“You can go further faster in Pittsburgh.”
“What can we do that would be epic?”
That’s what white-hat hacker Chris Valasek and buddy Charlie Miller asked themselves in 2015, not long before remotely taking over the computer systems of cars in motion – controlling everything from the stereo to the steering, brakes and transmission. Video of that demonstration project went viral, catapulting Chris and his friend into international news reports and Congressional hearings. It also prompted Chrysler to recall a million vehicles to patch cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
“Indeed, you can take over a car and wreck it, send somebody into a ditch, which is terrible,” Chris says. “But that’s how you figure out how to prevent it from happening.”
Formerly the security lead at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in the Strip District, Chris recently reunited with Charlie as principal security architects for the autonomous vehicle’s of Cruise Automation. Cruise is based in San Francisco, but Chris is working remotely from his Shadyside home.
“You can go further faster in Pittsburgh. You can send someone a Tweet in the morning, meet them that afternoon, and be making an impact in a month. I don’t think that happens in Silicon Valley.”
He urges young people -- including those who may not be interested in spending four years in college -- to tinker with the technology around them: it could lead to interesting work in fields like cybersecurity, which shows signs of having jobs in high demand for decades to come. At 16, his parents gave him a Compact Presario computer. Within two weeks he had taken it apart to figure out how it worked. He rebuilt it (with a bit of help from folks at the local Radio Shack), and used it to play video games and chat with friends.
”I’m better at breaking than making,” he says. “If you’re making something, creating software, first of all it has to work. Then it has to be elegant. People have to use it. With breaking, you have to understand how it works, but don’t have to concern yourself with how to make it run well.”
He is helping to create a career technical charter high school to introduce teens to the field. “You can do this without a four-year degree. I don't want the youth of Pittsburgh to think there’s only one way to be successful. College is great, but if you put in the time and effort, you don’t need some institution to validate you or your work.
"What you do need is patience,” he adds. “All you do is fail. If you accept failure, take it on the chin, get up and try again, that’s what matters.”
Chris spent six years working in various tech companies in Atlanta before returning to Pittsburgh, first working remotely for IBM, his last employer in Georgia. “Atlanta has a special place in my heart, and it was good for me as a person to strike out on my own in a new city, but this place is for me,” he says of Pittsburgh. “It’s big enough. It’s a city, but it doesn’t give me the feeling it’s going to swallow me whole. I can drive half an hour from here and be in the woods, on the river wake surfing.” He owns a place on the Allegheny River near Leechburg, where he heads on summer weekends with friends.
“We don’t have oceans, but we can surf.”