The Things People Do

I ran across a situation a few weeks ago that made me crazy because it was typical of the mindset out here in the wild, wacky world.

The call came in during lunch. A small company's access to e-mail and the Internet had been down for more than a week. They thought the internal modem in their NT Server went bad and they were trying to replace it with another internal modem. At one point, they became so frustrated, they pulled out the old modem and stepped on it.

After I explained the hassles of Windows NT, new internal modems, and lack of plug-and-play support, they agreed it made the most sense to get an external modem. As I connected the newly purchased external modem, the video went dead. They told me this wasn’t a big deal and that it had been happening more often lately, especially after the server overheated. Evidently, this server had been in a different cabinet when one of the fans failed and everything got hot. Somewhere around that time, they added that something also happened to their power. They described a whistling noise similar to the sound of a bomb dropping from an airplane in a World War II movie, with a loud pop at the end. One person described a bright flash of light that came through the door of the room where the server was sitting.

Their solution was to pull out the server motherboard and peripherals and hook them up in a new cabinet with a working fan.

The story gets better. A brother-in-law purchased and maintained this system with evaluation copies of software from an unknown source. The SCSI disk was going bad, so they got another disk and mirrored the bad disk with the new disk. The desktops were upgraded 386/486 machines, all with cabinets in various states of disrepair. The patch cables that connected the server and desktops to the network looked like old four-wire phone cable with RJ45 ends crimped on.

The server went dead while I was there and that’s when they told me their business lives and dies based on access to e-mail. By the time the new hardware arrived and we got them up and running, they had been crippled for more than two weeks.

It never ceases to amaze me how cavalierly many people treat their networks, desktops, and data. This negligence isn’t limited to small businesses. About 10 years ago, I was on a sales call at a large electric utility company in Minneapolis, trying to help the sales rep pitch DEC Pathworks, a product that served data to PCs. I was explaining what servers do, and as soon as I said the word, "server," the lady we were calling on stopped me, turned to the sales rep, and said, "I can’t understand anything this guy says -- he must be some kind of professor or sumthin’!" Needless to say, they didn’t buy DEC Pathworks from us that day. Today, at another company with a significant Windows NT network, they never log the application servers out because they use PCAnywhere to provide application services to their desktops and, until recently, nobody could remember the last time anyone did a full backup.

The problem is, despite daily articles about the Internet and the communication and technology revolution, most people don’t take their infrastructure seriously. I challenge readers of this column to ask any friend or neighbor who runs a small business what would happen if their computer system were destroyed and they lost all the data inside. I’ll bet a doughnut that most people will give back a blank stare and not have a clue.

What’s worse is that it’s our fault that people are so complacent. We’ve been telling people for the past 40 years that IT is easy to do, easy to learn, and will automatically make their lives better. Then, when systems broke down, we worked like mad all night when nobody was watching to try and patch it together with electronic bailing wire and chewing gum. That’s why people call us geeks and use their brothers-in-law and nephews who are experts at computer games to run their networks.

How do we fix this? You’ve heard this before, and it may sound like a broken record, but we must improve our communications skills. In addition to our dazzling technical talent, we need to become teachers. We need to teach our customers that their computer networks are important and that they have much of their organization’s knowledge flying around inside those wires. We need to explain the consequences of system failures and the benefits of smooth operations. Let me put it another way: If we can’t explain IT’s value to the end users, how could we expect anyone to figure it out on their own? --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is Chief Technology Officer of Infrasupport Etc. Inc.(Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at