Metaphorically Speaking

By Randy Rose, Director of Cybersecurity, Tasman Global

By Randy Rose, Director of Cybersecurity, Tasman Global

The world is a complex thing. When you break it down, it’s a seemingly infinite and complex system of systems. There are personal relationships, business environments, traffic laws, advancements in communications platforms, weather patterns, social structures, and on and on. We, as individuals existing in these systems, must figure out how to navigate them each and every day.

The realms of Information Technology and Cybersecurity are no different than other systems. They just have their own language. And it is incumbent on each of us, as business leaders, technical professionals, and providers of healthcare services for millions of people around the world to know how to speak this language.

And for this reason, it’s important to understand the power of the metaphor.

I was in a leadership class recently focused on navigating change during turbulent times. I was well familiar with most of the content, but what struck me as unique and interesting was a section focused on using metaphors as a conscious element in leadership communication. As a fan of metaphor in my writing and daily communication, I see a lot of value in the idea of training others to use metaphors more deliberately, especially in such a complex and technical field as IT.

Metaphor, simply put, is the direct comparison of two unlike things that encourage the understanding of more complex ideas through connection with familiar concepts. Metaphor is quite similar to simile, but not as explicit. Simile requires the use of the words “like” or “as” when drawing a comparison, which is great for description, but does not drive connection in the same way.

“It’s as if we all wear masks from time to time,” versus “We all wear masks from time to time.”

The former is a simile; the latter a metaphor. While they both essentially say the same thing, the first has a layer of separation to it. It is not as personal.

And we see this in creative writing quite frequently. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.”1 “All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.”2 “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”3 “Out of the frying-pan, into the fire.”4

I find that I use both simile and metaphor every day as I translate technical concepts to non-technical audiences. “We are in the early days of aviation, still figuring out how to fly these things.” “Routers are airplanes; switches are city buses. You wouldn’t fly a 747 to get across town.” “Russian cyber actors are stealthy and fast, attacking like ninjas under the cover of darkness, taking what they want, and covering their tracks. If they want to steal your beach, they show up one night and take as much as they can and you never see them again. Chinese cyber actors are much different; they get your beach one grain of sand at a time over a period of 30 years. You don’t even notice they’ve stolen it until your exact beach is on their coastline.” “Cyber is a neighborhood: there are good and bad people living there, many just want to be left alone, and almost everyone thinks no one is looking in their windows.”

I was recently explaining a polymorphic malware sample my team had been analyzing to some military leaders and found myself saying something to the effect of, “You’re looking at a bad guy who can change his DNA after every crime he commits using information he collects from the scene of the crime. It’s going to be tough to catch this guy. But, luckily for us, bad guys order pizza, too. We just need to adjust what we’re looking at, and we’ll get him.”

I could have launched into a 20-minute dissertation on the specifics of the code we analyzed, the precise host values the malware uses to modify its code as it replicates and spreads, and how looking at a signature for the malware would likely lead us down the wrong path, so we should rather look at specific memory locations or application hooks for suspicious activity. But that would likely not have had the same impact to the audience as most of the language I would have had to use would have been confusing. I might as well speak in tongues.

Through the use of metaphor, I can connect in a meaningful way to audience members across a wide range of technical skills. Each of us shares so many experiences on a daily basis that there is no shortage of examples for comparison.

If you’re a Technical leader or expert, I challenge you to speak in metaphors as you communicate up and out. Gauge the difference in impact it has.

If you’re an Executive, I leave you to ponder what lexicon your technical staff or your vendors are using on you. Challenge other to use metaphors to ensure everyone is speaking the same language.

Lastly, if you think you’re being bombarded with technical mumbo-jumbo, contact us at Tasman Cybersecurity. We can help de-fog the dark cloud of technical jargon.

“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.” ― Johnny Nash


1 - William Shakespeare, As You Like It

2 - Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam

3 - Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

4 - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit