Getting Fired

Recently I saw on Twitter a prompt to share your worst/most hilarious getting fired stories. I have a pretty good one from more than twenty years ago, so I figured I would write it down.

Back in 2000, I started as a contractor with a company called Capital Area Internet Solutions - CAIS. CAIS started as a small dialup access company, but it’s CEO Ulysses G. Auger II had repositioned itself to offering high-speed Internet connections in hotel rooms and apartment complexes. It had a small web hosting center in an old 1960s office building, a legacy of the old part of the business. It was a standard kind of building with an elevator bank in the center and offices in a donut around the perimeter. Stepping off the elevator and crossing the elevator lobby you would go into a CAIS reception area, then work your way around the donut through a spaghetti string of offices, computer rooms, and a tiny NOC.

There were two computer rooms, called the old room and the new room. CAIS customers could bring in their servers and rack them in the CAIS datacenter, and we would rack them, connect them, and provide basic hosting support.

The CAIS computer rooms were populated with a hodgepodge of servers in telco racks. If you are not familiar, a telco rack is basically an open steel rectangle. It’s the most basic kind of rack to hold a computer. In a professional datacenter you would more often see a full rack, which is more like a sully enclosed box. The rack would usually be on a raised floor, or there would be some kind of overhead cable management but the environment would be engineered to avoid static and dust. In the CAIS computer rooms, the racks were nailed into an old, dusty linoleum floor.

I was one of two engineers supporting the web hosting function. It was pretty busy - there was a constant stream of servers coming in and work to do. Most of the servers were from CAIS’s biggest client, a web hosting company called eFront. Probably 70% of the servers in CAIS computer rooms belonged to eFront.

At one point the air conditioning unit that cooled off the larger of the rooms, the new room, failed. We left the door open but temperatures in the back of the room spiked above 115 degrees F. There was a locked access door in the back of the room that went to the elevator lobby, but for a few days I sat in a chair, propping that door open with my body, sweating as we vented the room into the elevator lobby. We had propped one of the elevator doors open as well, letting the hot air vent to the upper parts of the building. It was a whole load of OSHA violations and I am sure a sweaty shirtless sysadmin sitting in a decrepit old office chair holding the autoclosing door open.

We used to spend a lot of time giving customers directions to their servers - “New room, fourth row back, ten feet to the left, at the bottom.” At one point I went to Home Depot and purchased a whole load of those reflective numbers that go on mailboxes. I put numbers on the floor in front of each rack, giving each one a unique address. I will never forget one of the guys from the NOC saying how much of a difference it made for them.

One day I came in and found my computer had been airgapped - the power and monitor cords were unplugged, the network cord was cut. I had about five minutes of looking around in confusion until my boss found me and said I had to gather my personal effects and leave. I was very confused, as he told me how I was a good worker and this was no reflection on me. I was hurt - it was my first time getting laid off.

I did end up getting the story from my former CAIS coworkers, and it was a doozy. So about this time period - March 2001 - there was a story on the popular tech news site Slashdot about eFront. The CEO of eFront, Sam Jain, was a user of the ICQ instant messaging service, and had logging enabled. Well, someone got ahold of his logs and published them [1]. There was a lot of bad stuff in there, and a lot of it was about CAIS. Apparently CAIS had not been adjusting how much they were billing eFront to reflect the massive influx of servers, so eFront executives were joking about how they were paying a tiny fraction of how much they should have been paying.

So this came to the attention of some of CAIS’s executives and lawyers. They started to comb over the ICQ logs [2]. One of the things mentioned is someone by the name of “Nate”.

sam        28/12/20 9:46 am  nate is in Dc yeah

The Nate in question was, I believe, the CFO of eFront at the time. Definitely not me! But the ICQ logs left his identity ambiguous. So some VP at CAIS looked at the employee roster, and saw there was only one guy named Nate - and he is a contractor - and said get him out of here. So due to this confusion about Nates, I was let go.

Within a few months, CAIS was down to an eighth of it’s previous employee count, renamed and on a fast slide to nothingness. I had a short stint at a startup that failed, and then I went to AOL and had a fantastic nine years. But I will never forget that crazy old, hot office building in McLean.

[1] [2]