The Terry Childs Saga

Terry Childs: The jailhouse interview

Thirty minutes with San Francisco's most famous network administrator

The City of San Francisco County Jail is a large, austere building that looks like something the East Germans might have built in the 1960s. It was with some apprehension that I passed through the metal detectors and found the visitor sign-in desk. I had come unannounced and was not at all certain I'd actually get to talk to Terry Childs. After discussing the visit with the deputy, however, I was placed on the list and told to come back in a few hours.

I'm not completely sure why I went. Maybe it was the fact that for the past seven months, I've been closely following the Childs case and have become a focal point for the IT aspect of it. I've been doing this as a blogger from 3,000 miles away, never having met Childs or anyone connected to this situation, and gleaning all my information from clandestine e-mails, non-technical news stories, and pure conjecture. I needed to actually meet the guy.

[ Follow the Terry Childs saga with the InfoWorld special report: "Terry Childs: Admin gone rogue." ]

Two hours later, along with a smattering of other visitors, I was escorted through a heavy steel door and into a room devoid of personality that plays host to a few dozen telephone handsets, clear acrylic separators, and interior booths. This serves as the inmate visiting area. There are no seats in the main section -- all conversations are conducted standing up and by talking through old telephone handsets bolted to the walls.

Five minutes later, Terry Childs appeared on the other side of the glass. We found one of the many unoccupied booths and began a 30-minute conversation surrounded by the shouts and babble of the other visits in progress. At times, I had to press the handset hard against my ear to hear him.

I was immediately struck by Childs' upbeat, energetic demeanor. His side of the conversation was peppered with "dude," "whack," and "bro," sounding more like a California surfer than a CCIE. He certainly didn't fit the stereotype of the introverted, brooding network administrator. He knew about me through printouts of this blog delivered by his lawyers and was both surprised and pleased that I had come. We both knew that any discussion of the particulars of the case would be off limits and that I could not record the conversation anyway.

Childs maintained that he did nothing illegal during his tenure as the City's head network admin. He insisted that his actions were in line with network security best practices and that the charges brought against him are the efforts of those that have no frame of reference for the job of a network administrator. Obviously, the City of San Francisco, which has charged him with felony computer tampering, disagrees.

He noted that I had "hit the nail on the head" with my take on the technical evidence the San Francisco DA's office had presented to the court, and that much of what was presented in those documents is essentially the job description of a network admin, rather than the nefarious machinations of a rogue employee. He laughed at the reminder of the 1,100 modems quote from the expert hired by the City to investigate the case.

About halfway through the visit, the conversation veered away from the case and headed into the technical hinterlands -- to network design, various problems we had encountered while bit wrangling, the intricacies of OSPF and BGP, as well as routing protocol administrative weighting, policy routing, and so on. He devoured this conversation like a starving man. To me, it reinforced the fact that Childs had earned his CCIE certification, and left me with no question as to his technical abilities.

I asked him what he's been doing while in jail, and he told me that he has a few Cisco books, which I believe are Luc De Ghein's MPLS Fundamentals, and Rajesh Kumar Sharma's Cisco Network Security. He's been re-reading them and admonished me to do the same. Obviously, he's also been researching his case. Other than that, he has no access to a computer, nor any other form of communication other than occasional phone calls and visits.

I asked him what his plans were regarding the case, and he was adamant that he would not accept a plea agreement or settle for anything less than exoneration. "I'd lose my CCIE, and I worked too hard for that," he said.

Just before the deputies escorted the visitors from the room, I asked Childs if he would change anything knowing then what he knows now. He paused for a few seconds, and then shook his head. "I'd have gotten out before it came to this. I have a great house, bro, love my house, and I'm on the verge of losing it since I'm in here. I'm out of a job, and don't know what'll happen with all this." His eyes suddenly hardened and his voice dropped a dozen decibels. "And it's a different world in here, man."

Childs heads back to court for a hearing on February 13.

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