Never Again

Out of Control

Hell hath no fury like two employees scorned.

Early in my career, I was Computer Operations Manager for a medical testing company that monitored employees for hearing loss over a number of years. This company was relocating from Chicago to the warm weather of Arizona. Being the mid-to-late '80s, we were using IBM AT computers with dual 5 1/4" floppy drives and 10MB hard drives. None of our four PCs were networked at this time.

The database was managed by a custom dBASE III+ program and used data files stored on 5 1/4" high-density floppy disks (remember those?). Some of the database files were so large (in those days) that even trying to fit them onto the 10MB hard drive was difficult. The total size of the database was over 80MB, and spanned hundreds of floppies. These were divided up by geographic locations or by company as data sets so that the largest file spanned at most five floppies.

One of my duties was to hire data entry personnel to enter the records of the hearing tests of about 10,000 employees of large, heavy industrial companies. After getting the computers set up and training three new people on procedures, they started entering the data. When they were finished with a particular data set, that database file was backed up onto floppy disks. Then a second copy was created in another set of floppies. We had a third copy off-site in a bank vault.

After about six months of data entry and thousands of tests recorded, two of my personnel requested a raise for their efforts. I asked the boss, but he simply said no. As the following payday rolled around, I distributed the checks and my people left for lunch. Only one returned.

This couldn't be good. When I asked where the other two were, there was just a shrug of the shoulders as the remaining employee started back to work.

After a couple of hours, the worker came into my office and said there were problems restoring a data set to the PC for the next batch of entries. I tried the floppy on another computer and got read errors. I spun the floppy inside its sleeve, which revealed what looked like a crease in the media. Further research determined that the crease was made with a ball point pen. I asked my operator to bring all the floppies to me, and we went through them one by one. To our horror, we found that the two AWOL employees had sabotaged all the floppies for the locations they'd been working on, and the secondary backups as well.

I had to inform the boss. I felt extremely bad. We'd lost at least 18 weeks' worth of work. We had the off-site copies, but those hadn't been updated since the company's move to Arizona. In addition, these two employees had essentially stolen six months of pay. The boss's son, a lawyer, said there wasn't much we could do about it, because the amount of loss wasn't worth the legal hassles and the cost of prosecution.

As a result of this fiasco, my data entry personnel-hiring duties were removed, but I was given authority to come up with a solution that would prevent this from happening again. The following week I bought and installed my first Novell Netware server. I wrote a dBASE program to take advantage of a networked database, which eliminated the need for floppy disks. The database was centralized on the new Novell server with regular backups onto the tape drive. A routine was then implemented for rotating tapes to off-site storage on a regular basis. My office became the secured computer room, with access granted to only me and my manager.

My biggest lesson learned? You can control computers, but you can't control people.

About the Author

David Harding is a senior programmer/analyst for Dakota State University.

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