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Saving Private Ryan’s Spreadsheets

Heroes are inherently exciting; it’s why we build stories around them. Contrary to Hollywood convention, Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert argues that heroic actions don’t require heroic characteristics. Not in movies, not on the battlefield, and not even in the hum-drum cubicle farm.

Thanks to popular culture, there’s an all-too-common misconception that the exemplar of a given function in a book, movie, or television show must represent all such members of that function across his or her industry. This is because a time-constrained story (like a film) by necessity has to focus on the most interesting of its characters if it wants to tell a complete story in the time it’s allotted. That’s why the heroes of a story are often the best possible examples of their profession. Or, at least, they’re the most interesting members of their profession to watch at the time and in the place where the story takes place.

Take the award-winning epic Saving Private Ryan, for example. [1] After the gut-wrenching opening sequence of the D-Day landings, the story narrows in on Tom Hanks’ character. Hanks plays ‘Captain Miller,’ an officer with the U.S. Army’s elite 2nd Ranger Battalion. The film establishes Miller as a battlefield hero and strong leader through his demonstrated actions in leading a breakout from the killing fields of the beachhead. After that sequence, the audience accepts that this character is supremely fit, tactically savvy, calm under fire, a crack shot, a capable brawler, and a seasoned leader. He’s not just a hero; he’s also the right hero for the movie’s quest.

Which … he has to be, doesn’t he? If Spielberg had directed the script such that ‘Captain Miller’ was an overweight draftee of middling talent from the Ordnance Corps, then we either wouldn’t believe the character’s later heroics, or else the movie would end in at the thirty-minute mark when ‘Captain Miller’ got disoriented trying to read a map, took a wrong turn, and drove his jeep over a cliff. Realistically, there were a lot more Ordnance men on the Normandy beaches than there were Rangers. Many of whom were stellar military professionals. That said, it’s much faster and easier for an audience to accept the idea of a Ranger – a well-known elite fighter type – being the hero than a grunt from a specialty and function that most civilians have never heard of.

The rules of fiction carry over into our expectations for real life. We expect reality to work the same way that the worlds shown in popular entertainment work. Stories naturally focus on heroes. Heroes are naturally extraordinarily good at their functions. Big problems are supposed to be solved with boldness and technical expertise. In pedestrian reality, problems usually get solved by the person with the minimum required skills, the required tools for the job, and proximity to the problem.

  Action movie heroes can always fall back on their good looks, charm, and plot armour. In the real world, having the right tools is usually damned important.

Now, I greatly enjoyed Ryan. It’s a great war movie and it’s brilliantly told. I’m fine with making the film’s hero an Army Ranger, because real Army Rangers deserve a lot of respect. The movie works fine as a gripping war story. It’s just not strictly representative of World War II soldering. Hell, it’s not even a complete picture of D-Day. Remember: by the end of the first day of the Normandy landings, around 132,000 Allied troops made it into France from the sea and another 24,000 from the air. It took over 6,900 naval vessels and 1,200 aircraft to get them there, and hundreds of thousands more troops to bring in reinforcements and supplies to sustain the offensive.

Yes, there was a definite need for Rangers on the Normandy beaches, just like there was a desperate need for combat engineers (to clear obstacles), medics (to save the wounded), and landing craft handlers (to get troops, ammo, and supplies back and forth from ship-to-shore). Every soldier, sailor, and commando did his part to make the overall operation a success. Some of those participants were elite fighting men, but most were average Joes who had either volunteered for service after the war started or had been conscripted for the effort. These were men doing the best that they could do under appalling circumstances. Heroism isn’t the sole province of the elite; it’s the product of character in even the most unassuming person. [2]

That’s the way it is in real-world IT operations, too (although usually without all the incoming gunfire and potential for death). There are some definite elite IT performers: Third Tier network engineers who can intuit a routing glitch on the other side of the planet. Forensic Data Analysts who can recover incriminating evidence from echoes of deleted files on a wrecked hard drive. Virtualization Architects who can configure their infrastructure to survive the catastrophic loss of a data centre without the customers ever noticing an interruption. The IT Department’s wizards are amazing to watch in action, and deserve all the praise they’re due for their acts of outstanding performance.

That being said, Third Tier engineers are kind of like Army Rangers, in that there aren’t that many of them, they’re painfully expensive to create (in both time and treasure), and their talents are best directed to the thorniest – and coincidentally the most glorious – of endeavours. Meanwhile, someone has to sort out the pedestrian challenges. You don’t send the SAS to nick a neighbourhood car thief. So, too, you don’t send a Lead Data Centre Engineer down to Accounting to recover a bean counter’s budget spreadsheet after her laptop blue-screens. You send a field support tech who does whatever’s necessary to save the company. Or, at least, to save the bean counter’s figures.

  It might be boring, but it’s also potential evidence. Sometimes it’s the littlest things                                                   that keep a fellow out of jail.  

