Everyone starts out ignorant of how essential technologies function. That’s normal. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that any worker whose understanding of tech doesn’t evolve and mature becomes an internal threat to his or her organisation.
Leaders’ attitudes regarding modern information technologies are supposed to evolve over time, as leaders are exposed to increasingly more sophisticated explanations of systems, capabilities, vulnerabilities, threats, and countermeasures. Sort of like how small children shiver under their blankets, terrified of the local boogeyman, then grow up to become adults who still shiver under their blankets, but have by then cultured more sophisticated fears like the amoral futility of a pointless existence in a rigged and exploitative global economic system. A cackling stranger with knives for fingers is plenty scary when you’re five; once you’ve racked up a few adult birthdays, the cackling stranger with knives for fingers is less likely to be hiding in your closet and more likely to be commiserating with you at the pub, full of bitter stories about losing his kids and his flat in the divorce after his job was outsourced to Bangladesh by a wicked investment banker. Our fears evolve as we grow, taking on depth and nuance as we learn more about how the world works, and about just how wicked the world truly is.
The natural transition from adorable ignorance to grim awareness is a normal part of human development.  That’s why it’s perfectly normal for a new university graduate to hit the workforce with wide eyes, boundless ambition and a hopelessly naïve understanding of how technologies work. It’s not a universal state – some people do hit the working world with a solid lock on contemporary tech – but ignorance is the most common state that I’ve observed in the wild. That’s to be expected when many kids’ schools and universities don’t place nearly enough emphasis on a technology education. Schools get excited about exposing impressionable young minds to ancient Greek celebrities, all while blithely encouraging their young charges to over-share their most career-sabotaging photos and horrifying mistakes on social media via the campus’s open wireless network. I consider this to be an act of setting young people up to fail post graduation when they transition into the workforce – that is, by emphasizing the wrong skills in the wrong order – since pretty much no one in the FORTUNE 500 gives a snit about what colour Aristotle’s robes were.
Yes, I do agree that there’s some value to be had by studying the classics and by understanding the foundations of modern democracy. I don’t necessarily agree that a classical education is more valuable than, say, a pragmatic vocational curriculum. Treating all university students as if they were queuing up to be Oxford dons isn’t a good fit for the 90 per cent of students who won’t ever see the inside of a lecture hall again in their lives. If you have effectively unlimited funds and want to master Greek rhetoric for your own personal growth, I’m all for it; then again, if you have effectively unlimited funds at your disposal then you’ll never be coming to me looking for work – so I won’t ever need to hurt your feelings by informing you that the finer points of Greek rhetoric aren’t germane to your job performance in a modern multinational corporation. I need you to know how to use Microsoft Outlook without triggering a public scandal that winds up costing our CEO his annual bonus.
For the overwhelming majority of university graduates who actually need to work in order to live, a comprehensive understanding of how systems and networks actually function is more valuable than arts and literature. I’m not aiming to bruise the egos of academics; merely pointing out that we hire people who can use their tools effectively without being a drain on a company’s resources. A worker at any level who needs excessive hand-holding when it comes to essential tools is a burden, not an asset. A worker at any level who carelessly makes the company vulnerable to criticism, exploitation, or litigation through their technological ignorance constitutes an unacceptable risk to the company’s future. We expect a certain minimum level of competence and professionalism in all contributors.
We used to perform criminal background checks on potential new hires; in modern times, we Google those new hires’ online antics. The purpose of both activities is the same: to see if a candidate has demonstrated an unacceptable lack of professional judgment. Yes, some ‘youthful indiscretions’ are potentially forgivable, provided there’s believable evidence of rehabilitation and contrition. Everyone was ignorant (and often stupid) in his or her formative years. So long as you show credible signs of having evolved, we’ll be willing to consider taking a chance on you.
We do much the same when we interview potential hires. We ask probing questions about significant problems that the candidates have experienced, what they did to resolve them, what their thinking was, and (most importantly!) what they’d do differently now that they have a more mature, more nuanced understanding of the totality of factors. A candidate can survive having made a terrible technological mistake in their younger professional years, so long as their thinking has evolved considerably since they made their embarrassing mistake. We want to see that a potential hire has grown from the experience, and won’t make the same mistake again.
Unfortunately, too many workers – of all ages and at all levels of power – don’t seem inclined to evolve their professional skills or judgment at all. Per the tongue-in-cheek title of this column, a great many senior contributors, managers, directors, vice presidents, chief executives, board members and the like develop bizarrely specious understandings on technology and technical work early on in their careers and then stubbornly refuse to modernize their thinking. Per the dictionary definition: ‘specious’ is an adjective, employed to signify:
- apparently correct or true, but actually wrong or false
- deceptively attractive in appearance
I’ve spent far too much of my professional life cleaning up messes made by key decision makers who inadvertently inflicted great harm on their organisation out of sheer ignorance. In the majority of these cases, the villain of the story insisted that they possessed a level of technological proficiency that they didn’t actually have, and used their claimed competence to justify making critical decisions about subjects that they actually knew nothing about. Many of these villains were years or decades out of date in terms of understanding the elements in-play; they’d achieved functional proficiency during their early years in the workforce, and never bothered learning anything new thereafter.
