The Nerds are Taking Over – What The Terminator can Teach Us About Leadership


Skynet is Here, and the Nerds are at the Controls

(Terminator fans can probably skip the next two paragraphs, as they’re just an explanation of the havoc we can expect in our not-too-distant future.)

Skynet, for the uninformed, is a computer-based defense system, created by nerds working for the U.S. military in the 1990s. Long story short, Skynet was put in control of all of the U.S. military’s weapons and given the task of protecting Americans from all threats. Skynet was such a powerful computer program that it “learned” at an exponential rate until it became self-aware.

Skynet, which was basically created to remove the possibility of human error in the event of an enemy attack, eventually turned on the very humans it was designed to protect (it deemed them a threat when they tried to shut it down), and it decided to terminate all humans to protect its own existence.

Can You Even Spell IT?

Welcome to 2009, where instead of Cyberdyne Systems’ Skynet program, we have our various corporate IT departments protecting us from ourselves. (IT, by the way, is short for Information Technology. An oxymoron really, since no one involved with technology is ever very forthcoming with any information.)

At my company this week, our self-aware IT department blocked our regional employees from accessing our own consumer-facing websites because they were “uncategorized.” Never mind that it is the IT department’s job to categorize these sites, or that these websites have been live and accessible for ten years.

This team also blocked employees in our corporate office from accessing our advertising agency’s demo site (where we login to view details of the current marketing programs and make changes to artwork, etc.). The violation here, you ask? Not sure, though the following menacing message appeared on everyone’s screen who attempted to access the website:

“This site is blocked by Corporate Policy.

Reason for restriction: Administrative Custom List Settings”

Aha! The three big threats to our internal network security are clearly computer worms, malicious viruses and “Administrative Custom List Settings.”

While I find this just a little bit humorous today, I was not laughing during the seven hours Thursday while I jumped through hoop after hoop to get the website lifted from the banned domains’ list.

Better Safe than Sorry

Of course, the nerd-driven event this week that clearly proved to be a sign that Skynet is upon us and is exponentially becoming self-aware, happened when one of our vendors (finally) disclosed that they had been “scrubbing” our customer email lists and destroying those that were equated with “domains that have suspicious registration and DNS configuration settings.” While I have no idea what that means in English, suffice it to say that this vendor, without direction from us, had been purging our records of valid customer email addresses because they didn’t like the way the email addresses smelled.

This vendor has potentially cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars all in the name of “data integrity.” The CEO of this company had the nerve to claim that it is better to be safe, than to be sorry.

Really? That’s what you’re going with here? No one asked you to protect us; and as it turns out, you were protecting us from nothing.

When we examined the recent email addresses they had purged (they kept a record of what they deleted in the past week), we found no malicious threats, no spammers and no breach to our data integrity. What we did discover were valid email addresses for real customers who were scheduled to be removed permanently from our database (like the hundreds or thousands before them).

The Tail Wagging the Dog

Prior to the anointment of the IT staff as Lord and Protector in the business world, we had the Admin Nazis. Those large women with cafeteria lady arms or the small, pale men who could stifle the joy of any young salesman’s first big sale with a simple and curt “paperwork’s not right; order’s rejected.”

I’m starting to miss the good old days where anyone in an administrative function believed the world revolved around them. When I was starting out in business, it was woe unto anyone on the operations side who tried to circumvent or curtail the self-important authority of an Admin Nazi. They could be very vindictive and selective in their enforcement of proper paperwork, you see.  

Back then we complained that the tail was wagging the dog; and we just lived with it because we could. As bad as the Admin Nazis were, they just made our lives suck; they didn’t actually control them.

If You’re Not Selling, then You’re Support

The only cure for the productivity-killing Admin Nazi was great leadership. Great leaders have a way of weighing inter-departmental priorities against the goal, and finding a solution that, although it doesn’t always please everyone, makes the most sense over both the short and long terms. They put administrators in their place by asking them to administrate and support the efforts of those who drive the real value for the company: those who touch our customers.

While great leadership was able to overcome the threat of the Admin Nazi in the past, it turns out that great leaders are often the ones who are allowing IT to build their version of Skynet at your company in the present. Because support for this over-protectionism comes from the top, trying to wrestle control from a nerd with network administrative rights is going to be a whole lot harder than getting Marge to accept a customer contract without the Ts crossed.

By the way, this is not the tail wagging the dog; this is the flea wagging the dog’s owner.

Your CEO is oblivious to what the real threats are or what they mean to your business, so she is forced to listen to the CIO’s version of reality. Chief Information Officers, it seems, are mostly frustrated former nerds with larger offices and tons of control.

Their power initially grew from a lack of knowledge and fear; although they gain more muscle every time some knucklehead in a cubicle downloads malware while registering for a free iPhone. Forget that the CIO’s team should have proactively ensured there were adequate protections against malicious computer code in the first place; it only takes a few hours of network outage for the CEO to give up a little more of her power to the CIO. It’s better to be safe than sorry, they’ll say.

I’ll Be Back

Cybernetic organisms aside, it’s time that leaders start asking tough questions of their CIOs and other IT department heads before we allow the nerds to give the computers all the control.

A simple “Why” can work wonders.

Every time anyone in IT appears to be protecting us from ourselves, the leader needs to ask “why?” And when IT answers the question, the leader needs to ask “and why is that important?”

Two questions is more accountability than most IT mangers can handle. They’ll either capitulate or their human-like skin will melt away, revealing their android inner self.

In case the IT manager insists on continuing with their course of action after the leader has asked the two “Why” questions, we recommend they follow up with something like “I’m not sure that’s in our best interest, can you put that request in-writing and give it to my administrative assistant Marge?”

(Marge, you see, misses her old role as an Admin Nazi.)