Kurt McKee

lessons learned in production

Hey there! This article was written in 2005.

It might not have aged well for any number of reasons, so keep that in mind when reading (or clicking outgoing links!).

My job and my future

Posted 6 December 2005 in life

I've become more and more dissatisfied with my job at the Health Service, for three immediate reasons: ideological differences, political pressure, and future career options.

Ideological differences

As a strong believer in the utility and community of open source software, it's difficult to watch Northwestern University's IT department fumble around with proprietary and expensive solutions. But what really rubs me the wrong way is how strongly opposed to open source solutions my boss is - his general outlook seems to be that if we aren't throwing money at someone for it, it isn't meeting our needs.

Having used free software for years, I'm appalled at the hoops we have to consistently jump through with licensing. As an example, Northwestern's software licensing department only allows us to borrow install media for one week before demanding it back. Now, we have a brand new computer all set to replace an older model. However, the department needs pcAnywhere installed on the new computer. We already have a license, but we don't have any install disks for that old version of pcAnywhere, and no documentation that we have a license. Thus, in order to move the department to this computer, we have to buy a duplicate license for pcAnywhere.

Taking another example, Northwestern recently announced that it will no longer license Eudora for the university population. In the announcement email, they happened to list alternative email software, such as Apple Mail and Outlook. I suggested to my boss that we consider Mozilla Thunderbird, since it has feature parity with Eudora and then some. However, my boss refused to look at it because it's not on Northwestern's list of supported email clients. Instead, we're moving to Outlook.

My boss has firmly made it clear: Don't rock the boat, Kurt.

Political pressure

I have a great deal of difficulty with all the political wrangling that occurs throughout the university. My best example is how Northwestern is handling their servers and access to the university-wide authentication system. The ideal solution would be for everyone to just use a single username and password, right?

So there's a new guy who's been pushing all of the departments at Northwestern to pay his team to manage their servers to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per inch of rack space in a single building per year (to everyone who didn't understand that, the gist of it is that the smallest, thinnest computers available are one inch tall, and they're stacked one on top of another in very large, very cold rooms). The Health Service doesn't have $60,000/yr to dish out, and we're sitting on sensitive student medical data anyway, so there's problems with letting that data out of our control.

Now then, the Health Service would like to offer web access to students so they can view information and schedule appointments and such. But we need to make sure that the student is indeed who they say they are, or we're in a world of legal hurt. If only there was a way to authenticate against some central database of all the student usernames and passwords!

Wait, there is! And in order to play, all we have to do is pass a simple security audit to see if our servers are secure enough to be allowed to connect to those central password servers. If they're not secure enough, that's OK - you know there's this great service available where a team of people takes care of your servers for you?

The end result is that we're not going to undergo the security audit, so we're never going to be able to verify student usernames and passwords. We have to inconvenience students due to red tape designed to herd us into a corner.

Career options

Once I graduate, and every year that I'm not in a job related to my degree, I decrease my chances of ever entering the market I've been training to join. I have grave concerns that I may be left behind if I continue working at the Health Service after I graduate, as I've been planning to do. Even worse, I fear I may be trapped into staying in university IT work indefinitely, chains of bureaucratic bondage my boss entered 20 years ago (and I say it in that way because of the alliteration, not because I look down on him for staying at Northwestern all these years).

I'm concerned about my future.