It had been established early on at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was generally a troublemaker. All three of the Plant Managers that managed the plant during my tenure can attest to that. One Plant Manager, Ron Kilman, who reads this blog has been learning over the last couple of years, just what troublemaker I really was, as he reads these posts (oh. He knew I caused trouble when he was there, but not everything).
I was the “computer guy” at the plant. Though I was an electrician, the IT Support Department in Oklahoma City, 75 miles away deferred daily computer issues to me. The IT Networking Department had me run all their networking cables all over the plant, as I have mentioned before. Anywhere someone wanted a computer installed, I was the only person at the plant that would be assigned the task.
Even though I usually tell you stories about great Power Plant Men and their outstanding achievements, today, I must confess will be solely about myself. It will illustrate why I never could categorize myself as a “True Power Plant Man” like all the Heroes of Power Plant Fame. Even though there are countless ways I can demonstrate this, I will focus on the Plant Computer network and the role I played.
I was pretty much a self-study when it came to computer networks. A few trips to Hastings Bookstore, and I had enough Networking books to be dangerous. Though I never took a test to be certified, I read the Novell Netware 4 CNA (Certified Netware Administrator) manuals.
I also read books about different ways people hack into networks, such as the book, “Hacking Exposed”.
After pulling the 100 pair telephone cable from the back of the main switchgear to the coal yard by myself for the most part, and crawling through the ceilings in the office area stringing network cable through the rafters and punched down all the wires connecting them to the switches in the telephone room, I sort of felt like I owned the computer network at our plant.
After the server rack was installed, and the Novell Netware was up and running, then suddenly, I realized that the networking people downtown didn’t want some electrician poking his nose into their network. This was different than the mainframe. When we just had the mainframe, I had free reign to reek as much havoc on the system as I wanted…. Of course…. I never wanted to do that, it just happened sometimes. I chocked those times up as learning experiences.
The networking people downtown in Corporate Headquarters at that time had one major weakness…. They couldn’t administer the network remotely (this was 1995 and Windows servers were something new). So, when something needed to be done on the server at our plant, they had two choices.
They could get in a car (or truck) and drive 75 miles to our plant, then spend 10 minutes working on the network at our plant, then drive 75 miles back to Oklahoma City during going home traffic. Or, they could call me and have me connect them to the server using a modem and PC Anywhere (A software that allowed a person to remote into a computer and take control of it). Then from a computer on our network, they could log into the computer and access the server.
Needless to say, about once each week, I would go up to the engineer’s office to a computer that they would dial into. The computer had PC Anywhere installed and I would start up it up and grant them access to take control. While they were doing this, I would be talking to them on the phone. I could watch everything they were doing.
I could see the username they were using to log in, but like today, I couldn’t see the password they were using as it just came across as asterisks. I really wanted to be able to access the network myself. I thought it would help advance my knowledge so that when I did take the Netware CNA tests, I would have some hands on experience. I really wanted to become a Network Administrator. I guess I was sort of a Network Administrator Groupie at the time. I looked up to Network Administrators like they were guru’s with special knowledge.
I talked to the networking people in Oklahoma City to see if a lowly electrician like me could have some kind of limited network administrator account on the network so that I could learn about networking. I told them I was studying to become a System Administrator. They looked into it, but never came back with anything.
I had read about how hackers would capture passwords by capturing keystrokes from the keyboard. I had done something like this, only the other way around when I was writing little DOS prank programs that changed the values on the keyboards so that when you pressed an “A” it would come out as a “B” instead. I had one that would turn your caps lock on and leave the cap lock light off. I would have it on a timer, so that it could randomly make you type everything in CAPS in the middle of your sentence. You know… just fun little things like that. I suppose today, these would be categorized as viruses, if I had made them so that they would propagate across the network.
I knew how to manipulate the keyboard using things called “Interrupts”. So, I just reversed that process and using Debug, I was able to create a small assembly language program that would capture all the keystrokes from the keyboard and log them to a file. I had learned Assembly Language from Peter Norton, the same guy who later created Norton’s Utilities and Norton’s Anti-virus. Here is my book:
So, one day when the network guy from Oklahoma City dialed into the modem I tested the program to see if it would capture keystrokes even though they weren’t coming directly from the keyboard, but from PC Anywhere. To my surprise, when he had finished doing his task, and had logged off, I opened up the log file, and sure enough, all the keystrokes were logged. I could plainly see where he logged onto the server by typing in his username and password.
