IT Pros’ Struggle for Respect Mirrored in Hollywood

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This winter, a strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) put a stranglehold on the production of new TV shows and movies. The WGA’s beef is that while the sale of big- and small-screen entertainment has become increasingly lucrative though online and DVD sales, the writers who create the ideas behind such content have not been compensated in kind.

While the WGA strike is a serious issue, causing layoffs in production-oriented jobs and a shortened season of “Heroes,” it also inspires the fanboy fantasies of me, a professional writer. The situation puts me in mind of the scabs of the 1987 NFL players’ strike, where amateur players who never would have had a shot of playing in the league otherwise were suddenly thrust into starting positions. I can’t help but daydream about what it’d be like if a bus showed up at our building to take the CertMag writing staff off to Los Angeles to write episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” or “Lost.”

Pretty far-fetched, I realize, but, hey, if it did happen, it might mean a more accurate depiction of the IT professional than the standard Hollywood version. With that, I offer the top three most memorable IT characters in television and movies, in no particular order.

1. Dennis Nedry, “Jurassic Park”, 1993

Played as a Newman-esque weasel, Wayne Knight’s character single-handedly crashes the Jurassic Park security system, causing dinosaurs to run amok on a murderous rampage. This shows not only the power of his position, but also what an ethically challenged, disgruntled IT professional may do if you underpay him. Dennis was head of security at the park and constantly complained that he was undervalued. We soon learn he’s in cahoots with a rival genetics lab to steal dinosaur DNA. He engineers an opportunity to steal the samples by temporarily shutting down the system but then … well, you know the rest.

2. Chloe O’Brien, “24”, 2001 to present

Over five tumultuous days (seasons) of Fox’s hit action show, Chloe (played by “Mr. Show” alum Mary Lynn Rajskub) has emerged as the show’s lovable, reliable source of levity during intense moments. She shows a mastery of computer hardware, helping the Counter Terrorist Unit’s various field agents upload, download and link up crucial information at critical times, always without fail. This is all the more impressive, given that in these situations, tensions are always exacerbated by the main character, Jack Bauer, shouting his stock phrase, “We’re running out of time!”

First thought an annoyance by Jack, Chloe eventually gains his trust, and he soon has her tapping a multitude of unauthorized resources to help cut the red tape in fighting terrorists. A fan favorite, Chloe exhibits many of the qualities stereotypical of an IT pro, despite being female; she’s easily annoyed at the IT ignorance of others and has an unmatched level of sarcasm. These qualities give in to some major dramatic irony during Day 4, when she’s thrust from behind a computer screen into the heart of the action, even firing an AK-47. How many techies get to do that?

Chloe O’Brien also illustrates how it’s perhaps easier for an actor to play an IT pro than other, more action-centric types of characters. In a recent interview with the Onion A.V. Club, Rajskub was asked how much free time her role on “24” leaves her with. She answered “Actually, more than you think. A lot of my stuff is on the computer. They go off to all their locations, with helicopters exploding and people falling into the ocean, and I’m just at a computer. We can get done in a couple days.”

3. Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy, “Saturday Night Live”, 2000 to 2001

This recurring character, played by Jimmy Fallon, no doubt is the ultimate insult hurled from the nontech populace at IT professionals. As a systems analyst for a large corporation, Burns talks with a lisp, wears multiple cell phones, has zero patience for those who don’t know what they’re doing and always berates them for it. It’s not a nuanced portrayal, but it is an important one when looking at the time frame in which the sketch aired — right before the dot-com bubble burst and smaller companies, even schools, were installing networks left and right.

As the years have gone on, the IT professional has become a much more integrated part of a company and is less separated from other employees than he was in the world a Nick Burns existed in. So pat yourself on the back and make sure everyone knows it.

Ben Warden,

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