Every corporate data centre features at least one expensive solution that only exists to glorify the person who demanded it be installed. These so-called ‘show dogs’ are an unnecessary drain on IT’s resources … and their patrons don’t care. Here’s why.
Back in the early 2000s, the BlackBerry handset was the gold standard for signalling one’s organisational importance and upward mobility. Would-be executives adored them, because striding into a gathering with a £500 BlackBerry handset holstered on your hip marked the executive as a Top Man.™  That is, someone living on the cutting edge of tech, even though the handsets served little (if any) operational utility.
There were better ways to raise your credibility, though; early BlackBerrys were fashion accessories, not practical tools. What’s more, anyone could purchase a handset. To truly stand out, as ambitious fellow needed to change more than just his phone – he needed to force his entire organisation to introduce some new and expensive application.
Lots of Top Men™ have built their professional reputation as ‘technology innovators’ this way. You’ve probably experienced it: A New Guy  with an ambitious agenda shows up, feels out the limits of his new empire, then strikes a power pose by re-directing his departmental budget to procure and launch ‘his’ signature technology. New Guy rides the resulting good will until ‘his’ system is fully-operational and starts throwing sparks. If his gambit works, the New Guy is hailed as a hero for increasing productivity, whereas if it fails, he’s still a hero for having possessed great vision … while it’s the IT department’s fault for mucking up the install. It’s a win-win proposition for the ambitious social climber and a bloody nuisance for the users and technical staff.
These systems are usually the reason why seasoned IT directors and CIOs have hilarious stories to share when we get together. We’ve all been forced to stand up systems that were only good for career-boosting its patron. They’re an irritant and a drain; that’s why most IT veterans call them ‘albatrosses’ or something similar. One fellow, though, called his a ‘show dog.’ The reference didn’t register for me.
As I recall, this was my exact nonverbal response.
Years later, a buddy of mine introduced me to Christopher Guest’s hit mockumentary ‘Best in Show’ and the pieces finally clicked into place. Watching Guest and his band of bone-dry improv comics take the piss out of self-centred people who obsess over dog shows mapped pretty much one-to-one with people who treat possessions as trophies rather than as tools in their own right. That, in turn, made me completely re-evaluate a story from my childhood that had nagged at me for years. Consider this:
I grew up across the street from my elementary school. Only one of my classmates – let’s call her Zoë – was my only other classmate living nearby. Our neighbourhood was mostly working-class families with older kids. Having no other convenient option, I’d cut across our school’s sports field and hang out at Zoë’s place on days when my folks were going to be out before or after school.
Zoë’s family was wealthy compared to us. They had a formal dining room with admire-but-don’t-touch furniture. They had an Atari video game console and a TRS-80 home computer, too. Cable television, even. Zoë’s mother didn’t have to work; their father was a prestigious engineer and made enough to sustain the family. To a little kid, they were ‘making it’ the way that wealthy people on television did. I was quite impressed. That said, the only thing that they had that I was truly jealous of was their dog.
Our family didn’t have pets. Zoë had a dog. I didn’t have a sibling close enough in age to hang out with and no friends nearby to play with, so a dog seemed like the best thing ever. Forget the Atari, forget the always-accessible parent … I wanted a dog. I was green with envy of Zoë for years. I was also vexed that Zoë’s family seemed to treat their pet as no big deal. I didn’t understand why that was important at the time.
Only two of my buds from school ever had a dog, so I was largely left with pop-culture dog-actors to set my (probably unrealistic) expectations of what life with a family dog must be like.
I tried to make friends with Zoë’s dog time and again, but never could. Zoë’s family kept it in its own chain enclosure in the backyard and never allowed it into their house. The dog had a raised doghouse and a ten-foot long space to run in, but it wasn’t enough room for the dog to exercise. Also, because it was always chained up, it wasn’t trained to socialize. That meant that no one could go near it; it barked aggressively at everyone, including its owners. It treated everyone as an enemy.
Sometime around 5th or 6th grade, Zoë asked me if I’d be willing to look after their dog while she and her family went away on holiday. I jumped at the chance, thinking that I’d get to finally get to make friends with the mutt. We could bond once it trusted me to feed it. Maybe I’d get to pet it and play with it like kids on TV did with their perfectly-behaved TV dogs. That … didn’t happen. Obviously.
