Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS)



Chris Howard, Top Global Engineer Entrepreneur Passionate About Transforming the World

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Chris Howard.

Chris HowardChristopher Howard is an entrepreneur passionate about transforming how people interact with distributed systems. He is the CEO and co-founder of Kersplody, a start-up that solves many of the integration challenges involved with cyber security and big data deployments. At his previous position at Lockheed Martin, Mr. Howard developed software and solutions for numerous intelligence, civil, and defense projects including those involving big data, MULTI-INT sensor data fusion, Cyber Security, and Net Centric Warfare.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:18: Chris, you have so many outstanding contributions with Lockheed and now with your own ventures. Thank you for sharing your considerable expertise, deep accumulated insights and wisdom with our audience. Please describe your journey from a young age, milestones in that journey and some lessons learned.
"..... Some of my first memories involve me taking toys apart, trying to figure out how everything worked and then almost getting things together....but always having some remaining parts....I was always into math, science and engineering and really neat things. I got my first computer experience when I was about 5 years old, programming what I believe was on a Sinclair system. I was fortunate to be in a place where I had a lot of early opportunities to get involved with technology.....Another big part of growth that allowed me to gain a lot of perspective and wisdom very early on was being part of one of the best Boy Scout programs in the Pacific Northwest. It was an environment that was youth directed and lightly supervised, so we had a group of people that very quickly had to learn leadership skills and direct a very entertaining program that everyone was able to be a part of. Because of this environment the older Scouts always mentored the younger Scouts, and there was always energy and new ideas being interjected into the process which made it so everyone really added value to the overall experience of the team. My expertise ended up being orienteering and I helped both teach and lead my troops to multiple victories in orienteering challenges. As well as teaching responsibility to the team, you had to have the mentality that no person got left behind and everyone in the group got to participate even if they weren't as strong or as smart, so you could get some team cohesiveness. Out of that you ended up getting some of the best leadership skills you could have gotten....Middle school and high school I was also very deep into our Jazz band program. We were learning music skills, but the more important thing was we were learning by association what is sometimes called the Jazz Fusion process, where you are part of a group and there were rules that you have to follow but everyone is a allowed to improvise on top of the basic structure (and even that basic structure can be modified as long as everyone follows the rules). By doing that, magical things happen and you are able to make incredible music out of something that on its face would appear like complete chaos....Towards the end of high school, I got my first job right at the end of the first tech bubble as an IT intern at an Oregonian newspaper, this gave me a very unique and early perspective on business.....I earned my degree at the University of Colorado, and while doing that I participated in the Space Grant program helping to put together the Three Corner Satellite (and a couple of other satellites for the school program). It was a very interesting introduction into science and mathematics. I then did an internship at NASA at the Dryden Flight Research Center and there were a lot of really cool projects that were going on there at the time so it was an excellent learning opportunity....I interviewed and got hired at Lockheed Martin. It was timed really well when they were doing mass growth of their teams and I got hired for a program that was cancelled a month after I was on board. I then switched over to the Space Radar program as a MULTI-INT engineer and was part of a team that was in charge of taking data from multiple satellite systems, ground systems and aircraft systems and putting that information together in a way that would make sense to someone consuming the information. That was an awesome introduction to the world of large scale, complex, chaotic data and many of the challenges that we faced back then actually have not been solved by the big data processes of today....I then went into doing graphical modeling for satellites. I eventually transitioned and got involved with big data in the company and ended up leading the big data team for a Shark Tank® team....That takes me very close to where I am today, where I got the opportunity to take an idea and run with it and I am now in the process of trying to take some very advanced concepts in big data and put it all together in a way that really has the opportunity to change the world....Last is figuring out the best way to push the policy to make things faster, better and cheaper while being careful never to push things that will annoy the customer or break laws or contracts. In addition, it's knowing exactly where that line is because there are always opportunities to make things better and to push the system to accept change. It is also quickly learning to figure out when change is and isn't possible and figuring it out through all the complex politics. Technology is easy, but its process and getting acceptance of new ideas is hard...."

