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Wooly Headed Wonks vs. Propeller Headed Geeks

I wanted to write about one of the most interesting “odd couples” around. No, I am not speaking of a specific couple but the strange “marriage” that takes place as we try to tackle the herculean task of improving cybersecurity. Full disclosure here, I see myself as totally one verses the other. More to follow.

Washington’s Cyber Security landscape has two tribes. One is the Wooly Headed Wonks. This tribe’s members are into policy, law and regulations. They love to have meetings and discussions. They have degrees in political science, international relations, constitutional law and public policy. They wear suits and may carry briefcases or simply expensive portfolios.

The other tribe is the Propeller Headed Geeks. This tribe’s members are scientists, computer engineers and software architects. They are into “1s & 0s,” networks, servers, application layers, and malware. These guys wear ties only when ordered to, prefer golf shirts and khakis, and carry backpacks that fit their powerful laptops, which they are never without.

These two groups are about as diametrically opposed as can be. The wonks are subjective, so flexible as to appear to lack skeletal systems; the geeks are objective to the point of “black vs. white rigidity.” Frankly, under normal circumstances, the two groups would probably never associate. These are not “normal” times.

The growing cyber threat that we all face is such that the two groups MUST learn to cooperate. If they do not, we are in big trouble. Both groups, in their heart of hearts feel like they could solve the problem of cyber threats alone. The wonks think that if we just get the right laws, policies and regulations in place, we’ll be safe and business can go on without hindrance or threat. The Geeks think that all we need is the right combination of technologies and programs, and the bad guys will be thwarted. They are both wrong! OK, and they are also both right.

We must get them to work together. If they fail to achieve some sort of synergy, the ones who win are the bad guys. Many of you are saying that there is lots of cooperation already, and in truth, you are right. But it is not enough. There is still too big a divide between these tribes. We may have an alliance, but nothing short of a complete union will do.

I know this sounds simplistic, but the other day I tweeted that we need more cooperation between the Wonks and the Geeks, and I got a huge number of responses. Some said “Impossible, never happening,” others “Must happen, need it now.” No one said, “we are good as is.”

It will take leaders who sit above both tribes to make them unite. These leaders must school themselves in the tribal lore and traditions of both groups. They must have the credibility to mold the two camps into one. They cannot just mandate it. It will take effort and time, but if they fail, the gaps in our defenses, which exist today, will never be truly filled.

Where do I fit? I am by training and predilection solidly in the camp of the Wonks (well, except for that no skeleton stuff). But, I work in a huge tech company, so am surrounded by Propeller Heads (a name I got from one of their own by the way). I have come to understand the power of getting these two diverse groups in sync. When it happens, we move forward in the battle to secure our critical networks, the lifeblood of our economy, our defenses and our daily life. When they stand apart, or worse, throw rock at each other, the bad guys gain ground. They have too much already.

Let’s all commit to do all we can to work together. If you see yourself on one side or the other, reach out. If you are one of those leaders who have both at your disposal, learn from each, then get them in the same room. It is only as a whole that they achieve their full potential.

Dr. Steven Bucci is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He was previously a lead consultant to IBM on cyber security policy. Bucci’s military and government service make him a recognized expert in the interagency process and defense of U.S. interests, particularly with regard to critical infrastructure and what he calls the productive interplay of government and the private sector. Read More