Photo by: christiaan krouwels
Honorary Doctorates

Jaya Baloo: Top executive among hackers

| Maaike Platvoet

She’s not afraid of a single hacker or cyber attack, but receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Twente makes her really emotional. ‘I take it as an unbelievable honour’, proclaims Jaya Baloo (1973), top executive at the biggest anti-virus company in the world, Avast Software. She’s been awarded the honour for her services to the field of cyber security.

Apologising profusely, Jaya Baloo enters the lunchroom somewhat later than planned, dressed in leggings and t-shirt, her iPhone in her hand. Her secretary in the Czech Republic, where the Avast headquarters is located, had set up the meeting at this location in Heemstede. ‘I had the impression that we would arrange to meet at my home! What a shame, I could have showed you much more of my life there.’

A while later, after a cappuccino: ‘When I heard that I was going to receive an honorary title, I was so happy I cried!’, she reveals. ‘It feels so unreal. It’s so wonderful. I’m just doing my work. It really is an enormous honour.’

It’s safe to say she’s a real whirlwind. Baloo talks at a breath-taking pace — both in Dutch and in English — and switches effortlessly from one subject to another. She keeps her iPhone within easy reach. The dozens of missed calls during our ninety minute interview fail to distract her. But she’s always in the ‘on’ mode. As the Cyber Security Officer of Avast, she has to be. Baloo heads up multiple teams in multiple countries. Her company has half a billion customers, and with its anti-virus programs (‘the basic program can be downloaded for free’, she says), is capable of preventing a billion and a half cyberattacks each month.

Half a billion customers

Before landing this top job, she was at KPN where, as Chief Information Security Officer, in seven years she also built a huge security department from the ground up. About her move from KPN to Avast: ‘I’m a builder. If I can’t build, I get stuck. The people at Avast needed a new vision, and I needed a new challenge. Besides that, I wanted to get a look at more problems. Avast receives millions of threats each month. I now see cyber attacks affecting half a billion customers. I can really indulge myself.’

In the press release about her departure from KPN, Baloo is praised as an outstanding authority in her field. She regularly speaks out to warn consumers about the security risks that accompany having smart equipment in your home. ‘The interesting thing is that, today, everything is online and digital. In the past there was still a choice. But analogue is being phased out. The new generation of smart TVs, refrigerators and blenders often miss smart security features. And often no secure updates are available either. But the equipment keeps sending out your user information. Without proper safety features, your refrigerator could become part of a DDoS attack, with the bank, for example, talking to your refrigerator instead of a person. That’s the kind of thing you want to prevent.’

‘My job as Chief Information Security Officer at KPN was wide-ranging, at Avast I go deeper into one aspect of the material. The company was created by accident; it started as a little start-up and then grew into the leading market player in the area of anti-virus software.’ The work she does at Avast, she says, fits her perfectly. ‘I love troubleshooting. I’m at my best when I’m involved in crisis management. Often you have to rely on your instinct and be able to deal with uncertainty, because you don’t have a grasp of all the information. I love that.’

‘I’m a builder. If I can’t build, I get stuck’

Averse to hierarchy

She has 82 people under her, divided into four teams who are active on different continents. One team for policy, one for ethical hackers, a third team are defenders and the fourth team is occupied with data governance, or rather, how can we analyse data that is well protected? ‘Every Tuesday evening from 9:30 to 10:30 I meet with my team leaders. The Australians have to get up early, but it works OK this way. Often we stay up until midnight to chat and catch up with each other.’

Baloo is outspoken about her management style. ‘I’m averse to hierarchy, an advocate of open communication and consensus, but sometimes a situation requires a critical decision.’ For the rest, she sees herself as a co-working foreman. She gives her team members a lot of freedom in the areas of budget, time and framework, and believes in individual contributors: people get motivated about something more quickly if they want it themselves. That brings out the best in everyone. ‘I want to be the person you want to sit across the table from when reporting.’ And then with an ironic laugh: ‘But when the shit breaks out, I’m all over you!’

Tufts University

Born in India, at the age of four she travelled with her parents and brother to settle in the US. Both her mother and father got jobs at the United Nations in New York. As UN representatives, her parents were regularly sent out on missions. To Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Kenia or Somalia. ‘Have you heard of Hotel Rwanda? My parents were also sent there on a mission.’ Obviously, her parents only went out on these missions, which were not entirely free of risk, when their daughter became a student of international relations at Tufts University in Boston. ‘It was logical that I would study that subject, yes indeed, walking in the footsteps of my parents. My mother would sometimes sneak me into the sessions at the UN. I could follow the discussions and right away I understood that this is just some kind of game they’re playing with each other. I can do that too, I thought at the time.’

What helped determine her choice of major was he participation in a model UN competition when she was 16. ‘And, crazy as it sounds, I won all the competitions.’ She and her team would travel to The Hague for the international finale in the Peace Palace. ‘That’s when I began to fall in love with the Netherlands.’ Her team won the finale and Baloo was invited to give the final keynote address to an audience of a thousand.

