The Enigmatic Cyber Sleuth: Samir Datt
Team MM | Apr 02, 2018
Team Monday Morning caught up with Samir Datt, an alumnus of NIT Rourkela from the Department of Mechanical Engineering. A graduate of the 1988 batch, he is currently serving as the Director of Foundation Futuristic Technologies Private Limited, a leading cybersecurity firm in the nation. In a conversation with Team MM, he shares with us his experiences in life, his tryst with entrrprenaurship and his insights in the field of cybersecurity.
MM: Tell us something about your days before joining REC.
SD: I was fortunate to be born an Army brat. I was born in Delhi but was brought up around the country. My father was an active Infantry officer with a specialization in Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare. This led him to numerous postings in India and some in other parts of the world. For me it was fantastic exposure, but, as the saying goes “a rolling stone gathers no moss”, I studied in 14 schools in 12 years and did not really excel on the academic front. I never studied in any school more than 2 years and that for a long time (at least the first 2 years of my 4-year degree) made me fear that I would be unable to break the jinx during my Mechanical Engineering course as well. My schooling was quite varied with schools in tents imparting a down to earth education (sitting on the hard ground) followed by some very notable stints in convent schools and my longest stint of 2 years as a boarder at the Scindia School Gwalior. However, my father had a fairly stable period during the last two years of my schooling and I only changed 3 schools during my higher secondary education. By sheer luck (and perhaps a lack of students - there were only 12) I topped my school in the 12th class and got my name on the Schools Roll of honour (Kendriya Vidyalaya Ferozepur Cantt). My lucky streak (at the time) continued and I made it through to REC Rourkela and also got Mechanical Engineering - the branch of my choice. I made up for my chequered schooling by the depth of my real life experiences. “Travel broadens the mind” - is a saying that I learnt to subscribe to. By the time I joined REC I had travelled across the length and breadth of the country and had travelled abroad as well. This made me a bit of an extrovert and I had learnt to make friends easily. All in all, I would say that I was fortunate to have a privileged childhood. This was a bit of a mixed blessing as I later found out.
MM: Share with us your cherished memories during your time at the erstwhile REC Rourkela. How important do you think were the four years at REC for your career?
SD: If there is any period in my life that makes me what I am, it would be the 4 fantastic years I spent at REC. I joined the college as a kid fresh out of school. Those 4 defining years (1984-88) moulded me into what I would become. During our 2nd year, the college organised an EDP (Entrepreneurship Development Program) for us students. It was run by the Government of Orissa and attending it was optional. At a time where we had discovered the joys of bunking classes and the power of the proxy, any indication that a session was optional ensured that there was much less than optimal attendance. However, as fate would have it, I somehow happened to attend the session and it was the changing point in my life. As the speakers began to expound on what entrepreneurship entailed I began my transformation from a directionless student to someone with a passion for entrepreneurship. I came away with a direction and a focus that stood with me throughout my life. I came away with a dream. But, I did not come away with just a dream, I came away with an Engineers way of thinking (more logical and common sense based - I like to think), a first class degree in Mechanical Engineering, much greater maturity, incredible experiences and the most amazing group of friends for life. By the end of the four years, our batch was very close knit and the years have actually bonded us much stronger than ever before.
MM: You served with the TATA Motors for a brief stint of two years before you pursued your PGDip. How would you describe your tryst with the core sector?