A great example of this phenomenon occurred in the CIO’s office at a major corporation that I consulted to back in the oughts. I was working with a group of IT managers who represented different branches of the company’s many North American locations. All of the savvy managers in the group voiced the same complaint: corporate had centralized core IT services (like e-mail) at the national level, but never invested in new WAN connectivity to facilitate the additional data traffic that came with forcing every PC in the corporation to traverse the entire network every ten minutes to check for new mail. Some managers complained about circuit saturation – up to 90 per cent of their bandwidth was going to e-mail, with next-to-nothing left over for web-delivered applications. The managers were rightfully frustrated, especially since it seemed like the CIO’s office wasn’t doing anything to fix the problem.
On the third day of our conference, I convinced two of the hardest-hit managers to raise the issue on a conference call with the national office’s network management team. Keep in mind that these were senior IT heads with at least 20 years’ experience each – they knew their jobs. When they brought up their complaint to the junior infrastructure manager at the national level, though, they were snidely told to stop complaining. ‘We’ve already solved this problem,’ the 20-something fellow said. ‘We’ve sent WAN accelerators to your sites which will eliminate all of your bandwidth problems.’
There was a moment of shared astonishment in the conference room – no one seemed to know how to respond to that assertion for several seconds. I adopted my best ‘cheerful team player’ voice and asked the infrastructure manager what, exactly, he meant by a ‘WAN accelerator’.
‘We purchased [brand name web proxy] appliances for your sites last year,’ he said. ‘Those speed up your network connections.’
Jaws dropped on my side of the call. I held up a hand for silence, then asked the infrastructure manger how, exactly, a local web page filtering appliance could ‘accelerate’ anything. The manager condescendingly told me that the presence of a proxy would speed up all network traffic.
I smiled (I’d read that people can hear it when you smile on a phone call) and reminded the infrastructure manager that less than 10 per cent of the remote sites’ traffic was HTML calls – 90 per cent was being chewed up by e-mail traffic, and a web proxy device didn’t do anything at all to e-mail I/O. The gentleman’s tone grew acidic: he haughtily told me that I was wrong – the [brand name proxy] used ‘special technology’ to accelerate the movement of packets in both directions over a network link. ‘So, if you have a 1.5 megabits-per-second T-1 connection to your site, the [brand name appliance] makes all of the packets move twice as fast over the wires, thereby giving you the effective bandwidth of two circuits!’
Our conference room exploded with laughter. My two senior IT managers were sobbing openly, red-faced, chests heaving. A professional comedian with a wickedly-tuned quip would have been hard-pressed to realize half of the howling laughter that this one IT dweeb’s comment had triggered. Grown men were bent over their notebooks, struggling to breathe. I feel certain that the young git on the other end of the call turned a bit scarlet himself.
Once things calmed down, we managed to work out that the bandwidth management team was made up of relatively junior university graduates, none of whom had ever held a corporate IT job before. They’d read the appliance manufacturer’s shiny sales brochure and saw the marketing blurb that a web filter could halt unnecessary off-site page calls. The sales copy make it seem like they’d realize ‘twice as much effective bandwidth’, so they believed the exaggeration at face-value. They took their proposal to upper management with bright eyes and visions of fat cash bonuses, and managed to spend millions of dollars on mostly useless hardware that didn’t accelerate anything. The infrastructure manager truly couldn’t understand why his ‘magic boxes’ weren’t being hailed as the best thing that ever happened to the IT department.
What was worse for the corporation was that upper management didn’t relieve the git for incompetence when his well-intentioned scheme fell through. They allowed him to remain in charge of bandwidth management for the corporation until a higher-level position opened up. Meanwhile, a completely separate arm of national-level IT planning quietly slipped out and bought all of the affected sites some new MPLS WAN circuits to alleviate the network congestion problem. The engineering problem was dealt with, but nothing was learned. The fellow who cost the company millions of investment dollars and delivered nothing for years – thereby delaying a fix for the bandwidth congestion problem –was given carte blanche to keep making similar mistakes, only on a larger scale.
I have some empathy for the young infrastructure manager. He was working well beyond his capability, and wasn’t trained to make the sort of engineering decisions that fell under his remit. The odds of him actually solving the problem with the tools he had at his disposal were very low. On the other hand, the man never consulted with more experience or more educated experts on how to understand the problem. He refused to acknowledge his ignorance, and he vehemently refused to evolve his thinking when confronted with the inescapable facts of his abysmal decision. As far as I knew, he never owned his mistake, which was a wasted opportunity to make the company’s IT staff better.
This is where the Darwinian model falls sort of flat: in biological ecosystems, a species that fails to evolve to accommodate changing conditions eventually can’t compete and goes extinct. In the business world, uncompetitive characters rarely go career-extinct; they move up in the decision-making hierarchy instead, and continue to inflict damage on their organisation through profound, applied ignorance.
If that prospect doesn’t make you shiver in your blankets at night, then you’re either failing to grasp the existential nature of the threat to your continued economic survival, or you’re an independently wealthy Oxford don. Please rest assured that the rest of us lose sleep over the threat of losing our livelihood over someone specious stranger’s financially disastrous technology decision.
I remain convinced that a great deal of this nightmare scenario can be effectively and cheaply mitigated by insisting that new university graduates enter the workforce with a solid, common level of foundation knowledge on how systems and networks actually function. We need a ‘common technical curriculum’ that prepares all new workers to function in a standard business environment. Unfortunately, I don’t expect to see the education world changing to accommodate this need anytime soon; universities’ traditional disdain for the working world simply perpetuates the problem.
 More popularly captured as: ‘Ex Ignorantia Ad Sapientiam; Ex Luce Ad Tenebras,’ in the finest Miskatonic tradition.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.