It wasn’t her undergraduate studies, but her side job and hobby that got her to her current position. ‘I taught myself programming. I also repaired my parents old MS DOS systems. Just for fun. My first side job was with the Computer Science programme. I did everything, and designed everything, but once in a while I also had to repair the printers. That’s how I taught myself so much. It was the early 1990s, the years of the upcoming internet.’ Glowing, and with a second cappuccino under her nose, she talks about her side job in a cyber cafe in Harvard Square called Cybersmith. It’s as if she’s gone back in time. ‘They had these really cool virtual reality games there.’

‘Diversity, it doesn’t really say anything about me’

That a career in cyber security crossed her path has a lot to do with ‘grabbing opportunities but also making opportunities’, in her words. ‘I was really interested in the material we were studying, but I couldn’t see myself writing and analysing long policy documents at the end of it all. That kind of day job, I couldn’t see myself doing it. I think that you also lose yourself a bit in the process. After all, you’re continually occupied with the opinions and recommendations of others. Learning was exciting, but doing it has to be just as exciting. And it wasn’t.’

Baloo therefore took a different road and tumbled into the world of cyber security through her first job as Internet Security Trainer at Bankers Trust, where she worked her way up at lightening speed and was noticeable for her clear vision and social involvement. Her honorary promoter at the UT, Professor Aiko Prass, refers to her in his nomination letter as ‘an excellent candidate for an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Twente because she is the perfect example of ‘high tech, human touch’. ‘Although her technical skills are excellent, she also understands the social impact of cyber security and her actions are based on high ethical and moral standards. Inequality and proliferation are to her the greatest cyber threats worldwide, with only a handful of countries being capable of tracking down such threats and responding to them or defending themselves against them. That’s why she is a big supporter of open access research in the field of quantum computing and cryptography.’

Mr Baloo’s assistant

Baloo is one of the world leaders in the field of cyber security in particular and technology in general. In 2019 the non profit organisation InspiringFifty selected her as one of the most inspiring women of the Netherlands. Naturally, she’s proud of that. Because in the white man’s world she works in, you have to work hard to be accepted.

‘Diversity’, she pauses for a moment, ‘it doesn’t really say anything about me. I don’t want to be nominated for something because I’m diverse. Because, just imagine, you’re awarded something not because you earned it, but because you’re a woman or a person of colour. It should be about doing it right. Not about your origins or who you are. It’s almost as if you’re discriminating based on someone’s name. I have strong feelings on the subject. To be honest — don’t get me wrong, I love my husband and children — but I wish I had been born a man. In the white man’s world I always had to work really hard to be accepted. I was often seen as “Mr Baloo’s assistant”. Bizarre, isn’t it?’

‘The first time it happens, you think, ‘OK, what can you do?’ But the second, third and fourth times? It’s the same thing with my name. Dutch people seem to find it really hard to pronounce my first name properly. I explain it the first time, but that they don’t understand even after a second or third time? To my mind it’s a teachable moment. I always seize that moment to explain things.’

‘I’m averse to hierarchy’

‘Don’t Dutch women feel that, as women, there are certain expected behaviour patterns that you’re supposed to live up to? It’s something that I get really sick of.’ About being a top executive and a mother, she adopts a high pitched tone of voice: ‘”Oh, you work that many hours a week? I always go along with the school trip.” Or: “I just have to ask you, don’t your children suffer because of your work?” It’s so patronising, to be so pre-judged! Horrible! Women make it really hard for other women.’

About her two sons and daughter (aged 15, 13 and 9): ‘They really are a lot of fun. At work I might be busy with the most daunting mega projects, at home the big issues are why there aren’t any avocadoes left. Want to see my children?’ With a parent’s pride, she scrolls through a few photographs on her iPhone.

Even though her secretary is two thousand kilometres away, Baloo knows that the time for her next meeting is fast approaching. She says she’s looking forward to her visit to the UT, even though the three-day programme on campus will cause her a lot of headaches when it comes to working around her schedule. She’s also really looking forward to talking to the other honorary doctors Prince Constantijn and Wim van Saarloos, whom she knows ‘very well’. ‘It will be nice to catch up.’

Her telephone is ringing again. Duty calls.

Profile

2020 – present Chief Information Security Officer, Avast

2012 - 2020 Chief Information Security Officer, KPN

2009 - 2012 Practice Lead Lawful Interception, Verizon Business

2004 - 2009 Technical Security Specialist - Fraud & Revenue Assurance, France Telecom

2002 - 2004 Freelance Security Architect & Project Manager, Baloo.Org

2000 - 2002 International Consultant, KPN International Consultancy

1999 - 2000 Senior Technical Network Administrator, KPN Telecom

1998 - 1999 Network Services Engineer, Unisource Business Networks

1996 - 1997 Internet Security Trainer, Bankers Trust