Tales from before my years as a BOFH (Bastard Operator From Hell, see here, here, and here)…
I remember well the day that the money boat came to Harmon & Dalman Financial Services. Those of us in Digital Services (the precursor to “Information Technology,” back when “Computer Science” meant a college degree and “Information Technology” meant a lack of one) were anticipating an easy Friday, dicking around with some new piece of software that could be fun to support.
Suddenly — as it always is — the doors burst inward. “We have a problem, everyone come quick,” shouted one of the advisors who ran the firm on the basis of their MBA skills. We trooped up to the fifth floor conference room. The Big Boss, who got out of Harvard decades ago and founded the firm with his wife’s best friend’s brother, glared at us, so everyone else turned on the glare too.
“What seems to be the problem?” said the boss of Digital Services, Gary Nolte, a savvy fellow who may have liked cocaine too much but otherwise was good at separating actual needs from the rants of salesmen, conjectures by management, and complaints of the rank and file. He immediately switched to the formal from his usual informality upon seeing the radiant hatred focused on us around the room.
Debra Malinsforth, the assistant to one of the Vice Presidents, stepped forward. “Mr Harmon was closing the deal with Washington, but then your technology failed him.” She pointed at a glowing screen displaying an error message.
Mr Harmon as it turns out was trying to send a file to his new business contacts and for some reason, the system had rejected it with an exception that (we looked it up) normally related to corrupted memory. “Can we try this on another machine?” said Nolte.
“Quit blaming the equipment, it’s obviously misconfigured,” said Dale Ravenwood, one of the Vice Presidents who had obviously and promiscuously had his eye on running the show some day. “Change the configuration so he can send the email.” Everyone else nodded.
This meant that the most sensible Step Number One of any debugging job, namely first figuring out if the computer itself was in working order, was toast and we had nowhere to start except doing what the incompetents did, which is to randomly replace and change things until something worked.
Normies view computers as witchcraft. To them, there is a box with mystery in it, and it does certain things sometimes, so you must placate it with offerings of chaos. To BOFH-aspirants like myself, computers are calculators that do exactly and autistically what you tell them to do, which usually leads to chaos because humans are chaotic.
(By chaotic I mean simply un-organized. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic view, the world is separated into good and evil; us post-Nietzschean prioritarians see the world as separated between the organized functional and everything else, which means chaos or lack of discernible order, whether from either pole of repetition or randomness.)
Now we had angry normies demanding we do something without doing it the right way. I have learned that this is typical of middle managers, who micromanage, in IT. The Big Boss was looking at us with a reddened glare of predatory savagery and all the other managers had “oh, really?” radar-locked stares at us.
Debra looked at Gary. “The deal is in progress and we need this fixed immediately. Any ideas?”
Gary said calmly, “I think we should replace and rebuild the entire computer.”
“That is not acceptable,” said Debra, “on account of it taking several hours. We do not have several hours. Who can solve this problem, right now? Will anyone take ownership of this problem?”
The bosses stared at each one of us. Unconsciously we had lined up in our tribe hierarchy, with Gary at top and his second Richard next to him, then Michael who handled all the detailed problems, and below that us “techs” from the most senior to the new guy who did nothing but screw up. That was Ben who we called Bem because of his paresis; whether syphilus or mental retardation caused it was never known.
He was in the usual fog of his mind, a chaos of daydreams and hungers, when he noticed everyone looking at him. “Uh…” he said and winced as heads swiveled even more in his direction. “It’s the network card. They screw up when you have those laser printers installed.”
Debra looked at him with her best pointy-eyed witch doctor from Auschwitz gaze: “So you can get this machine working by replacing the network card?”
“Uh… yeah,” said Bem. “And need a different printer. Takes about an hour. We gotta turn it off though.”
In one of those moments of transcendence that touches me sometimes as I bumble through life, I realized the genius of the universe. It could hide profundity among idiocy. Bem was a true-blue idiot who had never done anything right in his life, but unlike us big brains, he saw the situation as a simple problem. People would be mad at him until he told them something that would fix the problem, and rebooting the computer fixed the problem, so telling them to replace a couple thousand dollars of gear solved his problem of having people being mad at him.