It’s important that every IT worker understand that IT is a team effort, not a collection of individual performances. Experts are important; a company can’t operate for very long without senior techs fulfilling critical roles. It also can’t afford to squander those specialists’ finite duty hours. Specialists are bloody expensive to grow, to recruit, and to maintain thereafter. That’s why a prudent company must have lower-level generalists on-staff: people who can police up the tasks and troubleshoot the complaints that have to be addressed, but would probably waste an expensive specialist’s time.

That’s why it’s darned important to teach new IT workers that a first-tier tech support worker is not – and was never intended to be! – a world-class engineer. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s exactly where my students want to be: on the ground floor, seeing and supporting everything, as they prove their IT mettle and figure out how they want to specialize.

In the beginning of my IT Troubleshooter course, I teach how tech support evolved from the 1950s through today. In the beginning, a computer’s user was often also its designer, programmer, and operator. The early computer scientists did their own support. In the early days of PCs, the first computer users were hobbyists who had to build and maintain their own temperamental equipment. There wasn’t the huge divide between end-users and support staff like we have today.

What we think of now as ‘IT support’ came about in the 1990s, when computer use became wide-spread, and when technical specializations began to form within dedicated IT support groups. Nowadays, most corporate IT departments have dozens of highly-educated specialists on staff, ranging from software developers to network engineers to power-and-cooling techs. The thing is, most of those specialists started out as some flavour of entry-level tech. They mastered the basics, learned their employer’s business, and then grew in technical skill over time.

That’s important. In fact, it’s one of the most important elements of the entire Troubleshooter Course. I realize that I can’t cram an entire multi-semester undergraduate job skills program into a ~40-hour block. I can’t – and shouldn’t, if I’m honest – try to compete with commercial IT skills trainers in their areas of expertise. On day one of the course, I strongly urge my students to find a way to take the SANS SEC-301 Introduction to Information Security course and the SANS SEC-401 Security Essentials Bootcamp. They’re expensive, but they’re absolutely worth the investment. That being said, I’m not trying to duplicate their curricula. My Troubleshooter course is focused on building a solid foundation for new students so that they’re capable of getting the most out of those advanced academic opportunities later on.

                   Another strong motivator: often, the only way that a poor or disadvantaged kid can get job skills is to enlist.  I did, so I can’t knock it.  That said, getting your job training through military service – while honourable in the extreme – brings with it a much higher level of potential risk. If I can provide another route to the same goal, it might improve the odds of a student actually getting to those 'advanced academic opportunities.' 

First things first, these young people have to have decent jobs. They need steady working hours, enough pay to cover their bills, and health insurance. So long as they’re working unskilled, minimum wage, part time gigs, they’ll never be in a position where they have the time, the energy, the focus, or the résumé fodder to get qualified for a demanding IT sector job. It’s a Catch-22; they have to already have the job in order to get the job. Bloody maddening, that is.

I want to obliterate that obstacle for these kids by eliminating one of the two crucial barriers-to-entry in white collar work. New IT workers show up knowing either tech or business, and have to be trained on the other before they’re fully qualified. I don’t have the resources to teach half a bachelor’s degree worth of commercial engineering content, but I can teach everything else. Culture, structure, function, logistics, administration, organisation … All of the stuff that’s required for a new worker to succeed in white collar work.

If Operation OVERLORD taught us anything, it’s that the movies are wrong. With all due respect to Saving Private Ryan, you don’t have to be a rugged, elite hero to accomplish great things. Tens of thousands of men demonstrated on the Normandy beaches that basic technical training, some leadership, and a clear objective will bring out the best in ordinary people. My self-appointed role as a booster for these young folks is to design and deliver the right technical and operational training, and to then to show them how to pursue their objectives.

And hell … if no one makes a movie about my graduates’ exploits, that’s okay. Saving a spreadsheet isn’t as heroic as saving a village. It’s still good work, though, and an opportunity to do good work at a good wage is good enough. Not enough for a summer blockbuster, maybe. More than enough for real young people trying to get ahead in real life.


[1] I’ve been re-reading articles on Operation OVERLORD since June started, since this year is the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.

[2] The Army unit I was assigned to after I was commissioned – the 61st Medical Battalion – had earned a unit commendation for acts of heroism on Omaha Beach. When the Battalion HQ element landed at 1300 hours on 6th June 1944, they came with typewriters and files … and no medical supplies. When the medical companies couldn’t land due to heavy fire and blockages on the beach, the 18 HQ members salvaged medical supplies from wrecked landing craft and stayed on the beach to treat the wounded under direct fire. Six of the 18 HQ soldiers were wounded in action. Three of the enlisted men received Bronze Star medals for saving wounded soldiers. See Appendix 3 of the unit’s official history.

Title Allusion: Robert Robat (writer) and Steven Spielberg (Director), Saving Private Ryan (1998 film)

Images under license from ThinkStockPhotos.co.uk, copyright: helmet, philipimage, surgical instruments, MJ_Prototype, spreadsheet data, David Good, remember the fallen, JOHNGOMEZPIX


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil 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 Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger.