The SysAdmin

Steven Bergom

From: "The Denominator" <>

To: "BOFH-Talk" <>

Subject: Story: ReadMe.txt

Date: November 20, 2001

There are these stories all over the 'Net that talk about computer support calls that are incredibly outrageous. You know, the ones where the guy says, "my cup-holder doesn't work anymore," or they don't plug in a computer because they want to save power and complain how it doesn't work, or where the customer says that their foot pedal is broke. I used to think that they were jokes, that bored techies sat around thinking of the stupidest possible things for users to do. I laughed at every single one of them and committed them to memory to tell my friends.

I'm not laughing anymore.

In the fall of '98 with most of a computer engineering degree completed I took a job as system administrator for a small insurance company called 'Hale & Hart'. They weren't huge, but I like a business like that because I don't have to deal with bureaucracies. If I can get something done without having to wade through sixteen levels of idiots I am a much happier camper. Anyway, I thought hey! This has got to be a dream job because I can just sit back, relax, play on the irc and solve the odd networking problem in no time flat. How much trouble can under a hundred people using commercial software get into?

Like I said, I'm not laughing anymore.

About a month after I started I had come to the conclusion that most people don't have a clue when it comes to performing even the simplest of tasks, like flipping the power switch to the 'On' position. I spent most of my time running from mountain to mountain, discovering they were actually molehills and rejoicing when I actually got a Mt. Everest to scale. When I didn't have anything pressing I was calmly cataloging each and every security hole that the company's servers contained.

Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not the kind of guy who maliciously reroutes monetary transactions to an offshore bank account. I just like knowing where they are in case something untoward happens and I need to, I don't know, rewrite everyone's passwords with pure gibberish.

So I was sitting there examining the kernel sources to figure out how to set up a task that wouldn't show up on the process monitor when I get a call. "You've gotta' help me!" she screamed into the phone. "It's all gone! All gone, you hear me? You've gotta' help me get it back! I need it!"

I let her babble incoherently for a while, holding the earpiece away from my ear while she did it. Finally I calmed her down and found out which office she was in. Picking up my handy-dandy laptop I left for the top floor of Hale & Hart and my mysterious lady's problem.

Before I continue, I'd just like to say that I am not trying to be offensive with the above description of the panicky lady. In fact, I prefer hysterical women on these crisis runs. You see, when a female has a computer problem, she asks for help right away, and I can generally fix those problems without tearing out any more of my hair. Guys, on the other hand, have this desire to try and fix it. It doesn't matter what 'it' is; if it's broke, then no matter how little they know about it, they break out the screwdrivers and duct tape. When they finally call me, I have to settle for a complete re-install of their hard-drive.

So after I walked up five flights of stairs (it's company policy; employees need to stay healthy!) I made it to the office of Mr. Jharmin, Vice President of Finances, where I found a very beautiful woman in ill-fitting men's clothes pacing frantically. "Excuse me, Miss," I said, knocking politely on the door frame to catch her attention. "Were you the one who called about the computer problem?"

She stopped in the center of the room and turned to face me. She was beautiful. Her face was round and youthful with a cascade of blonde hair framing her head. The sleeves of her shirt almost swallowed her arms and her slacks would have fallen down if it weren't for a pair of wine-colored suspenders. The only thing that marred this picture of beauty was the look of absolute terror she gave me when saw me.

She quickly shook off her stupor and rushed to pump my hand, tripping on her oversized shoes in the process. "Oh, thank you! Thank you! I knew you'd come!"

I was a little plussed at her reception. I'll be the first to admit that I'm neither the most handsome nor interesting of people so the warm handshake she gave me made me feel all tingly. "It's my pleasure, Miss…?"

"Dale," she said. "Just call me Dale."

"So, Dale. What seems to be the problem?"

She gave me one of those looks I often get when I cannot diagnose malfunctions from a simple glance of the wall socket. "This is!" Dale said pointing at her breasts.

