When asked how “we” — modern society — are doing in beating back cyberattacks, Alex Gounares offered a blunt assessment: “We’re losing. That’s the simple, simple way to look at it.”
Gounares said the cybersecurity industry, writ large, has been growing 10-12 percent a year, consistently, for the last 15 plus years. People are spending more and more every year on security.
“Yet, you have Equifax,” he said of September’s massive data breach at the consumer credit reporting agency. “The Equifax attack was a good old fashioned, straight through the front door, take over the website, and grab all the data. There’s nothing exotic about it, and yet it still happens.”
But Gounares, with a background at giant tech companies and little startups, believes his latest venture has the answers.
Polyverse Corp. is a 2 1/2-year-old Bellevue, Wash.-based company focused on protecting software from cyberattacks using moving target defense technologies. Could they have prevented Equifax? “Oh yeah, absolutely,” said our latest Geek of the Week.
Gounares previously led Concurix Corp., a maker of Node.js profiling tools, and he also served as chief technology officer at AOL. Prior to that, he was a corporate vice president and CTO for the Microsoft’s Online Services Division. He had his hand in the projects including the company’s global advertising platform, Bing search, MSN and Microsoft Virtual Earth. He was also technology advisor to Bill Gates for three years.
In 2003, working with Gates, Gounares was partly focused on security, and became keen to the fact that a culture in which everyone ran the same software — including the bad guys — was a bad way of doing business.
Fast forward to 2018, and Polyverse’s Polymorphic Linux “creates a constantly changing attack surface extraordinarily difficult for attackers to penetrate.”
“People are trying to defend a static target,” he said. “It’s like playing dodgeball. Yeah, sure, I’m a geek, so I’m one of the kids who would grab the ball and just stand there, and you get beaned if you stand still playing dodgeball. You gotta move. If you don’t move you’re in trouble.”
With societies across the globe so dependent on computers for banking, logistics, agriculture, power and everything else, Gounares worries about the evil person who eventually says, “I want to take out the world.”
Moving fast enough to get protections in place — “we know how to solve this problem” — is what gives him hope. And at 20 employees and growing, it’s a question he poses to anyone interested in joining the fight.
“It’s a test of wills,” Gounares said. “The Chinese have 100,000 people in the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] doing nothing but hacking Western companies and governments. You’ve got the Russian mafia, you’ve got North Koreans and Syrians, you’ve got a lot of benevolent actors out there. The question for anybody joining the company is, ‘Can you be smarter than 100,000 and more of the smartest bad guys in the world?'”
Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Alex Gounares:
What do you do, and why do you do it? “Despite having done many different roles over the years, I’ll always be an engineer at heart. I love building and creating!”
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Have hope! Right now, computer software is a mess in terms of cybersecurity. Just think of how many times you’ve seen a major cyberattack in the news or had your or a friends computer infected with a virus. The good news is that there are new technologies being developed now that are fundamentally solving the problem of cybersecurity. Remember getting directions before online maps and GPS? It’s pretty tough to get lost these days, but it wasn’t that long ago that finding a place in an unfamiliar town was quite challenging.”
Where do you find your inspiration? “In all kinds of places (not sure if I should admit to long hot showers as a good place to think!). Polyverse, my current company, was actually inspired by biology — zombies more specifically. Just ask a simple question: why has the world not been taken over the by the zombie apocalypse? Or why haven’t humans been wiped out by the Spanish Flu, Bubonic Plague, Ebola — choose any tragic disease outbreak. The answer is our genetic diversity; our diversity gives us strength and resilience against biological viruses. The natural question to ask then is: how to apply the resilience of diversity to computers? That’s what we’ve done with Polyverse — we automatically create resilience against cyberattacks by making every computer unique and diverse. If you are running the same software available to hackers, you’ll eventually get hacked!”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “My iPhone! For both good and bad, I should add. Being constantly connected lets me stay in touch with my colleagues and friends wherever I am, and that makes it much easier to balance work commitments with family and personal life. On the flip side, that constant connectivity can be addictive. I’ve made it a point to intentionally put the phone away during family time, at meals, and so forth.”
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I am a huge fan of the triple monitor setup — I have this at both my home office, as well as at work. This arrangement let’s me increase my productivity significantly. The central monitor is for whatever I am working on (such as doing this interview!). The left monitor is for email and iMessage. The right monitor is for whatever reference material is needed at the time (e.g. API documentation when writing code).”
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “The Law of 1440. There are only 1440 minutes in every day — and it’s the same for everybody. The question is, what are you doing with them? I try to be very disciplined about what I spend my time on and prioritizing what is important to me personally and my team at work. For example, I always take my kids to school, pick them up, have a family dinner, and so forth. That time is precious to me, and it’s the kind of time and experience that you can only have once — you don’t get it back! I’m fortunate that we’ve been able to create a work environment where all of us have that flexibility. And admittedly, technology like iPhones and WiFi on airplanes makes that achieving that balance a lot easier.”
Mac, Windows or Linux? “Mac with Linux running in Docker. What else?”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Adama. So say we all. OK, for the uninitiated, Adama is the captain of the Battlestar Galactica. If I have to stay within the lines though, I like attributes of all of the different “Star Trek” captains. But, since I survived my university years in significant part due to a weekly ‘ST:TNG’ respite, I will admit some partiality to Picard.”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Easy — Time Machine. With a time machine, you could travel to a period of time in which the other two technologies have been invented! I will skip the geeky detour in time travel paradoxes though, and just make the comforting hypothetical assumption for this hypothetical question that the first time travel trip is to a time when those issues are solved.”
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Start Polyverse! I’m not sure I could give any other answer, as we did start Polyverse with a $1M seed investment from a phenomenal group of investors.”
I once waited in line for … “Hot Krispy Kreme donuts at the grand opening of the Krispy Kreme in Issaquah, Wash. I waited for four hours! Of course, at the time, the next closest Krispy Kreme was in Las Vegas. Since this is likely to be published, my official story is that I would have never, ever, ever, ever flown to Las Vegas for the sole purpose of getting a Krispy Kreme donut. That would clearly be excessive, and thus it was fortunate that a store opened in town.”
Your role models: “Too many to mention — I tend to admire and appreciate folks who have done something remarkable: Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking for their tenacity in pushing crazy (at the time) ideas; Margaret Thatcher for leadership in tough times; Elon Musk and Richard Branson for entrepreneurship; Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates for business savvy; Oprah Winfrey for her oratorical prowess; Ada Lovelace as arguably the first computer programmer, and so on. No list like this would be complete without adding my two young children to it. They are still young enough to take delight in the simple things in life — it’s a healthy and refreshing daily reminder!”
Greatest game in history: “Sid Meier’s ‘Civilization.’ ‘Nuff said.
Best gadget ever: “The wheel!”
First computer: “Timex Sinclair 1000 — complete with a tape recorder for storage. My first real program was a video game — a dot (your spaceship) that could shoot other dots (the alien invaders of course).”
Current phone: “iPhone X.”
Favorite app: “Kindle! I read as much as I can.”
Favorite cause: “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the work they are doing.”
Most important technology of 2016: “That’s a tough one — probably a toss up between AI and bio-engineering. 2016 was the year that an AI beat the top champion in Go, it was also the year that the first synthetic bacteria was created. Thankfully, they have not met yet.”
Most important technology of 2018: “We will find out!”
LinkedIn: Alex Gounares