Friday, November 7, 2014

Cricket and flamethrowers - a perfect match

Following an incident involving captain Aaron Finch at a Twenty20 game, Cricket Australia has decided to remove flamethrowers from the boundary.

Flamethrowers: natural enemy of the boundary fielder

“It’s a safety issue,” said Mike McKenna, Cricket Australia’s general manager and weaponsmith. “We want to give the fans the most exciting experience possible, but we also want to manage the risk of the players vanishing in a napalm inferno. It’s a judgement call in this case; Aaron Finch was at least a metre away from the flamethrower when it was triggered, so he was perfectly safe. Fairly safe. Well, we have his dental records, so it’s not like we wouldn’t have known it was him.”

Asked about the wisdom of placing military-grade ordnance in a space frequented by humans, mister McKenna was dismissive. “Look, the odds of players actually being reduced to smoking pyjama-wearing corpses is minimal. We want to give the fans the most exciting experience possible. And war is super exciting! Seriously, did you see ‘Saving Private Ryan?’ We want to bring something of the excitement of 1944 to the cricket-watching public.”

"The  visiting team's captain has won the toss and elected to field."

Mister McKenna did however concede that the a review of such features was warranted. “We’ll be looking closely all of our match-enhancing devices as a result of this incident. At this stage we’ll definitely be keeping the square leg minefields; they’re a real crowd-pleaser. Will he catch it? Will he drop it? Will he set off a bouncing betty that’ll take out half the slip cordon? Mortar fire during slow overs is staying too; we want to give bowlers every reason to keep up the pace, and hey, what better incentive than red-hot shrapnel from above, right!? The match committee is split fifty-fifty on some of the minor enhancers; we’ll have to wait until the next meeting to learn the fate of the spiked ball and laser bat. I'm confident though; we want to give the fans the most exciting experience possible.”

When asked if any features were definitely being removed, mister McKenna conceded they were. “We’re definitely getting rid of the pre-match cluster bombing runs on the outfield. Numbers through the turnstiles were a bit off after those two solid hits on the members’ stand last Sunday, so we’re listening to our customers and making the change. The timing wasn't great anyway; with a fair chunk of the air force off livening up local sporting events in Syria it was a bit tricky getting the planes. They navy offered to step in and provide long-range gunfire from the Harbour, but there are safety issues around that. Night matches would mean sailors working longer shifts, and the last thing we want is a fatigue-related manual handling incident.”

"Danger tape that missing barrier, able seaman Smith! Do you want to hurt someone?"

Faced with questions over why cricket was the only sport that needed such gimmicks to draw crowds, Mister McKenna attempted to terminate the interview, but launched into an exasperated rant when pressed. “We want to give fans the most exciting experience possible,” he said. “Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter; cricket’s had to go from week-long test matches in the ‘70s to these two-hour circus acts with all the dignity and style of a monster truck rally. It’s tough trying to get people to pay to see a world-class sporting event in between tweeting a picture of their brunch and posting a dozen #YOLO selfies from the night club toilets. We've already got people leaving well before security starts popping beach balls and capsicum-spraying the Mexican wavers! Getting punters through the gate meant either cutting the game to two overs each and an all-in cage fight, or…yeah, flamethrowers. I think we made the right call; sure, there might be a death or two, but that’s what the twelfth man is for.”

Mister McKenna emphatically denied rumours that wild animals would play a part in the upcoming One Day Internationals, adding that ‘some of the leopards were quite tame.’

I have no idea what this is. I got it when I Googled "Leopard cricket." The Internet's a weird place

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Is this the HR department?

"Is this the HR department?"
Four perfect hairstyles pivot like turrets and lock on. I have a brief Fembot moment, shake it off with a shudder, then my eyebrows stand on end as the power of their assessment radar sweeps over me. It takes them less than three seconds to determine that I am a) not their manager, b) not bearing chocolate, and c) probably going to ask them to do work. Consequently the answer comes as no surprise:


I glance at the "This is the HR department" sign stuck to the door, look back to them. Pretty brunette is already back on her iPhone. Pretty redhead is turning the volume back up on James Blunt. Token unattractive mousey one  looks confused at her colleagues' behaviour; she's new so the last traces of respect for human dignity are yet to be performance-managed out of her by the HR trainers. She's no good to me, so I look to pretty blonde one. Her eyes are glazed; she's already forgotten I'm here, and is letting her social autopilot handle the remains of the interaction.  She is halfway to forming a 'we value your business, please come back later' smile when I strike.

