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

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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."

But those hot models? More sad than sexy, says Bukowiecki, especially after you've seen their passport photos, which each model had to provide to prove she wasn't underage and was doing this of her own free will.

"I had to approach my job kind of like I was an ob-gyn," he says. "You have to get some distance on these things or you will go mad with all the ideas running through your head. You might be tempted to try and find these girls and save them. Don't do it."

The dirtiest part of this job? Telling people what you do for a living.

"You sit in an open space in the office looking at these pictures on your computer surrounded by 20 people," he says. "They're all passing by your desk, sneaking peeks at what you're doing. Then you get home and your wife or girlfriend asks, 'What did you do at work today, dear?'"

Dirty IT job No. 8: Professional scapegoatWhen big projects go bad, they can go really bad -- and it's somebody's job to make the project happen or die trying.

In the late 1990s, Michael S. Meyers-Jouan was CIO of a small, family-run apparel maker tasked with the job of easing a DOS-era company into what was then the cutting edge.

"When they recruited me, I found myself supporting an ancient order processing system running on an AIX box, a MAS 90 accounting system, and a collection of PCs," says Meyers-Jouan. "I was supporting an HR department that never quite understood Windows, relational databases, or network security. I was supporting process managers who would enter columns of numbers into an Excel worksheet, then add the numbers up on a calculator and enter the sum below the column, and CAD system users whose idea of 'backup' was to make copies on floppies."

Nonetheless, Meyers-Jouan was handed the task of bringing his new employer into the late 20th century. He produced a detailed RFP, and over several months, he winnowed the list of potential vendors from 30 to 3, then finally to a single winner.

"That's when the fun began," he says. "Installing the ERP software was relatively simple. Interviewing the users to develop business process road maps and job descriptions was tedious, but no worse than expected. Configuring the software to match the business needs was challenging and time consuming, but within our capabilities. But getting the users to adopt the new system was simply not going to happen."

The factory workers refused to participate in the process, despite promises it would cut their workload in half. The back-office employees couldn't understand how a factory worker covered in oily dirt had anything useful to tell them; they continued to rely on email, spreadsheets, and 10-key machines to do their jobs. And the last thing top management wanted to hear about was the need for "culture change."

"For the only time in my life, I was fired," says Meyers-Jouan. "The ERP system never did get put into use, and not too long thereafter, the company stopped answering their phones."

Dirty IT job No. 9: Systems sanitation engineerBeer cans. Food wrappers. Cigarette butts. Moldy bread. You'd typically find them in the bottom of your average dumpster -- only in this case, the dumpster is the shell of a discarded computer.

It's all part of the job at Redemtech, an IT asset disposition firm that processes the aging hardware Fortune 500 companies no longer want. Somebody has to go through each piece and muck it out, decide what can be saved and what must be discarded, says Chomroeun "C-Ron" Sith, technical supervisor for Redemtech's Grove City, Ohio, facility (and no relation to the Dark Lord).

Though it varies widely, Sith says approximately half of the systems he sees can be refurbished and resold. The other half gets recycled in an environmentally responsible way. Before that happens, they have to be inspected and cleaned  -- and that's where things can get nasty.

"Some of these things look like they've been sitting the back of a warehouse for years," he says. "They come in covered in dust, with cobwebs, rat droppings, and roaches inside. Sometimes they're so rusted that when you pick them up your hands turn orange. One of the systems we got in was covered in makeup. Every time my guys touched it, they got all glittery."

Then there was the time they opened up a desktop CPU and found a dead animal. "It may have been a rodent or a bird," he says. "We couldn't tell for sure. But it was definitely dead."

Sith estimates less than 5 percent of the 6,000 to 10,000 items his facility processes each week arrive in such bad shape they have to be wrapped in plastic to avoid infecting his staff or causing allergic reactions. Still, that's plenty.

Dirty IT job No. 10: The shadowYou probably don't want to know where your coworkers are going on the Web. But sometimes you have no choice. Nancy Hand knows this, well, firsthand.

Several years ago, Hand was a network engineer for a large public utility in the Southwest. When any of that site's 3,000 employees got a malware infection, Hand received an alert. She was then called in to investigate by remotely combing through the employee's browser cache, looking for the source of the attack.

Along the way, Hand got to see where these employees had been surfing while they were allegedly working. Most of the time what she found was benign -- a lot of sites devoted to cooking, fashion, cars, and day trading. Inevitably, though, she'd encounter the darker side.

Like the employee who swore it was a spam email that caused his browser to visit that members-only bondage site, though how that email also managed to create a member profile for him was less clear. Or the company vice president whom Hand discovered had been spending work time visiting Naturally, he was the VP of IT.

"He was my boss's boss's boss," she says. "After I found this I contacted my manager and said, 'We have a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of thing, so I am officially notifying you of what I found.' To my knowledge nothing was ever done. About a year later that VP got fired for another sexually related infraction."

Some employees ended up being escorted from the facility by armed guards, though Hand never knew whether it was due to something she had found.

"Sometimes it was a little unsettling to be on the machine of someone I'd met in another part of my job who seemed like a very toe-the-line type of person, only to discover it wasn't true," she said.

