Software

Peter Cochrane's Blog: My run-in with the IT 'SS'

Why do IT departments do the things they do?

The Institute of Directors, London, UK

Like many parents of 18-year-olds living in the UK, I have spent the last few months visiting universities. I'm happy to report that at last all choices have been made, applications submitted and examinations started. Having had children at school, college and university for 27 years I am now on the home straight and I can almost see the glint on my long service medal!

The visits have been interesting - just to see what facilities universities offer, the course content, teaching styles and placement opportunities. And I have to say that I have been favourably impressed on most counts. But the single most common downside has been internet access tainted by the controlling and constraining hand of an anonymous and invisible IT department.

My favourite visit, at a university I couldn't possibly mention, started well with an expose that included a rundown of the campus LAN and Wi-Fi connectivity. I started to scan the site as we toured building to building. Wi-Fi was everywhere - brilliant!

So I thought I'd give it a go and clear my emails and make a few calls. During an attempt from the coffee shop, I saw three visible nodes available at different signal strengths. I selected the strongest and tried to log on. Whoops, it was WEP protected! Why? Hmm... a puzzle and not a good start. Looking around the shop I spotted a group of academics and students with laptops working in small groups. This I thought would offer a route to a solution - wrong!

I approached each group to see if I could get a WEP key but it turned out that none of them were online, nor had they ever been able to get online. Each group had a moan about the Information Support Services (ISS) group and how they had made it all impossible. But I was assured that if I got an official account then I would be able to get online using the wired LAN.

Around lunchtime I approached the ISS empire to be confronted by a very long questionnaire. They wanted to know who I was, which department I was with, what I was going to do on the LAN, what kind of machine I had (Macs are not supported of course - but then again when did a Mac ever need support?). The questions went on and on. It all culminated in a lot of gum sucking by them and the decision that I needed the head of the department's signature. For a one-day visit - can you imagine?

Well I tried and tried but all my efforts came to nothing. I gradually concluded the ISS were really a Gestapo unit (the 'SS' in their name referred to those familiar lightning slashes, I decided). They policed internet access and information but took no heed of customer needs, and had no concept of service.

Needless to say I found a way around the SS control and gained access, only to find that SMTP had been switched off and whilst I could download my POP3 email, it would mean building a tunnel to be able to send. By this time I didn't have the energy, inclination or space in the itinerary!

Later in the day I got with a bunch of students who delighted in telling me how they confounded the ISS by circumventing their efforts to constrain their activities. But not one of us could figure out why and for what purpose the ISS where stopping students, staff and visitors from freely accessing the internet.

If anyone out there can furnish me with an explanation - especially in the face of the near universal connectivity freedom in the US - I would love to hear about the rationale for doing so.

And now, as promised, I would like to step aside and allow my fiancée Jane to give her perspective on my jet-setting lifestyle, as silicon.com reader Antony Norris requested I do in response to a recent blog on our accelerating society.

Antony,

Thank you for the suggestion that I give my perspective. You make an interesting point and whilst I agree with you that technology has undoubtedly increased the pace of life, my view would be that if work, rest and play can be blurred together in a manner that's enjoyable and satisfying... surely that adds to quality of life? Let me explain.

I could never be described as a technologist or IT specialist, indeed I've never even opened the back of a PC but, as a local government officer I am a constant IT user both at work and at home. However, since meeting Peter I have been amazed at the power of technology to help us build and maintain a really strong relationship across a country or indeed across continents and in a timescale that would simply not have been possible with more conventional communication methods.

Peter and I live at opposite ends of the UK and operate in entirely different worlds; Peter in the globe-trotting, hard edge of the private sector where the economy or business case drives everything and me at the heart of the public sector in the West Country. The chances of our meeting were miniscule, let alone the opportunity to build a sustainable relationship. To this end I owe much to technology.

With Peter's lifestyle, a trip to the US has become just another day at the office but technology makes it bearable. Peter always lets all immediate family know by email or text when he's taking off and again when he's landed or arrived safely at his hotel. These small considerations are very reassuring and allow me to stop worrying and fully concentrate on the demands of my own job. I often think of the anguish that must have been experienced by families during long absences caused by business trips or tours of duty during war times with no frequent or reliable means of communication.

VoIP has been a watershed, Skyping for 40 minutes or so whilst we are both working, either across the UK or Atlantic. The quality of VoIP calls makes for more personal communication than the telephone - it's as if we are in the same room. I view it as the high-tech equivalent to talking over the day's events whilst preparing dinner! Prior to VoIP, the expense of transatlantic phone calls tended to make them much less satisfying.

Whilst I am immensely excited by the opportunities of future technologies, I know that a few years ago when all these mechanisms either did not exist or were so clumsy as to be ineffectual, building and maintaining a long distance relationship would have been incredibly difficult and expensive. Having just said that, I also know that it's possible to get too hooked up by it all!

Jane

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About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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