Mentors Monday with: Thomas Jansen

#security #software #development #tech #entrepreneurship

Behind every great product there is (or should be) a strong and secure software. Our mentor Thomas Jansen is an expert when it comes to helping teams to build a great operating system. After a gig in the Silicon Valley and having worked at Apple, he now helps teams with software development and info security (you can check more about it in his website). In the following interview he shares his learnings and tips for entrepreneurs (and tells the story of how he helped one of our teams BIG time enhancing security of their platform).

1 – Could you tell us a bit about your experience at Apple? And now you focus on working as a freelancer, right? What made you decide to make this change and look for a new challenge?

I was leading the engineering organization for some of Apple’s so-called “tentpole features”, including FaceTime, AirPlay, HomeKit,, and Screen Sharing. Being part of such projects, that are used 100th of millions of times a day and that touch so many lives, has been immensely fulfilling. Working in the Silicon Valley in general felt like living in the future. Technologies that are now slowly conquering the rest of the world have been in use for years in the Bay Area. But it was on a whole different level at Apple; On my very first day, I got my iPad development unit — more than a year before anyone outside would know about it. And the last project I worked on, the HomePod, started over three years ago for me and my teams — your work has an outstanding impact this early on in a project.

However, with my second daughter on the way we decided to move back to Germany in 2015. And while I was lucky and continued to work on great projects, I started to miss the daily interactions and deep technical discussions that are hard to keep up remotely with a time difference of 9 hours. At the same time I got more involved in the local startup scene and got hooked, as I was experiencing the same style of discussions again, the same interactions, and the same level of impact on the product vision. And that’s what I do full-time now: helping others to build great software.

2 — There was a time you helped one of our startups, WePolitics, to improve security on their platform, is that right? Can you tell us a bit about this story?

Well, first of all: to me, security is one of the most overlooked software qualities in today’s world. Everyone knows the headlines; frequently leaked confidential user data, rampant malware, and even hacked elections seems to be norm. As an entrepreneur you therefore have a strong responsibility to make your software as secure as you possibly can, no matter how “minimally viable” it currently is. I know that not many people share this view, but I am certain this will change in the next few years.

As a mentor at nma, I am closely following the batches. WePolitics especially caught my eyes, because I saw big potential in a platform for civic engagement. I wanted to see Yannis and Vasilis succeed, and after talking with them about their vision I wanted to make sure that the service would provide the level of security required for such a sensitive topic. So I spent a weekend to do so-called “penetration testing” — an attempt to break (into) their website. I found several vulnerabilities that made it possible to take over WePolitics’ network infrastructure. If found by a malicious attacker, this could have been the end for platform: from simply deleting the website over holding the database content for ransom to subtly manipulate their user’s comments. When I talked with Yannis and Vasilis about my findings, they acted very professionally and did the the right thing; they stopped everything else and put in a lot of effort to harden the security of WePolitics — to the great benefit of their users.

“As an entrepreneur you therefore have a strong responsibility to make your software as secure as you possibly can, no matter how ‘minimally viable’ it currently is.”

3 – What were the main lessons you learned from being VP of Engineering?

My first gig in the Valley was as a VP of Engineering for a Stanford spin-off with brilliant real-time video streaming technology. The obvious lesson I learnt back in 2009 was that having an office full of world-class PhDs is no guarantee to succeed. I had always heard about the common wisdom in the tech industry that “people trump ideas” — others can copy your idea, but it’s much harder to duplicate talent — so I was confident that we had our bases covered. And, indeed, the VCs on Sand Hill Road focus on the founders in particular, the team in general, and how they “execute” together, while the idea is secondary at best. But the truth is, while a title from a prestigious college certainly shows your hard skills, it takes much more for a team to “execute”; determination, hard work, the ability to admit and learn from mistakes, and mutual respect. That’s why the less obvious lesson, but probably my biggest take-away from that experience, was that “people trump ideas” and more importantly that “culture trumps talent”.

4 — Have you checked the startups from our current batch? What are your impressions? Which are the ones that caught your attention?

I definitely think it’s the strongest nma batch so far, with a great mix of startups. However, I am particularly excited about 23°degrees and Breaker; they both push data-driven journalism, which I believe to be immensely important in the years to come. With the unfortunate advent of fake news, innovation around quick and reliable verification of news sources sounds like a no-brainer to me. Given my background, I’m especially interested in learning how these startups plan to stay ahead over a long period, as fake news and fake-news-detecting algorithms will almost certainly play a cat-and-mouse game in the next news cycles.

Big thanks, Thomas! More on info security, engineering: find him on Twitter.

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