"I need to talk about a recruiting issue.."

The eyes refocus. We've done this dance before. Last time it ended in a bloody stalemate: her email address being forwarded to the "Bikers for Bitches" dating website, and the comments on my last performance review suddenly developing a nasty case of Tourette's just before it hit the CEO's desk. Open warfare has since cooled to 'wary respect'. But every time we talk it's still like juggling mouse traps.
She does the 'go on' gesture, glances at a spare chair. I sit, maintaining eye contact.
"My new sys admin ," I begin. "The ad went in two months ago. I was hoping to have someone by now.
Rolled eyes. "Yes, there were some problems with the ad."
"Mmm, I remember. My draft said 'This role reports to the IT supervisor.' When it went online, it said 'This role reports to a conceited buffoon.'"
Mock surprise. "Really? I wonder how that happened."
"Probably the same way the bit that said 'Server experience will be well-regarded' was changed to 'Lizard training skills will be well-regarded.'"
"That was autocorrect."
"Uh huh..."
She briefly loses interest, looks back to her computer. One screen shows an online store selling shoes so tall they'd require planning permission. The other is Facebook, where a succession of high-angle selfies are uploading to a new album entitled '#YOLO'." The conversation resumes as a picture appears of a pretty brunette vomiting into a hat.
"You've had ten applicants for the role."
My turn to do surprise. "Ten? It said two hundred when I looked last week!"
"Oh, they were all unsuitable. I've taken the liberty of screening them. And shortlisting them. And choosing the successful candidate. She starts next Monday."
Things were happening a bit quick. "Um...does she, uh..."
"She's perfect. You'll love her. Thanks, now excuse me, I need..."
"Okay, hold it. Who..."
A resume comes at me at speed. There's a photo on the front. She's gorgeous. Made up. Dressed fashionably. None of these words have ever been used about a sys admin.
"She looks..."
I glance up at pretty blonde. "...familiar."
A shrug. "She has a familiar face."
"She looks like you."
"I have a familiar face."
"Is this your sister?"
A snort. "Ridiculous."
I glance at the cover. "She's got the same last name."
"I have a common name."
"Common in Budapest perhaps. I'd need four Scrabble sets to get this many ys and zs."
"Are you being racist?"
"Far from it. Some of my best friends are called..." I glance at her screen as another photo uploads. "Hey, isn't that her?"
A flurry of clicks. "No."
"That was her. What was she doing to that stripper?"
"He was a dancer."
"A dancer? He was in her lap. That makes him a..."
"Look, is any of this relevant?"
"Not to whether she can provide IT support. All she was supporting in that photo was that stripper's..."
"She can do the IT. I checked."
Eyebrow twitch. "Oh yes? How's her SQL?"
"Her SAN and VMWare experience?"
"Her GTA V skills?"
"Even better." Narrowed eyes. "Wait, is that a computer thing?"
"Sort of." I flick open the resume. Comic Sans font. I die a little inside. "It says here she last worked as a PA."
Indignant voice. "In a computer company."
"And that means she can manage six hundred desktops and eighty servers?"
She gives me a weird sideways glance. "About as much as a one-year programming diploma means you can supervise her."

Uh oh.

