Smoke gets in your eyes

By | 2013/04/22

“We’ve got a major problem with PSV,” my manager said as he walked into my office one afternoon.

“Who are PSV?”, I asked, looking up from my email.

“Pushy Server Vendor”, he replied. I saw there for a moment wondering why he was speaking to me in code. He knew who PSV were, and I certainly did … then it dawned on me. This wasn’t something that was happening now. It was something that had happened years ago, and I was writing about events that had happened in real life.

“So I’m gathering we’re calling them PSV so the reader doesn’t know exactly who we’re talking about, and I don’t get sued?”

“You bet”, he replied.

“Well that explains why your name is suddenly Aaron,” I replied with a sheepish grin. “So, back to the story at hand – what’s our problem with PSV?” Our problem was actually a pretty deep one. The company had repeatedly committed to the promises of PSV to providing more services work, if only we scaled up our team, then each time we scaled the team they trickled down only a fraction of the services they’d promised.

Senior management were in denial about the problem, ignored PSV’s blatant monthly stalling of paying invoices until they’d hit 90 or sometimes even 120 days late, and they reeled from one recruitment drive to another like a drunk gambler convinced the next horse would turn his luck around. PSV was like a host that fed off its symbiotes, draining the essence out of each one before throwing away the discarded husk and moving onto the next one. We were halfway drained at the time and fighting for a way out, but bitterly dependent on whatever scraps of money PSV would still flick our way. Keeping them happy was the only thing that kept our business afloat.

“So what happened?”

“Gerry apparently completely refused to obey the instructions of one of their support techs when she raised a call with them. The project manager is Edward, and you know how prickly he is. You’re going to have to talk to her, tell her to never do it again, then we’re going to have to call Edward and apologise. If we have to, we’ll promise to take Gerry off any more of their projects.”

Gerry was one of my best employees. A real go-getter, she’d been a team leader of over 50 staff in her home country, and was like some genetically engineered megabrain. A studious worker, any time we needed someone to learn something complex, we could point her at it on Friday afternoon and she’d walk in on Monday an expert. That Gerry might have deliberately disobeyed instructions from a support person was … well, inconceivable.

As Aaron left my office I took a few minutes to let the immediate panicked adrenalin rush leave me, then wandered over and closed my door again. This conversation would need privacy.

“Hello Preston!” she answered the phone in her always happy lilting accent. You could practically hear her enthusiasm oozing through the phone. “It’s Gerry. How can I help you today?”

“Gerry,” I asked, not wanting to put her on edge, “Did anything odd happen at the customer site today?”

“Oh yes!” she replied with a slightly wicked giggle, “The customer and I we racked the new server today, but when we turned power on, it caught on fire! The customer was very concerned! I have never seen a server catch fire before.”

I paused. I could have imagined the conversation playing out a hundred different ways, but “caught on fire” was not a direction I could have imagined in my wildest dreams.

“Caught on fire?”

“Well, sort of”, Gerry replied. “We turned it on, there was a big loud bang – it was a bit scary! Then smoke started coming out of it! The customer pulled power out of it and ran over and pressed an alarm and lots of people came into the computer room. It didn’t do anything else though, so maybe it wasn’t fully caught on fire.”

Server Fireman

“So you turned the server on, there was a bang, and smoke came out of the server?”

“Yes, exactly!” she replied. “But PSV support was very silly when I spoke to them. I have been doing work on the other server today so I was going to email you about it in my report when I left.”

“What happened?”

“I got their Enterprise support”, she said.

I closed my eyes and sighed. Enterprise support for PSV was hired and run exclusively from a cheap labour country which routinely delivered substandard results for all but the simplest problems already documented in PSV’s Knowledge Base. “What happened then?”

“I explained to support that server caught on fire and we needed a new one sent out, and support told me I had to patch the firmware.”

“They told you to turn it back on and patch the firmware?” I asked, a little dumbfounded. Surely no-one could be that stupid.

“Yes!” she exclaimed, this time actually giggling. “I said to the customer and the customer said a rude word, then said no, they wanted a new one sent.”

“What did support say?”

“Support he told me again to patch, and I told him again it caught on fire and the customer wanted it swapped for a new one. Then support took all the details and hung up.”

“OK, thanks Gerry”, I said. “You did the right thing. Could you get the customer to email me and let me know they want the server swapped out?” I asked. The conversation wound down pretty quickly then, and I only had to wait half an hour or so for the customer email to arrive.

So I collated the summary of the events, and passed them on to Aaron, who made the call to Edward, who fairly quickly launched into a head kicking conversation explaining how much his butt had been kicked after our engineer had refused to do what she’d been told to do.

Until, of course, my manager asked under what circumstances a firmware patch would be required to stop smoke coming out of a server when it was turned on.

“…”

The next week we received a strongly worded email from Edward asking us to be more exact when describing problems to support, but praising Gerry’s efforts on an otherwise “difficult” project. He looked forward to working with Gerry again, as the customer had been extremely pleased with her efforts to date.