My first attempt to feed the little monster was a disaster: it jumped me as soon as I entered its pen. The dog tried to claw and bite me while it barked non-stop. If it hadn’t been winter (meaning, if I hadn’t been wearing heavy clothing) it would have taken a lot of skin off me. It also tried to push past me and escape out the enclosure gate. I just barely caught it in time.
I noticed while I was refilling the dog’s water dish that its pen was carpeted with faeces, old and new. I literally couldn’t take a step inside the run without smooshing dog dirt. I took it upon myself to find a rake and tried to clean up the pen, but even that didn’t endear me to it. It was like it considered itself imprisoned and I was its new guard.
The pattern repeated all week: I’d slip in the gate with food and the dog would start a scrap. I’d try to calm it and would clean up its run as best I could. It didn’t care. It just wanted out.
Looking back, I understand why the mutt never watched me while I was feeding it. It’s eyes were locked on the gate since he lacked the thumbs required to work a pair of wire cutters.
Towards the end of the week, I got sloppy. The dog made it past me into Zoë’s unfenced yard and sprinted off into the neighbourhood. I chased that dog for five blocks before it disappeared. I searched for hours with no luck. I figured it’d made a break for sunnier climes after so many years of living outside in the winter chill. 
Zoë’s dog eventually came back a day and a half later. I don’t know if it came back out of hunger, or boredom, or perhaps frustration at being unable to hitch a ride to Mexico. I didn’t care. I tackled the little monster and dragged it back into its pen.
I didn’t have the perspective as a kid to understand the concept of ‘conspicuous consumption.’ It wasn’t until I’d met some truly well-off people as an adult that Zoë’s family’s mindset started to make sense. Looking back, I began to suspect that Zoë’s family never actually wanted a dog; they just wanted to be seen by their neighbours at having a dog. The presence of the dog fulfilled its intended purpose; it didn’t need to actually function the way most people expect a dog to (that is, provide unconditional loyalty and affection, play games, guard the house and kids, etc.).
Once I understood that, the retroactive recharacterization put a whole new spin on the executives I’d been fighting with over the years. I knew that I resented their nonessential technology initiatives intruding into my data centre. I knew that I loathed new technologies that looked impressive but that our business simply didn’t need, couldn’t afford, and couldn’t sustain. Now, though, I understood why my bosses weren’t listening to my well-reasoned arguments when I tried to push back.
It took me entirely too long to realize that you’ll never ‘win’ if you’re fighting the wrong war.
Specifically, I realized that these Top Men™ didn’t really want their cure-all technology-of-choice; they simply wanted to be known as the visionaries who had brought the technology. They wanted everyone else to be jealous of their genius, without caring in the slightest whether the technology they introduced actually benefitted anyone. Just like their junior fellows who showed off their BlackBerry handsets like they were a peacock’s plumage, the aspirants playing in the big leagues wanted to display their prowess. Look upon my Strategic Investment in Technology ye Mighty, and despair!
I can’t ever un-see this practice now that I know what it looks like, any more than I can un-see the tell-tale signs of animal neglect in my neighbours’ yards. There are tell-tale clues that suggest that a thing was wanted a thing for its prestige rather than wanted for its utility. Case in point: a dog that’s never learned to be affectionate towards people because it’s never experienced affection from people. Honestly, the same can be said for lots of sterile, unfeeling IT projects: you can often tell when an application or service is adored by its users through the amount of voluntary effort that’s invested in optimizing and in sustaining it.
I daresay you’ll start noticing this practice around the office too now that you know what to look for. I guarantee that this knowledge is going to leave you frustrated and possibly angry. I wish that I could end this by offering some clever tactics for thwarting these cynical and exploitative ‘show dog’ projects. I can’t. I’ve tried fighting them and I’ve usually lost in the end. All I’ve ever been able to accomplish was to minimize the resources wasted on these endeavours and to quickly erase them after their patron secured his promotion and moved on. I’m not sure what else can be done.
I can say, however, that going home to play with a happy dog takes some of the sting out of a crappy day in the office.
 It was almost always men peacocking this-a-way, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who’s ever heard of Dr Freud.
 It’s almost always a male power-play here in the USA. I’m very curious to hear how it plays out in other countries.
 That’s another thing … Zoë’s family left their dog outside in the winter even when it got to -20C with deep snow.
Title Allusions: Christopher Guest, Best in Show (2000 film)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.