By: Jonathan Sapers '79
Matt Kraning '04 was pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stanford in 2011 when he got the job offer that changed his life. It's what led to his co-founding and becoming chief technology officer of Qadium, Inc., a Silicon Valley company that helps businesses and government entities protect themselves against Internet threats, and it started with a call from a friend: "He said, 'There's something really cool going on in D.C. You should come.'"
Though Kraning had no idea what the job entailed, he went. In Washington, he met with the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which was recruiting talented young academics to help with the agency's first major data assembly effort since the Vietnam War. In addition to Kraning, five other graduate students were "plucked out of academia" to work on a project that would use data to get a better handle on how to decrease casualties, an explanation that goes as far as the Pentagon will allow.
The Pentagon does allow Kraning to show two pictures from the experience. One is of a small windowless office made from repurposed cargo containers. It was located somewhere in Kabul, and Kraning and his cohort shuttled through it during their alternating four-month stints in that country. The other is of Kraning in sunglasses in a Black Hawk helicopter, transporting a large duffle bag's worth of disk drives across Afghanistan.
The Black Hawk photo is indicative of the kinds of solutions Kraning and his companions came up with during their time in Afghanistan. "Your main job is to solve problems," Kraning says. "Sometimes it's something sophisticated, but most of the time, it's an outside-the-box insight that has a reasonable implementation but isn't obvious to most people."
The helicopter trip turned out to be one of those: an improvised solution to moving data around the country. It was about "bandwidth and latency," Kraning explains. "Bandwidth is how much information you can pass from one place to another. Latency is, if I send you a small bit of information at point A, how quickly does it reach point B?"
As Kraning explains it, the best latency result would be to send data over a fiber or satellite link—nearly instantaneous transfer, but limited capacity—while the world's best bandwidth would be a 747 filled with SD cards (the tiny drives that fit in digital cameras). The latter would carry an entire Internet's worth of data, but it would take hours for any data to reach the destination, not to mention the preparatory logistical headaches required to set up and operate such a vehicle. The Black Hawk was a situational compromise; something between satellite and a 747's worth of bandwidth, and readily available from a nearby air base, it carried Kraning and a "double deck" of disk drives.
Matt and his cohort's resourcefulness pleased their superiors, and a month after his arrival, some of his work hung on the wall of the office of the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A year after that, Kraning was named lead data scientist for DARPA in Afghanistan.
Perhaps as remarkable, the young Turks (as Kraning calls them) impressed each other. "We got the sense of 'Hmmm, when I disagree with you I realize I might be wrong, and that doesn't happen very often,'" Kraning remembers. "We said, 'We should talk more and maybe be friends.'"
So before they'd completed their military stint, four of the six of them began filling out the necessary paperwork to become defense contractors together. When they returned home, they began to write proposals, landing more than $10 million in awards in the first round, even while bidding against such established defense contractors as Boeing and Lockheed. Eventually one project in particular piqued their interest: they developed a "core internet sensing platform" that revealed a common thread among companies of vulnerabilities to Internet threats. Based on their data, Kraning and his partners began to develop a solution. In 2016, they shut down all other projects to focus exclusively on that solution as a product.
"Our data gave us a unique perspective, where we saw an emperor-has-no-clothes scenario," Kraning says of the cybersecurity approach. "It wasn't easy, but we solved a number of problems that nobody else in the world seemed to have any idea how to solve, and all of the largest companies in the world had those problems."
From their first interaction with a client, the business model was promising. "We sold a PDF report for the cost of a high-end sports car, so that's pretty nice," Kraning remembers. The partners realized they were on to something when they saw that they could sell that report multiple times.
Knowing how valuable their product was, Kraning says he and his partners resolved not to use their insights into companies' vulnerabilities as a way to get their foot in the door. For instance, with the client whose control system for its global headquarters building was online and vulnerable to a serious attack with just a few keystrokes, "we didn't say, 'pay us first, then we'll tell you where the problem is.' Instead it was: 'You have an extremely serious problem, here's all the information.'" They told the company that they hoped to work with them on other issues later, but the first step was "to fix the things where people can actually be hurt."
For that more altruistic approach—doing well by doing good—Kraning gives credit, in part, to Commonwealth's "very good ethical grounding." The resonance of his Commonwealth experience doesn't surprise Kraning. As the number of alumni/ae in Silicon Valley has increased, Kraning says he continues to be impressed by the little high school he went to in two brownstones 3,000 miles away. "The values that they instilled are still extraordinarily relevant for me," he says.
This profile was first published in the fall 2017 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.