Knock Down, Then Kick

by John Adams

Related link:…

Sure, if installing SETI@home on servers you administer is against regulations, your boss has the legal right to discipline or fire the person who installs it.

But does that give your boss the right to mock you in public?

Tom Hayes, Director of something-or-other at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, thinks so. After firing a 63-year-old programmer under the circumstances described above, he told the Associated Press:

I understand his desire to search for intelligent life in outer space, because obviously he doesn't find it in the mirror in the morning...I think that people can be comfortable that security has beamed this man out of our building.

If you were Tom Hayes' boss, would you be pleased by this?

Most places I've worked, managers publicly trashing a former employee would be disciplined, possibly fired. (I say "would be fired" because I've never met one foolish enough to try it, so I can't say with certainty.)

Here's a typical AP Wire story about this incident--up top, I linked instead to the Cleveland Plain Dealer story for two reasons.

First, it's got some additional detail the AP story doesn't appear to have, taken from the fired programmer's SETI@home profile (which, you'll note, does not match the quotes from the story--presumably, it was changed after his firing).

Second, its author, Tom Wendling, also seems to find the story humorous:

But on Thursday, Charles E. Smith went where no department employee has gone before - he is the first to be fired for using state property to search for alien beings.

Like I said, installing unauthorized software can be a firing offense, either by rigid application of the rule book or by the details of the specific incident. It may be that Charles E. Smith got what he deserved (though I doubt it).

The tone of the story suggests more is at work in this case, though: The very idea of intelligent extraterrestrial life is silly, stupid, shameful--at least to Tom Hayes, possibly to his superiors, and certainly to quite a few others.

Do you know anyone who thinks intelligent extraterrestrial life is implausible? Or that the search for it should be ridiculed?


2004-10-10 08:59:47
Charles Smith and SETI
Thanks for your insightful comment about Charles Smith. I think his boss is out of line and not displaying good judgment. I don't know what the Ohio DJ&L policy is about extraneous software, but it seems to me that simply asking Smith to remove the SETI software might have been more in line with policies I've encountered with other Ohio State computer networks, namely those at Kent State.

Interesting that Smith is almost at retirement age for Ohio state employees. Could there be another motive for the firing?

Good luck to him.

2004-10-10 15:24:17
Charles Smith and SETI
When I noticed Smith's age, that occurred to me, too. His union may have questions about that.

Here's a different theory, which also makes sense to me. The AP story led off mentioning DJ&L employees fired recently for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Illegally collecting unemployment

  • Downloading contraband images at work

  • Having sex in their cubicles

Given that this department had a rash of such incidents come to public attention recently, the mocking tone of Hayes' remarks might indicate a pre-emptive strike against being mocked himself by the press. I mean, if you've had news stories written about your employees having sex in their cubicles (after downloading contraband images, one assumes), you might try to beat them to the punch.

That's playing with fire--specifically, with backfire. I'm curious to see how it plays out.

2004-10-10 23:44:05
Charles Smith and SETI
quite possibly there is indeed more at work. Just having some software installed (especially something as innocious as SETI@Home) is rarely enough ground for firing someone (though this person was of course in a position of trust in what should be a secure environment which makes his offense worse).
Most likely we're not seeing the entire story and there's a history of disgressions on the part of Smith and/or disagreements between him and his managers and this was a good way to get rid of him.
2004-10-11 05:04:14
Charles Smith and SETI
I'm sure we don't know the whole story, and your speculation about this being the end of a long history of disagreement is another plausible explanation, both for the firing and for the rudeness of the manager's public statements about Smith.
Again, that's half of what really gets me about this.
We don't know whether the firing was deserved or not, but publicly mocking someone who you've just fired is a bad thing to do--both wrong and unintelligent.
I also still wonder whether the fact this was SETI@Home, rather than one of the biochemical or mathematical distributed computing projects, had something to do with it. Whether people understand math or not, they believe in the existence of numbers; one of the biochem projects is working on anthrax vaccines, and that's less a matter of belief than of patriotism and the public good.
But intelligent extraterrestrial life? The headlines were full of humor about that.
2004-10-14 14:17:48
Intelligent Life in ODJFS
Being a former programmer/analyst in ODJSF in the department that handled Child Support (SETS) and having been disabled and on Medicaid, I can confirm that there is no intelligent life in ODJFS from Tom Hayes up to the governor in the State and the County workers are even in worse shape. When I notified the governor that the online system that controls Medicaid was being bypassed by county and state workers, they told me that they were going to replace the online system and that would solve the problem!
Paul D. Garber