Time for a new microwave oven…

A long time ago in the galaxy of life, far, far away, a system development project involving 50 people regularly experienced a problem with its development and test computer. In those days – when remote datacentres were just a peripheral blip on the innovation radar – computers were often collocated with the team but in a dedicated, air-conditioned room. Responsibility for the equipment, and for interfacing with its supplier to get proprietary software and hardware fixed when problems arose, rested with the team itself. The regular problem experienced by this particular team was simply that after months of functioning impeccably, they returned one Monday morning to find their computer powered up but unusable. Recovering it to a usable state took all morning causing frustration and loss of productivity. Thereafter, the same thing happened every Monday morning for the next 6 weeks.  

The computer supplier sent their experts to diagnose whether the root cause lay with either a software problem in the operating system, or an intermittent hardware or power supply issue, but nothing significant came to light.  Then, late one Friday night when only the development team leader remained working late, there was a breakthrough. The cleaners arrived to perform their nightly duties.  Once a week on a Friday night, however, a cleaner would vacuum the computer room’s floor.  The development team leader noticed that a few seconds after the cleaner entered the computer room, the terminal on their desk froze because the computer had crashed. They quickly realised what the root cause of the recent problems was.

 The cleaner was plugging her equipment into a switchless socket in the computer room and throwing the nearest switch in the mistaken belief that it controlled power to the socket. It didn’t; it controlled power to the computer! Throwing the switch caused an immediate, disruptive, uncontrolled shut down. When cleaning was complete, the cleaner always returned the switch to its original position and the computer would reboot into the nebulous state that the team found it on Monday mornings. It transpired that the cleaner was new and had taken over cleaning the computer room some 6 weeks previously without a proper handover from a colleague.

This is a salutary reminder that the root cause of a problem that manifests itself in computing equipment doesn’t always mean there’s a fault with the equipment itself. As the Badger has found, for example, when your laptop seems to have regular difficulty accessing the internet using Wi-Fi every Sunday lunchtime, one shouldn’t immediately assume it has a technical problem. First check if an older microwave oven is being used to prepare lunch and then check if things run tickety-boo between times. If the answer’s yes to this then, as the Badger’s found, it’s time to buy a new microwave oven…

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