Allan Thomson Profile | Avast

In a video call with Allan Thomson, the first things you’ll notice are the plaques lining the wall behind him. They’re the 52 U.S. patents he’s filed in the more than 30 years that he’s worked in tech. From programming warplanes to standardizing the chips in our devices to the role of Chief Architect, Threat Defense Technology at Avast, Allan has pretty much done it all.

But while he’s the kind of guy who can display a veritable catalogue of U.S. patents, Allan’s path almost went in a very different direction. As a teenager growing up in Edinburgh, Allan hated school. He hated reading. Didn’t want to go to university. And he was on his way to shucking it all when his dad connected him with an apprenticeship with a high profile defense contractor in the UK.

To Allan’s surprise, he loved it. 

“And so I went from hating school and hating books and never wanting to see another book in my entire life, to realizing that’s what I liked — learning and creating things,” Allan says. “I like building things and creating things. I don’t just like talking about stuff; I like doing stuff and making a difference.”

One of Allan’s first jobs was writing software for strike aircrafts in the Scottish military. It was his first foray into “security,” albeit physical security for countries rather than online security.

“It was very high stress because we were actually flying around the planes, testing the software,” Allan says. “It wasn’t just software in the lab — we actually got into the plane and flew in the plane and learned how the system worked.”

Flying the warplanes he’d programmed helped Allan realize that he “liked this computer stuff,” but he didn’t have a degree to take his career further. So the boy who hated school finally went to university, got a computer science degree, and launched fully into working on networking and distributed systems.

Allan spent the next two decades in both smaller software architecture and development companies as well as larger corporations, including Cisco. His work focused on protecting SMBs and creating ways to protect Wi-Fi networks. Some of the technologies he developed not only help companies track physical assets — like computers and phones and even traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange — but also ensure that entities that aren’t supposed to be in-network aren’t there. “Because in a Wi-Fi environment, anyone could be in your environment and you wouldn’t expect them to be,” Allan says.

Allan’s next move was into threat intelligence, where he used data to help identify and mitigate risks in real-time. That role, in combination with his three decades of experience, perfectly positioned him for his current role of Chief Architect, Threat Defense Technology at Avast. 

What’s his plan for this legacy cybersecurity company? 

Put simply: To bring it firmly into the 21st century.

“One thing Avast has done very well is antivirus and that still remains an important technology,” Allan says. “However, the security of our customers is much more than a single device or a single thing. All of our lives are online. The security of our lives and businesses depend on a much more holistic approach to security than a single thing in a single place.”

With that holistic approach to online security and privacy in mind, Allan’s particular interest right now lies in adversarial artificial intelligence (AI). Rather than reacting to online attacks after they occur, Allan wants Avast to be able to predict attacks before they happen. In order to do that, he’s working on creating a machine learning approach that is able to game with theoretical bad online actors in order to figure out their next move. 

This type of “game” in a closed loop environment is similar to the way programmers trained computers to win at chess. The big difference is that when you’re talking about cybercriminals, there are a lot more variables.

“Ultimately, that’s how we’re going to beat the bad guys,” Allan says. “We’re already 10 steps ahead of the bad guys because we’ve already done it, in a restrained environment.”

Part of getting ahead of the bad guys, however, is getting into the heads of the bad guys. And that, Allan says, requires a fundamental shift in thinking.

“In my opinion, one of the flaws the security world has is they think puristically,” he says. “Bad guys don’t. There are no rules for bad guys. They’ll do whatever works to achieve their outcome, and we as an industry need to think like that.”

When asked if getting into the minds of cybercriminals has ever tempted him to go over to the dark side himself, Allan answers with a resounding “no.”

“I think there’s an important role for understanding the adversary and how they do their tradecraft but, for me, I’m an agent for good,” Allan says. “Maybe because of my background — my father was actually a police officer. I’ve spent my entire career trying to protect businesses and people.”

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