Robin Sommer is the CTO and co-founder of Corelight,
a San Francisco-based cyber security startup offering powerful network visibility solutions. He is also a Senior Researcher at Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute, where he leads the team developing the open-source Bro network security monitor. He is also an affiliated researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he works with the Lab’s cyber security team. Robin Sommer holds a doctorate degree from TU München, Germany.
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We asked Robin a few questions about his work and experience in Germany:
- What sparked your interest in network and cyber security? Security has always fascinated me as an area that combines theory and practice in a pretty unique way. On the theory side, a lot of mathematical machinery exists to secure today’s digital world. In practice, however, all the guarantees of that machinery are moot if we cannot ensure some basic properties of the systems running the code; if me clicking on a malicious email attachment compromises my computer, the best cryptography won’t help. Interestingly, while I originally envisioned myself working on the formal side of security, I ended up on the very applied end of the spectrum instead.
- What are you currently working on?
My main focus currently is our startup. Colleagues and I started the company as a vehicle for supporting enterprise users of network security software that our ICSI group has developed. The software is open-source, and the underlying research was funded quite extensively by the U.S. National Science Foundation. While the system has been popular within the science and education community for a while, we started seeing increasing demand from the corporate world as well. That’s an audience that we were ill-prepared to address within our academic setting, so we shifted gears into startup mode.
- What was the most challenging experience in co-founding your own company?
Coming out of research, running your own company is just a completely different world—especially in Silicon Valley. By far the main challenge was finding the right people to join the ride who would complement the founding team in skill set and experience. While we had the technical side more or less under control, we quickly learned that a successful company needs much more than that. It took us some iteration, but by now we have grown a great team that’s positioned well to move forward.
- What was the most 'German' experience you have had?
It seems it’s usually the Germans who want to walk from A to B—rather than drive, take a cab, or don’t go at all. When I once suggested to walk over to a dinner place after a long day of presentations in a window-less hotel ballroom (“It’s just like half an hour”), the response was: “You Germans always want to walk!”
- What advice would you give to students who are thinking of choosing your field of study?
My main advice would be to stay connected to the real world. With so much happening online these days, a security researcher can have a profound impact beyond academia, both positively and negatively. When working on papers, it’s an easy pitfall to loose sight of two basic questions: First, does it matter? Second, does it help? I believe that at the end of the day, security research should be judged by whether it helps somebody in their daily lives.
- What advice would you give to North American students who are thinking of studying abroad in Germany?
Going abroad is a very unique experience. You quickly realize that many things you took for granted actually just represent one possible version of life. People do things differently elsewhere, but just as well; and they often take their version for granted! Germany is a great destination for students in particular, its universities are excellent and have become very accommodating to international visitors. There’s a lot to see and explore in the country, and if you pick up some basics of the language you’ll enjoy getting around even more.
- Which pictures, plants or unusual objects are there in your office?
Our company has recently moved, and the new space is still a bit bare; working on that. At a former office, my German co-worker attached a little Bavarian flag to our nameplates, and people started calling it the German embassy.
- Can you cook a German dish without a recipe? If so, which one? I’m still following my German breakfast routine on most mornings—bread, butter, cheese, cold cuts, that kind of stuff. Fortunately, there’s an excellent bakery just a couple blocks down the street from our home that actually makes great “Kaiser rolls” (the real thing: Semmeln!). I also have made Leberkäse from scratch a few times, but I certainly need a recipe for that.
- Who has inspired you the most in your career and why?
What probably had the most profound impact on my take on security research is working closely with practitioners, i.e., the people defending their sites against attacks large and small on a daily basis. Collaborating with network operators and incident responders has created invaluable feedback loops providing both stimulation and grounding for the research.
Semmeln: German bread roll
Leberkäse: German meat loaf
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