Death Of A Network Engineer

Schrödinger’s Box And The Circle Of Time

Jon Scott
Jon Scott
Feb 7, 2020 · 5 min read

ve been off at a strained trot these last few weeks, like an obese child atop a gymkhana pony. I don’t feel entirely in control and I don’t know where I’m going except around and around in loose, muddy circles. I arrive back at a point and it seems vaguely familiar. Is this where I started the year?

A couple of weeks ago, I was busy for a few days decorating the porcelain with half-digested soup and toast and then, when I had nothing left to throw up, water. I went until I was empty and then I would collapse back in bed, clutching my cramping stomach. I’d leave it for a day until I felt hungry, and then half a breadstick later and I’d be back in the bathroom, heaving.

A few days later, I crawled into work, weak and pale and numb of mind. It was Wednesday. I knew because I have a colleague who goes around the office first thing in the morning saying “Happy [whatever day of the week it is]”. By Friday, I was hopeful I’d be able to start the week. I’d be alright again, I’d be back at the start of the circle. Or maybe someone would help me off the horse and let me leave.

Instead, I caught a cold. The stomach bug, or food poisoning of recent memory had completely wiped out my immune system and I entered a different sort of masochistic torture, whereupon I’d force myself out of bed in the morning despite evidence that death was imminent, and come to work.

My activities were dictated to me by two things: my aching sinuses and a failing APC power supply unit that finally gave up and rendered the comms cabinet a piece of monolithic modern art: “Schrödinger’s box”.

The rule to which I try to adhere, is that I should not look in the box, ever. All the time that I didn’t, things would almost certainly be okay. If I ever did, then the box inside that box might be dead.

I had been minding my own list of symptoms when someone approached me to let me know that the internet was down. Unfortunately, it was far worse than that.

There were no phones, no internet, all servers were offline and I had left my coffee in the kitchen and now it had gone cold. My company stopped functioning. I shuffled about angry and mumbling for a while trying to fire the person in charge of IT.

Where’s that fucking guy? Didn’t there used to be a guy here who did that stuff?

Then, I did the thing that you should never do. I opened the box. Behind the comms room door there was another box, tall sleek and black, with thousands, hell, maybe millions of wires coming out of it. It was dead alright. No lights, no noisy server fans spinning, no signs of life.

I closed the door again. Calling it a comms room is a bit of a joke. It’s a boxed off area of the office. No one wants to see, hear or have anything to do with it. Can’t say I blame them.

Everything in there was over a decade old (damn near centenarian in tech years), the power supply had been switching itself off for the last few months. Now it had finally gone into one final loop of tripping and restarting, draining the battery pack. When I switched on the sockets, the power supply emitted a loud alarm and a steady red light — which is the comms room equivalent of: “everything has gone to shit”.

So, I tried leaving it alone for a while. Maybe it would be happier if I came back later. I sat down with some people who were busy not really doing anything at all, except waiting for yours truly to fix the problem.

Some of them even waited until after hours — a power failure wasn’t going to get in the way of their plan to do some overtime. When it got dark outside, I went home too. I didn’t really know what else to do. I’m not actually a network engineer. I don’t know what I’m doing. What do I do? What can I do?

“Are you going to bypass it?” an actual network engineer asked me the next morning. I had the phone pressed up to my ear with one hand and I was holding back a torrent of questions with the other, hordes of desperate, internet-deprived creatures gathering around me to vent.

“Umm…uh…yeah, yes, that’s what I’m going to have to do, isn’t it?”

“What’s the power like around you?”

“Huh?”

“Do you get many power cuts?”

“Uhh…no? I mean, no, no, I don’t think so.”

“Well, if you need a hand with anything, let me know.”

He put the phone down. Yes I need a hand. I need you to do all of it.

Bypassing a power supply isn’t fun at all. I ran around the office stealing power leads and 8 gang plug extensions from under desks.

I then went back to the comms cabinet and started pulling cables. Once I had everything plugged into daisy-chained extensions the servers began to whir into action again, and I pulled back the throttle on my hypertensive state.

Everything might not be broken, after all. I might live through this.

I returned to my desk and found that despite the comms box being very much alive again, all of the services it was responsible for providing were still dead.

People were still where I’d left them, sitting around, drinking coffee, looking bored.

I should not be the guy in charge of fixing this. This should not be me. I should be in bed right now.

Eventually the engineer on the phone turned up in person. I abandoned my inner monologue of complacency and we went through the process of getting servers and services back online.

Mid-morning, we were back up. The only problem now was that the comms room floor resembled the snake scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. And the APC was still dead. Everything was just plugged directly into the mains.

I recognised this particular muddy patch. I’ve been here before, I’m sure of it. Ah yes. Two years ago. I wrote about that too. The file server ‘wanted out’ that time, and I stuffed towels around it to muffle the sound of its month-long death rattle.

Somewhere along the circle of time, I was in this same place, peering inside a box at a dead thing, and hoping it might live again.

This actually started out life as a chummy kind of blog post apology for not writing much (not writing anything) over the last couple of weeks, but I actually took some time with it, which is promising, isn’t it?

Anyway, thanks for reading. The episode I refer to towards the end is here:

I wrote a whole bunch of these, they were very loosely about love and loss — anyway give it a go if you’ve got five minutes.

I shall end by simply saying: WRITE! And then send it to me so I can have a read and (with your permission) publish it here!

Love always, Jon Scott.

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