The password reminded me of a friend of mine from High School, because his e-mail address was Condor… something…. The password was: condor. So, I quickly logged into the server using the username and password and created a new Network Administrator account called something like: “Admin_sa” I gave it “God” access. So, after that I could log into the network and look around to see how the system was configured.
I know this was underhanded, and today would be highly illegal, but back then, all this network stuff was new and I was learning this along with the rest of the IT department downtown. The only difference was that I was an Electrician at a Power Plant many miles away. I only used that new Administrator account a few times to look at configuration settings as I read through the Netware books. I never changed any settings or did anything devious…. at least not when we were on the Novell Netware Network. I think the thrill of capturing a password and setting up my own account was enough.
My philosophy changed later when we moved to a Windows NT Network. That had so many holes in security that it deserved to be played with. It wasn’t too long later that the Netware Network was replaced, which made all my studying for the Netware Administrator useless. I couldn’t understand at the time why we would want to move away from such a secure network to one that had such a bad design that it left itself wide open to hackers (even today, 20 years later Microsoft still has to patch their servers every month!).
I could quickly write a Word document that would reformat your hard drive just by opening it up. In fact, Charles Foster one time asked me if I could come up with a way to install AOL on his aunt’s computer in California (or some such place), who knows nothing about computers. So, I created a Word document (since she did have Word on her computer already. and added a macro to it, that installed AOL and other software, and all she had to do was double click on the Word document icon. By the time it opened up to where she could read it, it had installed all the software she needed.
Once we were on the Windows network, the attitude of the IT network people changed. They were more flexible. They could maintain the network from downtown, so they only called me when they needed someone to log directly into the front of the server, which I did for them whenever they needed it. They began to feel more comfortable with me over time, and the support people downtown sort of granted me all the access I needed at the plant.
I think the reason I finally gained the trust of the IT Support team was because I would listen to their personal problems. This was something I had learned as a kid. I used to go around the neighborhood and make friends with all the dogs. That way, when we were playing hide and seek in the middle of the night, I could creep around behind houses, and the dogs wouldn’t bark at me. They would come up to me wagging their tails. It gave me a great advantage. So, by letting the IT Support people tell me about their personal problems, they would trust me. And then when I asked them for favors, they were happy to help out.
At that point (when we were on the Windows Network), I could sit in the Electric Shop and access every computer in the plant. For a few things, I had to actually visit a computer, but for a lot of things, I could just access the computer remotely. I have a few stories that I will tell this year that will give you some insight into how I used this power to better mankind…. well, I suppose it depends on how you look at it.
Later on, when I went to work for Dell in 2001, I put away all my “trouble causing” hacking stuff and decided that now that I am working in IT, I should join the Good Side of the Force. That didn’t mean that I didn’t do some fun stuff. Actually, some of the really good hacking stuff I had learned at the plant became very useful when I was in IT and could create applications on my own using the knowledge I had gained.
There was one time at Dell that I had to hack into database files that had crashed in order to extract the data. I would never have had the confidence to even try that if I hadn’t first learned programming from the ground up at the Power Plant.
I think it was Leslie Hale, a consulting manager from Concur (an expense reporting application) ask me at a Concur conference in 2010 how I hacked all of our credit card account numbers from their database when they were encrypted. He said his team had been trying to figure out how I could have done that so quickly. They normally charged $30,000 to migrate the credit card account numbers from their on-premise system to their hosted application. Of course, they have the encryption keys. I told them, I could do it myself by tomorrow and save the $30,000. They didn’t believe me, until the next day I uploaded a file to them with all the employees and account numbers. Dell was happy they didn’t have to pay the $30,000 for something that should have been part of the migration costs already.
I know I often caused our plant supervisor’s a few mild stomach ulcers. I think they just kept me around because either they felt sorry for me, or they thought that some day I might actually come to something. I finally left the plant in 2001 to pursue a life in IT at Dell. The journey to that end is another story, to be told later. Without all the support I received at the Electric Company, I never would have been able to make that change in my life. It all began one day when the Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson told me in 1988 that he wanted me to learn all I could about computers. I guess, that was the moment when I began “expanding my bubble.”