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Dirty IT Jobs: Grime and Punishment

Dirty IT Job No. 4: Tech Forum Flame Warden

Tugging on Superman's cape. Spitting into the wind. Pulling the mask off the Lone Ranger. None of those tempt fate like becoming the moderator of an online tech forum.

Bill Horne discovered this when he naively volunteered to take on the job of moderating The Telecom Digest, the oldest continuously published mailing list and Usenet forum on the Internet, back in 2007.

Horne is no stranger to dirty jobs, having done stints as an IT mortician ("Even dirtier IT jobs: The muck stops here") and network sherpa ("The dirt locker: Dirty duty on the front lines of IT"). But this post tested even his mettle.

"I discovered that the Digest was running on a 1980s-era computer and outdated software," he says. "I thought upgrading the hardware and software would be the most difficult part of the process. But those issues paled in comparison to the people problems. I often feel like I've taken on a job that calls for Henry Kissinger's negotiation skills, Stalin's ruthlessness, and Roosevelt's charisma."

Horne's job is to evaluate and edit dozens of reader contributions each day, then choose which ones to publish. He quickly discovered that major contributors were spending most of their time hawking products, while others were using multiple identities in order to argue with themselves. For two hours a day, Horne attempts to douse flame wars fueled by a combustible mix of arrogance and ignorance, snuff out personal attacks, and deal with threatening emails complaining about his own performance -- all for free.

The dirtiest part of the job? Dealing with oversize egos seven days a week.

"The hardest part isn't the mechanics of editing, it's the politics of dealing with people's opinions," he says. "I can't escape the feeling that some Internauts hang around Usenet just because they've found out that it's a safe place to act like a jerk. If they said some of these things at home they'd be divorced in a month, and if they held forth at work with these poorly thought-out, knee-jerk reactions they'd be fired in a minute."

Dirty IT Job No. 5: Orphaned Code Debugger

Programming is challenging work. Working on another developer's code adds yet one more level of complexity. But cleaning up after someone else's programming mess with nothing other than their badly written code as your guide? That's when things get really dirty.

Joe Emison is vice president of research and development for BuildFax, which maintains construction records for more than 70 million U.S. buildings. But seven years ago he did some freelance programmer work for a pair of Web developers who insisted on using ClickCartPro, a shopping cart app written in Perl.

ClickCartPro was a wet hot mess, says Emison. Among its flaws, the code had no indentation, no comments, and no documentation, which means he had to hunt for subroutines and guess at what the original coders had in mind. It used only global variables, so changing the values in one place changed it everywhere else that variable appeared. It made extensive use of eval(), which hides error messages from end-users but also from developers, making it nearly impossible to locate the source of a failure. And the code was more than 100,000 lines long.

"I had to go line by line in a text editor trying to figure out where things failed and why," he says. "I kept saying to the developers, 'This program is crap; stop using it.' But they had invested a lot of time in customizing it, and they had a lot of legacy customers who were unwilling to pay for a new cart."

Emison says this kind of dirty job is something many programmers encounter, especially when dealing with Web code written at the turn of the last century. Still, it could be worse.

"You couldn't pay me enough money to work on vBulletin," he says. "Whoever created that code is some crazy whacked-out psycho."

The dirtiest part of this job? Unless you're being paid big bucks, there's little incentive to do things the right way -- which means leaving a mess for someone else.

"If you're dealing with awful code and you're just being paid to fix one thing or add one feature, you don't have much reason to use any kind of good practices in your own edits or additions," he says. "It's a bit like stopping at a gas station with a filthy restroom. You're not going to spend too much time cleaning the toilet. You just want to get in, do your business, and get out as quickly as possible."

Dirty IT Job No. 6: Content Hussy

Warning: The following dirty job may prove disturbing to readers with more delicate sensibilities. Please proceed with appropriate caution.

There are now more than 550 million websites on topics ranging from apiphobia (fear of bees) to zygomycosis (fungal infections), with everything in between. Someone has to generate copy for all of those sites, no matter how gross it gets.

One of those people is Kari DePhillips, owner of The Content Factory, an online PR and social media marketing firm that offers ghostwriting services for a variety of sites. It's not a job for the squeamish.

"We frequently get weird writing projects, but the weirdest had to be when we were asked to create an entire website about vaginal discharge monitors," she says. "Pregnant women wear them to tell if they're leaking amniotic fluid. On the surface, it may seem as though we were just writing about different types of hoo-ha leakage, but what we were really doing was saving lives. I mean, somebody has to do it."

That dirty job fell to one of her male staffers, a 26-year-old copywriter named Ben DeMeter. But DePhillips' copy-producing career never seems to stray too far from that, umm, area. For example, DePhillips says her first writing gig after college was blogging about adult videos for a well-known men's site while pretending to be a man.

Even after she started her own company, she was hired by a mom-and-pop shop that made large-format stick-on decals. That shop had an order from a fetish site that specialized in female body builders who were extremely well developed in a region of the anatomy not usually on display to the general public. She found herself writing about wall-size images of, well, you get the picture.

"It was like they were injecting steriods directly into their lady bits," she said. "I was happy when that project was over."

The dirtiest part of her job? Avoiding lawsuits.

"Recently a writer we hired posted this photo of downtown Omaha to a blog he was ghostwriting," she says. "It turns out that image was copyrighted. We ended up getting sued $9,000 for this crappy photo of Nebraska. That was a big wake-up call for us. Since then we've strengthened our contracts with writers and double-check every image. And we carry cyber liability insurance in the unlikely case that happens again."

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This story, "Dirty IT jobs: Grime and punishment," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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