Working Like a Dog
By blogsadmin on Aug 04, 2006
In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned that I have a Siberian Husky named Thunder. I will be the first to tell you that, while I love every inch of his fat furry self, Siberians are a very demanding breed, one that is not for everybody. Siberians are very intelligent dogs, and independent to the point of willfulness (categorized as "I'm doing what I want, regardless of what you tell me to do"). I have a friend (Ira Winkler), who is a well-known security expert, and when I run into him at security conferences, we never talk about security. We talk about our Siberians (Thunder -- mine, and Bandit -- his). How clever they are, how smart they are, how much they keep us on our toes. As he says, "You want a challenge, get a Husky."
Many Siberian traits that can be irritating were actually bred into them and are very useful ones. Huskies were imported into Alaska from Siberia, where they were used by the Chukchi people -- hence, "Husky" -- as sled dogs. As such, their willfulness is good trait: Huskies are so attuned to trail conditions that they can detect drum ice,* melting ice, or other hazardous trail conditions far better than mushers can, and they will not proceed under unsafe conditions regardless of the musher's commands. Particularly in arctic terrain, you want your sled dog team to be smarter than you are: they are the "subject matter experts" on a trail. In a blizzard, you can trust them to find the trail and lead you home.
I have friends who have nice placid dogs that obey every voice command, who can be walked off lead, who roll over and act all kissy kissy licky licky, and who never challenge them. I don't have a dog like that. As much as I could occasionally strangle Thunder (such as the way he starts bugling for treats during the last 10 minutes of a two hour movie -- how does he know?), I appreciate him the way he is and wouldn't change a thing about him. In a strange way, he has helped me appreciate the various personalities I work with, (and be more accepting of my own " 'tude").
One of my direct reports, John, I hired for many reasons. He is smart, hard-working, passionate about what he does, and also "knows the trail" more than I do in many circumstances. The fact that he fights for his ideas and tells me when and where I can get off (professionally and politely, but firmly, of course), are all really great attributes. In fact, I transferred him to work for me a second time precisely because of those attributes. I did not want a "yes person" who had exactly my strengths and weaknesses and who agreed with me on everything.
I am sure Golden Retrievers are great dogs, but they are far more "aim to please" than a Husky and I would not want one leading me over the Norton Sound. Similarly, the main reason I wanted John to run security program management is that he is going to run that team based on what he sees, and not on what I think (particularly when I am giving bad directions).
Another Siberian Husky characteristic is "forging." You put a leash on your Siberian, and he leans into the harness and pulls for all his might. I'm not a small woman (135 pounds) and Thunder is not an especially big dog (155 pounds), but my dog walks me, and not the other way around. Thunder didn't need any instruction to learn to "skijor" with me, either: as soon as I put a harness on him and clipped him into my belt, he pulled me on Nordic skis. (He's unbeaten in 5Kor less and refuses to be passed. He's beaten Olympians. I don't "do" anything to get him to run. He just does. I don't "do" anything to get him to accelerate when someone is trying to pass him: he just does. Thunder loves to skijor and hates to lose.)
One of my employees has work attributes that could be called forging. She is not the supreme technician in my team (e.g., the best hacker). What Tami does have is the most determined "stick-to-it-iveness" of anybody I know. I can give her any project and, if she doesn't immediately know how to do it, she will figure it out. If she has a weakness, she will figure out how to "bone up on" that area and turn it into a strength. Tami works in the security vulnerability handling team, on multiple projects related to getting our critical patch updates out. When we asked her to do project management (keeping track of the myriad of things and people and milestones and deliverables) for the critical patch updates overall, project management was not her strong suit. It is now.
Only those who don't know her look at her and think (for example), "She could never run a marathon, or drive a sled in the Iditarod." I know she could. She'd figure out how to do it, and she would finish the race, and that much faster the next time. That attribute of "I won't quit; I won't give up, I will keep going" is remarkably rare and oh, so valuable.
These two individuals are not the only members of my team, nor the only valuable members of my team. (I look forward to bragging on more of them in future blogs.) All of them are treasures, and all of them together make for a team that is unbeatable (the "driver," so to speak, has some weak points: the team doesn't).
In making the above analogies, some people (especially those in human resources) may be appalled that I am comparing multiple excellent employees to -- sled dogs. It's a good time to recount a story that shows how heroic Siberians are, and why I think it is an apt analogy to compare my wonderful, stellar, skilled and superlative employees to Siberian Huskies. Both have wonderful attributes and have done amazing things that are largely unheralded, or are unknown or forgotten.