SD: I came from a Services background and my parents were delighted that I had landed a job with the TATAs. They thought me settled for life. Tata Motors for most Mechanical engineers was ‘THE’ dream job. For me, it was another important step towards my entrepreneurial dream. I needed to understand how the real world worked and I had two years to do it in. The TATA’s had made us sign a Service bond to serve in the capacity of a Graduate Engineer Trainee for a period of two years. I threw myself into the job with gusto. I needed to know how things were manufactured. I was put on the shop floor of the Earth Mover division. For me, it was an immense learning experience. Seeing all the machines that we had studied, in action was an eye opener along with the workers in the shift was an incredible learning opportunity. Getting to see the machines in operation and then learning to operate all the different machines was perhaps an opportunity I wouldn't have had in the automotive division. The huge variety of work, the non-assembly line/ boutique kind of operation was the kind of exposure any engineer would kill for. All along the training period, my mind was ticking. I kept thinking up ideas to improve operations. Most of my suggestions were actually just shot down as impractical ideas of a fresh engineer, however that did not stop me from coming up with new ideas. A few months down the line one of the managers noticed me and for some obscure reason put me in charge of the shift. Life changed suddenly. All the operators who were my good buddies, teachers and mentors suddenly were wary of me. I had to manage their productivity, ensure the assigned work got done and remove bottlenecks. My job was also to report to my manager on a daily basis. This transition was quite a big one. Every day brought new learning experiences. The assigned responsibility developed my decision-making capabilities. I learned and grew with every crisis. Somewhere along the line, I learned to manage people. One side effect of managing a shift was that I had plenty of time on my hands. I took up Golf. My boss at the Excavator division, our AGM, Mr B K Singh arranged a Golf Coach for me. I worked hard and partied hard. I made a lot of interesting “friends”, I bought a motorbike - I was enjoying life. Just when I began to get comfortable with my job role, the management threw another googly at me. My AGM called me and said - “tu thoda padha likha lagta hai - kal se Design department me join kar lena.” I was stunned. I never thought I had the ability to design an Earthmover. However, I soon found that I could adapt and learn, something that I had to do a lot of in my life as an entrepreneur. I was part of the three engineer design team that designed the Tata Front End loader, something I still look back to with a lot of pride and satisfaction.
MM: What prompted your decision to pursue a PGDip in International business? How would you describe the role of the diploma in shaping your career?
SD: I was settling down into a comfort zone at Jamshedpur and I realised that if I did not kick myself out of this, I would have to give up my dream of being an Entrepreneur. I realised that to grow I had to move out. Unlike most people who were looking for a career jump, my decision to pursue my PGDip was in sync with my entrepreneurship plans. At this point, I decided that I was ready to begin my journey into entrepreneurship. However, my parents were dead against it. They thought me well settled and did not support me in my plans to quit my job and move to Delhi (where they were). To be able to move to Delhi, I had just 2 viable options, get a job in Delhi or get admission into an MBA course in Delhi. Both these options were acceptable to my parents. However the job offers I was getting were a big come down from TELCO, so I decided to go for the second option. I applied to FMS and IIFT and was fortunate (worked really hard too) to get admission to both. I chose IIFT because they had an option at that time, to complete the PG Diploma in 1 year if the applicant had at least 2 years of work experience. I did not feel like wasting an additional year on my entrepreneurial journey.
MM: Considering the fact that the IT sector was in its infancy during the early 90s’, what shifted your perception to pursue a career in the cyber security sector?
SD: Post my PG Diploma at IIFT, I decided to get a bit of work experience in this new line. I was offered a job in a UK based startup that saw me getting involved in a takeover and turnaround of a failed UK based mountain bike company, Muddy Fox Limited. While there, I was fortunate to be exposed to the cutting edge of Information Technology and I began to realise that the future lay in this direction. Along this time I got married and my wife and I moved to the UK while working for Muddy Fox. However, I still had the dream and once again I decided to move out of my comfort zone and finally take the plunge. I decided to return home to India and started my very first company - The Foundation, at the end of 1993 - early 1994. This was an early stage BPO and we had a single client. There were no venture capitalists around at the time. Banks were also uncomfortable dealing with borrowers who had intangible businesses. All the money I had earned and saved while in the UK went into this business. While our quality was the best our output was not enough to keep pace with the demand. We went up to 14 employees but could not expand beyond that due to capital constraints. Our principals needed a lot more output because they had recently secured a very large