A chilling IT holiday tale

Swapping out a server's power supply is an easy job -- or at least it should be

It was an intensely cold Midwestern December, and there I was driving 120 miles through hard-blowing snow on icy roads to reach a customer whose mission-critical server was suffering with a failing power supply. I was a field engineer at the time for a national service company, and the local guy who normally covered that customer was away at a Solaris training session, which is how I found myself skidding through the snow three days before Christmas.

I signed in at the front desk and followed the contact person past several security checkpoints so hostile it felt like we were entering a prison. Finally we entered a huge underground room full of whirring systems. It took a few minutes, but I finally found the errant server; its winking error lights made it look a bit like a Christmas tree. Well, maybe the holiday season was affecting me.

Moments later, six nervous IT staffers and four suits appeared, all anxious to help me complete the necessary repairs. One stepped up to advise me that he was about to shut down the system; another techie said he would monitor the shutdown while I unpacked my tools. Normally, replacing a power supply is a simple job, and to tell you the truth, the suits looking over my shoulder put me on edge. But I had the perfect solution.

Being Jewish, during the holiday season I carried a bag full of wooden dreidels, the little four-sided tops that Jewish kids play with on Hanukkah. I would pass them out to my customers to give them a little taste of my culture, along with a slip of paper listing the rules of the game. Most of my customers thought this was great and passed the dreidels on to their kids. On this occasion, it occurred to me that the dreidels might be the perfect way to distract my “helpers.”

Soon dreidels were spinning everywhere — on the floor, on top of server cabinets, in between towering disk arrays! Getting the suits out of my hair made the work go a lot faster. I was sitting on the floor, preparing to connect cables to the new power supply, when the suit nearest me leaned over the cabinet and said loudly, “You do know that on Sept. 11, all of the Jews in the Twin Towers were warned by phone calls to leave the building immediately and that most of them were a couple blocks away, laughing, when the planes hit?”

I was speechless. Then the guy dropped his dreidel on the floor and stalked away. I heard another dreidel falling to a stop. Then another. All the dreidels quickly disappeared into pockets and purses. For a moment the only sound in the room was the whirring of the fans.

I felt like I’d been slammed with a two-by-four, but I finished installing the new power supply, and when I powered up the server, it worked fine. The suits slipped away without a word. But one by one, as the IT guys walked out, each one told me how sorry he was for what that guy had said.

What could I do? I thanked them for their kind words. Then they went back to their cubes, and my contact led me back upstairs, through the Byzantine security maze.

But as I walked out into the cold, a thought kept running through my mind: That power supply isn’t the only thing in there that needed fixing.