprise, says psychiatrist Orman. “If you really care about your work,” she says, “I would think it would be troubling to you that it’ll all vanish if something happened to you.”

Chan also says his technical background underscores an understanding and respect for technical work. “I’m sure the [engineer] would be less cooperative if I came from a business background,” says Chan, who designed the first campus network in 1984. “He knows that I’m perfectly capable of configuring a router and setting things up.”

The fire yet to come: IT’s smoldering discontent

The day after Terry Childs’ blowup in San Francisco’s IT department on downtown Market Street, a freak lightning storm lit a thousand wildfires whose smoke turned the California sun a blood red-coincidence, to be sure, and perhaps apocryphal.

Today, a cool ocean breeze drifts down Market, and the dense smoke from the wildfires has dissipated, leaving clear blue skies. News about Childs no longer receives top billing, if it’s covered at all, by the local press.

Everything seems back to normal.

But inside cubicles across Silicon Valley and elsewhere, tech-worker discontent continues to smolder, and temperatures continue to rise. There’s no question that another flare-up à la Childs is in the making, as companies turn a deaf ear to the pleas of burnt-out tech workers. They’d rather believe, as UC Berkeley’s Chan initially did, that Childs was simply a socially inept narcissist who blew a fuse, an odd case that bears little resemblance to the workplace at large.

Those in the tech trenches, though, know better. “Terry Childs is a wake-up call,” Chan says.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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