In 2006, Ehraz Ahmed was a geeky 10-year-old who loved to hang out at cyber cafes in his hometown in Mysuru, Karnataka, with his web developer brother.
His tryst with the Internet began with Orkut, the then wildly popular social network, but he soon realised that something else gave him more excitement than even social media: popping the hood of websites and looking into how they were made -- their source codes.
He then decided he would learn coding. While his brother was there to guide him, Ahmed also found another source always ready to help: Google.
"I began to learn coding through Google or by speaking to my brother or others," says Ahmed, and before long, the fledgling hobby became a passion and then vocation.
Ahmed also realised early that he had a streak for entrepreneurship.
At age 14, by then an avid gamer, Ahmed began hosting servers for Counterstrike, the popular multiplayer shooting game.
Along the way, Ahmed further polished his computer skills, turning himself into an ethical hacker -- a term for computer security experts who find bugs or exploits in websites and bring them to companies' notice, sometimes for a price of course.
In the first year of his engineering, he dropped out to try and make his mark as a programmer and entrepreneur.
Fame soon followed as Ahmed was able to find weaknesses in websites of companies such as Google and Facebook.
Today, the 24-year-old is among India's most renowned hackers, having assisted top Indian companies such as Airtel and Justdial protect their users' personal data.
Ahmed is also listed on the 50 Security Researcher's Hall of Fame - a title awarded to top programmers who have discovered security flaws in important applications.
He has also fulfilled his dream of being an entrepreneur. Over the past few years, he has started a fintech company and a web security firm.
"In 2016, I began Voxy Wealth Management, a fintech company that provides a web platform for financial analysts with research reports and tools to manage their stock portfolios. The year after, I launched my web security firm, Aspirehive, to provide web security to companies," he says.
Still, he believes that his biggest achievement remains developing his skills without formal training, though he puts that down to dogged perseverance more than anything else and says others can do the same given enough determination.
"One can self-learn technical topics such as coding but they will have to push themselves out of their comfort zone," he says, adding that today, sites such as Coursera or Khan Academy serve as highly helpful resources.
And there's of course YouTube and a vast number of blogs on the Internet, which serve as a treasure trove of knowledge.
Ahmed's journey of learning and self-discovery, however, didn't come without its share of hardships.
His father suffered a heart attack when he was in the 10th standard, a development that pummelled Ahmed's middle-class family into a financial crisis.
"It changed my perspective on life. I decided I wanted to do something exceptional," he says.
In helping firms such as Airtel, Truecaller and Justdial, he was able to do just that, by helping protect the personal data of their nearly billion cumulative users.
Pop culture, shaped in large part by Hollywood films, tends to portrays computer hacking as glamourous work, with hackers often being able to enter network systems within minutes -- work that typically ends with a joyous and forceful hit of the enter button.
In real life, Ahmed says, it is hard work that requires intense focus where breakthroughs are often a result of a lot of troubleshooting and trial and error.
Ahmed says hackers also get affected by the problem often associated with writers: creative blocks.
"Sometimes, you are close to figuring out a security flaw but still don't seem to able to succeed. At such times, it's better to take a break and come back later instead of stressing yourself out further," he says.
Ahmed says cybersecurity as a field has still not fully come of age and many companies and governments have still not upgraded their systems to the levels needed to reasonably safeguard against threats.
"There are a million registered Indian companies but not all have made a smooth digital transformation. Security audits should be made mandatory when they plan to launch their app or websites," he says.
However, the coronavirus pandemic, he believes, has raised awareness about cyberfrauds among individuals and corporates alike. "I now see an increase in demand for cybersecurity services everywhere."
However, Ahmed is not happy with the other pandemic fad: teaching coding to children, sometimes even the ones as young as five. "It is a joke! If a child is genuinely not interested, he or she won't be able to grasp it. I think children should only start learning coding during or after their high school," he says.
Reflecting back on his young but successful career, Ahmed says perseverance is his most important asset.
"I am like water in dunes, where even tornado comes; I stay firm and confident to face the problems," he signs off.
(Edited by : Jomy)
First Published: IST