The best of the worst: The dirty IT jobs hall of shame

We've sifted through the sewage and vermin to bring you the 14 all-time dirtiest jobs in IT

We've sifted through the sewage and vermin to bring you the 14 all-time dirtiest jobs in IT

For several years running, we've run our fingers along the underside of IT in an effort to surface the dirtiest jobs in tech.

Carcasses in computer hardware, endless streams of anatomical close-ups, the occasional encounter with fecal matter both real and metaphoric -- each installment of our Dirty IT Jobs series has revealed an industry of consummate professionals willing to go to any length (or depth) in the name of IT.

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If there's anything we've learned along the way, it's that when it comes to IT, there will never be a shortage of nasty work to get done.

Compiled here you will find the worst of the worst -- a Hall of Shame, if you will, highlighting the unsung heroes of the unseemly side of IT.

Dirty IT job No. 1: Sludge systems architectThese days, technology goes everywhere: oil rigs, pulp mills, sewage plants, you name it. Somebody's gotta clean up the mess and keep the lights on. But few IT gigs get earthier than Dan King's job as a process control engineer for a Texas sewage treatment facility in the mid-1990s.

"Among other things," King says, "I was responsible for crawling around the sludge dryer -- that's where the poo goes after it's extracted from the water -- trying to figure out how to program the computers to run the conveyors at speeds that would get the sludge dry enough so that it's not a sloppy muddy mess, yet not so dry and dusty that it would catch on fire." A particularly smelly fire was the reason King was assigned to the project in the first place, he adds pungently.

To keep the "sludge" at the right consistency, King used an '80s-era programming language called CL, made by Honeywell Industrial Control Systems, to move the conveyor belts at precisely the right speed and send the right amount of electricity to the dryers. That was the easy part.

"Then I had to crawl around the belt and reach in with my glove to check the consistency of this muddy, slushy mess while watching the temperature."

After that formative experience, King went to grad school. Although he no longer works as a sludge systems architect, he's still encounters the dirty work of a career in IT on a daily basis. "Some days, I'm still up to my hips in poo, but it's bull poo," King says.

Dirty IT job No. 2: Espionage engineerWork in IT long enough, and one day you may be asked to monitor your fellow employees' email, scan their browser histories, or rifle their hard drives looking for evidence they've broken the rules. It's just a fact of doing business, says Roger A. Grimes, a senior security consultant and proprietor of InfoWorld's Security Adviser blog.

The biggest single issue Grimes is asked to investigate? Sex between two employees. "That accounts for 50 to 75 percent of the requests," he says. Second on the list is corporate espionage, usually in the form of soon-to-be-former employees absconding with proprietary company data.

At one company, Grimes discovered that nearly half of the network Web traffic was porn-related. When he informed the CEO, he was gently dissuaded: "'We don't want to be the Internet police,' he told me."

Grimes immediately looked at the CEO's hard drive, where he found a generously endowed cache of gay porn, as well as evidence the executive had booked a session with a male prostitute on a business trip to Miami. At the time, the CEO was days away from getting married.

Two weeks later, the CEO called him into his office. "He said a couple of teenage boys had broken into his home and surfed gay porn on his computer, and now he wanted to know how to get rid of what they left behind," Grimes said.

Shouldn't the chief executive call the police? Grimes asked. No, he just wanted to know how to clear his cache. A few weeks later, the marriage was officially over.

But being an IT spy is not all fun and games. Over the years he's also investigated dozens of employees charged with viewing child pornography at work.

"I try hard to not find images on people's computers," he adds. "There are some things you simply can't unsee. It's an emotionally difficult thing to be involved with."

Sometimes, however, it's hard to avoid. "One time I was asked to clean off the computer of an executive who was leaving the company," says Grimes. "She was in her sixties, with gray hair. Going through her hard drive I found pictures of her in leather bondage with another executive at the same company. I just deleted them. But I never could look at her the same way after that."

Dirty IT job No. 3: Fearless malware hunterHunting malware means crawling the deepest, darkest, nastiest corners of the Web, because that's where the bad stuff usually congregates -- such as drive-by installs on porn and warez sites, says Patrick Morganelli.

"Due to the nature of the sites we need to monitor, one of our first questions in any job interview here is, 'Would you mind viewing the most offensive pornography you've ever seen in your life?' Because that's what a lot of malware research entails."

Even employees not actively involved in malware research can encounter deep nastiness, he says. One time an employee merely passed by a support technician's display while the tech was remotely logged in to a customer's PC. What the employee saw on the tech's screen was so disturbing that he quit shortly thereafter.

"It can definitely wear on people," Morganelli says. "The amount of filth you need to go through on a daily basis just to do your job can be pretty trying, and much of it is extremely disturbing -- bestiality and worse. But there's no way to fight this stuff unless you go out and actively collect it."

Andrew Brandt -- a malware researcher and InfoWorld chronicler of IT admin gaffes, stupid hacker tricks, and colossal QA oversights -- says he was warned before he took the job that he'd see porn that would turn his stomach. But he says he sees less malware distributed via porn sites and more via fake BitTorrents and game cheats sites.

"I would describe my job as rubbing a white glove on the filthy underbelly of the Net and seeing what comes off," says Brandt. "Every day I work with malware that does everything you don't want it to do -- like steal your bank account information, break your computer, or barrage you with ads -- and I do it 20, 30, 40 times a day."