:20:18: You are an authority in big data, MULTI-INT sensor data fusion, Cyber Security, and Net Centric Warfare. What are the top trends? What can enterprises do?
"....Fast data is the emerging concept that is the next step beyond big data, and the best way to describe it is that you need to not only be able to work with terabytes, gigabytes or exabytes of data, but you also have to make decisions on that data really quickly as the data is coming in. This is compounded with the challenge that the things that are producing the data are producing it in exponentially increasing amounts so this has had to do with the explosion....It's really a different type of big data processing that we are dealing with right now, where instead of building your machine model in a central environment, testing it, then pushing it into the live environment, you almost want to get to the point where the analysts are actually working with the real live data as it's streaming in. You need to have all the tools and capabilities in place so that analysts are able to react to it almost immediately. So the faster you can make the business decisions, the more advantage you are going to have as a business....Businesses should start to think of things in terms of intelligent analysis. Intelligence is your business intelligence data, sales data, competitors, the weather; it's whatever relevant information associated with your business and your value stream and how you understand how that is translated into some sort of business operation. When you are starting to pull in all this data in real time and filtering it and trying to make sense of it, you really have to adopt practices that start to look an awful lot like Multi-INT fusion. Huge opportunities for the technology transfers and for companies that get there rapidly to get ahead of information processing processes - far beyond what some of the leading governments are doing right now....Computers are now your cellphones, IOC devices and come with humongous security challenges. There's always a huge trade-off between security and worker efficiency and trying to figure out that right balance is crucial in this business space. You associate that with the challenge that you have no edge to your network anymore because of all these new cloud devices and things are coming in, so there's a humongous gap between the intrusion and the security systems that exist today....Associated with that security challenge is a medium to encrypt everything as a standard. Right now encryption is the only protection method that we are aware of that properly protects data. Careful key management and encryption and separating the data across local networks is the only real approach that companies have to continue to keep data reasonably safe (or in the hands of as few people as possible). It's really challenging because it's the ultimate dual use technology encryption makes your business considerably safer and more effective in managing control of who gets data for what reason and what times, and at the same time the same encryption can enable bad people to do bad things, so how do you properly deal with that balance between those two extremes, especially when you are dealing with legal and regulatory environments....Lastly, you have the challenge of the internet being everywhere. That completely changes the way you collect data, the way you deal with security, the way you interact with and have to manage your data stream...."

:37:31: What are the top resources that help you in your work?
"....One of the most useful resources I've come across is the combination of specific websites. In particular Reddit and Ars Technica are probably the two websites I find the most useful just because of the community, people who are involved with it and the quality of the content is generally fantastic....There are a number of really high quality podcasts out there that are good for getting a large number of perspectives on a number of different topics and I'm able to get perspectives that I normally would not come across in my daily life, especially when it comes to complex technologies and social issues that may need to have some bridge or divide....Another great resource are Meetups. If you are in a large city area, (and several others) is great to figure places to actually meet professionals in a number of different areas. In my area (which is the Denver area) some of my bigger meetups right now are the Denver Tech RIoT meetings (which is an emerging innovative things community that is growing out here); The New Tech group (which is a large group of entrepreneurs) and The Big Data group (that is really good for understanding the large data context and the activities that are going on in the big data and science communities). There are also a number of associated groups that are more closely related to universities and other organizations. I've got a lot of good resources from the Data Science Association in the Denver area. They are interesting and also very concerned about the sociological implications of big data and what it means for society, and then combining that with data research because there's a whole host of really interesting data science and challenges associated with that....Google is always a good resource because you can find everything, and when you know how to use Google (especially Google's advanced search), you can do an incredible job of finding information quickly. You just have to be very careful with Google filtering the results....As far as the technical side of things, great resources I've had are AWS being able to quickly spin a cloud environment to run an experiment relatively inexpensively; being able to hack things together very quickly with Python; a lot of good luck combining that with things like Docker, Virtual Machine (and a few other things) to be able to very quickly take an experiment from my personal PC and throw it out to a hundred worker machines out there on the cloud to run on a much larger datacenter....The number one resource is personal fitness; and just getting outside and letting my brain integrate problems. Most of the fitness things I do are where I can go out without a cellphone or distractions and just sit back and think - it's amazing the ideas and clarity you can get...."

