How much is 'word of honor' worth?

An IT tale that includes a region shutdown with monetary loss, an angry client, and a seemingly incriminating log-in trail

While teaching my kids life's various lessons, I've always thought it was more effective if I could relate a real-life experience to what I was trying to teach them. As luck would have it, the IT industry has afforded me a good many opportunities to pass on valuable lessons to my children.

One key example came up a few years ago after my son had gotten in trouble at school for lying. It was a he-said-I-said situation, and he ended up getting punished for something another boy had done because the teacher believed the other student and not him.

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Several years earlier, while I was still a mainframe operator, a manager called me at home one morning and told me that I had to come in that afternoon for a mandatory meeting -- and not to speak to any other employees before coming in. I had no idea what the meeting could be about.

The only major problem we'd had recently was an issue that had happened on my day off, and all I could assume was that they were hoping I could provide some insight on it. A couple of days earlier, the main production region for our largest client was brought down in the middle of the day. With no warning their entire workday came crashing to a halt. It ended up being a simple issue to recover, but the unexpected crash resulted in at least $250,000 in penalties and a political nightmare for our upper management. From what I had heard, they still had no idea how or why the region was brought down, although the client was screaming for blood.

As soon as I walked into the conference room that afternoon, I discovered that they had indeed found out not only how the region was brought down, but who they thought did it: me. In the hours following the fiasco, the support teams had looked at the logs and found where I had logged in, issued a command that would bring down the region, then immediately logged out. The managers were insisting that I tell them why I did it. Since the incident occurred on my day off, my mind was racing to figure out what had happened, and I asked that they show me the logs. They told me that they'd be crazy to give access to someone who had brought down our largest client, but they did admit that they thought it was completely out of character for me. They finally agreed and allowed me to log into the system with someone standing over my shoulder.

Sure enough, the shutdown command was issued by my ID. Right away, though, I spotted a problem. We had several customized commands that could bring the region down. The command that had been issued was the one that all the operators were aware of and that simply brought down the region. I told the managers that if I was truly the guilty party and had acted with the intent to hurt the client, I could have issued the command that brings down and powers off the entire mainframe complex (I should point out that this command was disabled a week or two after this incident).

I also looked at something they hadn't paid any attention to, which was the workstation that my ID logged in from. I pointed out that, because our Windows profiles at the time did not transfer from one workstation to another, it was a real hassle to log in to the LAN from a workstation other than the one you always worked from (once you were logged into your workstation, logging into the mainframe emulator with an ID other than your own was not a problem). There were only two workstations that I ever used at the time, neither of which was used to log me in that day. I pointed out that the workstation in question was only ever used by a single individual.

I then showed them in the logs where her ID had logged out from the same workstation less than a minute before mine logged in, and then logged back in less than a minute after mine logged out.

They still seemed to have some doubts about what I was telling them, and like my son's situation, it became a "word of honor" scenario. I again pointed to my personal and professional dealings with each of them. I told them that they all knew I wouldn't do such a thing, that I certainly wouldn't lie to them if I had done so on accident, and that I was smart enough not to get caught if I had done it intentionally. They thanked me for coming in and told me they would take everything I had said into consideration.

In the end, they all agreed that even though my ID had clearly issued the command which brought down the client and cost our company upward of a quarter of a million dollars, I was not the person who had done it. They claimed that they could not determine who had actually caused the problem and ended up telling the client that it was all a "training issue." The client did not get the blood they were looking for, and the guilty party went unpunished.

More importantly, though, as I pointed out to my son, not only was I exonerated, but a couple of the managers even apologized for accusing me in the first place. I explained to him that if you value and practice honesty and integrity at all times, it will tend to reward you in the end -- at least some of the time.