Sharky surfaces with true tales of Shark Tank

A look at how our venue for sharing 'true tales of IT life' came into existence and why it’s been so popular for so many years.

shark fin
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For more than one-third of Computerworld’s first 50 years, the Shark Tank column has given readers a place to share their true tales of IT life — or, perhaps more accurately, a place to vent. Every day online and — until not too long ago — every week in print, Shark Tank has offered beleaguered IT pros a safe haven where they can commiserate and console one another as they laugh, cry and rant about the exploits of hapless bosses and clueless users.

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It’s all presided over by an impresario known only as Sharky, who recently took a break from poring over readers' emails to share true tales of how Shark Tank came to be and why it has remained so popular for so many years.

How did you start doing this? It was the dot-com boom, and Computerworld needed something to replace its weekly rumor column. Remember when IT trade magazines all had rumor columns, for the news stories the reporters couldn’t nail down? Now that’s called “the internet.” Anyhow, I’d been around IT forever, and I was hearing a lot of stories about things that happened on Y2K projects. That was in 1999. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Why call it “Shark Tank”? I like to say it’s because our pilot fish are swimming with the sharks and trying not to get eaten.

Pilot fish? People with stories. Smaller fish that hang around sharks.

So it’s a metaphor for... Nah, it’s a pun. It’s like enterprise IT’s water cooler, a place where people take a break, stand around and swap stories. I wanted a cartoon water cooler with a shark swimming around in the tank, but that wasn’t in the budget.

So it wasn’t named after the TV show? That show didn’t start running until 2009. I do get email for them, though.

These are supposed to be “true tales of IT life.” How do you know they’re true? I’ve got a proprietary A.I. system that backtracks where the story came from and does a complete background check on the pilot fish.

Wait, what? Really? Nah. Mostly it’s whether they pass the sniff test. The bogus ones are usually nowhere near as crazy as the real ones. Jokes and stories that are technically impossible get circular-filed right away. Then the question is if IT people will actually care, whether the story is about something funny or outrageous or just a big mess.

You file the identifying marks off the stories, but has anyone ever been recognized when a story was published? Happens all the time. Lots of incidents are pretty distinctive for the people they happened to, so co-workers usually spot ’em right away.

And yet “pilot fish” keep sending them to you? Why? Well, they get a Shark Tank T-shirt if we use a story. They get bragging rights. And most people, even bosses, don’t care so long as nobody outside the company figures out who it happened to.

OK, it’s been 18 years. How have the stories readers send you changed? Like I said, at the start a lot of them were about Y2K. People still send Y2K stories — it’s the gift that keeps on giving. But after 2000, the stories moved on to whatever was giving grief to IT people. The dot-com bust. Outsourcing. Offshoring. Professional hackers. Online retailers. Lousy websites. Smartphones and tablets. The internet of things. More servers, fewer mainframes, but a lot of the same problems.

Such as? Network cable runs are always turning into nightmares. Nobody’s disaster plans ever work the way disaster planners expect. Users still plug UPSs into themselves, and data center people keep finding new ways to accidentally hit the big red emergency button that shuts everything down.

Users always think security rules are stupid and don’t apply to them. C-level execs think schedules can be cut by leaving out testing, because what could possibly go wrong? Some vendors will bend over backwards for you and some want you to bend over for them. And everybody loves to hate HR.

So really, it’s whatever... Whatever is going on in IT, that’s what I hear about. There are about 5,000 tales in the Sharkives at Computerworld.com. Help yourself.

And they come from all over. Six continents, last I checked. A few stories happened in Antarctica, but the pilot fish weren’t there anymore when they sent their tales. For years the Shark Tank column went out to all of Computerworld’s sister publications through the IDG News Service. Those readers keep sending us stories.

And we get ’em from everybody in IT — managers, VPs and CIOs, a few CFOs and CEOs, along with programmers, operations and network people, consultants and vendors. A fair number from users, and they’re not always grousing about IT. Occasionally even sales guys stumble across the Tank — it’s usually the only part of Computerworld they can understand.

What have you learned from all these years of stories? You mean like life lessons? All the clichés about IT are right, and they’re also all wrong. Also, you actually can use small mammals to pull network cable through really difficult cable runs. And you’d be surprised at how much IT work gets done in factories and sewers and on roofs and mountaintops these days. And the most effective IT gets done when users and IT people conspire.

And sometimes hearing other people’s war stories is the only thing that gets some IT people through the day. Or at least that’s what they tell me.

Frank Hayes edits Computerworld's Shark Tank and has been covering IT for almost 40 years.

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