She's checked my file. Frankly, she's right; I would never hire me. But there's no way I'm telling her that. She thinks Java code is the language they speak in Jakarta. Anyway, getting rid of me would mean way too many skeletons emerging from way too many closets, and a severance package that would halve the company's share price.
Nonetheless, aggression needs to be answered in kind. I glance at her screen. "That's a lot of browser tabs you've got open."
Big eyes. "Browser whats?"
Oops. Slightly simpler aggression perhaps. "Web pages. Lots of web pages. Actually, I've noticed an uptick in your Internet use lately. And there were some...interesting websites in there."
I haven't. And if I had, there probably weren't. But say that to anyone and I guarantee they'll start sweating.
She only blushes slightly. I'm impressed. Pretty, confident and composed; I'd have asked her out long ago, if it weren't for her personality.
"I use a lot of websites," she says primly. "For assessing candidates."
"Assessing candidates?" I look at her screen. "That's Facebook!"
Withering look. "It's an essential pre-screening tool."
My eyebrows raise in retaliation. "You're uploading photos."
"You learn a lot about a candidate from..."
"Of a dance party."
"Candidates' leisure activities are..."
 "That's a picture of you. You seem to be wearing..." I peer closer, "...two rugby players."
Not a flicker. She's good. Maybe I "Isn't it a breach of some...IT policy thing to look at my screen?"
"Nope. Isn't it a breach of some...HR policy to pimp your sister to the company?"
Narrowed eyes. "What are you implying?"
"Mostly that I don't want your sister groping around in my network ."
Faint shrug. "All the other candidates withdrew."
"What? When?"
"When one of the pre-screening questions we asked them was 'Do you mind working for a convicted criminal?'"
She smiles faintly, looks back to Facebook as it rolls over to a picture of her flashing gang signs in front of a bored-looking bouncer. I lean back, cross my arms.
"So it's her or nothing."
"Looks like it." Click, picture of...I look away quickly. Regardless of circumstances, I never, ever want to see the colour of a colleague's underwear. Time to move things along.
"You like your sister?"
A snort. "Of course."
"Pleased to hear it. You trust her?"
Shrug. "Sure."
I nod. "Good, good. She know your Facebook password?"
The smile fades. "Of course not."
"She got access to your email?"
Frowning now. "No...what does that..."
"If your home computer broke, would you trust her to fix it?"
I have her attention. Facebook's gone with a click; she turns toward me, says nothing. I check my phone, let her sweat a moment.
"Can't see it being a problem," I say, scrolling old emails. "If she's as good as you say, she should have no problem fixing your work computer. Right?"
'Well, she..."
"And once I give her admin rights on our network, there's NO chance she'll eavesdrop on your email? Or remote to your computer while you're Facebooking?"
She actually pales. "You can do that?"
"Yup. Not that I would of course; I respect you as a colleague too much. And I can't imagine your..." I glance at the date of birth on the resume "...younger sister holds a grudge for anything you did to her growing up."
Pursed lips. "Look. Maybe..." She reaches for the resume. I lean back, browse the contents. Six months as PA for an 'Adult entertainment company executive'. Nice. Time to seal the deal. "I'm starting to think she'll fit in pretty well."
A grimace. "There...uh..."
A pause. I actually hear her teeth grind. "There might be a few candidates we haven't contacted. Would. You. Like. To see their resumes?" The words come out like bullets, ricocheting off the walls.
I toss Miss Adult Shop back on her desk, stand up. "That'd be great!" On a whim I decide to push my luck. "And hey, I'm pretty busy this week; maybe you could write up my interview notes when I'm done with them?"
Warning glance. "Sorry. Bit busy myself; performance reviews are coming up. And you know how tricky those comments can be."
Our eyes lock. The world ages around us, In the silence I hear unattractive mousey one whimper. We nod imperceptibly, then both speak at once.
"Send me those resumes."
"I'll send you those resumes."
The stormclouds retreat. I smile, feeling more alive that I have for a long time. "Always a pleasure doing business. You busy Saturday?"
"I said 'looking forward to seeing those resumes!'"

Monday, September 1, 2014

The seven(ish) kinds of IT folks

Some IT people are really simple. You can pretty much treat them like vending machines: insert coins, select the flavour of IT support you want and out it comes, hot and fresh. There are armies of these simple, happy IT drones out there, all cheerfully answering your desperate self-righteous calls for 'customer service' by telling you to try a reboot then click on the Start button no ma'am the START button that's right the one with 'Start' written on it well done. They're friendly and easy to deal with, and the only catch is that your idiot questions will end up on their Christmas party blooper reel. A fair percentage of them are also actively working to bring about the robot apocalypse, but there's no need to worry; that's a good three years off yet.