:45:37: What are the top opportunities that are out there and why do you believe that they are great opportunities?
"....Right now probably the top opportunity is cyber-security. We can see that because there's lots of churn in the industry and newcomers seem to have significant advantage over the established players in this space, and this is really because the traditional model of how we approach cyber-security is completely falling apart....It's a very interesting area for rapid growth and innovation for the next couple of years....The cloud is moving to the edge of the networks, as opposed to the cloud sitting at the center of the network. And that's more or less going to be forced because you do not have the bandwidth necessary to get the data that you want to access and interact with to a central cloud to do traditional data science activities with it, so all the tools, technologies and capabilities necessary to handle that transition from the centralized network to the distributed network is really going to take a front seat in innovation. I suspect that's probably going to get really hot around early 2017, however there's going to be a lot of interesting early experimentation in the immediate future. Associated with that is the command and control networks necessary to be able to manage and understand and do data science on real time streaming data as opposed to centralized data at rest....Huge opportunities in the space right now have to do with how you deal with the next generation of workforce, now that traditional employment is starting to very quickly evaporate in a large number of areas of the economy. We are moving to the point where companies are having just-in-time labor, where you have a business and you treat everything as micro-projects with temporary hired labor, as opposed to using internal company resources sitting on the shelf. I can see that trend accelerating with the millennial generation, who have been forced to deal with challenging the labor situation across many of the very different disciplines, where they are contractors by default but where contractors are the norm not the exception....In addition, now we have all these great digital resources that are out there like Wikipedia, OpenCourseWare, and the many micro academies. There are numerous things like this run by accelerator organizations where the most useful skills that people can learn are either being self-taught or being taught in micro academies as opposed to traditional university settings. Now you can get full access to courses online and all the materials related to those courses. The traditional university model is quickly becoming slightly obsolete, with the exception of the opportunities to make the personal connections and having access to some of the complex labs. It's getting to the point where everybody right now on earth has access to almost the same resources, and resources and that combined with the opportunities to do short-targeted programs (as opposed to full university programs) significantly reduces the cost of getting a top-tier education...."

:52:48: You are known for innovation. What kinds of innovations interest you?
"....I'm really excited about the new Space race - that it's finally possible to get private enterprise competing or exceeding the case abilities of nation states....We finally have the right tools and capabilities in place and I'm happy that this technology can now be pushed by private investors supported by the government, instead of the government leading the charge and having private contractors support that model. It's nice to have some real innovation with real innovators who don't have the standards of congressional or legal restrictions that are put on them and to be able to go out and just push as hard as possible....The other area that I'm very interested in has to do with some of the incredible improvements that are going on in the world of genomics....All technologies are dual use, but genomics and next generation biological engineering is absolutely fascinating to me and I encourage anyone to keep abreast of many of the innovations that are coming out on a daily basis in that space...."

:58:00: You are a top global engineer and it gives you an interesting perspective as you look around the world. Based upon your expertise, no matter what the domain, can you expand your view as what you see as the top trends coming up in the world today?
"....The biggest thing that seems to be affecting everything right now is the idea that privacy is disappearing (if not gone) in the digital world....At the same time data isolation is going to continue to become a real issue because with this increased amount of information and the lack of privacy, it makes it that much easier for people who by default like to see things they agree with or that they have close relationships with, and with this information and big data they have the ability to isolate themselves without realizing they are being isolated. The prediction is that data isolation is going to become critically interesting and it's already starting to show up, especially when you look at left wing Democrats and the far right Republicans, they don't even share any common news sources anymore. They are completely separate data streams and that trend is just going to expand out more throughout the country....Advertising is going to continue to get more invasive across all spaces especially when beaconing becomes the default especially when it comes to the apps. It's not only tracking companies that are utilizing that data, governments are probably going to be looking at that data. Are people okay with that?....We're getting to the point where it's possible to automate almost everything from office work to paperwork to legal applications and that's really going to completely change the way that labor needs to structure to maximize corporate profits. We've already seen a lot of this in the factory domain where it used to take a thousand people to run a factory and now you can do the same thing with two people. So how do you deal with these kinds of things?...."

