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Frankly Speaking: In times like these, our people are the only safety net we have

By Frank Hayes
February 9, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Terry Childs is in the news again. Remember Childs, that lone-wolf network administrator who worked for the city of San Francisco? In July 2008, he was arrested for refusing to tell his bosses the passwords to the city's high-speed network. He's been in jail ever since because he hasn't made his $5 million bail.

Now he's asking the city to pay $3 million for canning him.

Crazy, huh?

Specifically, Childs filed a claim (download PDF) for "wrongful suspension without pay and wrongful arrest [and] violation of civil rights," according to the claim form dated Jan. 8. That $3 million breaks down as $1 million for economic damages -- most likely lost pay and benefits -- plus $1 million for emotional distress and $500,000 each for attorney's fees and unspecified "special damages."

Remember, this is after Childs allegedly changed the network's passwords so only he knew them, installed modems to gain outside access to the network, configured routers so they could be controlled only from obscure locations, harassed an auditor, threatened his boss, lied to investigators about knowing the passwords and finally turned the passwords over to San Francisco's mayor.

Yes, it all sounds wacko. But actually, this wrongful-suspension claim isn't a surprise. Childs was suspended on July 9; he had six months to file a claim, which was necessary if he ever wanted to sue the city. His claim was turned down on Jan. 23, and now he has another six months to file a lawsuit. Makes sense now, right?

Meanwhile, Childs will be in court next week to be arraigned on the criminal charges against him: tampering with a computer network, denying other authorized users access to the network and causing more than $200,000 in losses. If he squeaks through the criminal case, he'll have a shot -- albeit a very long one -- at getting his $3 million.

As for the rest of us -- well, we've got troubles of our own, don't we? We're dealing with budget cuts, layoffs, longer hours and shorter tempers. Why should we care about some net admin who went over the edge?

But maybe that's exactly what we should care about.

Six months ago, I wrote that the Terry Childs fiasco carried a lesson for everyone in IT shops: As the only person with control of the city's network backbone, Childs was a single point of failure. That made him a reliability risk -- one that, uncorrected, eventually created a huge problem.

Now it's worse. Today, deep in a recession, we're all at risk, from the CIO down to the lowliest help desk tech. We're short-staffed, overworked and under pressure. More and more, we depend on every person in the department. We've got no cushion, no safety net. Each of us could become a reliability problem -- and we're too cash-strapped to eliminate every single point of failure.



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