Cool as McCumber

p>The e-mail arrived in my inbox a couple of months ago. It was from an academic at a Midwestern university specializing in information security. I didn’t recognize his name, but then again, this is a big career field these days. I opened it and began to read the embarrassingly flattering remarks about a presentation I gave in Michigan more than a year ago. I enjoy public speaking, but I knew it wasn’t that enlightening. I looked again at the header, and found copied a professor from this same university whom I had met at that Michigan session. Then I made the connection.

The e-mail went on about the respect for my work at The George Washington University, and the value of the textbook I had written. It also cited some recent security initiatives I had been involved in with the government. I was starting to get suspicious. Here’s a guy I couldn’t pick out of police line-up playing me up big time. I was now looking for the punch line, and it came in the last paragraph. He was asking me to help him create a new master’s course for his department at his university. He outlined a long list of areas and activities where I could perform my “miracles,” yet his role in this process remained strangely vague.

I decided to put the request aside for a few hours as I was busy with my day job, and I wanted to consider how to respond. Within a couple hours, I received a follow-up e-mail — this one from the dean of his department and someone I instantly remembered from the Michigan session. Now I knew how he got my name and contact information. The dean was also profuse in his praise of my work and strongly encouraged me to help develop this course for his department at the university. Now I got a fuller picture.

I couldn’t help but recall one of my favorite cartoon characters as a child growing up in the 60s. Foghorn Leghorn was a bombastic, blowhard rooster with the accent and mannerisms of a mildly corrupt Southern politician from the 1950s. His language was colorfully peppered with cynical and arrogant abuse aimed at those characters he considered inferior, while he heaped oily, insincere flattery on those from whom he courted favor.

The episode I instantly remembered was one where he was courting the widow hen with a young son. He expressed overtures of romantic desire for the homely widow as he chased her about her comfortable home. These activities were portrayed against a backdrop of his own cold, damp lodgings. Even six-year-olds understood the dynamic. When he offered to babysit for the widow’s son, he liked to make sidebar comments to us at home (from behind his hand) that the poor boy was about as sharp as a sack of wet mice. I still laugh at that line. Foghorn wanted a nice, warm home for the winter, and he was willing to flatter the old crone and tolerate her wiseacre son to get it.

As I sat chuckling over the sack of wet mice, I realized how I would answer. I returned an equally flattering e-mail to both professors touting the prestigious nature of their program and their brilliant approach to the new course for their graduate students. Then I asked one simple question: how much does the gig pay? That’s the last I ever heard from either of them.

Last week, I received another flattering e-mail from a recruiter whose name I did not recognize. He laid it on pretty thick and said he had the perfect job for me with a competitor to my current employer. He said they could offer me a “competitive salary” and a fancy new title. They wanted me, he claimed, because the job required someone who could make tough decisions about “paring down the organization” and “restructuring” the program to turn it around and be profitable.

I knew the person who had recently left that post and had gone to take a teaching job on the west coast. She confirmed my suspicions. They wanted to hire someone to play the bad cop, fire a bunch of people, and whip the group back into profitability. Then, after all the hard decisions had been made, they would just as quickly send the guy with the fancy title packing to appease those left behind who had seen many of their friends and co-workers let go. That’s not a job I wanted — even for a fancy title.
Before I politely declined his kind offer, I had a flashback to another cartoon character — Boris Badenov. Boris’ attempts at killing “moose and squirrel” (Rocky and Bullwinkle), ultimately end in failure. This usually happens when his dastardly scheme backfires on him. As Boris eloquently laments in one episode, “I put bomb in squirrel’s briefcase and who gets blown up? Me!” It am always surprised how much of human nature I learned from cartoons.

John McCumber is a security and risk professional, and is the author of “Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology,” from Auerbach Publications. If you have a comment or question for him, please e-mail John