A $1 part brings down the data center

Amid a tour with senior programmers and top execs, the power goes out and it takes a troop of techs to bring it back

Every IT pro knows embarrassing moments, although they're certainly more palatable when someone else ends up red-faced. And no IT career would be complete without seeing a little detail cause a lot of grief, such as a $1 part bringing down expensive equipment. Here's a story that includes both.

In the early '80s, I was working as a mainframe computer operator for an electric company. We had recently spent a lot of money and upgraded to a couple of IBM 4341s. We were all proud of the machines, and the execs were no exception.

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One morning, the senior systems programmer came into the computer room to show off the shiny, new equipment. He was accompanied by the CEO, the then-equivalent of a CIO, and a member of the board.

From an operator's point of view, a systems programmer was a god, and the senior systems programmer was the king of the gods. We were on our best professional behavior as we kept working but watched with awe as the group moved around the room led by the Programmer God, who was also pulling out all the stops to impress the execs.

In those days, computer rooms looked nothing like in the movies. Everything was controlled by a couple of Visual Display Units or dumb terminals. There were no banks of flashing lights. While we had tape drives, there wasn't much to see as they spun, so the Programmer God had to get creative in his explanations to the execs, opening doors and panels to make the tour even more impressive. However, these facilities were loud, with fans, printers, card punches and readers, tape drives, and the air conditioner all assaulting our ears.

The group made its way to one of the mainframes, which was still pretty boring as the outside of the box had one red LED and one red switch. Apart from that, it looked like a waist-high bench with a flat top, measuring about three feet wide and 10 feet long. The mainframes seemed to be nothing more than unimpressive beige metal cabinets.

The Programmer God opened the side door to show the visitors what was inside. There wasn't much to see, but at least the visitors got the feeling that they were sharing an inside look at something very important.

He finished talking and closed the door. As the latch closed, all the power to the computer room, including the lights, stopped. The situation was pretty embarrassing, considering who the visitors were and that we were the electric company.

As a horrible sinking feeling settled in the pits of our stomachs, the equipment went silent and the whine from the spinning disk drives died down. Suddenly we could hear the building's air conditioning, the cars out on the street seven floors below, and the office's background music, constantly in play but never before heard over the whir of the machines.

We stood still for a moment in the dark and silence, shocked. The Programming God croaked, "Was that me?"

Finally one of the operators sprang into action, found his way to the master console, and pushed the Power On button. It didn't work. Muttering and apologizing, the Programmer God ushered his visitors out the door.

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