Cool as McCumber: The Security Owl

April 18, 2012
Experience can turn you into a wise, old bird

There is a Roaring 20s-era speakeasy that still serves alcohol in the lobby of what was once the gracious and elegant Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. That speakeasy, The Owl Bar, is now quite legitimate, and no longer serves illicit booze to the likes of Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo and Buster Keaton. Even after Prohibition ended, The Owl Bar was a preferred venue for the likes of Mitch Miller, Jane Wyman and Enrico Caruso, whose faded pictures line a short gallery outside the entrance to the old club. But that’s all ancient history these days.

The Owl Bar still occupies its coveted space in the lobby, but the gilded-age Belvedere Hotel is today just known as The Belvedere. The rooms all went condo, and the monthly association fees are sky-high as the owners try to keep the decrepit old girl from simply falling down from fatigue. It was in The Owl Bar I planned to meet a few friends for a drink after another security conference. As I waited for them to arrive, I saw an old nursery rhyme set into stained glass in the walls of the bar: A wise, old owl sat in an oak; The more he saw, the less he spoke; The less he spoke, the more he heard; Why can’t we be like this wise, old bird?

I found myself chuckling as I recalled the conference I had just attended. In addition to sitting in on sessions, I had been asked by a colleague to staff our booth at various times. To help me, I had the convivial assistance of a gifted, albeit young, technology engineer named Anthony. Anthony was eager to demonstrate our products, and was keen to showcase what we could provide to anyone willing to endure his half-hour demonstration.

One of the first visitors to the booth was an older gentleman, dressed in a manner somewhat more refined than the average attendee. I quickly scanned his clothes, lapel pin, business card, and briefcase to learn all I needed to know. After we exchanged pleasantries, I was handing him a brochure when Anthony grabbed my arm to interrupt my thanks-for-stopping-by speech with an offer for a full demo of our product set. I bowed slightly, and stepped away as Anthony began a lengthy spiel about our technology. Instead of quietly absorbing Anthony’s enthusiastic points, our visitor started quizzing Anthony about our customer base and usage cases. He asked pointed questions about sales opportunities for which Anthony had no knowledge.

I busied myself with another visitor for several minutes only to turn around to see Anthony being regaled with a technical overview of the visitor’s product sheets, and a pitch for us to resell the products he represented. He was again asking about how he could “partner” with us to sell his products into our current and future customer accounts. Anthony was a bit stunned by how his presentation had quickly turned, with him now on the receiving end of the sales pitch. He glanced furtively to see if I would take the baton. I nodded, and quietly interjected myself into the conversation, took the proffered marketing literature, and thanked the visitor profusely while telling him I would forward his information to the appropriate person in our company.

As we watched him walk away, Anthony asked what had happened. I told him that experience had indicated to me that our visitor was not at this particular conference to actually learn or buy anything, but to represent a product to the integrators and other vendors who were paying large sums to exhibit at the conference. I explained how many smaller technology companies hire experienced “pitch men/women” rather than spend money themselves on the show. These people show up in the exhibition area with their own collateral in a briefcase, and attempt to sell products to those who are there attempting to sell to the end-users.

I explained to Anthony that it was fine to amuse ourselves with his sales pitch, but if there were potential buyers or technology experts near the booth, we had to be able to politely disengage from the salesman, and pursue our target audience. He asked me how I could tell. I told him I had seen clues in his manner of dress, his accoutrements and items on his business card. I am not always spot-on in my visual assessments, I explained, so I have learned to ask a few leading questions before investing a lengthy period of time developing a relationship. I told my young colleague it was always worthwhile to ask questions first, before attempting to “sell” someone on a product or solution.

I am far from being a wise, old owl, but I am old. Learning to listen has been a lifelong challenge for me, as I enjoy speaking and giving a presentation — especially representing a security capability I believe is vital. That said, I always try to remember to be like the owl, and learn to listen first. It can save me from wasting my breath. Now, where’s the bartender in this deserted, old place?

John McCumber is a security and risk professional, and 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, e-mail [email protected].

About the Author

John McCumber

John McCumber is a security and risk professional, and 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, e-mail [email protected].