Saturday, March 08, 2014

A Tale of Two Problems

I was confronted with two very similar problems this week.  I reacted to them very differently.  I think it was because they were headed different ways.
The first one took place on Monday.  I was called from my office due to a problem someone was having with the network.
Before I go any further, I should explain that I’m not an IT guy.  I’m not part of the IT Department for my company.  That is based in Houston.  Our system is designed to handle most networking issues remotely.   But every so often something happens that needs someone on site to do something.  A new module won’t plug itself into the network tree.   When those situations arise, I’m the one they call upon to do it.  
Some of my colleagues think I’m the one to handle all the computer problems because I’m smart.  While I certainly don’t want to dissuade people who think I have a higher than average degree of intelligence, when it comes to computer stuff I don’t think I’m all that smart.  The big difference between me and most other people is that I’m not AFRAID of computers.  That’s because I know how truly stupid computers are.  I remember a joke I heard back in the stone age of computer programming.  A programmer asked me, “Do you know why they don’t put wheels on computers?”  
“No.  Why?”  
“Because they’d roll off a cliff if you told them to.”  
And that’s the absolute truth.  You can tell a child, “take off your socks,” and the child will be able to do that even if they are currently wearing shoes as well.  Say that to a computer and it will rip the socks to pieces trying to get them off over the shoes that are still on because you didn’t say, “Untie your shoes.  Remove your shoes.  Take off your socks.”  Once you know that computers have THAT level of comprehension, and you have to tailor how you talk to them to speak very simply and carefully, then the fear most people have of the devices goes away. 
Anyway, this is why I get the call when someone can’t get a device associated with our network to do what they want it to do.  
Monday’s problem involved our Wi-Fi network.  One of the court reporters that work for our company had been unable to use a program specifically requested by a client at a recent deposition.  This program allows the transcript being created to be viewed by the participants as the court reporter types it out.  There are many such programs and means of doing this, I found out on Monday.  The program the client requested can broadcast the ongoing transcript directly to personal devices like iPhones, iPads and laptops.  
Because the court reporter hadn’t been able to get this program to work, the deposition had to be rescheduled.  She had come back on Monday to see if she could find out what was wrong and get it fixed.  When she and the person in charge of handling depositions in our office couldn’t get it to work, they called me.  
It took about four hours of learning about the program, watching it in operation, calling the manufacturer for specifications and calling our own IT department for information on our Wi-Fi’s set-up.  I discovered that the type of Wi-Fi access point, or broadcast station if you will, was designed to prevent the program from doing what it wanted to do.  
Our Wi-Fi access point has two networks being broadcast from it.  One is a public or “Guest” network, made available to our clients and visitors for them to use while visiting our office.  The other is a secure or “Employee” network meant for visiting sales people, etc., who are working in our office for the day.  The Guest network, I found out, is designed to prevent devices from contacting or seeing each other over the network.  It is done this way so a visitor can’t use the network to possibly hack into someone else’s computer, or spread a virus to other devices that the owner of the infected device doesn’t know that they have.  The Employee network is designed to allow this sort of cross-communication between devices on the network.  
In the end, a third network was created.  It was based on the secure Employee network, but had additional firewalls installed to prevent anyone from using from accessing devices on our network.  This will allow our court reporter to use the program the client wants to use until a permanent solution is constructed.  
The guy in charge of depositions told me that it looked like I was having fun solving this problem.  And I have to admit, I did enjoy it.  I learned stuff about Guest networks and Wi-Fi protocols that I didn’t know before AND, more importantly, the problem was solved.  It WAS fun.
The same could not be said for the problem I dealt with at the end of the week.  
This problem took place on Friday.  I was called from my office due to a problem everyone was having with the network. 
About a half-hour or so after I got to the office, everyone lost some degree of contact with the network.  People in my department and the adjoining Invoicing Department lost everything, phones, email, access to documents.   All gone.  Other departments couldn’t access our database, but still had phone and email connections.  The Wi-Fi was shut down as well.
After running to the room where our networking equipment is kept and doing some pulling out of cables (in between the pulling out of hair) with people from my IT department, we discovered that one of our switches, these large boxes with multiple data ports that look like oversized phone plug connections, had gone bad.  All the people connected to it had lost all their network access.  Because our records server was connected to the same switch, everyone else lost access to their data.  
It took about four or five hours of work, trying to power cycle the switch, testing connections, unhooking two people that still had connection to the network to reconnect the records server so everyone else could work, running to Frye’s Electronics to get cheap, 24 port switch so that my people could access the database and get back to work, before everyone was able to do some meaningful employment yesterday.  A technician came late in the day to install a new switch to restore the network to the way it was that morning.  
“How ya’doing, Erick?” someone asked me late in the day.  “You don’t look good.”  
“I’m mad enough to bash someone’s head against a table,” I replied, “But I’m too tired to do it.”  
This definitely wasn’t a problem I’d describe as “fun.”  It’s solution was merely a relief.  
This morning, looking at these two problems, I asked myself, “Why was that?  What made one problem fun and the other pure annoyance?”  
In the novel I’m writing, my main character has a lot of problems to solve.  Some of them are pure annoyance.  Others threaten his desired way of life.  One threatens his very life itself.  
At one point in the story, though, to gain the assistance of powerful people, he has to oversee the cooking of a multi-course banquet.  This is not something he’s done before.  He has cooked for multitudes of people working at his family’s inn, but that isn’t the same as preparing dish after dish at a banquet.  But even though his life is under threat, in the greater sense, for this one span of time during his crisis, he enjoys himself.  
I thought about the hero of my story while thinking about these two problems.  The difference, I believe, is direction.  Monday’s Wi-Fi problem was going forward.  It started at zero and ended up at some point, let’s say five, steps further down the line.  I lost time working on it, but the company gained overall.  
Friday’s switch-going-bad problem was going backwards.  We started at minus ten when the problem was discovered and were falling faster with each passing moment.   Steps had to be taken to slow the descent then level off.  Finally, by the time I left the office after a twelve and a half hour day, we were back to zero.  Actually, when I think of the work that didn’t get done, minus five.  
There’s also a part of me that wonders if there is something else at work.  Would Friday’s problem had been more fun if I had looked at it differently?  If I had taken a more...  Zen-like look at it, say?  Since the time for the switch to go out had come, it presented the opportunity to strengthen our network by designing it to be more robust.  It was an opportunity for us to grow stronger in the future...
Nah.  It was fucked-up.  Not fun at all.    


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