Career Notes 11.19.23
Ep 176 | 11.19.23

Ian Blumenfeld: Swimming in a pool of cyber. [Research]


Ian Blumenfeld: Hi, my name is Ian Blumenfeld, and I am the Research Director for High Assurance Solutions at Two Six Technologies.

Ian Blumenfeld: I always used to say when I was a kid, I want to be a scientist and actually, I remember when I got my first business cards, when I worked at cyber point, actually, uh, first time I ever had business cards in my life, I got them printed and my job title, uh, was scientist and I was like, sweet, I did it! I wanted to frame, I wanted to frame my, uh, my business card because I had achieved the goal of becoming a scientist. 

Ian Blumenfeld: So when I got to high school, I was like, I really want to study chemistry and I did chemistry and I really liked it and I realized after a while playing around with chemistry, that the part of chemistry that I really liked was called physics and so in high school, I decided, I changed, I was going to be a scientist, but I wasn't going to be a chemist anymore, I was going to be a physicist. I got to college, and I started out, and I wanted to be a physics major. I played around with physics for a while, and I realized the part of physics I really liked was actually called math and so, I ended up switching my major from, in fact, uh, from physics to mathematics in my first semester of college. I kept getting more and more abstract, right? So I went from more concrete to more abstract and I just kept going and going and going until I was just dealing with problems in like sort of pure logic and that's kind of what I what I wanted to do when I got to grad school and kind of that's what I did study in grad school.

Ian Blumenfeld: Well, so I got out of school. It was a very strange circumstances. I ended up leaving grad school before I finished my PhD, and, um, I was in some personal life situations led to me leaving early and I left and I became a high school math teacher. I didn't know what else to do with my life. I like to joke that I I, I did not have the temperament to be a high school teacher. I taught with this guy named Jim and he had taught, he had worked previously as a, as an NSA mathematician and he said, Ian, you are not happy as a math teacher but you know what would make you really happy if you were an NSA mathematician? And I said, Jim, I don't know anything about cryptography. I don't know anything about computers, at the time, I really didn't know anything about computers and he said, well, why don't you apply and take the test and see how you do? And so, I kind of decided that I wanted to try to move on from teaching and see if I could try another career, you know, see if there was something else for me. I went through, I took the test, I did my interviews, you know, I, uh, I went through all of the security clearance stuff and, um, I got hired and I started at NSA as, uh, an applied research mathematician there.

Ian Blumenfeld: While I was there, I met a guy, um, who, uh, who is still at NSA, his name was Sean. And Sean did a little bit of, he was, he did logic from like the computer science side, and I had done logic from the mathematician side in grad school and he taught me a little bit of, and he worked for this part of NSA called the National Information Assurance Research Laboratory, um, R2 and he was like, Ian, you should come do a tour with us, um, you know, and what we did in R2 was we looked at various and sundry pieces of cryptographic software implementations or specifications. We made sure that the software was doing what the specification did and I kind of fell in love with that because I, I just loved the idea that like there's code everywhere and it's buggy and it's broken. But sometimes something is just so important, you can't test it. This R2 kind of work. I did it like four times for four different offices, including it actually in R2 and then I got hired after my, my, my, my development program, I got hired directly into R2. I was at NSA for probably like four and a half years, about and then for a variety of, of, of silly reasons, um, you know, a lot of folks at NSA do this, they, they eventually end up leaving and going and working for, uh, going and becoming a contractor instead and that's how I ended up at CyberPoint.

Ian Blumenfeld: So I took the job at CyberPoint, and then I, I think I worked there for, I worked at CyberPoint, um, on and off, and I've actually bounced around a few defense contractors, including a place called Galois, a place called, which worked with us when I was at NSA, um, and then John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, um, I went to after a certain, after a while, and I was there for about two years, when I got a call from an old friend of mine who had worked with us, um, when I was at GovE and said, we need someone here at Apple who knows both formal methods and formal verification, like the high assurance stuff I did, as well as cryptography and the person I thought of in the world who knew this stuff is you and I said, well, I had never considered working at Apple, like that's not a thing that I, I thought was that was in my, in the cards for me. I said, okay, let me see, I'll interview and so I did, I interviewed at Apple and I got the job and it was really a tough choice whether we wanted to move because we had to move to Cupertino in California, which was rough. We decided to go on a little bit of an adventure. And we went out there for, for a couple of years and we, and I worked at Apple. 

Ian Blumenfeld: So I worked on that for a couple of years and you know, personal stuff, you know, sort of said, you know, I think I want to do this, I love this work, it's really fun, it's really impactful, but I really need to be on the East Coast and I got called by a recruiter, um, who sort of told me that this company called Two Six Labs was setting up a new group and they really wanted to study cryptography and would I come and be like the first employee who worked on that and I said, okay, but you guys don't have very much work in that area and like, well, yeah, you're, you're going to win it for us, you're going to go build it and I was like, well let's, let's give it a try and I joined, I was working on other stuff, you know, I wasn't working on this sort of, this sort of my stuff that was really in my wheelhouse for a while, but about, about a year into my, my tenure at Two Six, and this was around two, 2019, we started winning stuff like left and right, winning all these contracts in my field and informal verification, and it was just like, oh, well, I gotta, I gotta start hiring people now because I have all this, I have all this work. I guess I'm in charge of some people. So I started like calling up all my old friends and I started being like, do you want to come work with me? And we started hiring and we did that for about, you know, did it for a little while, the pandemic hit, and then it was like, okay, well, that was weird. Was locked in my house, and I'm still calling people, asking people if they wanted to come work with me, and it was just, it was very strange.

Ian Blumenfeld: I guess my job is perfect, right? I have been phenomenally lucky in my life, um, and I don't want to presume that everybody else will get as lucky as I got, but here's what I would have to say. If you're a smart person and you have skills in coding, you can swim. So it's okay to jump. It's okay to jump into the lake, you can swim. Something will get you out. You will have, you will be able to find a job. So, if you see something that looks cool, if you see something that advances you to the next stage of your career, if you have to take a little bit of a risk, it's okay. Because we are a very lucky group, us tech people. You have a lot of safety nets, and I recommend you use them by taking more chances than you think you might need to, or might want to.

Ian Blumenfeld: I'd like it for people to think that I helped make code less crappy, I guess is the answer, or rather, I like to make it so the people think of me as someone who helped turn a world where there was just a lot of places for people who could do bad stuff into a world where it was really hard for them to do bad stuff. I sort of have this philosophy in my group that, we always say people first, science second, money third and, you know, all three are important, when you're running a company, but, but I think, I hope that, that carries forward.