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How The Real Hacker Behind CBS’s “Scorpion” Made A Show To Grow His Own Company, And More Hackers

In a case of life inspiring art inspiring life, cybersecurity hacker Walter O’Brien helped develop a TV show to recruit more talent to his company, while imparting a message about STEM studies.

How The Real Hacker Behind CBS’s “Scorpion” Made A Show To Grow His Own Company, And More Hackers
CBS pilot episode of SCORPION [Photo: Monty Brinton, courtesy of CBS]

A number of parties have alerted us to inconsistencies in Walter O’Brien’s claims that call into question the accuracy of his statements and this story. We are in the process of contacting O’Brien, CBS, and show producers for comment.
UPDATE: See follow-up story here.

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Walter O’Brien–hacker name, Scorpion–was your typical 197-IQ computer genius toiling away in mainstream obscurity. Sure, he had billionaire, royalty, and military clients. But he needed more pop culture appeal to attract the steady stream of 150+ IQ employees to fuel Scorpion Computer Services, his Los Angeles cybersecurity and risk mitigation firm, whose culture he describes as “an orphanage for smart people.”

So he decided to inspire a primetime show.

That program is CBS’s Scorpion, an action drama following a quartet of misfit geniuses helmed by a brilliant hacker–also named Walter O’Brien (a.k.a. Scorpion)–who are recruited by the government to thwart high-tech threats. The result? By the show’s Sept. 22 debut, the firm’s website had exploded from 70 to 90,000 hits a week, up to 104,000 hits this week, many from potential recruits.

O’Brien also hopes the show will encourage young viewers to pursue STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) education, use their talents to help humanity, and accept the more socially challenged. On Oct. 2, O’Brien along with Scorpion cast and producers, will discuss the show’s message during Fast Company’s Technmanity symposium in San Jose, CA.

“There are kids going into chemistry and biology because of CSI. Imagine people changing their majors to artificial intelligence, because this show made smart look cool,” says O’Brien. “Prodigies who don’t fit in are more likely to become alcoholics and divorce. I recently recruited a Chinese girl with an off-the-chart IQ. When I asked if she was bullied in school, she looked at me like I was crazy. She said, in China, the teacher’s pet is the most popular kid in school. They have it right, and we’re the ones that have it screwed up over here.”

Photo: Monty Brinton, courtesy of CBS

Hacking himself

Like his TV counterpart, the real-life O’Brien, now 39, hacked into NASA’s website at 13 to get the space shuttle blueprints for his wall. When irate U.S. authorities showed up at his home in Ireland, he ended up making a deal to help them find the holes in their system, and a business was born. That same year, in 1988, he set up Scorpion Computer Services to test corporate and government security systems. Since then–while scoring top rankings in international computer science competitions, earning a degree in computer science and artificial intelligence from Sussex University in England, moving to the U.S., and deliberately shedding his Irish brogue–he has grown his company to 2600 people in 20 countries and over $1.3 billion in revenue, with a staff that sports 150+ IQs. It now helps companies mitigate risk and improve efficiency through artificial intelligence software, statistical pattern analysis, and unconventional thinking.

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“Hacking involves a different way of looking at problems that no one’s thought of,” he says. “Bureaucracy kills people’s ability to try new ideas. Most managers are just trying to survive. That’s why a lot of smarter guys have been let go from Fortune 500 companies, because they came up with new ideas that no one would allow them to try. Here, they have a boss with a higher IQ than them, and all we do is try new ideas.”

(L-R) Executive Producers Scooter Braun, Nicholas Wootton, Nick Santora, Walter O’Brien, and Alex Kurtzman at The Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

But in the last four years, O’Brien began getting requests to navigate more esoteric business and life issues. He created a new division called Concierge Up to solve non-technical problems using technical means. Examples might include reverse engineering The New York Times bestseller list voting process to understand how to position a book to become a best seller, determining the fiscal and cultural viability of an app idea, separating billionaire clients’ progeny from gold-diggers, and even helping clients find happier lives.

“We’ve gone from hacking systems to hacking life,” says O’Brien. “For a minimum of $5000, we’ll be your super butler. All the stuff you had on your to-do list, but never got around to doing, now you have a staff of geniuses to do them.”

[L-R] Jadyn Wong, Ari Stidham, Elyes Gabel (as Walter O’Brien), Katharine McPhee, and Eddie Kaye Thomas. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS

So this is where the show fits in.

“I ‘Concierged Up’ myself,” he says. “My company was growing, I needed to hire a lot more geniuses, and more of them needed to know I existed. Hiring a sales staff is too slow, door to door is too painful. Also, a lot of projects we’d worked on became declassified due to Wikileaks or their NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements) expired. Finally we were able to talk about them. So, I thought, ‘Why not create a TV show?”

Scorpion company contacts in the entertainment industry lead them to producer/manager Scooter Braun and CAA, which brought in executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), director Justin Lin (Fast and Furious franchise), and showrunners Nick Santora and Nicholas Wootton.

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[L-R] Nick Santora, Walter O’Brien, and Nicholas Wootton at San Diego Comic-Con.Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Every few weeks, O’Brien, also an executive producer, meets with the writing staff for a “brain dump,” where he regales them with company case files and how they solved them–from cybercrime and terrorism, to quirky projects like picking racehorses based on their DNA. (“We won the national championship four times in a row!” he says.) The producers return for help with technology terms and names of gadgets that accomplished the tasks, while star Elyes Gabel taps O’Brien for personality tics.

“The irony was,” he said at a summer press conference, “as I was on set helping Elyes understand how to act like a genius, I’m struggling with learning how to act normal.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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