But that's not all of them. What about the rest? Like the ones who keep the wheels turning where you work? The ones who bleat on about 'policy' and 'security' and 'not writing your password on the lunchroom whiteboard'? Those guys are a LOT trickier to deal with. Telling them apart can be the difference between safe, secure, Internetty happiness, and your desktop wallpaper being replaced with a montage of Twilight characters for a year. So it pays to know your dev from your sysop from your dba. Ready? Let's begin...

(And a pre-emptive caveat: the gender bias is pretty much how things are. Seriously, the last Microsoft conference had a delegate-to-goatee ratio very close to 1)

This is the bloke who turns up when you call up to ask why your password's stopped working since you changed it ("Of COURSE I haven't forgotten the new one! It...oh wait."), to demand extra RAM to make your Excels work faster, or to lie to about dropping your phone in the toilet. He's the backbone of every IT department, the butt of every tedious 'nerd' joke, and the one who'll save your career when you accidentally email your, ah, candid Bali holiday snaps to the CEO instead of your spouse.  He comes in a variety of flavours:

-the Ageing Gamer:
With a five-figure college debt racked up while playing Civilization Online, he now runs his own game servers, and makes enough doing it to pay his World of Warcraft subscription fees. He can get you online playing WoW against Russian gangsters, Call of Duty against American soldiers in Iraq, or Candy Crush against Japanese schoolgirls, though various restraining orders sometimes make that one tricky. Years of keeping gamer/hacker wannabees honest means he knows networks, servers and customers, and can keep any company's infrastructure humming, so long as half the users are elves and NOBODY argues with the Dungeon Master.

-the Helpful Guy:
With an instinct for trouble and a desire to please, the Helpful Guy always seems to be online just as the servers crash and the core switch gets devoured by velociraptors. He's meant to be on leave, but insists there's just enough time to apply those patches before he has to fly out on his honeymoon. Colleagues smilingly tell him to take a break, but always in that weird 'just being polite' way; the whole office knows that the minute he takes long service, the company is doomed.

-the Enthusiastic Amateur
Utterly untrained yet genuinely brilliant, the Enthusiastic Amateur is somehow always about 31 years old, always has a goatee, has always had exactly three IT jobs, and will do anything you want, so long as he gets to poke something with a screwdriver. He lives for the new toy, the new system, the opportunity to look behind the door marked "Danger! Radiation!" Throw him in an empty room with a broken laptop and lock the door: he'll emerge a week later, the laptop fixed, the room networked and his beard somehow exactly the same length. The only down side of the Enthusiastic Amateur is that his enthusiasm cannot be focussed. You can send him on a server course, but the odds are he'll come back utterly uninterested in your new servers, but with a design for a coal-powered network switch.

-the Talented Slacker
Experienced. Capable. Intuitive. Lazy, lazy, lazy. The talented slacker knows the game, knows the language, and could do most jobs in the department. But doing them would mean getting off Reddit, missing a percentage point uptick in the price of Bitcoins, maybe even putting down the puzzle cube someone brought in and talking to <shudder> customers. Despite being paid to do so, he sees every password reset or is-the-Internet-down query as a deliberate insult to his considerable intelligence. More interesting problems occasionally catch his nanosecond attention span, leading to a flurry of uncharacteristically productive work, followed by an equal period of eye-rolling and sighing about how dire things would be if he wasn't around. Moody and unpredictable, the talented slacker is your best friend if you have an interesting problem for him, but a surly hate-filled cloud of resentment if it's a lost file or yet another blue screen on the ancient laptop you won't let go of because it's got all your shortcuts on it.

