At the start of Jack Koziol’s first cybersecurity job at a Chicago bank, his boss offered him a candid assessment of his future.
At the time, Koziol was the only bank employee working on cybersecurity.
“You don’t have a career in information security,” his boss said. “You better think about something else unless you just want to sit in the data center all the time.”
Last January, two decades after that conversation, Koziol announced that he was selling his Madison-based cybersecurity education company, Infosec, to global education technology company Cengage Group.
The price was $190.8 million.
“People at the bank weren’t taking the cyber threat seriously,” says Koziol, who knew better — and branched out quickly.
Koziol has been a leading authority in the field since the publication of his seminal 2004 book, “The Shellcoder’s Handbook”.
Growing up in suburban Chicago, Koziol says his parents got their first personal computer. Inspired by Matthew Broderick in the movie “War Games”, Koziol and his teenage buddies used modems and primitive “bulletin board” systems to interact on their PCs.
“There was a lot of piracy on these message boards in the 90s,” says Koziol. (He can still recite Broderick’s signature line from the film: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”)
Koziol majored in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his parents are both alumni. He credits a liberal arts education with helping him “learn to think as a young adult.”
“It enabled those critical thinking skills that are so useful, whatever your career,” he says.
While in college, Koziol spent four years working part-time in the campus Computer Aided Engineering Center, where he was exposed to various security technologies.
“It was kind of a parallel education to formal education at UW,” he says. “We actually did all the technical support for the nuclear reactor that’s on campus. Lots of interesting things.
Koziol graduated in 2000 and got the job of banker. He continued to train in cybersecurity and became proficient enough that he was asked to give occasional hack defense seminars.
One such seminar, held in Florida in 2003, was attended by a reporter from USA Today. He described Koziol as “the apple-cheeked instructor” and quoted him as saying, “It’s an intellectual competition. I want people to think like a hacker and counter them. If you don’t, the game is over.
The following year, Koziol published his book, subtitled “Discovering and exploiting security vulnerabilities”.
“A lot of people were trying to learn this stuff,” Koziol says. “It was scattered in dark corners of the internet and was not well articulated in a way that people could learn and understand.”
The book shocked its publisher by becoming a word-of-mouth bestseller (although Koziol’s contract gave him few royalties). He began to receive inquiries, including this, paraphrased, from the Microsoft office in Israel: “We are making the first Microsoft firewall. Can you come and teach us for two weeks? »
It was time to leave the bank, although almost everyone – friends, family, father of his girlfriend, Tracy – told him that leaving a solid job to start a business was a bad idea. He went ahead anyway.
“I was living in my girlfriend’s second bedroom – now my wife’s – [in the Chicago area] and ate ramen and used my savings to start the business,” Koziol says. As for the risk? “I felt like I could always go back to a 9-to-5 job if it didn’t work out.”
It worked. Early clients included the US Department of Defense and various Fortune 500 companies working in finance and insurance, including Samsung, Raytheon Technologies and JP Morgan.
“They were at the forefront of strengthening their cybersecurity defenses,” Koziol says.
He and Tracy married in 2006 – they now have three children – and settled in 2012 in Madison, where she is a family doctor.
Although Infosec has evolved – and grown tremendously – its core mission of educating businesses and organizations on how to secure their IT systems has endured.
“Last year,” Koziol explains, “we decided that the company needed additional capital to continue its growth trajectory.”
They were initially looking to raise $50-70 million from investors.
“Throughout the process, the option that best emerged for us was with Cengage through an outright acquisition,” Koziol says, adding that he and Tracy will remain in Madison. “We love the community. You get a lot of benefits in big cities without the traffic jams, traffic and that kind of stuff. »
As for his professional future, Koziol says he is open.
“I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to have a second career. Some people will never have just one career,” he says. “I have a multitude of opportunities and I’m very excited about it.”
Doug Moe is a writer from Madison and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison.” This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.
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