The story of Terry Childs, the network administrator whose missing password has brought the San Francisco government's network to a screeching halt, seems to be getting a fair bit of press. The idea that he is sitting on the real password as a negotiating tactic with the city of San Francisco (which seems to be implied by Eric Crane, Mr. Child's lawyer) makes for an amusing visual. Part of me, however, is gritting its proverbial teeth, as the situation has a certain resonance with negative experience I've had with administrative technical personnel in past positions.
I know I risk turning this blog post into a flame-war between people who make a living as admins and people who program and / or use IT infrastructure (I'm a programmer, so I'm in the latter category). However, I'm fairly laid-back, unless you think having opinions on most subjects doesn't qualify me for that title (I never demand anyone agree with me). I don't get involved in intra-office politics, and I somehow manage to be on friendly terms with pretty much everybody. My cool exterior, however, has cracked numerous times under the strain of having to interact with administrators with a fetish for control.
I'm a programmer, and I normally need to do odd things on my computer that the average user at a company should not be able to do. That seems to throw many tech admins for a loop, and so most of my fights have been over gaining administrative access to my development computer. I've usually won that battle...eventually, but that doesn't mean it wasn't achieved with some pain.
Once, I had to escalate high up the IT management chain, a process that took about a month, on account of needing administrative access so I could do some COM-related development (I simply could not get my work done without it). The responsible admin didn't take it very well, stomping into my cubicle on the day he changed my access rights with all the gravitas of a person whose cat I had just run over.
There was the time that one member of our team had appointed himself as admin of all team computers, and proceeded to lock everyone out of all of them. One particular source of conflict was the Mac computer that he placed in his cubicle, upon which all of us needed to test our software. There was no reason for it to have a password that was exclusive to him. I put up with it until he was out sick for a week and a half and absolutely refused to disgorge login details.
The list goes on and on, and I bet most people who have worked in a programming capacity have similar stories.
I'm not sure what it is that makes SOME tech admins act this way (and please note, I have good friends who are technical administrators and who do NOT act this way). Perhaps the intensive focus on security turns into a psychosis that obscures some people's ability to realize that people actually need to USE the system they are responsible for protecting (said the evil tech administrator: my system would be secure if not for all those damn users). Perhaps people with a technical bent who like control are attracted to positions where they are responsible for maintaining it.
I am aware that none of this may apply to Terry Childs. It's not fair to judge him based on my own negative experiences. On the other hand, I well understand the source of the "knee-jerk" response to his actions.