The future is now, old man: Let the young guns show how to properly cock things up

Phoning it in?


Who, Me? We straddle the worlds of IT and telephony in this week's episode of Who, Me? where a reader fails to consider the tinkering of someone too young to know better.

"Al", for that is not his name, was looking forward to a well-earned retirement after a career spent at an IT giant working on everything from compilers and operating systems to firmware and networking.

Faced with a future revolving around daytime television, Al decided to keep his hand in by taking on the role of a part-time IT manager at his local GP practice (usually the first port of call for Brits seeking healthcare).

The practice also had a full-time support person dubbed by Al as the "PFY" who we have Regomised as "Ernie."

Al and Ernie were tasked with replacing the telephone exchange, "something which I knew little about," Al admitted. However, thanks to the assistance of the supplier and an engineer, all went well. Perhaps a little too well, instilling possibly a little bit of over-confidence.

A few weeks later a small change was needed. Rather than thrash blindly into the carefully crafted system, Al and Ernie consulted the documentation. It seemed straightforward enough: "We decided we could do it ourselves although the process was fairly intricate."

Age and experience on his side, Al was cautious. There were no test rigs on which to validate the change. "I was nervous of making the change to a live system and wanted to give it more thought," he said.

Ernie, with the misplaced confidence of youth, had no such worries and had already charged in like a bull in a data centre.

Readers will be unsurprised to learn that seconds after the young chap had pressed the go button, every phone in the practice stopped working.

"Turns out," said Al, taking partial ownership for the cock up, "we'd replaced the entire programming with our small change!"

Thankfully, the surgery had a backup plan for handling incoming and outgoing calls, but how were Al and Ernie to reprogram the entire exchange? Particularly in light of the catastrophe created by their tiny little change?

There may have been a plan for the physical phones, but no backup existed for the programming. The supplier hadn't taken one either. One would have hoped that someone with Al's experience might have sorted such a thing, but we can imagine any suggestion was short-circuited by the enthusiasm of the PFY.

In desperation, the original engineer was contacted and... yes! Likely as a result of long experience with idiot users, the engineer had thought to take a copy of the configuration during the installation and still had it on a diskette. He may have been 200 miles away, but thanks to the marvel of modern communication was able to connect to Al's exchange and upload it.

"Crisis over," signed Al.

As for the fallout, he and Ernie were given a telling-off by the practice manager and made to promise never ever to do it again. The supplier would deal with changes in the future. Ernie, the PFY of this story, moved on a few months later.

"It wasn't until years later," said Al, "it occurred to me that the engineer interface into the exchange would have been a prime hacking target for obtaining free calls and anonymity on the phone network."

Times were a bit more innocent 20 years ago.

We've had accidental file deletion. Now we've had accidental phone deletion. Can you go one better? Maybe you accidentally wiped a bunch of records from the Police National Computer? Confess all in an email to Who, Me?

Regomised anonymity assured. ®

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