Something Is Fishy

“I see they’ve got you doing everything around here now.”

I was opening the janitor’s closet outside of my office. They have a nice sink in there that makes cleaning our fish tanks easier. My friend Eric was walking past as I was unpacking the closet.

“Yeah. I guess I shouldn’t have been a smartass to my boss,” I said with a grin.

“But seriously, why are you in the janitor’s closet?”

“It makes maintaining the fish tank easier.”

“Oooh, you guys have a fish tank?”

“Yeah, come here and take a look.”

Our cube farm has two tanks. One is in the middle, just as you walk in the door. It’s 55 gallons and has orange platys, green tiger barbs, silvery red-eyed tetras, blue neons, orange and black clown loaches, brown algae eaters, silver hatchet fish, and a twelve inch black plecostomus. It sits right next to our conference table, and during meetings people sit and stare at it. It’s nice like that. If I want to get my mind off of whatever I’m working on I can go watch the fish for a while.

Or, in my case, clean the fish. The tank was my idea, and I am responsible for it. Which is hard when I’m gone for a week, and something goes wrong.

“Should the water be green like that?” asks Eric, as I suck-start a siphon to change some of it. My advanced siphon starting techniques are overshadowed by the pastel green water pouring from the end.

“No…” I reply. “That isn’t healthy.”

The problem was that we messed with the tank last Thursday. I was leaving on vacation on Friday, and we cleaned the filters, changed water, and vacuumed the tank pretty heavily. We also changed the complement of the fish. The other tank in our office is in my cube, a ten gallon glass rectangle serving as hospital, isolation area, and snail breeding ground. We’d moved a number of fish around between the tanks.

Many of the same strategies that apply to large scale systems management apply to fish tank management, too. First, you shouldn’t make shotgun changes. One change at a time, and then let the ecosystem stabilize. Second, you should not make changes right before you’re leaving on vacation. You won’t be around to tweak things if the ecosystem doesn’t stabilize the way you’d like, and you leave it up to others who may not be on the same page as you to do emergency work.

This time the tweaks were needed to unclog the filters. There are three types of filtration in a tank: mechanical, chemical, and biological. Mechanical just removes debris. Chemical neutralizes harmful chemicals with other chemicals. Biological neutralizes chemicals via bacteria. Bacteria eats the fish waste. Plants eat the bacterial waste. All that’s left gets changed in weekly partial water changes.

Except when the filters get clogged.

And I’m on vacation.

And now I have cost the lives of three fish, because I didn’t listen to what I tell the rest of my system administration team. Sure, I tell them about computers, not fish tanks, but it’s the same deal.

Grrrr. Welcome back from vacation, Bob.