Admin fired for incompetence, not alien search

Admin fired for incompetence, not alien search

Summary: The story of Brad Niesluchowski shouldn't teach us not to use SETI@home or other distributed computing tools. It should teach us to be really good at our jobs and to look closely at the way we interact with other staff and students.


Weird title? Probably. But this is a weird story. Earlier today I heard about a network systems administrator in an Arizona public school district (Higley Unified, to be exact) who was fired for using district computers to contribute to distributed computing efforts (using BOINC and SETI@home). As it turns out, the guy really just wasn't very good at his job. Unfortunately, the school system used the distributed computing issue as a primary reason to terminate him.

Why is that unfortunate? First, a bit of background. According to the Arizona Republic, Brad Niesluchowski was the head of Higley Unified School District's IT department.

[Mr. Niesluchowski] added to every district computer a University of California-Berkeley program that searches high-frequency radio signals for signs of intelligent life in outer space.

Higley officials so far estimate the damages, energy usage and equipment losses linked to Niesluchowski at $1.2 million to $1.6 million.

SETI@home uses spare processor cycles on individual computers to create supercomputer power to analyze radio waves collected by radio telescopes all over the world. He also installed BOINC which uses a similar approach to further a variety of research efforts.

Actually, as far as I'm concerned, this is a great way to fully utilize school computing resources as there are plenty of times during the day (even if machines get turned off at night) when workstations are idle. It seems an outstanding use of the tax dollars spent on the computers to contribute to university-level research efforts. Both programs do require a bit of tweaking to ensure they only use idle CPU time, but overall, they're non-invasive (BOINC is running on my computer as I type this, aiding in some small way with malaria tracking in Africa).

The $1.6 million figure the school is citing for computer depreciation, wear and tear, and energy costs seems pretty ridiculous and this is why I called the whole situation unfortunate. When configured correctly, these distributed computing tools can not only provide researchers with heavy computing resources basically for free, but represent a technology about which we should be teaching our student. How many administrators will see this story, though, and make sure to NEVER use BOINC on their networks?

A little further reading shows that Niesluchowski was actually just not very good at his job; the distributed computing nonsense was simply the best and most obvious excuse the district had to terminate his contract with cause. Again, according to the Republic,

During a warranted search of his home earlier this fall, Gilbert police found 18 computers and other equipment stolen from the district.

District officials said they learned Niesluchowski never installed firewalls that would protect students' and staff members' personal information from hackers, exposing district computer and data to potential tampering or damage.

District officials also say he failed to train and supervise other tech staff.

...[He] had been warned in a 2005-2006 review by then-Superintendent Joyce Lutrey and then-Business Manager Fred Stone of shortcomings in his job performance...[including making] isolation with no input or communication with stakeholders."

There's the real problem. It isn't that he was using school equipment to look for aliens. It isn't even that he stole computers from the district or that he had failed to complete important tasks, although these are certainly worth termination in and of themselves. It's that he didn't get buy in from the people who mattered most. Imagine how different this might have been if he'd gone to district administration and the school committee and proposed running distributed computing applications as part of a broader IT education program. Imagine if he'd worked with those stakeholders to turn this into a really positive PR move instead of a reason to finally fire an incompetent admin.

Lesson to take away, kids? It's easy for IT staff to work with a great deal of autonomy in school systems. A lot of what we do seems like voodoo so people leave us alone. However, we don't work in vacuum. Everything we do affects students and teachers in potentially significant ways, even if it's only a matter of public relations. Have an idea? Pitch it and get buy in; unilateral actions are a surefire way to get burned and, more importantly, might miss key requirements and input from less tech-savvy but more learning-savvy educators.

Topics: Cloud, CXO, Hardware, Networking

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Did you say failed to protest...

    students' and staffs' personal information? I think a similar case could be brought against those using Google. Not much protection there.
    • No, he said "failed to protect"

      as there was no firewall implemented.

