Collateral damage: What happens when user support fails the user?

As a support person, your first priority is to protect your end users and help them do their job with the tools they're given. The story of what happened to Michael Fiola is a cautionary tale that all support personnel should take to heart.

As a support person, your first priority is to protect your end users and help them do their jobs with the tools they're given. The story of what happened to Michael Fiola is a cautionary tale that all support personnel should take to heart.


Michael Fiola is a decent guy just doing his job with the tools he has been given by his (now former) employer, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They issued him a Dell Latitude laptop to facilitate his writing reports in the field; he used it for that purpose. Fiola, a former investigator with the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents, faced two and a half years in prison after being charged with possession of child pornography.

According to Tami Loehrs, a forensic investigator hired by the defense team, the laptop that Fiola was issued by his employer was a "ticking time bomb."

From PC World:

The Microsoft Systems Management Server software on the laptop was misconfigured and was not receiving critical software updates, and the laptop's Symantec antivirus software was either misconfigured or not working properly, she said.

State IT staff examined Fiola's laptop in March 2007 after they noticed that his Verizon broadband wireless usage was four times above normal. He was fired the same month, after the pornography was discovered.

Fiola, a former firefighter with no criminal record, was ostracized by his community after being criminally charged in August 2007, [attorney, Timothy] Bradl said. "His life has been destroyed," he said. "His friends ran for the hills; his family mostly ran from him."

Since his wife, Robin, was at one point hospitalized for a stress-related illness, Fiola is now facing health insurance payments in excess of his monthly mortgage. But he is unlikely to take his old job back, even if the DIA were to offer it, Bradl said. "I would think that theoretically he'd be entitled to his job back with back-pay, however he would never want to go back to work with such buffoons," he said.

While CNET's Matt Asay saw a Windows vs Linux/Mac issue, I see something different. I see a clear case of what can horribly happen when the workday gets so crowded that we stop thinking critically about what we are doing.

The support side of the house gets crammed with activities, some of which have little to do with what our job is supposed to be -- providing user support. I can look at this tragic situation and pretty much know what happened.

A work order was sent to the Support team who pulled a laptop out of stores that may or may not have been re-imaged. Maybe it was imaged when it came in and the image was outdated. Maybe it got a fresh image but was flawed. It got onto a bench where someone checked to make sure that the necessary software was in place, but it is highly unlikely that anyone had the time to check that each program ran properly. And then it was issued to the user.

In an interview with IDGNS (the parent of PC World), Fiola admits that he is not a tech savvy end user. His whole computing experience is limited to being able to get on the network, use his e-mail, and use the applications that facilitate his job. He doesn't browse, doesn't game, doesn't chat. He just does his job. That means that if his AV wasn't working, he wouldn't necessarily know to alert the Support team that something is wrong.

Michael Fiola is the face of most of our end users. In the course of my career, I have had to paint the power button with red nail polish for a user who could never find it on her PC -- not to humiliate her -- she loved being able to see the thing. But that experience was a wake-up call to me that my end users might not know the first thing about the tools they needed to do their jobs and made me more aware of what I needed to do to protect them.

What is truly sad in this is that Fiola's life will never be the same. I can only imagine that the support team that issued him the laptop in the first place is sick about that. I am certain that they never intended something like this to happen, and I strongly doubt that the oversight that caused the situation was in any way targeted to Fiola. But it happened.

As support people, our responsibility is to keep both our networks and our end users safe. This cautionary tale reminds us that that is our first responsibility, no matter how insane the workday gets.

How do you avoid a problem like this? What checklists do you run when issuing a computer to an end user? Or can you see a place where your procedures could use some rechecking?

More information:

IT Business Edge -- What you don't know can hurt you -- when it's on your laptop