% fortune -ae paul murphy

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss

My title, above, comes from a comment by "toadlife" to a blog about HP's announced compiler improvements for Itanium. Consider these two key paragraphs from that comment:

Never underestimate how badly lack of UNIX experience can hurt you. Did I tell about the time our guy who admins the HP900 did chmod 111 on the root directory? Oops. Yeah, we were down for about a week that time, and had to have HP come in and rescue us.


Running Linux or Solaris would require us to pay for support contracts on the OS due to the IT head's fear of UNIX, and inability to hire more competent UNIX help, even if she wanted to. It would be a case of, "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."

His comment about being down for a week because of a "chmod 111 /*" illustrates the general truth of what he says, not because it actually takes more than a few minutes to recover from this kind of thing - even if the idiot responsible followed up with a "/etc/reboot" - but because it took them a week.

Look carefully at what he's saying: it amounts to "we're buying Windows because we hire Windows people, and we hire Windows people because the boss is a Windows person."

I see this all the time. In an organization with a mixed environment the Windows people typically outnumber the Unix people by ratios like 15 or 20 to 1; the Windows people suffer the computing crisises and therefore get the face time with senior management; and, the Windows people are usually just technical enough to earn a living as Windows people -meaning that the people who learnt in highschool to avoid, deride, and dislike the typical Unix nerd and then grew up to become business side managers, find them easy to like and easy to trust.

Put it all together and what you get is what we usually see: Windows people in charge of IT and the consequent denigration of Unix - meaning that taking a week to recover from "chmod -R 111 / " on a critical application server is just par for the course.

In the general case this phenomenon, that Windows people get promoted and then promote more of what they know, has two distinct kinds of consequences:

  1. first, IT costs go up even while IT performance, relative to what IT could be doing for the organization, goes down; and,

  2. the organization loses the opportunity to establish competitive advantage through its information systems - basically, IT does not matter strategically if you're using the same people, the same technologies, and the same applications as everybody else.

So who's at fault?

My answer is that in the short it's senior management's job to understand IT well enough to make intelligent, rather than emotional, judgements about who should be in charge and what IT should do. Basically, we all went to high school and suffered the same social molding, but people who aspire to senior management jobs have a responsibility to get over it.

The longer term blame, however, rests squarely with the Universities and others involved in management education. Too many of them are simply not doing the job -both victims and perpetrators of the same social phenomenon leading Toadlife's bosses to make bad decisions.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.