Good Blessings

By Susam Pal on 11 Dec 2016

Back in 2009, I had completed a year working for RSA Security. I was then looking for more intellectually stimulating work where I could work on projects involving mathematics and algorithms. While I had talked to senior leaders of the organisation about my aspirations, nothing concrete had materialised for several weeks. Then something interesting happened. One fine Monday morning, as I walked into the office and began to settle at my desk, the head of our research and development division came to my desk looking for me. He said, "Burt is here. He wants to talk to you."

There was no Burt in that office as far as I knew, so I became a little confused. I was led into a conference room where I could meet him. Mildly disoriented, I opened the conference room door. Then I saw Burt, the person I was about to meet. As soon as I saw him, I immediately recognised who he was. He was Dr Burt Kaliski, the Chief Scientist of RSA Laboratories. He had flown in that morning to meet certain teams in our office. During his visit, he had carved out some time from his schedule to meet me.

I had never met or talked to Dr Kaliski before. But I was very well aware of his work and his accomplishments many years before joining RSA. At a previous job, while implementing digital signatures for a banking product, I had spent a lot of time reading the RFCs for PKCS #1, PKCS #5, and PKCS #7, which were all authored by Dr Kaliski. It was an honour to meet the person whose work had taught me a lot and helped me begin my career as a software developer in the area of information security.

He began the meeting by explaining that he happened to learn about my wish to work on more challenging projects. He enquired about the type of projects I desired to work on. He listened to my thoughts patiently. He offered some advice and then wished me the best for my future. Little did I know back then that the short 30 minute interaction I had with him would end up changing the trajectory of my career.

Soon after the meeting, I followed his advice, talked to several teams, found out what they were working on, and finally decided to join a team that worked on a network security product. It turned out to be the best decision of my career! While working on that product, I learnt to design and implement efficient algorithms for petabytes of data. Some parts of the project relied heavily on probability theory, so it was a joy to be able to take a subject that was a hobby until then, and apply it to solve actual real-world problems. Working on that product offered the intellectual challenges that my younger self yearned for back then. I think the most interesting experience there was my work on parser generators. It involved writing algorithms in C++ to parse a formally specified language which in turn was used to generate in-memory FSMs to parse and analyse network packets and events. Parsing one language and generating in-memory parsers for another language proved to be intellectually demanding as well as satisfying. I have fond memories of my time there working on parser generators alongside remarkably skilled engineers from whom I learnt a lot.

All of that happened seven years ago. A couple of months ago, while recounting that 30 minute meeting with Dr Kaliski, I could not recall if I had ever thanked him properly for his kindness and generosity. Seven years ago, there was no compelling reason for him to meet me. I was then just a regular software engineer who was hired into the company a year ago. We had never talked before. But he took the time to offer me help, suggestions, and advice on how I could make a good career. Unsure if I had expressed my gratitude to him for how he helped me sculpt my career, I wrote to him recently to thank him and explain how that one meeting had a large and positive impact on my life.

Dr Kaliski replied a few days later and he expressed his happiness to know that the steps I took in the subsequent years worked out well for me. Before ending his message, he wrote a little heart-warming note that I am going to remember forever. Quoting it verbatim here:

“One of my goals is to be able to provide encouragement to others who are developing their careers, just as others have invested in mine, passing good blessings from one generation to another.”

Thank you, Burt! I will do likewise.

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