A career in securing cyberspace
Making a living in information security was once considered a rare, if not impossible, challenge. But Madison’s Jack Koziol proved them all wrong.
Early on during Jack Koziol’s first cybersecurity job at a bank in Chicago, his boss offered him a frank assessment of his future.
At the time, Koziol was the only bank employee working on cybersecurity.
“You have no career being in information security,” his boss said. “You better think of something else unless you just want to sit in the data center by yourself all the time.”
This past January, two decades after that conversation, Koziol announced he was selling his Madison-based cybersecurity education company, Infosec, to the global education technology company Cengage Group.
The price was $190.8 million.
“The people at the bank were not taking the cyber threat seriously,” says Koziol, who knew better — and soon branched out on his own.
Koziol has been a luminary in the field since publishing his pioneering 2004 book, “The Shellcoder’s Handbook.”
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Koziol says his parents had an early personal computer. Inspired by Matthew Broderick in the movie “War Games,” Koziol and his teenage buddies used modems and primitive dial-in “bulletin board” systems to interact on their PCs.
“There was a lot of hacking each other across those bulletin boards in the ’90s,” Koziol says. (He can still recite the signature line from the Broderick film: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”)
Koziol majored in history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where his parents are both alumni. He feels a liberal arts education helped him “learn to think as a young adult.”
“It enabled those critical thinking skills that are so useful no matter what your career is,” he says.
While in school, Koziol spent four years working part time at the Computer-Aided Engineering facility on campus, where he was exposed to a variety of security technologies.
“It was a kind of sidebar education to the formal education at UW,” he says. “We actually did all the tech support for the nuclear reactor that’s on campus. A lot of interesting stuff.”
Koziol graduated in 2000 and got the bank job. He continued to educate himself on cybersecurity and grew proficient enough that he was asked to give occasional hacking-defense seminars.
One such seminar, held in Florida in 2003, was attended by a USA Today reporter. He described Koziol as “the apple-cheeked instructor” and quoted him as saying, “This is intellectual competition. I want people to think like a hacker and counteract them. If you don’t, game over.”
The following year, Koziol published his book, which was subtitled “Discovering and Exploiting Security Holes.”
“A lot of people were trying to learn this stuff,” Koziol says. “It was squirreled away in the dark corners of the internet and wasn’t well articulated in a way that people could learn and understand.”
The book shocked its publisher by becoming a word-of-mouth bestseller (though Koziol’s contract gave him little of the royalties). He began getting inquiries, including this one, a paraphrase, from the Microsoft office in Israel: “We’re making the first Microsoft firewall. Can you come out and teach us for two weeks?”
It was time to leave the bank behind, though nearly everyone — friends, family, the father of his girlfriend, Tracy — told him that quitting a solid job to start a business was a bad idea. He went ahead anyway.
“I lived in my girlfriend’s — now my wife’s — second bedroom [in the Chicago area] and ate ramen and used my savings to start the business,” Koziol says. As for the risk? “I felt I could always go back to a 9-to-5 job if it didn’t work out.”
It worked out. Early clients included the U.S. Department of Defense and various Fortune 500 companies working in the finance and insurance space including Samsung, Raytheon Technologies and J.P. Morgan.
“They were in the forefront of bolstering their cybersecurity defenses,” Koziol says.
He and Tracy married in 2006 — they now have three children — and settled in 2012 in Madison, where she is a family practice physician.
Although Infosec evolved — and grew tremendously — its core mission of educating businesses and organizations on how to keep their information technology systems secure has endured.
“Last year,” Koziol says, “we decided the business needed some additional capital to continue our growth trajectory.”
They were initially looking to raise $50 to $70 million from investors.
“Through the process, the option that best emerged for us was with Cengage through an outright acquisition,” Koziol says, adding that he and Tracy will remain in Madison. “We love the community. You get a lot of big-city benefits without the congestion and traffic and that kind of stuff.”
As for his professional future, Koziol says he is open.
“I’m very fortunate in that I’ll have an opportunity to have a second career. Some people never get to have one career,” he says. “I have a wealth of opportunities and I’m pretty excited about that.”
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