contract and we were too small to scale up. They pressurised us a lot to scale up but we did not have the funds to cope with the expansion. Since they had no choice our principals opened operations in India and set up their own 500 seater facility in Okhla to cope with the demand. Suddenly we had no business as they decided to shift all business to their in-house captive unit. We learned Entrepreneurship lesson 101 - “Don’t bank on a single customer”! It was a hard lesson. All my hard earned money went down the drain. We had to do a mid-course pivot or perish. Based on my stint in the UK as well as my exposure to the internet and different connectivity related technologies, we decided to offer people internet connectivity services. We tied up with the Business India group as well as VSNL to offer internet connectivity. Internet was in its infancy at the time and we had to offer end to end solutions, right from computers to modems and internet accounts. This led to corporate contracts, networking assignments and before we realised it we were a full-fledged hardware and networking company. We developed a lot of technical skills and earned a lot of goodwill in the market. Somewhere along the line, we had a client whose expat MD lost all the data on his laptop. The client approached us and requested our help in recovering the data. With a night spent experimenting with a hex editor, I was successful in recovering the data from his laptop. The customer was thrilled and he paid us a handsome sum for the recovery. For us, it was an eye-opener. The margins we were making as a hardware and networking company were minuscule compared to the kind we could make recovering data. That was the point when we realised the importance and value of data far exceeded the media or devices it was stored upon. We launched DataRecoveryIndia.com and brought data recovery services to corporate India. At this time we converted to a private limited company and Foundation Futuristic Technologies Private Limited was born.
MM: How did Foundation Futuristic Technologies happen? Having been associated with the organisation for the past 24 years, how would you describe your experience in the past two decades?
SD: Foundation Futuristic Technologies (or FFT for short ) has been an intense and interesting journey. We have had our ups and downs, great triumphs and disheartening failures and now when I look back, I see that we have indeed come a long way. We all work hard in our respective jobs, but being an entrepreneur makes you work hard in all kinds of jobs. In the last 24 years, I have worn multiple hats. In fact, the saying about Entrepreneurship is that; when you start out - you are everything from the CPO to the CEO i.e the Chief Peon Officer to the Chief Executive Officer. You cannot be a “Burra Babu” just by the virtue of being an Engineer. We have to change our mindset to that of deciding to be successful and then doing whatever it takes to be successful.
The last two decades have been extremely interesting. Switching from a technology hat to a sales hat has been the toughest transition. In our times' sales was considered an “inferior” job vis-a-vis working in hardcore engineering. However, I learned pretty quickly that in a market-driven environment, sales was a much more demanding job. I developed a very healthy respect for the sales function. No Sales meant No Business. I had to change from being an introvert to a person who could bring in the business. Being an Engineer gave me a logical bent of mind and as an Engineer who understood technology, it was relatively easier for me to sell.
As our company grew and we added more people, the next biggest issue was learning to delegate. As an entrepreneur when we are starting out, the CPO to CEO role becomes second nature and then as growth kicks in we have to unlearn the multitasking and learn to delegate. Again this is tough to do since there is no one who can do a better job than you can, your overwhelming need is to do it yourself. It is difficult to let go. Scaling up by adding systems and processes is the next big challenge. Indeed this is what separates the men from the boys. We passed through all these phases and achieved numerous milestones along the way such as winning the KRDWG Award for Innovation at IIT Delhi, being selected as one of the NASSCOM Emerge 50 companies and being voted as one of the top 5 Digital Forensic Companies in India.
MM: For a non-professional, how would you lay out the various facets of cyber forensics? Kindly elucidate with regards to the services provided by Foundation Futuristic Technologies.
SD: Digital Forensics is a fascinating field. It brings out the latent Sherlock Holmes in a person. The ability to follow a digital trail across digital devices such as computers, phones, GPS devices, fitness bands, networks etc is the essence of digital forensics. It is essentially the science of identifying, securing, examining and reporting evidence on digital media in a manner acceptable in a Court of Law.
At ForensicsGuru, we have 3 different verticals.
- Products: We work at providing ‘Solutions for a safer planet‘. We import and distribute specialized computer forensic products. Lately, we have implemented a Make in India program, whereby we make products in India which we are now beginning to take to the world. Our customers include Police forces, government agencies as well as large corporations including the big 4, IBM, Oracle, Infosys, Cognizant, Citibank etc etc
- Consulting: We have a dedicated consulting division that offers specialized investigation services for corporations.