:01:03:33: Talk about your top ideas around building prototypes in promising new areas?
"....I have talked a lot about big data and moving cloud to the edge and that's really where my focus is right now. That is where I think there are the largest and most fascinating opportunities to be able to get the information that you need to make significantly better decisions with pretty much everything going to a sensor-driven economy. Closely associated to that is the idea that data is being generated everywhere and very little is being captured and utilized today. We will always have more data than we can store and the gap between these is always increasing. How do we extract the right information from the right place at the right time?....How do you take the data-driven economy and take it to the next level by changing the decisioning timelines from hours to days and change it from milliseconds to seconds and what you can do with those types of improvements? There's a lot of interesting ideas and prototypes surrounding that, and the company I founded recently called Kersplody was created to start to experiment and look at challenges in the specific space...."

:01:14:00: Your work is unique globally. Have you applied for patents?
"....Yes we have and we have patent-pending technology in the space that I just described....The patent more or less covers some of the optimization techniques that are required to deal with the competition, bandwidth and other resources when you deal with these highly diverse environments...."

:01:15:19: We have many seasoned developers in the audience, please provide your top software engineering and developer tips?
"....It really comes down to doing proper system engineering right now for all your software development....Understanding the context to your code as well as the cost to your code may slow down your ability to write raw code, but allows that code to be relevant for a longer period of time and generally be higher quality. That comes down to several very different specific points. Define what's good enough and where that good enough point is so that you always know when to stop optimizing or stop coding and work on other projects that are associated with it....The other thing that's key to software development is you can de-complexify and write the best code you can with as few number of interfaces as possible, because the more interfaces and configuration points you have, the more complex your software product ends up being. It requires a lot of discipline and discussions with everyone involved in the software development project (not just the software developer) to create the design that enables reduction of interfaces and complexities so you are able to get to the simplest product possible and much more quickly to arrive upon an optimal solution....Associated with that is even when you are doing ridiculously complex operations you can still have intuitive interface. Focusing on that and getting to the point where a brand new user can utilize the app almost as effectively as an expert user is really the gold standard of where things need to be....The user is always right. If users can't use your product it's not the users fault, it's probably your fault and you can probably do something better about it...."

:01:20:04: Can you share some stories of "impossible" challenges and how you were able to master them?
"....The largest challenges I've ever come across have been more social or political not necessarily even technological. On the technology side unless it violates a lot of physics nothing is really impossible. Some things are really hard but there's usually a path that can get you to where you need to get to and unless you need a fundamental breakthrough and it might take a little bit or significantly longer. I think the most challenging thing I've ever done was to invent a job position at Lockheed Martin without any management intervention and then to fill that role...."

:01:25:11: I know that you are involved in a lot of physical activities as well and you've gained a lot of insight and it's a big part of your life. What important lessons can you summarize from all of this discussion of what you just talked about in the last question?
"....Pushing the limits without actually exceeding those limits and getting yourself into a real dangerous situation is a really challenging balancing point, and that's probably the most important lesson that I'm continuously learning even today with the new domains that I'm getting involved in....It's always acceptable to change your mind as long as you get to where you need to get to in the end. In many cases it doesn't help to sit there and analyze. It always helps to run forward and collect data to push forward to the second decision, but not be so committed to it that you can't go back and reverse direction quickly and move to something else. Even when you make the wrong decision, as long as you are collecting data you are better off than where you started even if you made no decision in the first place....It's really just figuring out how to push your limits without directly comparing yourself with others, only being sure that you are always self-improving....Disruption always has unintended side effects, even when you are making things faster, better, cheaper with less risk. Oftentimes there is collateral damage you never thought of ahead of time, involving the people that got obsoleted by these improved processes and improved things. People like job security and the predictable and often will fight you and even management will fight you even if you are making things sometimes twice as good. Because innovation causes disruption and disruption impacts the current state of doing things. Managing that appropriately is very important otherwise you'll make enemies that can potentially prevent you from doing any innovation in the future. It's a really careful balancing act and that kind of disruptive activity impacts any existing business....."

