Prof. Avishai Wool, CTO and Co-founder of AlgoSec: Innovation is key : Have the curiosity and the willingness to learn new things, the ability to ask questions and to not take things for granted
December 2023 by Yelena Jangwa-Nedelec, Global Security Mag
A conversation with Professor Avishai Wool, CTO and Co-founder of AlgoSec, and Tsippi Dach, Director of Brand and Marketing Communications at AlgoSec. Professor Wool gave us an insight into his and AlgoSec’s motivations and some of his tips for students and for everyone else in the world of Cybersecurity on how to prioritize innovation, while Tsippi Dach talked to us about AlgoSec’s Hackathons, which are aiming to create something greater than the individual contributor.
Global Security Mag: Could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
Prof. Avishai Wool: I am Co founder and CTO at AlgoSec, and I’m also a professor of electrical engineering at Tel Aviv University. I’ve obviously been at AlgoSec since its creation, 20 years ago, and I had been working in network security and firewall security in various shapes and forms even before I founded AlgoSec.
GSM: What was your main motivation and goal when you co-founded AlgoSec, and what is your main motivation now as CTO?
Prof. Avishai Wool: When we started AlgoSec in 2003, my main idea was to create a technology that could help people understand how firewalls are configured and to demonstrate the mistakes that they’re making, which seemed to be a difficult task for humans and something that computers could help with. And I thought that this was interesting enough at the time to start a company around it, I thought there was business potential. This turned out to be very, very true. And here we are 20 years later, around 500 employees, almost 2,000 companies worldwide using our services, many of them in the DACH region. So it was a good bet, let’s put it this way.
AlgoSec started with a very specific focus, and we’ve expanded our portfolio greatly since those days. About my motivations of the moment, I would say that the challenges never end, the world around us is changing, and we just have to continue and expand the value that we bring. Our customers are moving more and more to the cloud, they’re changing technologies, and they expect the same values that AlgoSec has always been providing, but now cast in a new technology environment. Our roadmap is very full, and there are many things that I would like us to do, it’s always a challenge of what to do first.
GSM: And, because you mentioned the DACH region before, what are your company’s perspectives for 2024 in those countries?
Prof. Avishai Wool: Well, in some sense, the DACH region is just like every other region. So companies in the DACH region experience the same challenges as companies elsewhere, which means additional regulation of various verticals, changing technology, landscape, movement to the cloud, changes in political framework. This is maybe more relevant to Europe in general, not DACH in particular. There are new regulations coming from Brussels, which are affecting critical infrastructures, and we are trying to homogenize the definitions of what critical industries are across different countries. And that has an effect on the needs of customers in Europe. So all of that is in AlgoSec’s scope for 2024 and beyond.
GSM: What impact does AI have on AlgoSec solutions?
Prof. Avishai Wool: AI is not a term that I like as a University professor. It’s too inaccurate and setting up all kinds of expectations that are not likely to be met.
We’re investigating what we can do with “AI”; we acquired a company called Prevasio, a year and a half ago, that company entails some AI technology and also know-how that came from Stanford research in the areas of chatbots and language understanding and anomaly detection. At the moment, we are exploring how best to integrate that acquisition into our portfolio and to bring it to the market by implementing its technologies into our solutions.
GSM: What term do you prefer to use to describe what we describe today as AI?
Prof. Avishai Wool: There’s a huge body of work that I would call machine learning, which is all about classification, identification, trendsetting, detection, and those sorts of things. That is one massive area of work that’s been around for 50 years. It’s not new, and it just became more effective with advancements in neural network technologies, cheaper and better hardware and GPUs, for example.
And then the latest thing, which is why we’re all talking about AI these days, is because of the big advancement in natural language processing as exemplified by ChatGPT and OpenAI, which is all about generative AI. So it’s generative AI that helps create text based on the massive learning that they ran. That area is, first of all, very impressive and on the other hand, very new. Every month, there’s a new major evolution, and it’s hard to tell how all of this is going to play out. So a year ago, OpenAI came out with ChatGPT and conquered the world by storm. And then a couple of months later, Facebook released the Llama model, which can basically do everything that OpenAI’s ChatGPT allowed to do, but you can do it directly on your laptop. You don’t have to send information out to Microsoft, which, from a business perspective, is huge. If AlgoSec were to use ChatGPT, we would be very restricted in, should we allow ourselves to take our customers’ information and share it with Microsoft? I think our customers would be very worried about that. But if we can do it locally on our equipment and not share it with anybody else, that makes a big difference. Another significant difference is that we don’t have to pay royalties to Microsoft, which really undermines their business model. And this is just in the last year, it’s not like we know 15 years in advance how this is all going to shape out. Ask me next year, I’ll have a different answer.
