Making the Impossible Possible: Ashar Aziz

Making the Impossible Possible

Ashar Aziz
Founder, CEO & CTO, FireEye Inc.

According to Forbes magazine, as of March 2014, there are 1646 billionaires in the world – FireEye founder Ashar Aziz just made it on that elite list. His company, FireEye Inc. went public in September of 2013 with a valuation of more than $1 billion. On the Cyber Security landscape, no other company comes close to what Ashar and his team have achieved. Today the largest networks and governments around the world deploy the robust and resilient solution that FireEye offers.

What makes FireEye unique is their ability to identify very subtle and sophisticated cyber attacks, which are now the norm in threat landscape. The attacker in days of old, used to be a teenager hacking out of his parent’s basement and most ‘attacks’ were low intensity kind of threats. “Today, the attacker is a country, military intelligence operations and well-funded cyber criminal organizations so the amount of funding that is available to attack has grown astronomically over the last several years,” explains Ashar Aziz. In fact today, people have billions of dollars to invest in the preparation of cyber weapons for offensive purposes.

“Given that threat landscape, the defensive architecture needed to evolve substantially. In the existing widely deployed IT products, the defensive technologies are based on very dated techniques such as anti-virus, firewalls and IPS kind of technologies that don’t really have the ability to detect and block advanced attacks because these attacks don’t have any known signature or pattern that they can match. So an unknown attack is a difficult one to find. “If you think about the difficulty of complexity of finding a needle in a haystack of large volumes of traffic, looking for something that you don’t have a pattern for, is the problem FireEye solved very successfully. And they are able to illustrate this ongoing attack in virtually every small business or government network and see how cyber criminals or the nation-states are infiltrating in, and then exfiltrating information on the way back out.

FireEye created an enterprise-wide architecture using Virtual Machine Analysis as the core detection mechanism instead of anti-virus engine. “We changed the engine that the industry has used for many decades and came up with a new and innovative way to solve this problem and the response has been very successfully received in the market.”

Zero Point

Ashar was born in Karachi and grew up in Islamabad, but left in the mid-70s to go to Turkey on a scholarship to study at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. He transferred to MIT and has been in the US ever since. “I was told by some family members about MIT when I was 13 years old and I made it a goal to go there but didn’t quite know how I would get there.” He walked down to the American Center in Islamabad, asked about how to apply and was misinformed. “They told me I should try and apply as a Grad student, which was a disappointment.” Ashar did some research and found a University in Turkey that would allow you to transfer to MIT, which is what he did.

Everyone aspires to do something so big so it puts him or her on the map. “My role models were always people like Edison, Bell and people who had done some incredible things, so I was always inclined to be in technology and to invent stuff. They created innovations that have lasted well over a century. Growing around such inspiration did motivate me to do something great, I just didn’t know what it was.”

A brilliant engineer, he was working at Sun in the areas of Networking, Security and overall system design and it was there he got interested in how security was getting in the way of technology. “Data centers couldn’t be deployed with the same efficiency when you had to add layers of security. It was really a closed and archaic approach to Cyber Security.” And that’s what spurred the creation of TerraSpring, a company that focused on datacenter automation and virtualization. Ashar was onto technology that was at least 7 years ahead of its time. When the market crashed in 2001, it proved to be too difficult to save. With Murphy’s Law at its peak, all that could went wrong and he got his $100 million education as opposed to the payout that was expected.

As an entrepreneur, you have to be very frugal with spending, but that requires some maturity and experience. TerraSpring was eventually acquired by Sun in 2002, and Ashar went looking for the next big problem to solve with many lessons learned.

Interest in the Cyber Security landscape has increased in the past 4 years. With more companies ramping up their intellectual and virtual capabilities to defend and attack, the problem has become a lot more difficult to solve.

The idea for FireEye germinated from the search for a complex and important problem. “As an entrepreneur, my belief is that I look for hard problems to solve that has a very wide domain of applicability; lots of people have that kind of problem. And that simply translates to a total available market, because if you’re going to construct a business, you have to be sure that there are a large number of people who are wiling to buy that product. The scope of the problem is important, and the difficulty of the problem is also important because when you create a solution you want it to be defensible so that it cannot be easily imitated or copied. The more difficult the problem domain is, the harder you have to work to create a solution the harder for would-be copycats to imitate.”