Many people have heard of the Iditarod, which (roughly) traces the route from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome followed in 1925 by sled dog teams relaying serum to Nome, Alaska to combat a diphtheria epidemic. Most have a two-line knowledge of this event. Three lines, if you ever saw the animated movie Balto. (Note: the dog that did most of the work was Togo, not Balto. Togo did the longest leg of the diphtheria run by far -- 261 miles, almost double what anybody else did -- including crossing Norton Sound. Many Siberian Huskies today trace their ancestry to Togo, including mine.)
And now, for the rest of the story. The city of Nome, Alaska, was blocked from sea access for much of the year -- between six and nine months. Diphtheria is a particularly horrible disease which most of us have no experience with (and should be grateful that we don't). You choke to death on your own mucus and the scaly sloughing of skin in your throat -- horribly, and painfully. When a diphtheria epidemic broke out in Nome in 1925, the city was faced with the deaths of many people -- horribly -- unless a way could be found to get diphtheria serum to them. Planes were out of the question (they could not fly at the cold temperatures and altitudes required to get to Nome). No ships could get through the ice. The only way to get the serum to Nome was by dogsled.
A man named Leonhard Sepphala organized a relay: dog teams (almost all of which were Siberians) and drivers did "legs" of the journey to race the serum to Nome. Siberians are well suited to the cold, with an outer coat that sheds snow and rain, and an inner coat that insulates them. However, the cold snap during the serum run was minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill, more than even a Husky can endure. Many animals ran their hearts out in the cold and died in their traces. A number could never run again. Both dogs and mushers embodied the following: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (2 Timothy 4:7) Together, they broke all records for the Nenana to Nome run.
An entire city of people owed their lives and survival to "a bunch of dogs." Their heroism is commemorated each year when the Iditarod is run, but few today really remember what those dogs and their mushers did. Every time I look into Thunder's blue and brown eyes (another breed characteristic -- eyes of different colors), I am reminded of his ancestry, and how all those quirky little things that can be -- on occasion -- so irritating, saved the lives of the people who depended on "Husky traits" in the inhospitable Yukon.
Similarly, my security team (of which I've profiled only a few people) does amazing, heroic things in (sometimes) miserable conditions, with unbelievably positive outcomes that few know about. For obvious reasons, we don't issue press releases describing the nasty security vulnerability in module X we found, or the mess that was averted because of the ideas and passion and dedication of my security team.
Furthermore, so much of the work we do is really "blazing a trail" for others. Testing new vulnerability detection tools, figuring out how to deliver secure coding training across the entire global development organization. Working with others in industry so things we "figured out" about assurance get passed to others. If you can teach an old dog new tricks -- and you can -- you can teach developers new development techniques that remove, eliminate or shut down attack vectors.
I wish there were a really good way to commemorate the "miracles every day" that my team does. There is, of course, a Hawaiian word that describes them. A Hawaiian idiom list includes all the following as part of the definition of kupaianaha: Amazing! Fantastic! Wonderful! Phenomenal! Surprising! Marvelous! Extraordinary! Astonishing! My team is truly Kupaianaha!
* Drum ice occurs when water recedes under ice. On one occasion, a musher fell through drum ice, into a large pit (where water from a stream had receded). He was unable to climb up the sides of the pit to reach the surface. All he could think to do was to tell his lead dog to go fetch a prospector who lived about an hour away, and who he had visited with his team only once before. After he sent the team away, he tried in vain to climb out of the pit, figuring the team would never be back. To his great surprise, his team reappeared a couple of hours later with the prospector. His lead dog -- a Siberian -- had understood him perfectly and done what he asked. Siberian Huskies, too are kupaianaha!
For more information:
For more on Siberian Huskies and the diphtheria serum run to Nome, read The Cruelest Miles (Thunder has an autographed copy!) by Laney and Gayle Salisbury.
More on language: the command "mush" to sled teams is from the French marchons (let's go!). Some people think racing Siberians is cruel. Try stopping them. Mine howls to go Nordic skiing with me and goes into a decline if I leave him at home.
More on Hawaiian idiom: http://www.geocities.com/TheTropics/Shores/6794/v-idioms.html
More on the Iditarod: http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/iditarod.html
More on skijoring: http://www.sleddogcentral.com/skijoring.htm
More on Leonhard Sepphala: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonhard_Seppala
More on Togo:
I also mentioned in an earlier blog that I taught my Siberian Husky Hawaiian. A useful phrase for anyone with a dog is:
E <Hekili>, he 'ilio akamai 'oe! He 'ilio nohea/nani 'oe! (O <Thunder>, you are a clever dog! You are a handsome/beautiful dog!) Dogs understand flattery and love in any language.