Can You Be Too Good For Your Job?

Is it possible to be too good for your job? I have read stories where a person worked at a job, gotten fired and then the company realized their mistake. The company was in dire trouble and the ex-employee had the upper hand. That kinda happened to me, but in a difference sense.

I had been a use of the computer companys systems for decades, starting as a timeshared user then as a friend of someone working in the center where I could get free computer access. I then was a volunteer for a Public TV station and was able to borrow computer time and finally a small mainframe which I programmed. I had been writting fun programs and simple utilities but graduated to writing a complete inventory system. The station received donated new items, showed them in an auction setting and viewers would bid on the items from home. The winner would come to the location and pickup and pay for the item. My system involved accepting the item, tracking the retail price the donar gave us, the winning bid price, their information and that it was picked up and paid for. Time of each interaction was kept. The computer was used for a short while before and after the televised portion. I also generated daily ‘sales’ reports and ‘percenatge of retail’ reports. We were able to use that data to determine how much time to spend talking about an item verses what percentage of retail we would get. The longer we advertised the product, the more the price might go up, but we could also determine if interest in that type of item would only bring say 65% of retail and no higher based upon item items in tha category.

So I was quite well-known to the company by then, both to employees and the I.T.Staff. I was also working for a guy with one of their mainframes in his basement (doing high security work on a project). Later I was employeed by the computer comapny and stayed there for 17 years.

As I worked for the company I read all the manuals and even the source code of the operating system. I wrote a few utility programs which were added to the Users Group Contributed Library which was available to users Internationally. I also edited and published a regional newsletter. Freinds and I actually created our own multi tasking, multi user, realtime operating system to control some radio equipment. SO I guess you could say I had some computer background by then!

During my tenure the critical computer used to dispatch hardware and software support failed. It would be down for hours and that was a big problem. I called my boss and told him I was going to fix it. He was very leary and asked twice if I really was sure. I said yes and felt empowered. I shut down a lesser used computer and swapped out the power supply. Although I had never done this before, the specs and model number of the supplies was the same and all switches were set the same so what could go wrong? Seems nothing did. The system booted and was back online much to the relief of the customer support team. My background in electronics and Ham Radio sure helped.

So in the last few years, the company had all of our regional mainframes consolidated into one building, the size of the computer room was giantic and it contained 2 separate telephone PBX’s the equivalent of having two total telephone prefixes in a city. We also had many hundred computers including unix and our propriatary opertating system. Each System Manger like me was assigned at least 10 system to manage security on. Two of us System Managers had tested and speced security software to oversee the systems, so I was using software I was familar with.

The way the software worked, it would scan a system and based upon an inconsistancy, report the error. The way the systems were configured, there was a user space, a group space and the system space. This was not unlike the structure in a company where you have users, next level managers and managers. Users could adjust priviledges of their items, the group would control whether other groups could access certain items in their group, etc. So the System Managers would see a report about system security issues down to the file issues. A user could release security on a file so they could copy it to another location they had access to, but the file had to be secured again. Oftentimes it was not re-secured. If the group security was changed to allow other groups to access the files, that was a security issue unless the Accounrt Manager had approved it.

The security reports could get very long because the security software might see that a group had the wrong access but then would list every file in that group because they could be accessed. Think of it as a Security Guard in a mall noticing an exterior door was left open after the mall was closed. Instead of that one entry about the door, the guard writes up that 1) The door was left unlocked and 2) The shoe store was vernable, 3) the department store was vernable, 4) the cellphone store… well you get the idea.

My fellow system managers would see the list of thousands of errors and get overwhelmed and seemed to just sort of ignore the report feeling that it was too much to handle. They fixated on the lowest errors where each file was listed. I tried unsucessfully to get them to understand that if they went higher up in the list, they would see that all these errors below were listed because the ‘door’ was left unlocked. Oftentimes looking at a problem from the opposite end shows a simple solution. Here if they secured he group then all the filed below were secure from exterior access.

My Boss finally asked me to do something. I created a system there was a configuration file on each system that listed the type of system (because producton systems had different security needs than development systems) and I noted each of the exclusions the managers had allowed. This then turned off certain errors being reported and made the reports a lot smaller. I ended up running this system for the rest of my time there. In the end I managed the security on a good 60 to 90 mainframes. When I say ‘managing’, I was letting the software run while I did other things. It WAS a computer company and so why not let the computer do your work for you!

In the end, our CEO decidd to perform a ‘workforce reduction’ as she was poised to buy a rival. We lost perhaps 30,000 employees to this reduction and I was part of the group that left. I heard that they had three people doing my job after I left.

So I go on unemployment for a while but am then hired by a third-party company to work for the computer company again as a contractor. I made a lot less money but was back in the same building with the same phone number, working with external customers instead of internal ones. The first week on the job I was given a problem the contractors had been fighting for a year. They had given up on finding a solution and the computer company was being told a lawsuit of large proportions was looming. I found the solution in a day and a half. The contractors were looking for the error message in internal documentation. I used Google and found someone who had the same problem and offered the solution. It is like the guy who calls the refrigerator repairman. The guy looks at the fridge for a minute, raps the side and the thing starts up. He presents a big bill. The customer complains that the bill is too high for the repair and the repair guy says “I didn’t charge you for the actual repair of hitting it, I chaged you for my knowing WHERE to hit it!”.

I don’t purport to be an expert and to have all the answers. However, finding a solution even if it comes out of left field is what it is all about.