      Not that you care about relevance or accuracy.
  • Reason given is more than enough

    Installing unapproved software that will peg machines at 100% utilization when they have spare cycles is a terminable offense IMO.
    Not sure how things work in your environment, but unapproved non work related programs do not belong on work pc's. What happens if a SETI program update causes issues on the pc's? Who is liable? Who will pay to have it removed?

    The energy usage to have a large number of pc's running their CPU's at max, that would otherwise be idle or powered off is not cheap.

    I can't believe that someone would even think that this reason alone is not enough of a reason to terminate someone. I REALLY can't believe that someone can justify installing these programs without permission and even worse call it a good thing.

    Without more information we can't say that 1.2-1.6 million dollars is reasonable or not. Wear and tear is real. Running a processor at 100% will reduce its life expectancy. Will it reduce it to less than the 3 years that is the typical lifecycle of a PC? Not sure. Did I mention power costs?
    • Disagree

      The technology director can hardly be accused of installing unapproved
      software in schools where he is in charge of maintaining software. Unless
      the policies of the school state so specifically... The background software
      for SETI hardly pegs the CPU usage and does not consumer electrical
      resources to the extent being stated here.

      The person should have been terminated for poor job performance that
      he was warned about already in 2005 - 2006.
      • Missing the point

        He is using resources for an unintended purpose. Period end of conversation. I don't care what the program does or does not do. It is unapproved software.
        Maybe more places run loose cannon type shops. In my environment I never allow anything to be installed that is not approved and we would not have approved this. I've had people written up for downloading a freeware editor. There are too many issues, especially with liability. (ie, what happens if something crashes)
        In this case we have those issues in addition to "stealing" resources. Call it what you like? I don't care how much or how little this uses. It is stealing resources if it is not done with permission.
        • typical

          This is a typical IT attitude. I think IT types forget that the computers are not there for them to take care of, or to protect from the rest of the company's employees; they're there to aid in achieving business goals. The IT department, with its generally parochial concerns, is not the best group to be deciding what the business can and cannot, should or shouldn't, do.

          As the OP pointed out, however, people view the work of IT as voodoo, and so they are rarely challenged. If I need something that will enable me to do my job better, and increase my efficiency, and IT's main reason to deny it is that it creates more work for them, then that's the sign of IT run amok.
          • re:typical

            You have absolutely no idea how hard an IT admin or Tech's job is, obviously. You want to know why IT's are such hardasses? We spend most of our day figure out what the **** you just did to the computer because you don't know how to use them properly. We keep these machines running so that the users can use them to efficiently perform their job. And if anyone gets to dictate Corporate IT policy, it should be the IT's themselves and not the users who think they know better..

            If you want typical take a look at yourself.
          • Thank you

            You are right; we IT people are in charge
            at everything IT. We tell the company what
            software we load and they deal with it or
            find other IT people who will take
            marching orders from idiots who think they
            know. That?s why we are hired not to
            suggest improvements but to make them.
            This guy was just an incompetent fool and
            gives all IT professionals a bad name. Not
            for the software he choose but for all the
            other stupid things.
        • If that's your policy

          He is the director (though a crappy one), he gets to decide what is approved and unapproved software. School district computers are usually intended to further educational goals and opportunities. I think it is easy to argue this is an intended (if controversial) use of educational computers. It was helping a university do research, and if any kids saw it and were curious, it might make them interested enough to find out more about SETI/BOINC (or distributed computing in general).

          I can see limiting the software people run on their computers, but you have to be flexible too to allow people to get their job done. I regularly need to install small mostly innocuous apps to do my job, like a basic code editor, and a PDF/Text command line extractor.

          Liability is a red herring when you are not in a regulated field. There is almost no chance a non networking program will bring down more than the computer it is installed on. Woops, that's some of the employee's and tech services time wasted resolving it. But you are probably more than making up for that in enhanced productivity the rest of the time.

          I hope you discuss your strict policy leading into final interviews. If you hired me, and I found out about your draconian tech policy and opinions later, I'd probably quit on the spot, unless you were paying me way above what I thought I was worth.
          • Every paragraph and point spot on!

