It's one thing to be caught with the help desk unattended when the e-mail system crashes. But woe to the techie whose glitch jeopardizes key client relationships.
Problems with technology in the workplace seem to be occurring more than ever -- and at a time when the cost of a few errant keystrokes has never been so visible.
Take the case of a senior technician for WorldCom Inc. who accidentally took down the Nasdaq Stock Market for more than an hour while testing new software late last month. Linda Laughlin, a spokeswoman for WorldCom, said the company has since made changes to the software and employee workstations to prevent a recurrence at Nasdaq or other client sites. She declined to say whether the technician, who had about five years of experience, had been fired.
Veterans of the information technology industry say mistakes are inevitable, especially for employees who work with detailed, information-heavy databases or who design and upgrade software packages.
"It would be surprising to have a program that comes in that doesn't have some kind of flaw," says James Mabury, who teaches introductory computer science at the University of Maryland in College Park. "When you get to a larger-scale piece of software, you hopefully design it so one major flaw doesn't bring on a crash."
The way a person behaves in the midst of a crisis is what separates workers who are thrown a life vest from those who are shown the plank, according to technical recruiters and career experts.
First, don't hide under your desk, no matter how bad the situation might be.
"If you are the cause of a major work-related problem, take responsibility immediately without blaming anyone else," said Bernadette Kenny, an executive vice president with the outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison.
On your way to the boss's cubicle, come up with a potential solution to the problem to "show you're ahead of the curve," advises Calvin Sun, a technology and customer service consultant.
Sun knows the subject from personal experience. Several years ago, as an employee of KPMG Peat Marwick, as it was then known, he inadvertently transferred some data from a software test into a program that was operating live -- similar to what happened in the recent Nasdaq shutdown. Sun, who now runs his own consulting firm, came clean immediately with no negative effects. He attributes his employer's goodwill to the fact that he was honest about the problem and kept superiors informed of his efforts to fix it.