I guess Dale wasn't really pointing to her breasts, but you had to admit the way they were straining at her shirt (the best fitting part of her wardrobe) made them quite noticeable. After a staring at her ample bosom for several quiet seconds I shook myself out of my reverie. "You mean, you're clothes don't fit?"

"No, you numb-skull! I don't fit! I am Dale Jharmin, an officer of this company!"

Now, the Dale Jharmin I knew was a fifty year-old married man with two children, one of whom worked for this company. The person in front of I have already amply described as being exactly not that. Unbelievable as it was, I was morbidly curious at what her tale might be.

"Okay," I said. "Why don't you lead me step-by-step through what you did."

Dale led me to her desk where she sat in a very comfortable executive's chair and wiggled the mouse to kill the screensaver. "I wanted to try this new e-mail program I got last night so I copied it from my floppy disk, unzipped it and ran the installer. As soon as I hit 'Okay', this happened." She again pointed at her prominent breasts.

Nodding at her explanation I set up my laptop, hooked it to the computer and copied over the files Dale noted. When that was done I disconnected the laptop from the network and started to run my scans.

I know, I was being a bit paranoid. I could have just run a virus scanner from over the network, but this was infinitely safer. I've learned from experience the wisdom of the adage, 'It is better to be safe than to be sorry.'

The scan turned up negative for all known viruses, worms and trojans so I started to poke at the files. "So tell me all about where you got this program," I said. I didn't actually want to talk with her; I just wanted her to do something other than stare over my shoulder expectantly. It makes me nervous and I feel like a fumble-fingered klutz when they do that. I looked at the executable, poked at a couple of data files and finally opened a file blatantly named 'ReadMe.txt'. Jackpot.

"Dale," I said, interrupting her monologue on how gaudy the web page she downloaded the program was. "Dale, what made you think that this program was for reading e-mail?"

"Well, it talked about Ess-Emm something-or-other…"

"Ess-Emm-Tee-Pee?" I asked. "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol?" She nodded. "Did you by any chance read the readme file?"

"No. After I unzipped the package I just double-clicked on the program icon and poof! here's the new me."

"Well, the program you downloaded wasn't Ess-Emm-Tee-Pee, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, but Ess-Emm-Tee-Pee, Simple Male Transform Protocol. It did exactly what it was supposed to do and turned you into a female."

Dale was incredulous. I couldn't blame her; if I thought a program was supposed to do one thing and it did another, I'd be stunned, too. "If you want to get back to your old self, your best bet is to contact the manufacturer. Unfortunately," I said, scrolling the file down a bit and rotating my laptop so Dale could see it. "I don't think that'll help." There on the screen writ in large letters were the words: "This product contains no warranty, expressed or implied."

"But, but, what does that mean?" Dale stuttered.

"It means," I said, packing up my gear, "that you are up a creek without a paddle. There's no one to help you."

"What do you mean, no one to help me? You're going to help me! You're going to turn me back into a man!"

"Oh, no I'm not!" I disagreed. "That program you tried out is not one that is supported by this company. As such, I am under no requirements to assist you in recovering from an error that you propagated. In fact, as of last week when the head of IT sent out that memo, any program not listed (see schedule A of the aforementioned memo) will be refused any type of service."

I finished packing away my equipment and turned to walk out of the office.

"But what about my wife? And my kids!" Dale yelled after me.

Without turning around I said, "Not my department! Talk with the Director of IT if you have any problems."

"I have a golf game on Saturday!" Like I care about golf.

Anyway, I made it out of Dale's office just in time because as soon as I rounded the door several object came flying after me, followed by a stream of rather un-lady-like curses.

So that's my experience that convinced me that there really are people out there that will do the craziest things with their computers. I guess it's also an object lesson since, as Dale so ably demonstrated, you should never run any program without first reading the documentation. Fewer accidents happen if you do.

Then again, if users always read the documentation, people like me would be out of a job ;)