Never Alienate your DBAs

A tip for managers: never alienate your DBAs. If you do, it is liable to lead to painful consequences. I speak from experience. Having suffered one of those occasional “reverses in career fortune”, I wound up taking an appointment as a Team Leader/DBA for the IT support team of a German startup Telecommunications company.

I was intently staring at my screen one afternoon, as DBAs often do, when Jorgen, one of the senior managers, strode up to my desk. He was a rising star in the company due to the huge uptake of his new Italian coupon-based phone service. This was actually one project for which we weren’t providing database support; Jorgen had recently sent an email tirade to the IT director stating that he was dispensing with the services of Central IT because we were too slow and hidebound. He was relying instead on ‘his own dynamic staff’.

As far as Jorgen was concerned, our job was simply to supply, on request, management reports for the board detailing the stupendous success of his project.

“Is the report on my Italian phone service ready yet?” he snapped, with his usual level of tact.

“Good afternoon, Jorgen” I chirped, tearing my eyes reluctantly from the screen. “I trust that all is well with you. Unfortunately we’re still working on the reports and I don’t see them being ready until the end of the week.”

“I’m meeting the CEO tomorrow afternoon and I must have it then. You promised it to me yesterday.”

“Not so. You asked when I thought it would be ready. I told you I thought it would be ready yesterday. I was wrong in thinking it would be ready”.

He should have asked me why I’d been wrong. He didn’t.

“If I don’t get it before the meeting on Thursday, there will be someone else in your shoes by Friday!”

The sentence echoed around the open-office area. I was supposed to be cowed into submission. Instead I laughed. “Sorry, but that’s impossible”

“And why is that?” he said, coloring up. All eyes in the office were upon us.

“Because I’m wearing sandals”

He flounced out of the room. For a moment I savored the comic absurdity of the company putting so much faith in an idiot savant whose entire cerebral energy was focused on making money and, incidentally, enemies.

It is easy to come to believe that a DBA’s many working hours spent staring into screens was merely a ruse designed to infuriate senior managers. In fact, in this case, before Jorgen had rudely interrupted me, I had been intensively following the evil activities of ‘The Porker’.

The Porker, named evidently for his girth and disgusting eating habits, wasn’t alone in trying to defraud large sums of money from telecoms companies. In those days, plenty of people were at it. The denationalization of the state-held phone companies had induced a rash of startups, like ours, staffed by people completely inexperienced in the wicked world of telephone fraud.

Jorgen had experienced a meteoric career in the denationalized telecoms companies. He had hypnotized our CEO into believing that he was uniquely qualified to spearhead the introduction of profitable new telephone products into the market. He could, he explained, succeed where the the old hidebound state-owned companies could merely fluster, because he had experience, energy, vision and confidence.

The Porker suffered no such self-delusion. He was experienced in telephone fraud. From his rooms in Manchester, he operated an extraordinarily ingenious operation that probed the weaknesses of all the new services. The scam was simple. The Porker, and his colleagues, set up a range of premium-rate services, each one using a newly-introduced premium-rate phone number. He then rang them via all the new telephone companies. If they charged him correctly, he moved on, having lost little. However, if a company failed to spot that it was a premium-rate number, he would immediately bombard his own premium-rate number with automated calls via that service provider. He would then get the payment for the call to his premium-rate number from his own provider, who would then bill the hapless telecoms company who routed the call to them. All he would have ‘invested’ for each call would have been a charge for the local rate. For every pound he spent, he would get a fifty-fold return.

There were many such scams, from the crude to the breathtakingly subtle, but The Porker’s scam was typical. I often used to meet with fellow Telecomms DBAs, in a pub off Holborn that served extremely good pints of Youngs bitter, to discuss the latest activities of The Porker and his ilk.

