Walking Among Security Giants

If you were born anytime in the last 50 years, the personal computing age has comprised the majority of your life. Depending upon how you want to mark its beginning, the PC era started somewhere in the mid-1970s, and, remarkably, many of the people who were responsible for the founding of the industry have continued to influence its direction to this day. Sadly, some of them have passed on recently, and with them has gone their knowledge, wisdom and experience.

If you were born anytime in the last 50 years, the personal computing age has comprised the majority of your life. Depending upon how you want to mark its beginning, the PC era started somewhere in the mid-1970s, and, remarkably, many of the people who were responsible for the founding of the industry have continued to influence its direction to this day. Sadly, some of them have passed on recently, and with them has gone their knowledge, wisdom and experience.

The biggest loss, both in terms of influence on the industry and attention from the outside world, clearly was the death of Steve Jobs. The Apple co-founder was a mythic figure in popular culture, having revolutionized the way that millions of people listen to music and watch movies, and completely changed what users expect from their computing devices. But it was as much his image as a counterculture hero, the anti-Bill Gates if you will, as it was anything he did at Apple or Pixar or NeXT that brought him so much attention and acclaim. People loved the idea of Jobs and they loved what he represented.

But there are others who have died recently, as well, perhaps none of them with the power or aura of Jobs, but whose contributions were equally important and far-reaching. Dennis Ritchie, the creator of the C programming language and a co-creator of UNIX, died earlier this month, and today brought news of the passing of John McCarthy, the father of the Lisp programming language. These are men who helped lay the foundation for not just the computing industry we know today, but also for the the computing experience that we all take for granted.

It is a shame that Jobs, Ritchie, McCarthy and others of that generation of pioneers are gone, but their influence will continue to be felt for decades to come in the work of the men and women whom they taught and worked with along the way. It’s the way things go. People pass on, and hopefully they pass on what they’ve learned before they go.

What all of these deaths brings to mind is the great opportunity that those in the security community have to learn from and work with the people who developed the principles, theories, products and platforms upon which today’s security industry stands. Security is a comparatively young discipline, and that relative youth means that many of the men and women responsible for pioneering the field are not only still here, but are still actively working, writing, speaking and sharing their knowledge and experiences with anyone willing to read or listen. This will not always be the case.

If, like me, you’re fortunate enough to be able to attend several security conferences each year, then you’ve probably glanced at an agenda and seen the names of some of these folks scheduled to deliver keynotes or workshops or other talks. Maybe you’ve thought, No way am I getting up at 8 a.m. in Vegas to listen to this guy talk. Don’t do that. Go and learn. Absorb all you can from these people, absorb it and use it and pass it on.

I’ve had the good fortune to interview many of the people who helped build the security industry, and I’ve never walked away from one of those conversations without having learned something new. If those opportunities present themselves to you, take them. Don’t look up five years from now and wish you had.

If Dan Geer is speaking, go. If Rebecca Bace is speaking, listen. If Ron Rivest or Adi Shamir or Whit Diffie or Gene Spafford or Bruce Schneier or Steve Lipner is speaking, pay close attention. If you have the chance to sit in a room and talk with Mudge or Elias Levy or HD Moore, do it. Ask questions, ask for help, ask for advice. The security community is called a community for a reason; people like to help and are happy to share their knowledge and experiences. And experience, like those that these men and women have, is valued because it is hard-won and can’t be replaced with simple knowledge. It must be acquired.

Think about how fortunate we all are to have the depth of accumulated knowledge, talent and expertise available to us at this moment in time. The giants of our industry are walking among us. It won’t always be thus. Things change. People move on, they retire or change industries or just stop speaking and writing. And when that happens, we’re all poorer for it.

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