Speaks five languages. Programs in seven, Can swear in nine. None of them are English.
Network Guy is the Propellerhead among propellerheads. He gets sent to IT conferences and spends every hour of every day actually attending the sessions, only visiting the bar to corner one of the speakers about a syntax error in one of his slides. His descent into social oblivion began the day he first logged on to a network switch, and saw the exposed, pulsing arteries of the Internet laid bare. Soon afterwards he was on his first Cisco course. Within weeks he was at his third, and was correcting the lecturer in the aggrieved tones of a disappointed parent. Family were abandoned soon after; friends were kept only if they lived somewhere he might want to put in a wifi repeater some day.
Always be nice to this guy. He owns your browser history, and you better believe he's saving it for the day you try to download Game of Thrones using HIS network.

A stickler for procedure. Unless it's not one of HIS procedures, in which case it's 'unnecessary red tape'. Brilliant, but routinely forgets his wife's birthday, forget's his wife's anniversary, forgets his wife's name if there's something interesting going on at work. He could rebuild the financial database using ten years of transaction logs and one of those stupid backwards calculators if you asked him to. But every pub night thereafter, you'd have to listen to him tell the story of the time he rebuilt the entire financial database using ten years of transaction logs and one of those awesome backwards calculators. The database guy is usually the one with the best social skills: he's the one who brings Tequila and a Playstation to server maintenance night, and keeps trying to get everyone to come indoor rock climbing with him. He'll also have something quirky in his background, like a licence to export rare lizards, a brief career fronting a Nirvana cover band, or a long-standing world record for the most vegan samosas consumed in one sitting. Despite all this, he's like a technical Jehovah's Witness: he loves what he does, and wants everyone else to share that love. He'll constantly try to get everyone onto dba courses, and can't understand why anyone would want to fiddle about with pointless distractions like network gear, servers, food and families.
It's a mistake to get too comfy around Database Guy; he won't be around long. He's already registered his own company name, and is quietly using his regular employer as a guinea pig, server farm, software provider and prospective customer. The moment he perfects the Wonderful New Thing everyone keeps praising him for, he'll quietly take it off the servers, slip out the door and leave nothing but a pile of pistachio shells and cold vegan samosas. The next day, every database will lock up, and refuse to display any data except the phone number of a fresh new Database Support company that's just opened its doors in town.

Smiles prettily and apologises for being the office bitch. But don't you call her the office bitch. Not if you ever, EVER want to receive stationery again.
The power behind the power. She has the cabcharges, the credit cards, the phone bill audit, the flight bookings access, the personnel details; in short, she is armed to the teeth and enthused by the prospect of meting out a little bottom-up justice. She doesn't understand the technology, the language or anything else about the trade she is exposed to every day; not because she is stupid, but because she is afraid of becoming 'one of them.' Nonetheless, the Infinite Monkeys principle means she will one day use a phrase like 'The proxy is caching' in the right context. The seismic shock this will produce through the department will leave everyone wondering if she's reaching for a technical job; specifically their technical job. She's not (seriously, she still thinks a mac address is a place to get a burger), but it's a good time to ask for volunteers for the server room relocation.

He started as a helpdesk guy, then moved to sys admin (which is the same thing, but he can be ruder to customers). Then he discovered the server room, and was instantly enraptured by its pristine beauty, its ordered symmetry, its complete lack of contact with actual humans. Now he won't talk to anyone about anything unless they've talked to a helpdesk drone first. He still has the skills to reset a password, but he believes that doing so would be like asking Michaelangelo to draw a stick figure comic.
Of course, server guy has a problem: every helpdesker in the department wants his better-paid, more interesting and customer-free job. So his first priority is to ensure NOBODY understands the contents of the server room. Server guys have a variety of techniques to achieve this end, such as a) leaving old equipment in there as decoys, b) locking cabinets and hiding the keys under the admin assistant's spare shoe pile, and c) destroying any and all documentation that might give anyone a clue what is making that beeping noise, or where the smoke is coming from on Backup Tuesday.

These aren't really IT guys. Moving on...

