I used to work at the IOC desk for a very large international network company. No, not the International Olympic Committee, but we did get that joke a lot. Our stood for International Operations Center, and it was manned 24/7 by five people. Let me repeat that, because it bears repeating. It was 24/7, manned by five people. This meant almost no overlap. Four phone lines. Several million customers. Oh yeah. Bring it on!
How I got the job
I got the job via my friend Sean, who was working for the company's technical department. I was currently working for a company where I was their 24/7 on call programmer for 13 call centers. I was supposedly 1 of 5, but then two quit, and the other two were pretty lazy. Then I got so good at my job, even if I wasn't on call, I'd get paged anyway because, as one help desk put it, "We can page Blah blah, but he may not respond, or certainly won't respond for hours, and if he does respond, it takes him a long time to fix it. We page you, you respond within minutes, and fix it pretty quickly. If my job is on the line, I will find you." My success was killing me. Did I mention I was making less than $30,000/year at this job? And got an awful review with a 3% raise? Yeah. I saw the writing on the wall, there. So I sent out my resumes. Sean used to work this desk, and said the pay was great, and while the hours sucked, I'd learn a lot. Oh yeah. I did.
Funny. I went from a middle-layer job as a call center programmer, and got a job as a bottom-feeding catfish-sucking lowlife as an International Support Guy, and got a 25% pay hike. Plus, the opening was the hell shift, so that was an additional 12% differential. Plus all the overtime you could want. I made a ton of money.
The hours sucked. How do you man a 24/7 desk with only 5 people? Let's see, 24 x 7 = 168 and divide that by 5 and get 33.6 hours per person. That left little overlap. How we did this was two people did three 12-hour shifts (with four hours left over for overlap and meetings) and two people did four 10 hour shifts. I had the hell 12-hour shift, Thursday through Saturday, midnight to noon. The other person would be mirroring me, doing the other 12 hours. The rest were Sunday - Wednesday.
Let me tell you something. People who hear you do three 12 hour shifts a week often comment, "Wow, you only work 3 days a week? Lucky!" Ah... no. It sucks. Sucks like the harsh vacuum of space in the movie, "Outland." The 18 months I worked that desk, I ruined my circadian rhythm, got an ulcer, and lost a lot of my social life. Our lead, a wise OKC Cowboy by the name of Robby, confessed to me he got addicted to Nyquil because it was the only way for him to sleep anymore!
Part of that was due to the "all the overtime you could eat." Let me explain something. If you got sick, or take a vacation, or are otherwise absent? Someone got overtime. And a lot of it. It wasn't always me, but I jumped at the chance often because of all the money it meant. Sometimes I didn't have a choice, like if my mirror got sick. This happened a lot with two employees, and what happened is I'd do my 12 hour shift, she'd call in sick, I'd do her 12 hour shift, and then... my 12 hour shift again! Wheeeeeee! The longest I did in a row was 40 hours, but usually I didn't have to do more than 30 - 35 hours before someone else would sub for me so I could get sleep. Our boss, Dennis, was a great guy and didn't want this to happen, although sometimes he couldn't prevent it. The record was by the senior lead Robby, who did a 53-hour shift during a snowstorm when no one could get in or out of the data center. He did sleep. At the desk, along with half the rest of the stranded people in the NOC.
Overtime was 2.5 x hourly pay. There were weeks I did 80 - 90 hours. That's a hell of a lot of overtime. I made a ton of money. It literally launched me into a new tax bracket for two years until I got "promoted" to a salary position.
Our desk was smack in the middle of the NOC, Network Operations Center, of the whole company. From our position, we could see and yell at most of the other groups. If you have seen NASA's Mission Control in Houston, ours looked a lot like that (but smaller, and less ties). The IOC desk was 80% dead boredom and 20% sheer panic during my shift. I worked when Europe (UK, Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, Ireland, and The Netherlands) was getting up and starting business, while the Pacific Rim (Hong Kong, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand) was going into the peak call period of the evening. Add to that all the US issues.
