I was lucky enough to have a little dinner with old co-employees last night, and it reminded me to put my thoughts down about a few of my best bosses. I’m going to start with Brian, because his actions are particularly memorable.
Here’s what Brian looks like nowadays.
He used to have no goatee but otherwise looked the same when he hired me in 2000 at HarvardNet. He was always a smiler, a little rotund, small eyes behind thick glasses, and you liked the guy immediately. In seconds you liked Brian, and in minutes you adored him. He’s just one of those types of people. Luckily, he was also a guy worth liking so much.
Brian was the lead of the engineers, the sad and shivering techies who handled all sorts of infrastructure and server maintenance for HarvardNet. There were about 5 of us, occasionally 6, with some of us doing UNIX and some of us doing Windows and all of us getting whatever crazy problems were coming down the pike. Some of our job was handling new issues (a server is down, DNS needs fixing, news server is filling) and others were old issues (9,000 customers are using a single box and we should upgrade it, it turns out that credit card numbers are being sent in the open via e-mail to the billing department).
Now, about myself. I’d been working for another company (and my other best boss, Patrick, who I’ll chat about momentarily) and when Pat was gone and things were looking dim, I hopped over to HarvardNet with another UNIX admin, who himself actually had jumped over and up into the role of System Architect. So I was under 30, the veteran of adminning hundreds of machines, and excited at my new salary and a growing company. So I was a primed pump, really.
My time at HarvardNet needs more than a simple entry, so I will not fill your life with dozens of paragraphs of that experience. Yet.
A classic situation that I still keep close to my stories chest was when the CEO of the company walked down the aisle of engineers we inhabited, and discovered that it was empty, at 11am, when we started to file in. We worked late as a rule so we came in late as well. This was, of course, unacceptable. He translated his displeasure to Brian, and when I say translated, I mean he issued a command in a mumbly fashion, which was his general approach. Brian, therefore, had to write us an e-mail that said “All admins must be in at 9am and stay until 5pm”.
The next day we all showed up, at noon.
Brian sent out an e-mail that said “OK, you win.” And we then started showing up from 10-11am dependably. It all worked out.
So, why do I like Brian so much? Two situations, specifically.
First, HarvardNet had a real money-winning strategy. We would charge for backups, and then not back things up.
This sounds kind of fraudulent, doesn’t it. Well, it was. We certainly had people working on the problem (including my old co-worker the Systems Architect) but we in fact had not gotten a working backup system in place. So in fact, we had many companies hosting with us with absolutely no backing up of their data happening. For months. Months and months and months. We took the money for this service, of course, but we never actually backed anything up. Imagine the profit margin on that approach. I’m sure I just shot the eyebrows of a few ex-HarvardNet customers to the roof, but hey, bodies are buried everywhere, friends.
So, occasionally, a customer would want to use the backup they were paying for and recover the data. And of course, we didn’t have this. It would normally end in, you know, a lawsuit. At least, it would in a normal world. But this was the technical world of the late 1990s and selling people things you didn’t actually have was de facto a-OK business practice, apparently. Sales certainly had no problem selling customers this backup service, so by the time it came down to the engineers, it was not a case of “make that backup system we sold” (that was being done, slowly, by another group), but it was a case of “provide support for the issue that we do not actually have the thing the customer thinks we do”.
Now, the Jason of this time was a coward. Oh, I admit it. Coward coward coward. The reckoning, the idea of going full-face into a situation where I knew our company had fucked up, that good people (or maybe just people) had been screwed by the company’s lying and incompetency, that I knew we were in the wrong…. well, that just about froze me solid with terror. I couldn’t imagine going into a call with a customer wondering why they had no copy of their old website or user data or anything, that it wasn’t so much “gone” as “was never there”… I couldn’t begin to fathom making that phone call to explain this.
Brian, however, did it. Brian, who would have to get up at 5am every single morning to drive into work from a long way away, who was there long after others sneaked off, and then drive back all that way, almost every day. Brian, who was the one who took the heat for his people’s schennanigans (and we were masters of schennanigans), and had to translate this displeasure to us as best he could. Brian, who worked so very hard to do the company right, had, at the end of the day, the duty of making the call to the customer to explain there was no backup to get to them.
The customers, of course, would scream. We use the term “scream” too much in office culture; it implies “this was very important” and dismisses situations where the customers would actually scream. These customers would actually scream. Brian’s cube was across from mine, so I could hear him trying to calm down actual screaming customers who had lost their data. He would take the brunt of this shit-ball and would offer them something from a small pocket of tools the company provided. A few free months of service, perhaps, or an upgrade in some aspect of the hosting situation. This would mollify some. Others would declare themselves no longer customers, that they were done. In the grand scheme of things, these phone calls happened less than a half-dozen times, but when they happened, it was memorable. Brian did this, this unbelievably brave (to me) thing, and would be the one to always do it. I was always impressed by that.
And like a bad plane experience or a near-miss on the highway, we would resolve to fix this no-backups issue, but it was never really solved during my tenure.
Ah, yes, my tenure. Because of this and other reasons, and presented with the possibility that my old job wanted me back for a lot more money than they’d paid me, than even HarvardNet was paying me, meant I ultimately left the firm and went back there, leaving poor Brian and others behind. The parting with Brian and the others was amicable, perhaps less so with the company.
So, at some point I put up a “harvardnetsucks.com” site. In fact, it’s still around and badly in need of some transfer to a memorial/static site. Now, a company that had such a site put up about them could respond in several ways.
HarvardNet decided to sue me. The whole sordid story is elsewhere, but just to be clear: the lawsuit was frivolous, intended to scare me into not running a critical site about a company. They sued me for $125,000 for indicating I’d gotten a lot of hits from a specific IP address and that one day it stopped and I got e-mails from the employees of HarvardNet that my site was done when it wasn’t. I then announced that they’d likely shut me off at the firewall. Again, $125,000.
So while this battle was being raged, a battle that cost $20,000 to fight, there came a time that my lawyer needed testimony from people in a motion to have the lawsuit thrown out. We had an expert on firewalls (when you show the IP of a firewall, it doesn’t automatically stop working! Also, it doesn’t cost $40,000 to replace one, as HarvardNet claimed).
But we also had Brian.
Brian testified, in court, that the company had misrepresented the situation in the lawsuit. That they were lying, specifically. That they were making up this charge to harass me, and that the lawsuit was intended to threaten me into silence.
Brian’s wife was pregnant. Brian was working for the company. Brian had two young daughters and a home with a mortgage. And yet he still stood up to the plate and testified for me, an ex-employee who’d moved onto another job, because it was the right thing to do. Naturally, he was fired on the spot when this was done in court. He came back to work and there was a meeting and he was fired.
Make no mistake, he did the right thing; he didn’t lie about my situation, and he told the truth of what was going on. But how little do we as a species do the “right thing”, especially when it’ll put our family and home at excessive risk? Who of many of us would answer that phone and do this? So Brian is a jewel in the darkness, and always will be, to me. One of my best bosses.
And this bravery has, I hoped, rubbed off on me. Life and work have presented me with situations, ones where I know there is no good outcome for myself. Times when I know that when I pick up that phone or walk into that room or meet that person, it is going to be a biblically-proportioned shit storm, raining on me with no hope of recourse or escape. In the pre-2000 era, I would likely beg off, run away, find some excuse to not be there and be unavailable. I’d be a coward, plain and simple. The urge is back there, sometimes, when I know things will be particularly bad, and I almost mull a plan of escape.
And then I remember Brian, and it becomes all too easy.
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