Cable installation gone wild

As our company expanded, so did our cabling nightmares -- due to a lazy cable installer and a don't-meddle-if-it-kinda-works manager's attitude

Years ago, I worked as a temp for Biz X, a small, close-knit company that grew steadily each year. They had recently moved into a space much larger than they needed to allow room for expansion.

Department managers and the Ops VP had developed a taste for moving people around, averaging one churn per quarter. They would decide that entire departments were either to move to the other side of the building or get their membership reshuffled. We also had several phases of major office remodels, where 50 or more people at a time were to move, wait for the remodel, then move again.

Needless to say, the support staff was not enthusiastic about the endless musical computers game. On the other hand, our cable installer -- I'll call him John -- was happy to have us as one of his best clients. He ran a one-man shop for years, hiring freelancers as needed. He had been doing cabling work for the company almost ever since they needed a full-scale network.

Enter freelancer "Sean," a burly, happy-go-lucky guy with a lust for life and a gut to match it. I saw a lot of him in the early days, after the move to the new building. This was because the brand-new network cabling that he and his boss had just pulled had a few anomalies. The user's machine could see that it was plugged into the network, but couldn't get any data. The jack they insisted "tested good" showed no life at all. And my favorite: the jacks were mislabeled.

As a networking newbie, I had fits about these anomalies because I wrongly assumed that the cable guys had done their work accurately. One day, after an hour or so of walking back and forth across a very large building (I was the only tech then), it finally dawned on me what had happened.

Sean would come in after I called with a problem, glad-hand for several minutes, glance at the jacks in question, and say, "I'll have to come back later to work on that. Sign here." My boss was busy with larger network shakedown issues, so I signed and sent Sean on his way after extracting a return date, but he never seemed to show up on the promised date.

The next time Sean pulled the drive-through routine, I asked him if the company was getting billed for every visit to our office. "You sure are; I don't do anything that we don't bill you for." In other words, we were paying him about $90 for every five-minute "I gotta come back for this" visit, none of which included any actual work other than a quick peek under a desk or two.

I mentioned this to my boss, who said, "Well you know, John's been doing our cable work for years. Let's not get too exercised about it." Little did I know at the time that this would be a recurring theme in the years to come.

Years later, it was the beginning of the dot-bomb years. The job I loved, working on a great Web site (even by the accounts of competitors), had long since evaporated, and my ever-shrinking bank account cried for help. I went back to Biz X, which had doubled in size -- and yes, John and Sean had still been the cable guys, who had by then added many more layers and many more miles of CAT-5 cables to the plenum area.

Because the expansion to Biz X had been piecemeal, there was no apparent rhyme or reason to the numbering of the network and phone jacks. Numbers 24-50 were together, sort of. Then the sequence would jump to 126-183. Unless of course, No. 183 was really No. 187 in disguise! Sean was finally gone, much to my relief, but John still had his rag-tag crew of freelancers.

By this time, I had learned enough to actually know what I was doing and had learned to expect that after John pronounced his work complete, it was time for me to play "Find the Mislabeled Jacks." There were always one or two, always in critical areas. Business had picked up considerably and was even more time-sensitive than it had been. The company moved tens of millions of dollars every day, and it had to happen on time. I began my campaign to get a new cabling vendor hired. And heard again the refrain which would become all too familiar: "Well you know, John's been doing our cable work for years. Let's not get too exercised about it."

I became known as the go-to guy when somebody wanted something done -- and done right in a timely manner. And slowly, incident by incident, I realized that both my boss and the other staff tech hired before me were sour and angry, and they hated the users and their jobs. My boss, it turned out, would rather refuse to act, to the detriment of the company and his reputation, than create any new work for himself.

But I digress. Back to John and his motley crew. Life is good in our business, new records are being set every month. The high-speed fax machines are humming (after a long nightmare getting the fax queue software to work). It's time to prep for a major office expansion, and John's crew is on the job. Ceiling panels are open, and the boys are up on ladders preparing to remove a layer of cabling that's no longer in use.

"Cut all of the blue ones," says the foreman to "Brutus." He looks up from the top of his 12-foot ladder and wields his bolt cutters like a man on a mission. Meanwhile, I am walking my beat, making the world safe for e-mail and printing. Suddenly, someone yells, "Hey, I'm not getting any faxes all of the sudden!"

I look back at Brutus, and the sagging, spaghetti-like bundle of more than 100 blue CAT-5 cables. Drooping heavily among them is one solitary cable. It's also blue. The very same blue as the obsolete cables being removed. Oh no. Oh yes, it's a 50-pair cable, about an inch in diameter. The fax machines are dead silent. I am not.

"Uh, guys, I think you just disabled our fax machines." "Oh no," they say, "We didn't do it." "You just cut cables, there's a 50-pair cable that goes straight to our datacenter and our fax machines abruptly died. I'm pretty sure that's why." Continued denials. I get John, their boss, on the phone. "I'll be right over!" he says.

An hour or less later, the agitated senior VPs had calmed a bit, the faxes were flooding the paper trays, and the money could flow once more. We never saw Brutus again. The last words I heard him say were, "But you said to cut all of the blue ones!"

We had more team-shuffling after that, and John's new guy, who was more conscientious than most of his predecessors, still managed to consistently mislabel a jack or three on every project. Eventually, my boss finally relented and hired a new company to run cable for us. They always showed up on time, and I never had to troubleshoot mystery jack numbers again.