            Thanks Colin!

            You saved me some typing and lucidity!

            If I weren't also one of the lucky ones, I'd ask if your place was hiring...
          • In one of lifes little ironies...

            ... the day after I said "I was one of the lucky ones..." referring to where I worked, I was RIFfed.
            When the order from on high is "cut the budget" in a primarily engineering company, this translates to "cut heads". It doesn't matter how good the team is, if you can't pay for all of them, you keep only what you can afford.
            I don't believe "they" really know what they've lost, but I'm as much to blame for that as they are.
            I find some solace in that, of the people I have worked with, I can't point to one of them and say, "It should have been him/her."
          • Strict policy

            I don't know how much a director this guy was. His duties sounds like he is an admin. Regardless he absolutely needed permission. I thought that it would be obvious since he was fired for doing just that.

            Our strict policy is a godsend. When I started at my employer years ago, everyone was a local admin on their machines, they could install anything they wanted. No two machines were the same. It was an absolute mess.
            I came in with some other folks and changed that. It was a hard fought battle but in the end we are all better for it. When I arrived the desktop team could never get more than 80% success with software pushes. One of the big reasons was that they couldn't guarantee the integrity of the pc's. Once we standardized on an image where almost no one was an admin, guess what happened? We now have about a 100% success rate for software and patch distribution. This increases efficiency because machines are up all the time.
            Liability should be an issue regardless of it being a regulated field. (though I work in a field regulated by the SEC) My guess is that he used his domain admin account to perform this install. I don't know this software well enough, but would it be running under his credentials? If so, do you see a problem here? Many, many large corporations have similar policies. The major holdouts are academia. (Universities especially)

            Not sure why you think we should be discussing what you consider a "draconian tech policy"? When potential candidates (on my side) hear about our policies they are ecstatic. On the other side (ie our business users) that is not my call. End users have no business being local admins on their machines. There are a few exceptions. But those folks get no support. If their machine dies, it gets re-imaged. We spend no time diagnosing what they screwed up.

            I am still having a hard time understanding why people are defending him on this issue. (Regardless of the fact that he was incompetent in his other duties) He installed something he was not supposed to install and he was fired.
          • You agree he needed permission?

            He was the IT Admin, why would he need to
            get software approved.He had the right to
            choose. He was what you say you are in
            charge of software.

            You say your computers are up 100% of the
            time and never down.? Really?? do you even
            work with computers??

            Or is it you only have Macs as we all know
            they never have any problems.

            He should have been fired for stealing and
            not install the security software he was
            suppose to. Why get him on unauthorized

            Sure if I was in that position I would not
            install anything like that without prior
            approaval, but that is not the point. He
            was hired to do a job and install what he
            thought (even though he is and idiot) was
            the best software for the organization. He
            could have used this as a learning tool
            for everyone at the school. Like a previous post stated, it could of been a
            good PR move for the school.

            So please tell me where you work? I would
            love to have an IT job where the system is
            up 100% of the time. That sounds dreamy.
            But then again is the system is always up
            what do you do again???
          • Not so...

            "Regardless he absolutely needed permission."

            That's not necessarily true, without seeing his job duties. To me it sounds like he held the position to approve software. He failed in other duties, and through overreaching indictment, and poor reporting, they used a controversial topic as convenient cover to fire him.

            "My guess is that he used his domain admin account to perform this install... but would it be running under his credentials? If so, do you see a problem here?"

            This is an irrelevant discussion without more info. He being the IT Administrator should have a department "install-bot" account that any services which always run are attached to that account. That is how anything from antivirus, to malware, to BOINC would be installed and run. No, he shouldn't use his regular personal admin account for this though.

            "When potential candidates (on my side) hear about our policies they are ecstatic."

            As a business leader, I don't really care about the Tech department other than they are efficiently providing the tools my employees need to perform their job most efficiently, and also keep me out of legal trouble as a leader. Compliance is an overused and frequently illegitimate excuse for IT authoritarian policies.

