Matrix moral

When I saw The Matrix Reloaded on opening weekend, like most hard-core techies, I was excited when Trinity (played by Carrie-Anne Moss) prominently used nmap to exploit a known SSH CRC-32 security vulnerability in the course of the action.

When I saw The Matrix Reloaded on opening weekend, like most hard-core techies, I was excited when Trinity (played by Carrie-Anne Moss) prominently used nmap to exploit a known SSH CRC-32 security vulnerability in the course of the action.

It's about time that computing on the big screen was represented in a real way, not ridiculous holograms and blinking images more suitable for toddlers than adults. Trinity's exploit got most of the attention in IT circles, but for me, the key IT moment in the film comes when Link (the operator of their "ship," the Nebuchadnezzar, played by Harold Perrineau), running out of immediately sensible options, grits his teeth with steely resolve and solves the problem at hand the only way he knows how, muttering "This has got to be the ugliest hack I've ever done." The hack works, and the immediate issue is settled. Of course, the plot thickens, but for the moment, the hacker is the hero, and deservedly so. Every IT staff needs a few good hackers.

When I use the term hacker, I define it in the positive sense found in The Jargon Dictionary maintained by Eric Raymond: "A person who is good at programming quickly" and "one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations." Hackers like Link are sometimes needed to help our IT ships dodge unexpected obstacles. In The Matrix Reloaded, Link is in a tight situation, and like all good engineers, he agonises over a poor choice, a less-than-ideal, on-the-fly design decision quickly followed by near-manic and instinctual coding that is focused only on resolving an immediate bad circumstance.

Disastrous circumstances sometimes call for this brand of quick thinking and reaction. The events of September 11 are a good example -- while organisations such as NASDAQ triumphed with good planning, the use of Blackberries as a disaster communication device had a certain hacker sensibility to it. People did what they had to do to communicate in the absence of other more typical options.

I'm sure many of you have been there, hopefully in less extenuating and tragic circumstances than September 11. Several years ago I was managing a development group for a major sports website in which hacking became at times a necessary way of life. In a typical software environment, software releases can slide. Projects slip, Gannt charts are adjusted, and work life proceeds. In the sports media environment, we had no control over the scheduling of events that drove our business. If we did not have our World Series batter-by-batter data feed parsing done by the time the first pitch was thrown in Game 1, well, the World Series started without us. In some cases, unusual circumstances like 27-inning baseball games meant that specs were created on the fly. On one occasion, World Cup soccer started and despite lots of cajoling and begging we didn't get specs from our overseas data provider until hours before the event began. My choice: Code like hell, or face the certain wrath of international soccer fans. You probably know what I chose -- let the hacking begin!

In IT, we all strive to make things reasonably predictable by planning as well as we can with the limited resources we have, knowing that battle plans rarely survive the first shot. The abilities of the hackers on your IT staff shouldn't be a crutch for bad planning and poor management, but sometimes a quick and clever hack is the order of the day. Long live the hacker.

Dickerson is InfoWorld's CTO. Read his weblog.

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