“We’ll do it right away,” said Gary, who did not get where he was without taking advantage of exigent circumstances.
Three of us brought up one of those little plastic carts we use because they do not cause static discharge — we called them “trucks” — with a new printer and new network card. I held the holy floppy which contained the drivers for each. Like priests of the undead we marched on the computer, turned it off, and began surgery.
I carefully unscrewed the card and handed it over to Ryan who then handed it to Bem. They were each wearing clear surgical gloves and would have put on a yarmulke, keffiyeh, or stole if they could have, but ours was an inclusive office so any overt mention of religion, culture, race, ethnicity, or social class was verboten.
Then, lifting my gloved hands as if I were saluting the ancient gods, I disconnected (from the computer) and unplugged (from the power bar) the old printer, then bowed slightly to Ryan, who picked it up and deposited it roughly on the cart. This was the scapegoat and sacrifice, so no one cared if it got dinged.
Setting aside the screw I had removed with the card, I lifted the new card from its static-resistant packaging, touched the power supply three times for fortune from the gods of electronics, and pushed the card into its slot like a nail going into wood. I held out a hand and was given the holy screwdriver which I then used to fasten it.
Ryan and Bem lifted in a new printer of a different brand, therefore not marked with the number of the beast like Cain, and together we attached the cables and then rebooted. Amazingly, the process worked; it probably would have worked if we had simply turned the computer off and on again, but it also worked after a few thousand in equipment swaps.
Mr Ravenwood turned to us with opportunity gleaming in his eyes. He knew how he could get ahead to the top spot. “We have to set up a continuity plan which lets us upgrade all existing systems to avoid this fatal problem in the future,” he said.
We turned to the group of executives. They all nodded in unison. And so it was done: we set about replacing hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment because this was the new official solution to all of our problems. At each desk, we took out a perfectly functioning card and a perfectly working printer and replaced them with new versions.
Gary sat down at the lunch table, covered in dirt and grease from the old parts, and he told me the secret of the universe.
“The thing is,” he said, “once the official word goes out, it becomes a big excuse. Following this precedent, everyone can rationalize that what they want is the only way to do it, and then justify expanding what must be done to include their own goals.”
“Uh oh,” I said. “What do you mean?”
It turns out that each department took this and ran with it. Accounting claimed that their PCs were slightly older and, according to one line in one manual from the manufacturer which recommended newer machines, therefore needed to be upgraded. They wanted this for the whole department. Another hundred thousand hit the table.
Our Digital Services group had higher-end machines which used better network cards. However, according to the official memo from Ravenwood, Harmon, and Malinsforth, signed by the Board and initialed by all the top execs, we had to install this exact specification. Our workstations got replaced by the older model.
From every other department came in demands as well. They needed new monitors, better keyboards, and bigger hard disks to handle the new changes, even though in most cases we were downgrading their equipment too. The money boat had arrived, and everyone was there to meet it with new justifications and rationalizations.
Gary disappeared into his office with Richard early in the afternoon. They were cranking away on something, installing software and moving around parts. We left them alone and got busy replacing just about every machine and at least every network card, printer, and monitor in the facility.
As the day turned long, Ryan looked at his watch and said, “Looks like we are going to overtime. I will order up some catering.” He got those nice big foot-long subs, sodas, and we had a mandated one-hour second lunch to eat them. The other departments saw this and did the same thing. Everyone made bank that day.
We were there until four in the morning, and got paid for the next day when we all slept in until noon or later. When we came into the office, Gary pulled us aside. “Watch this,” he said. He booted up the machine in his office, went through the same steps the Big Boss had, and then opened a second email and clicked “add attachment” but kept the window open.
The same error popped up. A programmer had written a series of error catchers, and then put a catch-all at the end which assumed a memory error. The real problem was that the second window which was open stopped the program from fully executing, so it stalled out with a generic error.
“I replicated his exact steps,” said Gary. “The solution was to reboot.” But then his own machine beeped since another memo had come in, this time from the people in marketing. They all wanted new computers too. The money boat had arrived, after all.
Tags: bofh, crowdism, justification, money boat, rationalization