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BOFH: The admin gene

That mysterious gift

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Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable

Episode 24

"Woah!" the PFY breathes, looking up quickly.

"Woah what?" the Boss asks, looking around cautiously, as I re-enter the room from the passage to the server room.

"Nope, it'll be OK," I say to the PFY, ignoring the Boss for a moment.

"What'll be OK?"

"Are you sure?" the PFY asks. "It was quite noticeable."

"What was noticeable?"

"Yeah, but it was quick. Ten quid says it'll be fine."

"WHAT WILL BE FINE?!"

"I'll take that bet!" the PFY cries, before turning to the Boss. "We're talking about that power glitch."

"What power glitch?"

"The one a couple of moments ago."

"When?"

"When the lights dimmed briefly."

"The lights didn't dim!"

"They did," I counter.

"They most certainly did not!"

"I beg to differ," the PFY snaps with a measure of self-satisfaction. "Behold!"

Following the PFY's finger I note a couple of red icons where green switches should be.

Bugger. That's a tenner down the gurgler.

"I didn't see any power glitch!" the Boss says.

"You wouldn't," I say. "You've either got it or you don't... and you don't."

"Got what?"

"The admin gene," the PFY explains. "The ability to recognise things that users don't. A slight flicker of lighting, a whiff of hot component in the air, a fractional change in the pitch of a cooling fan - all of which the garden variety user misses in the headlong rush to read their email."

"Well, it can't be that good if you can't agree about whether the glitch you saw would have any effect or not."

"There's miles of power and data cabling in this building, a large transformer in the basement, UPS in the machine room and smaller UPS units in the comms rooms. Predicting the effect of a power glitch here is about as easy as predicting the landing of space debris."

"Yes, but anyone could look at a monitor and notice a red icon," the Boss comments.

At this point I realise that our Boss will never care that both the PFY and myself can extract, over the top of meaningless conversation, aging air-conditioning, canned music and fan hum, the muffled urgent tones of a piezoelectric beeper warning of a hardware fault - from three rooms away.

"It's not about seeing a red icon," the PFY says patiently. "It's about knowing a red icon is about to light up or sensing that something is wrong. You can't teach someone that."

“It’s hearing a subtle change in the hum from a UPS and knowing that it needs a coolant top-up,” I add.

“And you get all this from the admin... gene?”

“Oh yes,” The PFY says. “If you’re born with the admin gene it’s just... instinctive.”

“And I don’t have that gene?” the Boss says.

“No.”

“So what do I have instead?”

“I dunno – what’s the one that causes Asperger's?” the PFY asks unkindly.

“So tell me more about this gene then,” the Boss says dryly. “You make it sound like a superpower.”

“Well, in a way it sort of is,” I say. “There’s no seeing through walls or anything but there’s a lot of that sixth sense stuff.”

“I find that very hard to believe...”

“It’s true,” the PFY says.

“I...”

“He’s right,” I interject. “It’s just an inbuilt ability to KNOW things – like when to put a cleaning tape into a drive before it tells you.”

“Or how hard to hit a stuck hard drive to get it moving again...” the PFY says.

“...without breaking it completely,” I add. “But it’s not just about systems – it’s also about the environment.”

“Like when not to answer the phone.”

“Or when to hide behind the door.”

“And how to tell when a door handle might be electrified,” the PFY continues.

“Not to mention the computer suite environment,” I add. “Like when it’s 17.8 degrees instead of 18.”

“Or 60 per cent humidity instead of 45.”

“Anyone can do that,” the Boss snaps – obviously feeling left out. “You never know – I might have the gene and just not know it.”

“I doubt it – but we’re happy to test it if you really think you have what it takes.”

“I DO!”

“Okay then, go into the server room and tell us what the humidity is – without looking at the aircon unit.”

“You’re on.”

“How’s he doing?” the PFY says, as the Boss stalks down the corridor to the computer room.

“Well... he’s just about to fail the electrified door handle test.”

“Woah!" the PFY says, looking up quickly.

"Woah what?" the helldesk supervisor asks, walking into the room.

"Nah, it'll be OK," I say to the PFY, ignoring the helldesk supervisor for a moment.

Well, it passes the time, doesn’t it?

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