When it was boring, it was boring. Usually midnight to 2:00am was dead. So dead, half our NOC was asleep, literally. I had moments where I'd shake and wake some poor soul as they slept in their chair. Some people walked around a lot to stay awake, myself included. Our shift didn't see the sun much, only when we left (the NOC was in an underground bunker with no link to the outside world), and then we went to sleep. We drank a lot of coffee. A lot of Mountain Dew.
My problems started around 2:00 - 3:00am when Europe was coming to their offices, about 5-7 hours ahead of the US (depending on country). That kept me busy until 10:00am, when most of Europe went home for the day. The Pacific Rim was about 11 hours ahead, and the peak user shift for them started about the same time. Our Pac Rim people were all in Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and all over Australia. Problems tended to start at about 6:00am, and ran until 10:00am. And I was alone. On a desk with four phone lines, four computer monitors with two IM names, and managing several mailboxes and a ticketing system. My biggest problem was (no, not the French) the US. I had several major problems with US people that I break down into several categories. Note, these are problems I had with other companies, notably UUNet/MCI/Worldcom, although AT&T and Sprint certainly weren't perfect, either.
1. Ignorance. Not just technical ignorance, but ignorance of how time zones worked, where countries were, and just general US-centric pigheadedness. More than once, I had this kind of conversation:
Punk: Hey, mail's down in the UK. No one can resolve their US mail servers.
Tech: Why are people in their office at 4am?
Punk: It's 10:00am there.
Tech: So, don't they sleep at night?
Punk: The sun is up there. It's 10:00am there. They have been open, without mail, for two hours.
Tech: The sun can't be up, it's dark outside. They are lying to you.
Punk: [sigh] Just fix the mail servers.
Tech: When does their office open?
Punk: Two hours ago.
Tech: They go to work when it's this dark? Woah, Yookay people are WEIRD!
I once had a two hour call where all the US to Australia links went down. I traced the problem to Sydney, where I knew UUNet had four main channels connected to AR Routers. The snobby tech tried to convince me, patronizingly, that there was "No Sidnee in Australia." This became a conference call, where the head of our Australian division screamed at this kid that Sydney was, indeed, a major city in Australia. The tech had "helpfully" assumed we meant "Sydney, New York," even though to this day, I have never heard of a Sydney, Sidney, or even Sidnee in New York. Finally, the Australian guy asked, "Well, what do you see in Australia?" The tech sighed, and said, "We show a Vienna, a Salzburg..." "That's AUSTRIA!" I screamed. The tech's next dumb reply still rings in my ears, "You mean there's a difference? I thought it was a different regional spelling..." Sure enough, when typed in correctly, UUNet had, surprise, several main lines in Sydney, Australia.
2. Liars. I was stunned, shocked, and amazed how many techs lied to my face. It all boiled down to "it's not us, it's you" until I proved it was them. You'd think they'd learn, but they never did. I went over so many people's heads, some techs had my sneaker prints on their scalp. I have had people try and convince me that they had never heard of us (our company was a HUGE worldwide Internet provider, with a brand name logo plastered everywhere), refuse to give help because I didn't have a proper merchant ID, or the most common: "I'll get back to you." I suspect almost everyone who said they'd get back to me never did. I just got used to saying, "I am calling back in 15 minutes." Of course, then I'd get another tech, and would have to explain the WHOLE THING all over again... the general consensus at the desk was that, "I'll get back to you," meant, "I don't want to do look this up, and I hope you will forget about this as quickly as I surely will." The only way you could EVER hold anyone accountable was to get a ticket number. In fact, our own ticketing system would not allow you to save an incident without one. Some techs tried to hang up on you before you got a ticket number, or they'd even boldly make up a number.
3. Incompetence. Holy crap, some of the techs that answered the phones were just plain dumb. I was told that the people who worked night shifts at UUNet ("after the buyout") were simply warm bodies, usually college students, just to provide contract agreement. I have no idea if this was actually true, but it seemed that way. I used to imagine some of these techs, staring stupidly at a porn site, getting drool on their keyboard. One NOC in Michigan had a bunch of people who, and I kid you not, were addicted to fishing shows. They had cable on in their NOC to "entertain" the techs. What's even worse? They had a webcam that showed that many people weren't at their desks. After we used webcam images (complete with timestamps) to show no one was answering their hotlines, the webcam changed to the same picture, 24 x 7. Trouble was, the pictures were taken during the day, and they had windows. Gee, it sure is sunny at 4am for you guys, and I have been staring at the same tech by the phone, with the same jacket, and the same hat, for weeks now. Then the cam went down.