As a team, we did all we could to ensure that our tariff tables were kept up-to-date and that customers were correctly billed. If it was a ‘prepaid’ service, then we ensured that the deduction was correct. However, it is an imperfect world, and occasionally, a fraudster such as the Porker would probe our defenses and find a weakness. In order to spot fraud in any business system, your detection system must look for the flurry of unusual activity by which the fraudster inevitably gives himself away. You’ll never be able to guess beforehand all the potential avenues for fraud. All you can do is to spot the signs of such activity and puzzle out what they’re up to. The DBA becomes like a carnivorous beast, all senses honed at spotting the rats. His senses are his queries, and his database tools. Our team had become very adept at producing queries that were sensitive enough, and unobtrusive enough, to catch the scams before we experienced heavy financial loss. We’d then react quickly to correct the tariff and slam the door shut on the likes of The Porker.

I was just one in a long line of DBAs that Jorgen had alienated. I was also the last, as it turned out. Through underestimating the forensic skills required of his IT support, he was uniquely vulnerable – and foolish. I settled back to writing the report on his Italian coupon service. A management report is one of the most frightening things a DBA can be responsible for. It has to be right. If you get a sales report wrong, it can lead to people being unfairly sacked or rewarded. If you get a profit or loss figure wrong, your management can commit huge resources to the wrong part of the business, and starve the real revenue-earners. I could see that there was something wrong with Jorgen’s report, which is why I couldn’t let it out. Jorgen’s rudeness had merely served to supercharge my natural obstinacy.

The team combed through the raw data obsessively. When we spotted the problem, it was obvious and frightening. Jorgen’s prepaid coupon service was losing us millions. The Tariff tables hadn’t been updated, and the rats were crawling all over it. Coupons were being bought all over Italy, and being used to phone premium-rate numbers that we were mis-charging at standard rates. What looked like a brilliant and fast-expanding service was actually a feeding frenzy for the fraudsters. As soon as the whole horror was apparent, we laid it out before the IT director. He gave a low whistle and we immediately had a long conference call with the CEO. The following day we followed a plan. Jorgen, as expected, stormed up to my desk early in the morning.

“Where is my f***ing report?”

“Jorgen, how good to see you again. We’re almost finished and we will deliver the report at the board meeting. I’ve cleared this with the IT Director and CEO “

“I told you I needed it before the meeting you ****”. I raised an eyebrow: I’d never found myself likened to anyone’s external genitalia before.

“I can appreciate your point of view, and I’m sorry I can’t comply. These reports have to be rigorously cross-checked.” His powers of expression ran out and he stormed off.

At the allotted time, I picked up ten copies of my report and popped upstairs to the board-room, where the meeting was already in progress. Jorgen was in full flow with a PowerPoint slide onscreen that showed the splendid growth in users of his Italian coupon service. I popped a copy of the report in front of every board member and sat on a chair next to the IT director.

When Jorgen had finished his presentation, the CEO turned to me with slight conspiratorial smile. ‘Phil will now deliver the latest report on the new service, from the perspective of Central IT’

I stood up and told the board that, while the user figures for Jorgen’s new service were indeed impressive, it had in fact lost the company a total of 5.6Million pounds sterling. This loss was directly attributable to a failure to add provision for proper fraud detection, brought about by his reckless refusal to use the services of central IT. After running through the figures, I sat down with a smile. Are all DBAs subjected to this sort of stressful activity, I wondered?

Jorgen was struck dumb. He sat there, puce in the face, staring ahead and sweating profusely. After a strangled cry, he suddenly erupted.

“That **** Phil Factor” he yelled, gesticulating wildly at me “He was smiling as he told you all that. That ignorant old b*stard wants me to fail! He was actually f***ing smiling!”

He had started to flex his biceps in a slightly alarming manner, so I nodded in an amiable way to the assembled board members and made a strategic exit.

On the Friday morning, I ambled into the office, sat down at my desk and took a long look down at my sandals. The feet in them were, reassuringly, my own. Shortly afterwards, I saw old Hans, the Facilities man, clearing out the content of Jorgen’s desk and office, and unceremoniously dumping them into a cardboard box. The IT director later told me that Jorgen had tried every trick he knew to extricate himself, but had been encouraged by the unanimous board to spend a lot more time with his family. His departure caused barely a ripple of controversy; the telecoms industry has always been adept at burying its dead without disturbing its shareholders with all the gory details. No: it is never a good idea to alienate your DBAs.

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