The UC system is hardly alone. "The pressure has increased," says Nanette Orman, a Silicon Valley psychiatrist who helps tech workers manage their lives. "Workers have been laid off, and those left are being asked to pick up the slack. They are having to work longer, faster." Case in point: David Walsh, a former network engineer at Apple, sued the company this month for requiring him to work more than 40 hours a week without proper compensation.
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In times like these, many employees hoard critical knowledge to protect their jobs. But IT workers can do more damage than withholding critical information or letting it become lost when they leave. Tech workers have a unique advantage: They have access to all sorts of sensitive information and systems they could use as a trump card. For example, they might run across executive e-mails with sensitive information that gives them a leg up when managers choose who they're going to lay off. Or they can design systems in a way that can cause damage or that only they can manage and upgrade, giving them an ace in the hole when they feel threatened.
Even technologists agree that San Francisco's Childs at times operated outside the scope of his work. For example, he allegedly configured certain networking gear so that it wouldn't reboot after a power outage without his help. "I'm guessing that this was his mechanism for dealing with discomfort," says psychologist Orman.
The unspoken Achilles' heel of cutbacks: More knowledge and power is put in the hands of fewer people -- or a single person, as in the Childs case. When this person goes AWOL or worse, there isn't an understudy with enough knowledge of the system to take over right away. Taxed employees also don't have time to document in detail everything they do or every change they make, so there's often no record to fall back on to get things done.
Three strikes, and you're on the way out: "It's management by fear"
Like the anonymous UC tech staffer, Yau-Man Chan has seen the temperature level rise among IT staffers at his campus. So the CTO of the College of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley does what he can to reduce the stress. "If you read them the riot act or burden them with office procedures and paperwork, I don't think they'll follow you," he says. (Chan gained some fame for his ability to lead under pressure last year as a contestant on the reality television game show "Survivor: Fiji.")
But many companies just turn the screws tighter on an already-suffering IT staff. That's exactly what IBM's Applications on Demand (AOD) unit, which offers software from SAP, Oracle, and others over the Internet, did to its tech workers earlier this year, says a staffer.