            "End users have no business being local admins on their machines. There are a few exceptions. But those folks get no support. If their machine dies, it gets re-imaged. We spend no time diagnosing what they screwed up."

            That is fair enough, as long as it is not abused. If I installed a program to extract PDFs to text, and IT refuses to see why I am not getting emails in Outlook, it is a BS excuse to blame my program. But after a brief attempt to troubleshoot, it is fair enough if the extent of my "support" is a re-image. In fact, it is what IT frequently does anyway.
        • ignore:wrong reply-to

          wrong reply-to...
        • It is you missing the Pointf

          This man was the supervisor or head of IT for the school district, and part of his duties is to approve software to install. Ipso facto, any software he installs IS approved.

          Let me see, unintended pupose....hmmm...School District, educating, running a program that aids universities in educating...definitely not the purpose.

          However, he certainly took this to excessive, or even obsessive levels by leaving all the computers on at night. Quite apart from his theft and incompetance.
    • 100%?

      I've never had any of my background research
      programs (including SETI@Home and some protein
      folding ones) crank the CPU up to 100%, even
      when the computer is idle my processor never
      gets above 25%. And I'm pretty sure I didn't
      tweak any settings.

      Also, since it's a school, the computers are on
      all the time anyway and how much more
      electricity is ACTUALLY used to bring CPU usage
      up from 0% to 25%? The monitors are likely on
      all the time, the computer likely are never put
      to sleep or anything like that, so power usage
      isn't the real concern here.

      Oh, and if he's in charge of managing the
      computers (like was said above) unless he was
      specifically told not to install it, he does
      have the prerogative to it.
      • I have used BOINC and quit.

        You can set thresholds for how much computing
        power to use, and when. I had mine set to go
        100% using idle CPU cycles. The machine ran hot
        -- hot enough that the cooling fan died soon
        thereafter, requiring a service call. And we
        all know if you're generating a lot of heat,
        it's using a lot of power. So throttling down
        to 25% or so just means you're using 25% of the
        power that you might use going full-throttle.
        But make no mistake, it WILL take more
        electricity. As Milton Friedman said, there's
        no such thing as a free lunch. It's as true in
        computing as it is in economics.
        • Considering your wasteful power supplies

          Much of a computer's electrical usage is wasted through conversion of AC to DC and so forth. Take in the factor that usually schools by the cheapest computer with the most in-efficient power supplies that would use just as much electricity if the CPU is fully loaded or idle that this really makes no difference. I utilize Folding@home on my two desktops. I have noticed about $30 dollars difference in electricity. I am also using about 6 GPUs and 2 Quad core CPUs to generate enough heat that I have to open my windows when the ambient temperate is 73 degrees out side in a house that is 1000 square feet.

          I also run highly efficient Power supplies because I don't like using up electricity so wastefully.

          Preach what you want, but I have been folding on my systems for well over a year and they show little sign of wear and tear. I have folded on systems since 2004. I have not had to replace any CPU fans, or additional hardware. Most of my systems are running stock at the moment. While I don't recommend running F@H or any other Distributed computing software in a production environment, I see very little cost and more benefit in a school computing environment.

          As the Author of this article said, the biggest crime is not doing his job and instead having time to setup BOINC on 5000 PCs. Also, they can remove all of that with a really good script if their network is configured by anyone with a year of Windows Networking understanding. I could pull it off on 300 computers at work and I don't even have a domain to work with, so Meh!
    • re: reason given is more than enough

      Whether I agree or disagree, I just want to point out that you need to get your facts straight. Distributed computing programs like BOINC and (Folding/SETI)@Home projects do not run 100% cpu cycles. They can be modified, and literally make a difference of 1-10% processor cycles. If you want to run it full blast, I've personally never seen my home machines run at above 50%.

      And take the story with a grain of salt. That 1.2-1.6 million dollar figure that the school district complains it incurred because of the I.T. is outlandish. Do the math yourself. Say that he had 1000 machines running BOINC/SETI@Home. It would take close to a decade to rack up that kind of energy bill, including infastructure/manpower