“Those who wish to sing will always find a song.” – Celtic Proverb
Just over a month ago, I made a huge leap of faith.
I leapt from a career I loved: 31-years in law enforcement, 17 of which were spent as a detective doing digital forensics for the truly excellent Madison Police Department, to becoming part owner of a new start-up digital forensics company in the private sector, Gillware Digital Forensics. Maybe I should say that I’m actually mid-leap, because my chief has allowed me a leave of absence until August to kick the tires on this new career to be sure it’s a good fit (Did I mention how much I love Madison Police Department?).
There were things I worried over in making this decision. Would my sense of identity, wrapped up in law enforcement and public service since I was just 18 years old, suffer for the change? Would the work be as compelling, as worthwhile, as intrinsically valuable and as challenging as it was in the PD? Is changing careers before minimum retirement age from public service a huge mistake? Did this new opportunity have what it takes to hold my interest long term? Would I still have time for my growing music schedule? I’ve considered a number of seemingly awesome opportunities in the past that all somehow fell short. Questions of identity and direction can cause vapor lock if you allow them to.
So, I followed the advice my dad would have given me. I learned as much as I could about the opportunity and listened to my gut in making the decision to help start Gillware Digital Forensics. And I also listened to Chief Koval’s philosophy, which in part, says that the wrong reason to keep doing something is just because it’s always been done that way (sorry chief, it’s true!).
Here are my three most striking impressions and surprises so far:
Law enforcement seeks the assistance of civilian labs far more often than I realized. A number of the cases I’ve taken in since founding GDF have been from law enforcement agencies. The first phone I processed here came from a local law enforcement agency and belonged to the victim in a homicide case. AND, I wouldn’t have been able to process that phone in my PD lab – it was locked and chip-off work was required to get to the data. From drug, gun, assassination for hire and homicide cases for ATF and Secret Service, and Chicago PD, Gillware Data Recovery has been quietly assisting law enforcement with forensics jobs for years, well before the forensics business started. This was a surprise to me. I didn’t realize the extent to which private labs were being used by other law enforcement agencies. It may actually be more cost effective to have a private lab do some or all of the forensics work in cases where data extraction is difficult, especially for phones that are unsupported, locked, or severely damaged.
Workplace support of creativity as a precursor to innovation and productivity really can, and does, exist! Here at Gillware, there is a 2000-piece puzzle being worked on at a ping-pong table near an analog record player in a room where they draw on the windows with brightly colored chalk markers. Lunch is ordered in for employees every Friday and there’s a concrete lion in the break room guarding the Kegerator. I’ve got two banjos on the wall, and they’re getting played. I just ordered my very own Giant Jenga for my office. These “perks” aren’t just for fun – and not so surprisingly they help productivity rather than hurting it. Brains and bodies need breaks from computers, and play facilitates creativity and Is it really any surprise that decryption problems should exist and get solved in the same space as Sudoku puzzles? Difficult problems require agile minds.
I’ve known the folks at Gillware Data Recovery for about 10 years or so. The company was founded in 2004, and I have collaborated with several of the founders through the Wisconsin Association of Computer Crimes Investigators, and sent difficult data recovery problems, damaged hard drives, and other devices their way on more than one occasion when the work involved capabilities that I didn’t have in the law enforcement lab. They did such great data recovery work for such reasonable rates, that I recommended them to friends, co-workers, and family. Gillware has a great reputation among those who know them, and have been quietly kicking butt on difficult data recovery problems for years.
When I toured the Gillware lab before finalizing the partnership for the new forensics business, I was really impressed by the volume and scope of the work they were doing here, the equipment and internal processes they had in place, and the efficiency with which they operated. Moving into an environment where there was the opportunity to do things that weren’t possible in my law enforcement lab such as Chip-Off, ISP and JTAG data extractions from phones and really deep research and development work was extremely compelling, and Gillware was already doing this work every day! Most of all, I am extremely impressed with the brain power and ingenuity of the Gillware staff. They are truly a top-notch team here and I’m happy to be a new addition to this tribe.
In my first month here at Gillware Digital Forensics, I’m working on standing up the digital forensics lab from the ground up – hardware, software, network design, specialty equipment, policies, procedures and quality assurance measures we use in the processing cases, training and education plans for our examiners, partner network, and clients. I get to participate in research and development, I get to go out and talk to people in the field, at conferences, and trainings about the work we’re doing, and I also get to do hands on forensics, and solve unique problems and puzzles, which I have always loved.
So far, if this is what taking a leap of faith is all about, I’m all for it and I can’t wait to see what the Gillware Digital Forensics team creates in the future.