Avoiding Guantanamo Bay — Challenges In Tech

Are You a Ticket Taker or Problem Solver

Leo Godin
6 min readMar 12, 2024
Photo by Kevin Jarrett on Unsplash

We’ve all seen it in an old movie. Man in a uniform walking down the train aisle. “Ticket please.” Or maybe the movie is in New York, “Give me your ticket.” A mindless drone without a care in the world. He doesn’t notice the kidnapped girl or the men with guns or the ticking bomb right under is nose. He only cares about the tickets. But the cop — the one just days from retirement. The one who’s “getting too old for this shit.” He’s not a ticket taker.

That cop working out his last days, dreaming of pina coladas on the beach, he still cares. He looks for problems. He notices something is wrong. Cut to the next scene. There’s probably gun fire and a fist fight on top of the train. Our hero has saved the day, but bigger problems arise. That bomb was just the beginning of a grand conspiracy.

The ticket taker moves on like nothing ever happened, while the cop takes on bigger and bigger challenges, until the mayor is arrested and his young, brash partner gets the girl. There’s always a young, brash partner who gets the girl, right? the city is safe. For now….

Let me ask you something. Are you the ticket taker in this story or are you a problem solver like the cop?

Avoiding Guantanamo Bay

Early in my career working on a help desk at Intel, I got a ticket. An important ticket. One that could have landed me and several others in jail. Sounds like I’m exaggerating I bet. Rest assured, I am not. We were training new helpdesks in Costa Rica and Malaysia. The project was nearly complete. Just one thing left to do. Give sudo access to the new hires so they could get to work.

If you work in the US, you probably know where this is going. Here’s a hint (Chip manufacturer, controlled country, root access). An additional hint: this was in the early 2000s when 911 was fresh on all our minds.

Yeah, that could have been a problem. The ticket was simple. Add about twenty names to a text file. I could have completed it in a few minutes. No fuss. No muss. Resolve the ticket and move on. Yet, something didn’t seem right. I was about to give full access to virtually all Intel’s data to a bunch of new hires. New hires without an experienced admin in their time zone. Furthermore, one of the countries was on the US export control list.

It was definitely time to take a step back and do some research. I won’t pretend to remember all the details. After all, this was decades ago. Controlled technology is a subset of hardware, software and designs that could advance a hostile military or intelligence organization. The US only allows controlled technology to be shared across borders in limited situations. As the world’s leading chip manufacturer, Intel likely owned intellectual property that met the definition.

Dealing with controlled technology is a legal matter, not a civil one. If you mess up, the company could be fined. Individuals responsible can spend up to twenty-years in prison. It’s a big deal, and to make matters worse, we’d recently received an email from our chief technology officer basically saying, “If you screw up with controlled technology, you are on your own. Intel will not provide legal support.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the gist. This little ticket was a big deal.

Lots of Questions, Few Answers

Fast forward a few miserable days where I was accused of intentionally sabotaging the project. There I was. Just a few years into my career in meetings with legal, my manager, my manager’s manager, VPs, and others. Intel’s lawyers would clear things up. Right? Wrong.

Me: “Would I be following the law if I provided sudo access to the helpdesk in Malaysia?”

Lawyers: “Blah, blah, blah, probability, if you show care…. When circumstances arise…. Blah, blah, blah.

Me: “I don’t want to end up in Guantanamo Bay.”

Lawyers: “Blah, blah, blah.”

Angry Managers: “You’re being ridiculous!”

Couldn’t get a straight answer no matter how many times I reworded my questions, but at least we were able to clarify the problem.

  • We could only provide access to controlled technology in Malaysia if we have an export license.
  • We did not have an export license for Malaysia.
  • We didn’t even know if Intel had any controlled technology.

Of course the managers made it crystal clear on point three “We probably don’t have any of that.” Clear as a bell. I should risk fines and prison so intel could save money, because efficiency, quarterly results and all that. I came close to caving under the pressure many times, but in the end I held firm.

After several conversations with various engineering managers, it was clear that Intel did have designs that would likely be classified as controlled technology. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a way to segregate that kind of data at the time. We could move forward with access for the helpdesk in Costa Rica, but Malaysia was a no-go until we got an export license. It took six months to get that license and some people were furious.

Lessons Learned

I get it. This is an extreme anecdote. Most people will never face decisions that could result in fines or jail time. Yet, this story provides everything needed to start the conversation differentiating problem solvers from ticket takers. First and foremost, problem solvers consider if they should do the work. What are the consequences of doing it? In my case, the consequences were severe, so I slowed down. Fast is for ticket takers. Problem solvers work with care.

While problem solvers might work more slowly, they don’t wait for tasks to come to them. Instead, they understand the surrounding ecosystem and do what is needed. I am not an expert on controlled technology. Just someone who took a required class at work. I knew enough to spot a potential problem, but had to research the rest. Poring through government documents and web pages is not fun, but it was the next step. No one would help, so I did it myself.

Finally, problem solvers add value. They don’t simply complete tasks. They look at things holistically and provide solutions. In my case, it was the recommendation to get an export license for Malaysia. In your case, it could be offering a better metric or new process rather than just doing what is asked. When tasks come in, we understand the need and the business value. Then, after careful consideration, we solve the problem. A subtle, but career-making difference.

In Conclusion

Some people are happy being ticket takers. Their work is task based. They don’t really care to understand the business or the problems of others. That’s fine for people who are content where they are today. But if you want to excel and move your career forward, you must be a problem solver. Don’t just do the work. Do the right work. Look for problems to solve. Add value above what others do. Then you will see your career take off. Who knows. It just might keep you out of Guantanamo Bay.

Let’s Make This Interesting

Can you do me a favor? I’m not asking for claps or shares. No, I want a discussion. When have you noticed the difference between ticket takers and problem solvers? What where the circumstances. The results. I want to read it. Let us all know in the comments.



Leo Godin

I’m Leo and I love data! Recovering mansplainer, currently working as a lead data engineer at New Relic. BS in computer science and a MS in data