4. Just plain apathy. Hey, maybe everyone from Dusseldorf to Munich had no Internet connections, but they can wait until Monday, right? Again, I had to escalate until someone DID care. Maybe 100,000 people in Australia suddenly had no phone service, but hey, who talks to Australians anyway, huh? Some even brushed it off as, "Those wacky Japanese," or "those damn Frogs can sip their wine and wait until we fix this." I got two people fired when I reported those comments. Let me tell you, when the head of your French operation is an angry lesbian with more technical savvy than most people I have ever met, don't you DARE call her "one of those wine-sipping Frogs."
One girl named Carmen always answered the phone in a Columbus-based company (that rhymed with "Slompuserve") with, "HelloMyNameIsCarmenCanIHelpYou..." in one long, slow, monotone, Russian-accented voice filled with so much apathy and disgust, it nearly sucked the soul out of you simply by hearing it. After one long, drawn-out incident where she was caught in all for of these sins I have mentioned, I wrote a long letter to my boss, calling her a "apathetic sea-cow, munching bitter watercress, and making us all pay for her bad life decisions. If someone doesn't fire her, they need to get her a boyfriend who would stoop to having sex with her, just to cheer her the heck up. can someone at least give her a hug?" Sadly, I had yet to learn my boss had no qualms about screening tactful comments, and forwarded my whole letter to the head of Carmen's company. Did they fire her? No. But for weeks, she answered the phone with an enforced perkiness that hinted of a possible electrified cattle-prod in her chair. Ever force a Goth to smile? Yeah, it was as creepy as Wednesday's smile in the movie, "The Addams Family Values." Then, finally, she was taken off our account with that company.
We had a slew of odd people. When I came on, I was replacing a guy who used to actually sleep at the desk. I was told he was a Rastafarian who smelled funny, and the only person ever to be fired from that desk, usually because he wouldn't answer the phone or any IMs. There was Robby, whom I have mentioned, and a hard-working girl named Lisa. We also had a Melissa (who left to teach in Lithuania, I think), a Leigh (who got promoted), a John (who got promoted, then laid off, but made so much money during the Tech stock boom, he just went and bought a huge house in cash), a Suzi (laid off after the merger), Sean (promoted), and an Angela (who only got the job because she used to be the HEAD of the whole NOC, and left for maternity leave, and when she returned, she had been promised a position back there... which meant we were just a stepping stone until an opening gave her the old job back).
I got promoted to test International phone systems and work with Sean after working the desk for about a year and a half. By that point, my body could take no more. I had accumulated enough wealth to pay off all my remaining debts from my unemployed period of 1991-1993, plus invest the rest in the Tech stock boom (which I also cashed out before it all fell, and is why I am able to have such a fine house now). I gained a wealth of friends from all over the globe, some of whom I am still friends with. But by now I had gained another 20 pounds, had a really painful ulcer, got addicted to caffeine, and to this day, cannot sleep normally.
The desk lasted a little while longer, but our company had a merger, and they decided to "Think Globally," and merger the IOC with the US Domestic, and thus, International was fairly screwed. Robby, Suzi, and John got laid off, Lisa got pregnant and quit, and Sean and I were separated into different departments.
There's still a sense of pride as to who we were. We responded to every call, worked hard in the trenches, and formed strong support bonds with each other. We dealt with the most inane things from all over the globe. Some were as common as a router gone bad, others were more exotic like volcanos (broke microwave transmissions in the Philippines), spies (you'd be stunned what people find attached to the Trans-Atlantic cable), and even sharks (underwater cables are apparently yummy to certain sea life). We laughed hearty and bawdy jokes with the Aussies, bowed respectfully and exchanged giggles with the Japanese, dealt with the French and Germans on their own terms (you have to), and engaged in polite laughs with the British. We all bonded at that tech level, anyway.
Geeks are geeks, no matter where you are from.
This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000171.html