GSM: What first sparked your interest in computer programming and Cybersecurity? What would you say to motivate young people to dive into it?
Prof. Avishai Wool: Well, I was a geek. As a teenager, I was drawn to sciences and technology. So I learned to program computers when I was 16 years old, and I thought it was really cool that I could do things like that, and I honestly still do. I think it’s really useful that you can get machines to do what you want, and the machines got so much better than what I started with!
If young people have the inclination and the skills, it’s a fantastic area to invest time in, because the world is far from finished with developing we can do with computers. You know, humanity knows how to build roads since the Romans. There are improvements in building roads, right? There’s better machinery, the industry is not the same and the highways that we have today are better than what the Romans built 2,000 years ago. But the change is not as explosive as with computers and with technology, where the rate of growth is something completely different. For the same cost, the computers that I have access to today are probably 10 million times more powerful than the machine I had access to when I was 16. And we’re not done. So, as a young person, if you have the skills, if you’re interested in those kinds of things, jump in. I would strongly recommend going into this technology field.
GSM: Do you think there is more to be done in terms of education in schools? I think that some children are naturally interested in technology, but a lot of others don’t get the incentive to get interested in it. It is a subject that should interest most people, because it has such an impact on everybody.
Prof. Avishai Wool: First of all, in the technology market, there are many, many different areas in which people with different skills and capabilities can fit in. You can be a journalist in the technology field without writing any software. I mean, you can, but it’s not a requirement. So you just need to understand what it means at a certain level to be able to use it, utilize it, talk about it, and so on. Technology companies also employ lawyers, graphic artists, cooks, drivers, whatever you want, everybody can pitch in.
GSM: Let me reframe my question for Cybersecurity. I think Cybersecurity is important for everybody, and we should teach this subject in school, when pupils are still young.
Prof. Avishai Wool: Sure, you can teach Cybersecurity to young people. We have such programs in Israel where teenagers, even teenagers in underdeveloped schools, have special dedicated curricula to introduce them to computers and to Cybersecurity in general. It’s entirely doable. Many people can find it to be interesting and fulfilling if you just show them that it’s there. I’m very much in support of bringing this education to young people in high school, certainly in universities, in many different disciplines, not just in computers and engineering. There are courses on computer ethics, in philosophy, in law, in foreign affairs, in social policy, in medicine, in physics. Everybody is involved. At the university, we had a program a few years ago, in which we created a Cybersecurity research center in the university, and we gave grants to professors who wanted to do research under the title Cybersecurity. We got applicants from every faculty on campus, maybe excluding the dental school and the school of cinema. There were some candidates from geography, from smart cities, from industrial engineering, politics, law, from business school… This field is not just for engineers and computer scientists.
GSM: As a university professor, if you had one thing you wanted to pass on to your students during your classes, what would it be?
Prof. Avishai Wool: Well, if I had to put it into one idea, I would say curiosity and willingness to learn new things, for them to have the ability to ask questions and not take things for granted.
GSM: I think this is a very important message for children. I can’t talk for other countries, but in France, we learn a lot about respect in school, which is a really important value. However, most of the time in traditional schools, you can tend to think that the teacher knows almost everything. Of course, we can ask questions, but you sometimes can be seen as provocative when you put what the teacher says into perspective, or if you don’t agree with them. I think children could benefit from learning even more about putting things into perspective, and remembering that no one person possesses all the knowledge.
Prof. Avishai Wool: I have little understanding of how things are taught in France, but I can say that when I teach operating systems or information security and people ask me, so what about this? How does this work? I find myself many times answering, you know what, I don’t know, I’ve never tried it before. Try it out, see what happens, see if it breaks and if you find anything interesting, come and tell me. This is especially important in Cybersecurity. If I do this, if I type in this strange text in this box on screen, what’s going to happen? Well, first of all, nobody’s going to come and yell at you. Maybe it won’t work, maybe you’ll waste time, but try it out, see what you discover.
GSM: To conclude this conversation, do you have a key message for our readers ?
Prof. Avishai Wool: Well, I think that your readers need to understand that the technology market is changing rapidly. And if they want to secure themselves, they need help. AlgoSec has been around for over 20 years, we have very deep roots and very deep understanding, and we can work with them to make sure that what they need gets done and gets implemented.
Tsippi Dach, Director of marketing communications at AlgoSec: I want to add something to combine Avishai’s expertise as a professor, what he said about curiosity, what’s important for the students and our world at AlgoSec. We have semi-annual Hackathons for R&D and Product Management, amongst other subjects. Our focus is constantly set on innovation. Our goal is to understand what our audience is looking for, what our users need in the context of a changing industry. During our Hackhatons, we have really amazing brains working together in different aspects to create something greater than the individual contributor. That is why innovation is key, and it is constantly changing along with the needs of the industry.