Dirty IT job No. 11: Black opsSocial engineer, con artist, penetration tester, or white-hat hacker -- whatever you call it, Jim Stickley has a dirty job that actually sounds like fun. As VP of engineering and CTO of TraceSecurity, Stickley gets to talk his way into a client's offices, sneak into their data centers, make off with the company's vitals, then come back later to show them where their internal security broke down.

The best part? He gets to wear disguises. Pest control specialist, AC repairman, OSHA inspector -- Stickley and his crew have a closet full of uniforms. But fireman is a particular favorite. "At one place you're the fire inspector, and girls fall all over you," Stickley says. "The next place you're wearing the pest inspector suit and you're the scum of the earth."

First, Stickley and his team take over the company's email system and schedule an appointment. Then they show up in the appropriate fake attire. Whoever has been assigned to watch them usually leaves after about five minutes, Stickley says. If not, they send her out to get them coffee or offer to show her a (fake) dead mouse they found in the corner. That usually does the trick.

Once she's gone, they sneak into the security room and take all the backup tapes, load Trojans onto the servers, or plug wireless devices into the network and hack it from the parking lot.

"If we can get the backup tapes, we're done," Stickley says. "Every piece of data you'd want -- mothers' maiden names, Social Security numbers -- is on those tapes. We've also walked out with computers, boxes filled with loan documents, and applications for patents that have been drawn up but not submitted. It's amazing."

Stickley says he's penetrated more than 1,000 locations and has yet to be thwarted. The dirty part: Coming back the next day to face the people you just pwned.

"You feel dirty, if nothing else," Stickley says. "People come up to you and they're mad. 'I can't believe I got you a cup of coffee.' But ultimately you're just trying to help them out. Nobody gets fired for screwing up. The whole point is to learn from the experience."

Dirty IT job No. 12: The human server rackThe panicked call at 3 a.m. is a sad fact of life for many sys admins. But not as many are woken in the dead of night and asked to part the floodwaters, perform acts of impromptu structural engineering, or serve as a piece of inanimate equipment.

Brian Saunier got such a call several years ago when he was a sys admin for a small Internet service provider in Georgia. An unusually large summer storm had clogged the drain outside the ISP's building, causing a foot of rainwater to flood the first floor, where the server closet was housed.

Fortunately, the servers were protected by an airtight glass door, says Saunier. Unfortunately, the storm also knocked out the power, causing the cooling system to shut down and putting the servers in danger of overheating.

The door had to be opened. To complicate matters, the machine containing the ISP's customer database was sitting on the floor of the server room, directly in the flood path.

First, Saunier and two fellow sys admins constructed a dam out of cardboard, towels, and anything else they could get their hands on to keep the water out. Then Saunier was elected to run in and grab the server before the waters reached it.

"Our plan was to open the door and run in and pick up the server, which I managed to do without incident," he recalls. "But on the way in my foot clipped the dam and the water started pouring in. I was standing in a flooded server room in two feet of water holding a powered-on server and power cords. That was disconcerting."

After about 10 minutes, Saunier's colleagues located a table that fit inside the closet, so he could put the machine down and commence with mop-up operations, which lasted well into the following evening.

Dirty IT job No. 13: B&E artist Dressed in black camo, hiding in the woods in the dead of night on the edge of a Pennsylvania mountain; it's not your typical IT job.

But that's where Matt Neely found himself a few years back. As vice president of consulting for SecureState at the time, Neely's job was to test the physical security of his firm's clients, which include large federal agencies, major retailers, energy plants, and even entire countries. Trained in the art of picking locks by his previous employer (a bank), Neely uses his breaking-and-entering skills so that organizations can find holes in their perimeter and fill them.

On this cold December night, Neely and a colleague were asked to break into a mining facility just past midnight and steal "trophy data," while two other SecureState penetration testers social-engineered their way in via the front gate. The coal mine was concerned about environmental activists breaking in and tampering with its SCADA systems, causing the mine to shut down. They had good reason to worry.

According to Neely, the mine's external security was so porous that he and his partner were in and out in 10 minutes, or about two hours and 20 minutes less than he'd bargained for. The area around the mine was so remote there was no cellphone coverage, so he had no way to reach the other SecureState team. He and his partner had to hunker down for two hours in a freezing rain before they got picked up.

Roughly 75 percent of the time, Neely says he's able to break in to a facility without getting caught. On the other hand, he says his social-engineering comrades succeed about 90 percent of the time -- and when they fail it's usually because somebody got tipped off a test was coming.

Neely always carries a "get out of jail free" card on his jobs, listing the names and numbers of company personnel who've authorized the security test. So far, he's never had to use it -- even when caught red-handed breaking into a power plant by the cops. Fortunately for Neely, SecureState's policies prohibit performing tests on facilities where the guards carry weapons.

Dirty IT job No. 14: Zombie console monkeyThis job title combines two of the most onerous yet often necessary tasks ever assigned to an IT grunt: analyzing system logs and monitoring network operations, says Lawrence Imeish.

"Doing log file analysis and correlation has to be the most tedious, mundane, perpetually boring job in of all IT," he says. But because logs maintain detailed records of all activity that takes place on a system, they're vital tools for debugging and error detection, he adds.

"Meanwhile, network operations centers usually have a person whose job is to stare at screens waiting for green lights to turn red, signifying a problem with some system," he says. "There are useful messages in all those blips and flashing lights, though, and many of them can go a long way toward preventing problems before they occur."

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