Dirty IT job No. 4: Data crisis counselorWhen disaster strikes and critical data goes down the memory hole, it can generate a gamut of unpleasant emotions: tears, depression, guilt, hopelessness, and rage.

Kelly Chessen has had to listen to it all. As a crisis counselor for a data recovery firm, Chessen received calls from sobbing adults who've lost images or videos of their recently deceased parents. She talked to dentists who were frantic because their systems went down and they had no idea what services their patients needed. She logged hours with IT managers who lost entire Microsoft Exchange servers because they thought they knew how to implement RAID 5 but really didn't.

"I would talk to one IT guy one day and another IT guy from the same company the next day because the first guy had been fired," adds Chessen.

Though she has an undergraduate degree in psychology, it was Chessen's five years on a suicide prevention line that best prepared her for her current position.

"Not everybody can do what I do for living," she says. "You need the skills, the background, and the patience. It's a dirty job, but it's also very rewarding."

And on those rare instances when her firm wasn't able to recover someone's data? "I do grief counseling," she says.

Dirty IT job No. 5: Network sherpaSomebody's got to crawl through the muck dragging Cat 5 cable behind them or get two incompatible wireless technologies on speaking terms. Meet the network sherpa, whose job is to haul his clients up LAN Mountain and deposit them kicking and screaming at the summit.

But the dirtiest part of the job isn't squeezing into tight, dusty, rodent-filled spaces, says Horne, who's spent years as an independent networking consultant. It's dealing with penny-pinching customers unwilling to upgrade their crumbling infrastructures.

"Hell hath no fury like a customer who hears he must pay for a wireless bridge in order to retire several hundred feet of RG-58A/U coaxial cable that's been serving as the Ethernet backbone between two buildings for 20 years," says Horne. "Even though the cable will be buried under the parking lot, damaged by rodents, and hanging from the ground wire the electric company has ordered him to vacate immediately, he will insist his network is still capable of '10 gigs at least.'"

Worse, if you do a good job for your clients, they'll want you to come to their homes and do the same thing there -- like the time an exec at Horne's largest client asked him to fix the Internet feed at his remote New Hampshire vacation house.

"One assumes when there's a problem with an Internet connection, the customer in question actually has Internet access," says Horne. "No such luck."

After a four-hour drive from Boston to the lip of the Canadian border, Horne arrived to find a Linksys wireless access point wrapped in a plastic food bag, duct-taped to a three-meter TVRO satellite dish, which was pointed at a distant hilltop where at one time there had been an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot. Horne calmly explained to his client it's not a good idea to poach Wi-Fi, and having dependable Net access would require paying a company to provide it, even if you live in the middle of nowhere.

Dirty IT job No. 6: The whistle-blowerNearly every organization has dirty little secrets. More often than not, IT knows where they're kept. Sometimes, it takes a geek to step forward and bring them into the light. But it's not easy.

Just ask Roger Smith (not his real name). As a computer science teacher at an East Coast high school, Smith became concerned when the district bought single-user licenses of Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Office, then installed them on network servers where 5,000 users could access them.

Smith says he approached his superiors and the district's IT department and explained why that was wrong, but to no avail. So one day he called the Business Software Alliance and reported them.

"With some software, we were on day 120 of a 30-day free trial," he says. "Part of what we're trying to do is to teach kids ethics. That's hard to do when the software you're using isn't licensed and the kids know that."

The BSA relies on tips from people like Smith, says Jennifer Blank, the BSA's senior director of legal affairs. Often it's disgruntled employees spilling the beans on their boss. Sometimes, though, it's just IT pros who want to do the right thing.

The BSA has its share of critics, who claim the trade group exaggerates the amount of software being pirated, targets smaller businesses that lack the resources to defend themselves, or acts as unofficial enforcers for well-heeled software makers like Microsoft.

"The people who call us names forget that the people they are defending are stealing software," says Blank. "You wouldn't go into Best Buy, put a copy of Windows in your pocket and walk out the door. Only in this case they're taking that copy of Windows and installing it on 100 computers, so they're 100 times worse."

But this dirty IT job is not for the faint of heart. On her blog, The Whistler's Ear, database administrator Nell Walton details her three-year legal battle with her former employer, credit card processor Nova Information Systems (now Elavon), after reporting rampant security breaches. She ultimately lost. The breaches were quite real, but the court decided that, as a database administrator, she could not have had a "reasonable belief" her employer was breaking the law, as required by Sarbanes-Oxley.

"This is not a path I would recommend to anyone unless you have a completely ethical reason for doing so, have a backbone of steel, and a very thick skin (don't think you will make a million dollars, in other words)," she writes. "Something all IT people in the USA need to be aware of [is that] we don't have a lot of protections when it comes to whistle blowing."

Dirty IT job No. 7: Sexy games producerYou spend all day staring at pictures of naked women and talking dirty in three languages. Sounds like dream job, right?

Not exactly, says Patryk Bukowiecki, a game producer and manager who worked for a maker of "sexy" J2ME mobile games in the late 2000s. There he produced games like Lessons of Passion Blackjack, in which game players engaged in simulated sex talk with scantily clad models. Bukowiecki's job was to comb through 300 explicit photos of each model, pick eight of them to use in the game, write "sexy" chat for each girl, then translate it from English into Polish and German.

"I had to make sure the girls talked dirty enough so that guys would play as long as possible, then buy other editions of the same game," he says. "The texting part was actually pretty fun."

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