Used to be a sys admin. Used to know how to build a server. Used to recognise a hard drive fault just by the noise it made when it started up. Now he calls a switch a 'network thingy', and logs a service ticket when he needs to add a column of figures in a spreadsheet.
Two things terrify the manager: a) the prospect of someone calling his bluff and revealing his utter unsuitability for managing a technical department, and b) the prospect of actually having to do anything technical, ever again. Therefore the best way to keep this manager on side is to never ask him to make a technical decision, and to occasionally frighten him with a long-winded tale about a technological near-calamity that you averted because you spent all night on the VPN ensuring the VMDK backups were replicating to the Data Domain across the GAN. The temptation to overdo it is always there though, and many a helpdesker has gone too far with talk of topping up IP fluid, or rerouting the tachyon pulse array through the main deflector dish. This is a quick and easy way to ensure you're on monthly maintenance duty for the foreseeable.
IT managers leave eventually. This presents the CEO with the vexed problem or either a) hiring a new IT manager from outside, or b) promoting one of the pale, shuffling ghouls that appear when he asks for a dry keyboard. Since a) would require some effort and contact with non-CEO humans, and would reveal that most CEOs knows less about computers than their grandkids, they inevitably choose b).
The question of WHICH ghoul to promote is however no less challenging. The one who swears in Hungarian and gets the thousand-year stare when he talks about routers or light switches or whatever? The one who keeps telling that boring story about the financial database at the Christmas party? Or maybe the one who's built a cardboard box fort around his desk? The answer is of course 'whichever one doesn't look like he eats bugs and lives in a basement full of life-size cutouts of Doctor Who assistants'. And since the database guy is the only one with any semblance of social skills left, he usually gets the gig.
Surprisingly, this results in a DROP in the quality of database management; database-guy-now-manager-guy either hires a second-rate replacement for his old role to ensure his skeletons remain hidden, or he interferes in New Guy's work so much that nothing actually gets done. Given that the new guy is always suspiciously busy developing a Wonderful New Thing, it hardly matters.

Tired of thinking for a living? Sick of being held accountable for your actions? Like Facebook a LOT? If you answered yes to all three, you're well on the way to being the Project Guy.
In principle, Project Guy is someone who's been doing the techy thing for so long he knows the names of every Windows release better than his kids' names (and the really hard core ones have daughters called 'Vista'.) Able to fix a blue screen with nothing more than a withering glance, he's hungry for a bigger challenge, and takes on the tough gigs like deploying a thousand desktops, rebuilding the servers without turning them off and on again, and convincing the CEO to clear his Deleted Items folder every now and then. His technical instincts take care of most of the work, leaving him plenty of time to threaten suppliers, argue with consultants and deal with executives who would like their old computer back please especially the folder on the D drive marked 'private' oh no reason.
Tragically, this is not what usually happens. The moment Project Guy gets the title, the Promised Land beckons. Daily reporting requirements become monthly updates, delays can be blamed on 'unresponsive vendors' or 'lack of engagement from the business', and anything involving actual effort can immediately be delegated to Desktop Guy. Memories of poorly-delivered projects, of undocumented systems, of nights and days spent cursing the previous Project Guy who never documented, mapped, discussed or, well, did anything are immediately forgotten. Desktop Guy instantly becomes the enemy, with his constant demands to know where the maps are, what the support arrangement is, why the new switches have instructions written in Spanish, and how does Project Guy post so much on Facebook if he's always too busy to answer his phone when his new servers catch fire again? Project Guy is above such petty concerns as 'Documentation' and 'Specifications' and 'Servers that aren't on fire' though; he's busy with the Latest Project, the one he's just told the manager will require rerouting the tachyon pulse array through the main deflector dish.

Don't worry. Just treat all IT people the same. Even though you might occasionally suffer slow service, or have your bank details handed to Rumanian fraudsters, these are just reflex retaliations. The simple truth is that IT folks really don't give a damn what you think, what you call them, or who you are. Servers and networks and cool new toys are what got them into the trade, and they see users the same way the engineers who build power stations see toasters. They only know you as 'iPhone-in-the-dishwasher-girl', 'forgets-his-password-every-Monday-guy' and 'D-drive-p0rn-manager-guy'.
Honestly though? That's a good thing. If they know your name, that means they're paying attention to you.

And that means yes, they ARE reading your emails...