Admin fired for incompetence, not alien search

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.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

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] decisions...in 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.

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