- Training: We have a tie-up with the NSIC to offer training programs on Cyber Security and Cyber Forensics. These are conducted on a regular basis. We are also authorized training partners to Guidance Software (the worlds largest computer forensics company) for all of South Asia.
MM: Having worked with multiple law enforcement agencies, how prepared would you say is the current cybersecurity infrastructure to tackle cyber threats of serious nature? (be it regards to cyber terrorism, cyber thefts or privacy invasion)
SD: In the early 2000 ‘s we would go to various law enforcement agencies to evangelise digital forensics. Our potential customers did not have a clue as to what Digital Forensics was all about. In fact, they would often confuse forensic with arsenic or if there was someone particularly knowledgeable, they would lead with questions such as ‘Where is the dead body’?
Those were interesting times. I slowly began to be invited to talk on various topics related to cybercrime. I became a regular visiting faculty at the National Police Academy, Hyderabad (many batches of IPS officers have attended my lectures), the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Sciences, the CBI Academy and a host of other Police Training Colleges around the country. Things have changed a lot since those early days. The awareness levels have increased and there are a lot of knowledgeable officers who understand the cyber dimension. That said there is still a big gap in the understanding of the Cyber threats to the nation. The Government is slowly realizing that the next big war will be fought in the cyber world. Today we see just about every criminal or anti-national character using technology to the hilt. Our ability to identify, detect, predict and prevent activity from and in the cyber dimension will determine the state of our nation's security. Our cybersecurity infrastructure has a long way to go. In my role as the Chairman of the Cyber Security Council of the IAMAI, I was part of a recent delegation to Estonia and Finland. These nations are at the forefront of cybersecurity preparedness on a national level. It was an eye-opener for all of us delegates to see the extent of their awareness and orientation in the cybersecurity arena. Compared to advanced countries we have a very long way to go. However, it is now becoming a national priority as can be seen by the extent of media coverage as well as the interest shown by the government. I am confident that India will emerge as a cyber power to reckon with in the years to come.
MM: Kindly shed some light on your novice venture of Mobile Phone Call Data Analytics and its potential implications.
SD: My quest for the best technologies gave me the opportunity to visit many different countries in the world. At ForensicsGuru our passion for bringing the best technologies to India made us explore and experiment with whatever cutting-edge technology the world had on offer. One such area was that related to Call Data Analysis. We had imported a number of the worlds leading tools to tackle this need. Based on the widespread global adoption of these tools we were quite confident that they would be able to address the needs of Indian Law Enforcement agencies. We were in for a rude awakening. India with a population of 1.2 billion people, 900 million cell phone users and the cost of making a call as low as 1/100th of a cent per second (now free) had the kind of data volumes that none of these international tools could cope with. In the early 2000’s, there were a spate of serial blasts across the country. As our company was the supplier of the imported call analysis software, we were called by police departments across the country to help them with the mammoth call analysis task. Each location had tens of crores of calls made and received at the crime scene and we were required to assist with analyzing this huge volume of data (the term, Big Data hadn’t been coined by then) to identify suspects. Our team of analysts were deputed across the country at most of the locations. Work began around the clock, but we immediately ran into problems. All the imported software choked and crashed. Things were at a crucial juncture. We called the OEM. After a lot of research and experimentation at their end and ours, they declared they had never seen a problem, (or data) of that magnitude and did not have a solution for this. Unfortunately, we did not have an option to back out from solving this problem. It was a matter of National Security and a number of police departments across the country were depending on us. The realisation that the buck stops with us sunk in quickly. We roped in a few friendly software programmers and began to develop some utilities that could help us with at least part of the task. We worked continuously day and night for a couple of weeks but by the end of it, we had a workable solution which helped us identify the suspects. This research and utility development work laid the foundation of our Call Data Analysis product CDAMS, that is the current Gold Standard in the CDR Analytics Industry globally. CDAMS is currently in use with most of the central and state Law Enforcement Agencies and has also been exported abroad. Using its advanced big data analytics capabilities, CDAMS helps Law Enforcement agencies find needles in a billion haystacks. The state of the art algorithms help locate the bad guys, identify their associates and profile their behaviour. It is our small contribution to making the world a safer place.
