IT Workers Pushed to the Limits

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 . 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.

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