avast! Virus Lab… I once went to their floor accidentally, thinking it was my floor – it was dark and scary, and so I quickly turned and ran out. These folks are like mad scientists, practicing alchemy in white laboratory coats that are stained with hard-drive smoke and smell of burnt ones & zeros. They’re mostly nocturnal – like cyborgian vampires – and yet they’re always awake, online and available for ‘chat’ or email, even in daylight.
Or at least that’s partly the stereotype I had when I started at AVAST. After meeting and talking with a few "virus guys" at a company party, I realized they’re like every other department here… but just a little more reclusive… and thus maybe a 'typical' IT crowd. See here for yourself, as this interview is with a guy whose blog posts get a lot of traffic (even though someone of my IT ‘capabilities’ rarely understands anything he writes about). –Jason Mashak
1. You started at AVAST about 6 years ago, while still attending university – what was it like already working for a top antivirus provider while still a student?
I was a young chemistry student (which seems removed from IT, but even AVAST co-founder Pavel Baudis studied the same subject, at the same university :)) with no previous job experience or references. Most of the aspects of IT (including reverse engineering, programming in various languages, cryptography, etc.) were my hobby, and thus it was no problem to work for ALWIL [former name of AVAST Software, until 2010]. I had no clue what the business was about – it took me roughly a year to fully understand how a two-person project could become a successful company, and now I’m really proud that I can be a part of this miracle, and I have a strong personal respect for the values that we have achieved. Working for ALWIL was, from the beginning, satisfying enough to feel more like a mission than a job.
2. How would you describe what goes on in the Virus Lab during a typical day?
Actually, there is no ‘typical’ day, really. Every day is a new competition – we want to constantly prove that we’re smarter than malware authors and better than the other antivirus products. This type of work is full of challenging tasks, and there’s room for a large amount of creativity. There are certain rules (e.g., at least two virus database updates per day), but you never know when a new sophisticated threat can arrive and change that day’s plans.
The only constant might be that we typically have music playing in the background. It helps us to keep a positive state of mind and to simply help make a little noise in the office. You know, we don’t talk too much while we’re committed to saving the world. :) When others go to a pub to increase their social skills, we’re sitting in a dark room with good connectivity and lots of Coke bottles (that’s why the entire Virus Lab has such a weak resistance to alcohol :)).
3. The avast! community provides, via avast! CommunityIQ, a lot of virus samples for our lab – how essential are these samples as an early-warning system for all avast! users?
Our large community is our power, without any doubt. It provides us with a very fresh sample feed from the real-world environment, which is an important factor. And it’s not only about suspicious binary samples. Users want to browse the internet every day and be safe. CommunityIQ helps us also with discovering of malicious/hacked domains and their subsequent blocking, that’s another layer of protection that widely uses submissions from our users. Each particle of the big ecosystem can play a role in protecting the whole mosaic against recent threats.
4. Would you say that it’s a Czech cultural mentality or something more like ‘magic’ that has made AVAST a global leader in only 20 years?
As I mentioned above, it’s a kind of miracle. The former political system didn’t allow one to effectively build a business, and first few years on the way to a proper European democracy and capitalist model have sometimes been called “the wild east.” Fortunately, there were people with a lot of enthusiasm (and necessary knowledge/skills, of course) and they took the chance. Talking about Czech mentality… we’re sometimes compared to the Good Soldier Svejk and, to be honest, lots of people fit the mold. But that’s fortunately not the case at our company. People that I know here are always trying to give more effort (e.g., working during weekends and public holidays), to give something more. So, it is probably not a Czech mentality that makes us successful but rather our philosophy – make a good product, give it to users for free, and community will help with the rest – and we’re probably the most recommended antivirus between friends, which is nice, and probably far more effective than zillions spent on advertising.
5. How would you describe your ideal day away from the office?
Recently, being anywhere where there is no pollen. :D
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