:01:33:35: Do you feel computing should be a recognized profession on par with accounting, medicine and law with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, personal responsibility, public accountability, quality assurance and recognized credentials? [See and the Global Industry Council,]
"....I think it depends on where you are looking and then depending on the types of systems that you are looking at - different things are appropriate for different areas. I think that for safety-critical systems, it's probably a good idea to have some sort of formalized process for certification in place so that responsibility can be taken, and most importantly, being able to get the bottom cover necessary so that there is a productive whistle-blowing element if management is trying to override ethical needs of other people. As far as computing is concerned, this really goes with the idea of a larger need for ethical business practices and the ability for people to bring up things that aren't right....When you deal with complex systems there are a lot of people touching the system and making decisions that can negatively impact that may not end up being directly connectable back to the original coders. So it comes down to how do we enable a culture of being able to encourage businesses to be more ethical, while at the same time enabling people to have appropriate whistleblowers or pipelines for enabling investigations when unethical things happen....A lot of interesting and ethical things get into a grey area such as ethical hacking and penetration testing, encryption, staging critical coding....How can we create a culture that is appropriately able to take care of all these things so that the overall safety of systems can be improved, and it does not end up being some sort of embarrassment people try to sweep under the rug? How do we change the culture so we are able to deal with digital quality assurance, hacking and other challenges, privacy and other information in a way that is productive, that grows, and is able to make the world a better place in terms of these things?....."

:01:39:40: You have many interests. Can you talk further about them?
"....Completely away from technology, probably the area that I've had the most interesting excitement has been doing a lot of mountaineering and backcountry travel. I still enjoy regularly going out into the Colorado Mountains with no electronics (no cellphone or GPS; I carry an emergency beacon but it generally doesn't get turned on unless I get into trouble). But it's trying to be self-reliant and enjoy figuring out ways to both push my limits and explore places that very few people end up being able to see....Another thing I've done recently that really helped me go out there and expand was getting deeply involved in several FIRST Robotics programs. FIRST Robotics is a high school program where high school students end up going out and building robots and then compete in large competitions. It's a great way to introduce young people to technology as well as being able to learn complex chaotic projects...."

:01:42:13: From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, please share some stories (perhaps something amusing, surprising, unexpected, amazing).
"....I went hiking in the woods for what I thought was going to be a one day backpacking trip and I ended up being lost in the mountains for four days after getting turned around in blizzard conditions....I was able to get out just fine, but that could have turned out very differently if one, I didn't have the wilderness survival training skills and two, if I had not realized that I was making really bad decisions and just stopped. I have never been in a situation like that again, but I learned an awful lot about when is the right time to stop and turn around and do the right things...."

:01:47:12: You choose the topic area. What do you see as the top challenges facing us today and how do you propose they be solved?
"....Cyber-security. Airplanes are hacked, cars are hacked, vulnerabilities are in a breathtaking range....Combine that with the fact that there's approximately 110 million Americans (or a quarter of the population of America) that got their IDs compromised in some way in 2014. This is a major issue that is ridiculously broken and the technology that's out there is not keeping up where the companies need to be. Most companies are just starting to realize how much threat they are in the middle of and how much risk they are actually exposed to. The solution to this space really has to come down to several things:...Interoperability - different capabilities between the tools you need to defend your system and these may include: threat-sharing system, an endpoint protection system, audit system, analysis environment. There are various different classes of tools that all need to be combined together because there is no one vendor-fit-all solution, and all these tools need to fit together in a cohesive manner....Associated with this, doing a much better job of getting a shared cohesive body of all of these threats so that a company can understand when they see a particular thing occurring on the network what is the appropriate action they should take and what's the best remediation practice for it....The innovation needs to be, how to put the right capabilities in there to enable either humans in the loop or human-on-the loop type activity with either full or partial automation, with the end goal being able to effect the right decisions in the shortest timeframe possible. I think it's an industry wide problem that needs to be fixed going forward because we need to get away from everyone having a unique cyber-security solution, and get to where we have at least a common set of standards where you can share data between those individual solutions and make it so the solutions start to look more common and interchangeable....Cyber-security is really expensive and complex to do right and we need a revolution to make it affordable and accessible to everyone (not just the companies that are willing to spend 10 to 20 millions of dollars a year protecting every single computer interface within their company)....It's a really interesting complicated area where I'm excited to see the innovations that are coming out...."

:01:56:15: Chris, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your substantial wisdom with our audience.
"....What it really comes down to is we have the technology to do incredible things today, we just need to focus on the integration between these technologies at the systems level and make it so that these technologies can do a better job of integrating in all parts of our lives...."