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The Game of Thrones CIO: 5 lessons of IT and fire

Oh, sure, you think it's a fantasy TV show. But the long-running HBO saga also has lessons in leadership, information security, infrastructure, and management for CIOs, CISOs, and other IT leaders.

If you're a CIO, you have a lot of responsibilities that span a great many disciplines, including both technical knowledge and soft skills. So you probably don't have much time for TV.

But if you're in charge of leading an IT department, you should make time for what is arguably the most popular show on television: HBO's "Game of Thrones." In addition to being an excellent TV show unto itself—as well as a relatively faithful adaptation of author George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels (until recently, when the show outpaced the novels)—GoT offers a great many learning opportunities for IT leaders.

With the show having recently premiered its seventh season, now's a great time—if you haven't already—to go back and catch up on all those, er, lessons you missed. But if you still don't have the time for the dozens of hours of television-watching that that would require, read through the IT leadership lessons I compiled below to get a crash course (if not a refresher).

If you're not 100 percent caught up on the show, consider this your spoiler alert. 

Solve your problems by solving others' problems

I am not a torturer—though it so often is what people deserve. And it does provide answers, but they're usually the wrong answers. My job is to find the right answers. Do you know how I do that? I do it by making people happy. I'd like to make you happy, Vala.

VarysSeason 6, Episode 3: “Oathbreaker”

How was Varys able to find out who was behind the terrorist group known as the Sons of the Harpy (SotH)? By convincing Vala, a captured SotH conspirator, to talk. But—despite Vala's expectations—he didn't torture her to do it. Understanding Vala's conundrum ("If I tell you anything, they'll kill me—so either you kill me or they do"), Varys appeals to Vala's needs. He offers her and her child safe passage to another city—with a heavy bag of silver, to boot—in exchange for the information he seeks. The gambit succeeds far more effectively than if he had used the stick instead of the carrot.

Although "CIO" is a C-suite position, IT is a service organization. Accordingly, an IT leader cannot reasonably expect employees to adopt a new platform or policy simply because he or she wills it so. There must be a sensible give-to-get ratio.

Speaking on a panel on this issue in 2013, pharmaceutical IT executive Sergey Krymgold explained that IT leaders must focus "more [on] business cases, less [on] capability from IT perspective," by listening to users and then demonstrating how an IT solution can apply to their own use cases.

Of course, following this advice is nearly impossible without also applying lesson No. 2, which is…

Understand other departments’ needs

Lord Tyrion made sure I knew which house married which and who hated who.

Podrick PayneSeason 4, Episode 7: “Mockingbird”

Back in Season 1, when Tyrion and Bronn get ambushed by murderous Hill Tribesmen, Tyrion talks his and Bronn's way to safety by appealing to what the tribesmen really want. In exchange for their safe passage, Tyrion successfully bargains to use his family's riches and influence to help the Hill Tribes gain their own lands and independence from the Lords of the Vale (along with top-of-the-line weapons to fight off any who would challenge them).

Tyrion is known as an expert on the needs and wants of people throughout Westeros and parts of Essos. As a CIO, so too should you be an expert on the needs and wants of users and stakeholders in other departments. Only then can an IT department be led to innovate effectively for the future needs of the business.

This way, even if you can't make your stakeholders completely happy, at least they won't want to kill you.

Understand your infrastructure

Aerys saw traitors everywhere, so he had his pyromancer place caches of wildfire all over the city—beneath the Sept of Baelor and the slums of Flea Bottom; under houses, stables, taverns; even beneath the Red Keep itself.

Jaime LannisterSeason 3, Episode 5: “Kissed by Fire”

Knowledge of the Mad King's obsessively maintained stash of wildfire helped Tyrion perfect Cersei's plan to save King's Landing during the Battle of the Blackwater. And then, a few seasons later, some even deeper digging into these existing resources allowed Cersei to escape her trial and to destroy all of her enemies in King's Landing in one fell swoop.

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Emphasis on "existing resources." All the new technologies in the world won't help an IT department be more effective if there is no understanding of what the organization's networks, systems, and resources already look like. That starts with making the most efficient use of existing storage and other infrastructure, and continues on through things like consistent documentation and well-maintained cables—so that systems can continue to run smoothly from administrator to administrator.

Cersei, after all, didn't need to come up with a new plan to get out of her trial. She just needed an old one: the Mad King's "Burn them all."

Expect transmission loss

It seems like you don't need a protector.

Ellaria Sand to Yara Greyjoy, approximately two seconds before their ship is attackedSeason 7, Episode 2: “Dragonstone”

In a recent episode, Daenerys sends several of her key people on Yara and Theon Greyjoy's ships (the ships they stole from their uncle Euron) to Dorne, so they can bring the Dornish army back with them to lay siege to King's Landing. The mission fails miserably, however, when the ships are intercepted by Euron Greyjoy and his Iron Fleet. Ellaria's daughter is captured, as well as both Yara and Ellaria herself. Almost everyone else is killed in the ensuing battle.

Good queen or not, Daenerys wouldn't make a very good CIO. Good IT leaders understand the very real problem of packet loss. They do what they can to both prepare for it and mitigate it via both redundancies and more novel networking options.

She knew that Euron—"the greatest captain of the 14 seas"—was on the hunt for Yara and Theon (and his stolen ships). So Daenerys should have realized how dangerous it would be to send so many resources on a few poorly manned Greyjoy ships in Westerosi waters.

Accordingly, she could have tried a test transmission—a single ship with an envoy bearing a message with Ellaria's seal and signature—while keeping Ellaria and the Greyjoys on Dragonstone. Or she could have added security to her transmission by having some Unsullied soldiers travel with the ships. Or she could have tried different pathways by deploying a DD-WAN—a Dragon-Defined Wide-Area Network—and, upon arrival, had the Dornish army march up to King's Landing. And if those dragons spotted Euron's ships along the way, the Iron Fleet would become the Ashen Fleet.

Likewise, as an IT leader, you must understand your network pathways and how they work: how efficient (or not) they are and how secure (or not) they are. Consider re-architecting your network for more options, such as virtualization and cloud, to improve agility and reduce fragility. Try sandboxing to reduce your attack surface. And if you're not already doing so, add encryption to your data in transit.

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Expecting and planning for the worst is a hallmark of a good and time-tested CIO—leading to one final GoT lesson…

Winter is coming

The Starks are always right eventually; winter is coming. This one will be long and dark things will come with it.

Maester AemonSeason 1, Episode 10: “Lord Snow”

The immortal words of House Stark, "Winter is coming," speak to the hardiness of the show's Northerners. They warn all to stay strong and prepared, assured in the knowledge that the worst must eventually come to pass.

Nowhere is this truer in the enterprise than in the IT department. IT downtime costs enterprises several hundred billion dollars a year. And on the InfoSec side, MIT professor Stuart Madnick is known for telling audiences that there are two types of organizations: "those that have been hacked and those who don't know they have been hacked."

With secure walls, redundant traffic channels (i.e., an underground network of crypts and secret passageways that lead to the Wall), a resilient population, and excellent memory ("The North remembers"), Winterfell—the seat of the North—has the makings of a model IT infrastructure.

Related link:

Who Said Only One Technology Could Sit on the IT Throne?

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.