MM: How recently did you visit NIT Rourkela and what did you feel about your visit?
SD: Our batch celebrated our Silver Jubilee in the December of 2013. The vast majority of us converged on the campus for this nostalgic visit. It was such an energizing experience.
MM: What has been the extent of your association with NITRAA? How important do you think are alumni relations for an institute like NIT Rourkela?
SD: I have been associated with our Alumni association since my Jamshedpur days. A small group of us from REC Rourkela looked up all our seniors and organized a get-together. It was such a great feeling. When I was in Delhi, I was part of the early days organizing committee of NITRAA. However, my work and travel commitments kept me away from any executive role. This year NITRAA Delhi is hosting the Global Alumni meet and I am a part of the organising team. We expect a great turnout and I would like to invite all alumni to be a part of this exciting event. It will be a great opportunity to meet, reminisce, network and generally have a rollicking time.
MM: Kindly comment on the current scenario of student alumni relations at NITR. How do you think the current scenario can be improved?
SD: In my personal opinion, there needs to be a better connect between NITR and its alumni. Objectives need to be better defined and all aspects of the relationship need to be looked at. Just like addressing any corporate problem, the first step should be to identify the stakeholders and their motivations. Once this is done I am sure we will be able to address these issues to create a vibrant community that is engaged with each other in a positive and proactive way. Indeed the NITRAA Global meets are a step in the right direction.
MM: You have been in a leadership capacity for almost the past two decades. How did you handle the pressure and the disappointments? What are some of the things that you had to learn along the way?
SD: We have all heard of the adage ‘Tough times never last, only Tough people do’. This sums up the role of a leader. There are ups and there are downs, there is Sunshine and there is rain. Throughout it all, you have to remain calm and stay focused. My personal journey was tumultuous and there were many times when I was disheartened. We struggled continually for 12 years before we began to get any kind of traction. My wife has been my rock. She has always supported me through thick and thin. One of my biggest learnings has been the realization that pressures and disappointments will not go away. They are old friends that will always accompany you on your journey. Just as I embrace the good times and the happiness, I must embrace my old friends of pressures and disappointments, enjoy with them if I can and learn from them when I can.
MM: How do you keep your spirits high amidst professional pressure and hectic schedule? Any long drawn out hobbies that you still indulge yourself in?
SD: I am a dog person. I am involved in rescuing Indian dogs and trying to give them a good life. Indies as we call them are real Darwin's children. A result of his ‘survival of the fittest’ theory, they have robust health, incredible intelligence and a sense of great affection, loyalty and gratefulness towards any human who shows them even the smallest of kindnesses. I have four very handsome and loving Indies at home. I find the best way to de-stress is some puppy therapy. These dogs are overwhelmingly affectionate and immediately make you forget all your worries and your cares. All they need are the ‘bare necessities ‘ and they have such a sense of goodness and innate happiness that it is impossible not to feel uplifted in their company. I am also an avid fantasy, sci-fi and historical fiction buff. That is perhaps what accounts for my Futuristic bent of mind. I dream of writing a sci-fi book going forward. Surprisingly I am actually a published author (reasonably successful having made a few thousands of dollars in royalty), unfortunately, the book was on Learning Network Forensics and not on Science Fiction. However, the dream lives on and I hope to be able to write one sometime soon.
MM: What does it take to be Samir Datt? What would be your message to young NITians, who look up to you?
Why be ‘Samir Datt’, when you can be you.
My message to young NITians would be -
- Be yourself
- Believe in yourself but don't get too full of yourself.
- Step forward to take responsibility. Help others.
- Always learn in every situation (including failures)
- Take calculated risks
- And never give up.
and always remember -
Tough Times never last, Tough people do.