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WordPerfect Security Thought They Had The Perfect Number. . .Unintended Consequences

August 11, 2015

WordPerfect Security, how can I help you? 

Is my mom there?

Ah. . .I don’t know. What’s her name?

I don’t know.

Okay, what’s your name?

Tommy.

How old are you?

I’m four.

The year was 1988. WordPerfect had recently moved into their new office park. I was working in the Telecom office. With the new move we also standardized the phone numbers. Like many big companies, WordPerfect secured a block of numbers with the same three digit prefix; 222. Of course, to call someone’s extension, you only needed to dial the last five digits. Security, decided they wanted the 22222 extension. It was easy to remember. Too easy, as it turned out. 

The law of unintended consequences can strike any time. I’m reminded of a Dilbert cartoon that I kept pinned up in our office at RESMARK, when we were writing software. The Pointy-Haired Boss wants to motivate his developers to find bugs. 

We will pay $10 for every bug you find and fix.

His team is ecstatic!

Woo Hoo! I’m gonna code myself a minivan this afternoon!

If you pay the developers for finding bugs, but don’t penalize them for writing bugs, you have the law of unintended consequences. This is especially important when you start to measure anything. There is a management saying, “What gets measured, improves.” And while that’s true, it doesn’t always happen the way you might like. 

While working for a large non-profit in Utah, my team owned the email system. We had a stated goal for the availability of our email servers. One weekend one of the executives had trouble getting into email. My team investigated and declared that the email servers were up and running all weekend. 

How is that possible if the executive couldn’t get to his email?

It was one of the other network systems that was down.

Can anyone get to email if that system is down?

Well, no. But, the email servers themselves weren’t down.

I had to explain to my team that if our users couldn’t get to our services, then we were down; regardless of what the state of the actual servers were. Keep in mind what it is you are actually trying to accomplish. Availability numbers don’t mean much if they don’t measure the actual availability. 

In my current role, I need to monitor the availabilty of the systems in our call centers. There are pretty severe financial penalties associated with missing our aggressive availability numbers. As a result, there’s tremendous pressure to classify any outages as client caused. If our client causes an outage, it doesn’t count against our stats. The agents are still off the phones, we still have to try to fix it, but if the client takes ownership of the issue, we don’t have to pay, even if the call floor is still shut down. 

As you build your monitoring system, or your review system, or any system that you are going to use to evaluate your teams, keep in mind that things don’t always go as planned. The law of unintended consequences can strike when you least expect it. 

WordPerfect Security eventually figured out why they were getting so many calls from kids who could barely use the phone. It wasn’t because the kids were lost, or in danger. In fact, most of the kids were calling from their own homes. In the days before cell phones, when you didn’t need to dial the area code to complete a call, kids were picking up the handset and randomly pushing buttons. Sometimes the kid would push the same button over and over. Sometimes they would push the number 2 over and over until they completed a call. 

WordPerfect Security’s phone number was (801) 222-2222. Today, the number is owned by a law firm in Utah. I wonder if they still get calls from Tommy?

  

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

Follow him on
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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

(c) 2015 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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