Don’t complain about your commute to Vince Steckler ’80. The UCI graduate with BS degrees in both math and computer science was commuting from Singapore to San Francisco as the senior VP of worldwide consumer sales at Symantec before becoming CEO of security giant Avast. “It was a fairly long commute — 22 hours,” he says, explaining why he left Symantec to start his own business in Singapore. But instead of eliminating the commute, he got a call from a colleague who put him in touch with the Prague-based Avast, which Steckler viewed as “a diamond in the rough. They had a great product but no real marketing or sales behind it.” So he joined Avast in 2009, at which point he says the online-security company had about 40 employees and sales of under $20 million a year. He reports it has since grown to 2,000 employees and over $750 million in sales, and its security software is stopping 3.5 billion attacks per month.
Did you always have an interest in security?
My first job was very much related to computer security. I was doing security and safety analysis of nuclear weapons software in Los Angeles, leading the software safety analysis for the deployment of the Ground Launched Cruise Missile in Europe. Then, after doing a few other things, I ran a resale business inside the same company and was selling software, mostly Netscape and Oracle, to the federal government. I did that for many years before Symantec hired me to start up their government business. Eventually I moved to Asia and ran the Asia and Japan divisions of Symantec, and in 2000, I took over their consumer business. I did that for years until the commute got to be too much.
How did you get started at Avast?
I knew of them, but didn’t know very much. I learned more from the gentleman they wanted to hire as their CEO, but he was retired and didn’t want to go back to work. He was my ex-boss from Symantec, so he put me in touch with them. We hit it off, and I took over the company.
Avast was fairly well known in the immediate region and by geeks around the world, but it wasn’t really big at the time. When I took over, it did maybe $15-20 million in business. Now it does over $750 million. We took it from a very small company to the world’s most popular security product.
How did your ICS education help along the way?
It helped a lot. In 1980, computer science was so different from what it is now. We had to learn compilers, and one of the first things I did in my job was build a compiler. We had to build operating systems, because these were control systems that weren’t using commercial-off-the-shelf software; a lot of it was custom built. So, much of the theory I learned at UCI about how compilers work, how data structures work and how operating systems work gave me the knowledge to build these things. At the time, the computer science curriculum at UCI didn’t include programming, which was taught at most schools. But you can learn things like programming skills on your own — you don’t need universities for that. It’s the knowledge gained in how to solve problems that is most important in real life.
Did you have a favorite class?
The artificial intelligence (AI) classes were by far the most interesting. UCI was a pretty big AI school — not in terms of machine learning, but following on from the Marvin Minsky stuff at MIT. AI was a lot more primitive then. It used languages called SNOBOL and LISP, and the computer that was here was a DEC-10.
But security is heavily AI-related, and that goes back many years. The current AI in vogue is machine learning. What we have for our security at Avast is a massive installed base. Our software runs on 520 million different computers and mobile phones around the world, so from those, we gather a massive amount of data, and that data goes into our cloud. We run about 11,000 servers in the cloud and, at any given time, 60 million of our users are connected to our cloud. It’s on a scale that no one else has, but it’s that massive amount of user data that really provides the raw information to figure out what’s safe and what isn’t safe on the internet.
In addition to Avast, can you tell us a bit about its charitable foundation?
Avast is based in the Czech Republic and has deep roots there. About six or seven years ago, we started the Avast Foundation, a charitable organization that receives a percentage of our profits. Unlike the foundations of most tech companies, which donate equipment or scholarships for computer science students, our foundation looks at what’s missing in the country’s social network. So a big focus has been on palliative care, which isn’t something you usually see a tech company spending money on, but we’ve been successful in addressing this unfilled need in the country. We ran a bunch of pilot programs to show how to effectively implement end-of-life care, and this year the government stepped in to take care of a lot of the funding. We also focus on early childhood care as well as the arts, because the Czech Republic is a very artistic, very musical country. So we don’t really do much with technology but the foundation is giving back to society as a whole.
And what motivates you to give back to UCI?
The recognition that everyone needs to give back to help and guide others. UCI has built a great program, and I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for UCI.
Any words of advice for ICS students?
At Avast, our core value is to “get stuff done.” What’s most important is actually doing something. It doesn’t matter if you fail; failing is a learning experience. During a recent sales review meeting, I asked what bids we had lost in the last quarter, and the answer was none — which tells me we haven’t bid enough. You have to have failures, because you learn a lot more from your failures than from your successes.
Another thing that has struck me is that if you’re going to stay in technology, you shouldn’t look at your degree as the end game. Technology changes very, very quickly, so this is just the start of your learning. Throughout your career, you’re going to have to take extension classes or self-study to stay up on technology; otherwise, you’ll be left behind. View your degree as the start, not end, of your educational journey.
— Shani Murray