If you have ever read my resume on this site you will notice that I passingly refer to being sacked from British Telecom three times. Occasionally people ask for the story of this, but since I was always covered by some weird ethical code / Non Disclosure Agreement and the like I have always kept quiet. It is now more than ten years since the final event so I feel it is a good time to tell the story – Mostly because it sadly amusing to see how one of the largest telecoms companies in the world could be quite so stupid. Part of the problem with writing this is that I don’t actually believe it myself. This may come across as a little bitter – It should do, because I am. I don’t think I come out too badly in this story so I am not too worried about telling it.
Firstly I must say that if I am being completely truthful I was only actually fired once, and this is about that event. The other two times I left it was a mutually agreed situation – In the first one, I told my managers that I flat out refused to lie for them any more and apparently in a company whose whole culture is based on lying to customers that is a bad thing – In the second case, I left because accounting every half hour I worked to a customer cost-centre (when it often made no sense at all) was just ludicrous and often downright dishonest. In both cases, as soon as I left my contract was immediately picked up by another part of BT with promises of various changes and a decent pay rise. I actually ended up with what was effectively a long unbroken lump of employment for BT, even though I worked for a few different divisions.
So let us go back to a time just before the last Millennium. I had just returned from a few months secondment building a new Internet Service Provider for BT’s new mobile company (Genie, now O2) and I had in my hand a glowing letter from the Chairman of Cellnet saying how wonderful me and my team were for delivering the impossible in such a short timescale. We did good on that job, even though I didn’t want to do it. Back at the office I was finally at the point of being part of the sign-off process for any solutions that BT sold to customers. In theory, before any solution was sold I got to security evaluate it first and could refuse to sign it off and send it back for design corrections if it failed. I was also working with internal security and in all I should have been happy; but I wasn’t. In the past I had been able to do what I wanted and what was best for BT and its customers as a whole – To be proactive and to look for problems that needed solving. Now I wasn’t allowed to breath without it being charged to a customer. Any autonomy I once had was gone and I was fixing things on my own time and not being paid for them which was getting somewhat ridiculous. I told my managers I was really not renewing my contract when it came up and I thought that was that.
A week before I was due to leave I got a call from BT Operations begging me to come and work for them. They piled on the sweeteners; a nice big pay rise, all my billing to a single cost centre, just two months and no more and I could move back to my favourite office. I agreed to this, I decided not to go ahead with another job I’d planned to move to and I made sure the paperwork was all sorted out.
The following Monday, I turned up at my new job and had a tea. The office was basically a football-pitch sized machine room that took up a whole floor of a building with just me and 2 operators in it. There were a few offices in there from the days that this was the major PSS centre for the UK but they had basically been abandoned Marie-Celeste like in the 80’s. I had worked here before when I worked on Genie and had made a little cubby-hole in a long since abandoned conference room, the two Operators had also moved in there.
At mid-day both the Ops got a call and vanished. I never saw them again. Nobody had told me what they wanted me to do so I just sat around drinking tea and watched machines humming. At 3pm I got a call from my new boss saying he was coming around at 4pm for a meeting. At about this point I attempted to login to the Operations Systems and it wouldn’t let me so I got a little suspicious and phoned some people. Nobody was saying much but somebody said they had heard that word from the board said they were about to fire me, but nobody knew why. I couldn’t find out any more so I sat and waited. My boss arrived at 4pm, and curtly told me I had been fired and he had to escort me out of the building. I asked why, he said he didn’t know, he’d just been told to do it. He asked for my security card which I didn’t have on me that day and that was that – I was standing outside the heavily armoured and razor-wired front gate and very confused.
The next day I expected to hear more. I didn’t – At least, I didn’t hear anything from my bosses but I did hear a lot from other parts of BT. I received mails asking me to review secure networks, I had calls from customers asking me how to repair things and I had calls from various people within BT wanting advice. I made excuses when I had to and just waited to hear something official.
A week went by. I heard nothing. No letter, not even an email. Nothing to tell me formally I had been sacked and nothing to tell me why. I contacted S-Com, my agency who were cagey (rightly so since they owed me a month’s salary in notice period). I am assuming they knew nothing and were keeping quiet hoping I wouldn’t notice that I was out of a job. I decided to contact a few people in BT and had a few shady meetings in pubs and BT canteens but the upshot was that nobody knew a thing. Nobody had been told I had been sacked, most people were astonished and assumed I was still working ther, I still had my fixed network connection into BT from my house and I could still access all of their systems except for one I had been deleted from and my mail addresses all still worked.
I decided to arrange a meeting with BT Internal Security, I was curious to know if they knew anything so I popped to Milton Keynes for dinner and we had a chat. They’d not heard a thing and even when they dug around they could find nothing. As far as they were concerned I was still working for BT. I asked them if I could see how much access I still had without them arresting me and they said sure as long as I wasn’t silly or naughty.
Over the next month I tested various networks. I could access all of the customers I ever worked on which included governments, law enforcement, most of the major banks, various ISPs and a whole load of internal things. I tested my card and my ability to just walk into a building – Nobody ever challenged me, I had a nice cup of tea in the room that housed the central Bank Clearing System and the national salary payment systems (CHAPS) and yes, I could still login to them. I could also wander into Telehouse and the like at any time I wanted. I was still getting many calls from customers and internal BT people and in the end I just pointed them at somebody else and didn’t explain why.
At this point, I was thoroughly pissed off. BT owed me nearly £10,000 and my agency S-Com (who had sent me a crate of champagne just 2 months earlier) claimed they knew nothing about it. I sent them a copy of the purchase order and the reference numbers but they just refused to reply after that. Nobody seemed to have a clue why I was fired they just know I was. There were various rumours but none of them really seemed right. It had just been ordered from on-high.
So we have one exceptionally disgruntled ex-security manager, who was owed money, who was being constantly ignored and treated like shit by BT and who still had access to every customer, internal system and building of importance. I had to change my phone number after six months, people were still calling me about things. It took them two years to disconnect my lines from my house into BT and to this day there may still be personal machines of mine housed on the internal networks that I can access. As far as I know, my card was never disabled and as far as I know, nobody in BT and certainly no customers were ever told I had stopped working there. My email address eventually stopped working in about 2004 when they changed systems.
To my credit, I never did anything to them – But that’s not really the point, I could have caused untold amounts of hugely embarrassing damage. I am not sure if relying on the continuing ethics of somebody you treat dismally is really a good policy but apparently in this instance it worked for them.
It’s at times like this I remember the old mantra:
“WE ARE THE TELEPHONE COMPANY. WE DON’T GIVE A FUCK”.