Ashar was looking for a problem that had these properties. He spent several months looking at the varying degrees of problems that were out there after he left Sun and finally converged on this one.

The startup phase was interesting. Ashar was working out of his house, had $4000 in the corporate bank account and some of his personal savings. He worked an intense 80 to 100 hours week after week, trying to understand the industry landscape. “I needed to better understand how the attackers would move and evolve, and to be able to do see that, I would become the attacker and attack the architecture often playing chess moves on a virtual chessboard with a hypothetical enemy.” This helped him understand how attackers would react to any defensive architecture in place, which helped to develop a blueprint that is the basis for a robust and resilient architecture.

Developing the blueprint was a very intense period for Ashar. It was only after he was satisfied with the architecture he was building that he could raise funding around it. “This with an incredible team of engineers and technologist that came on board to help me build the technology. 9 years later, we’ve built a very strong product portfolio and technology.”

With the learning he had accumulated with his first venture, Ashar treaded a lot more careful this time. As the company grew, he spent time running almost every function to ensure its efficiency and compliance with the overall vision of the company. “If you’re trying to build something that will survive the test of time, it pays to be a bit prudent.” He focused on generating strong revenue and keeping his operations in check. And it paid off.

Over time, selling to customers became easier. “When you have 30% of the Fortune 500 using your product, people understand that this is not a science experiment anymore. It is a product that works in the largest networks in the world and in the largest governments that exist in the world.” But even 4 years ago, the story was not so simple. With so much perceived competition, it’s important to serve your customer with the greatest integrity possible. “When you are trying to solve a customer’s problem, you want to make sure that the architecture is well-integrated. You don’t want to come out with an approach that will waste every other investment that he has made, whether it’s in a security product or a related product.” The team of engineers and technologists at FireEye work very hard at solving the core problem, which is the problem of identifying and blocking the threat, and then interfacing the solution with the rest of their architecture. That’s why the concept of open architecture is so important. “You have to be a first class citizen of the ecosystem that is in the customers network and not work in isolation.”

Traditional anti-virus companies have spent a lot of marketing dollars convincing companies that they are safe, when in fact, they aren’t. “It used to be beyond their comprehension how a threat could bypass their ‘protected levels of security’ and get into their architecture. When someone would humor us with our product demo, they would quickly discover what we were telling them was the truth.” The attackers today are much more advanced than they used to be and have the ability to infiltrate.

The 21st Century is an age of information where virtually everything we do is either enabled by some kind of information system or facilitated or in some fashion by it. If the information systems are fundamentally fragile, then civilization itself is at risk. “This can post a risk to the very existence of civilization as we know it. So I was very motivated to solve this problem because I know that if you wipe the financial infrastructure or the critical infrastructure such as power or telecommunications, society, as we know it, would cease to exist. I also knew that such an attack would be enabled by a cyber attack so the fact that I would have to go and convince some people that there was a problem, that competitors would stand in the way was not a significant enough for me to turn back or stop me.

Ashar’s belief in the importance of the problem and the need for a solution that could be effective against this very insidious kind of threat was almost unwavering. “This is actually a bigger threat than nuclear weapons or climate change because it can be done at a greater speed,  instealth and with fewer resources than the other global challenges we face.

What makes a startup powerful is that they don’t suffer from the baggage problem. “We aren’t encumbered by any legacy product unlike the companies who based their products on the outdated profile of attackers. Most companies are not well positioned because of the baggage of their existing products. While startups also have the challenge of not being well known, our approach to the problem is to solve it without any baggage.We are successful against much larger contenders because of the fact that we focus on the problem as it sits today, not as it used to look.”

There is a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurs and in the case of Cyber Security but the problems are so unique and massive, startups should be identifying specific problems and aligning their solutions or offerings with them. “I keep a notebook of ideas and FireEye is one idea from there. As we interface with our surroundings, we develop a unique perspective on problems. Figure out which of these problems need solving and you have yourself the makings of a billion dollar business.”

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