San Francisco's mayor gets back keys to the network

Gavin Newsom meets with Terry Childs

But without access to either Childs' passwords or the backup configuration files, administrators would have to essentially re-configure their entire network, an error-prone and time consuming possibility, Chase said. "It's basically like playing 3D chess," he said. "In that situation, you're stuck interviewing everybody at every site getting anecdotal stories of who's connected to what. And then you're guaranteed to miss something."

Without the passwords, the network would still continue to run, but it would be impossible to reconfigure the equipment. The only way to restore these devices to a manageable state would be to knock them offline and then reconfigure them, something that would take weeks or months to complete, disrupt service and cost the city "hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars," Ramsey claims.

Crane argues that these monitoring devices were installed with management's permission and were critical to the smooth functioning of the network. They would page Childs when the system went down and allow him to remotely access the network from his personal computer in case of an emergency.

In interviews, current and former DTIS staffers describe Childs as a well respected co-worker who may have gone too far under the pressure of working in a department that had been demoralized and drastically cut as the city moved forward with plans to decentralize IT operations.

About 200 of the department's 350 IT positions had been cut since 2000, mostly to be relocated to other divisions within city government, said Richard Isen, IT chapter president with Childs' union, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 21.

Despite his conflict with some in the department, Childs has a lot of support there, Isen said. "There is a lot of sympathy, only because there is a basic feeling that management misunderstand what we actually do and doesn't appreciate the complexity of the work."

(Paul Venezia is Senior Contributing Editor with InfoWorld)

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