Maui High grads put hacking hobby to good use

Founders of web security company are moving on to new projects

LEX ARQUETTE, WhiteHat head engineer

HAIKU — One evening in 1999, Jeremiah Grossman decided to anonymously hack Yahoo and provide it with a solution to solve its security issue, all in a mere 15 minutes. Just your typical puzzle.

“Everybody has hobbies,” Grossman said with a laugh. “Some people play sports, play video games. . . . I break software.”

With a lifelong interest in computer coding and occasional online hacking mischief, three Maui kids would soon go on to establish a company that top industry experts would call the leading web security provider in the world, WhiteHat Security.

“We were very early to market with WhiteHat and discovered that in many cases, companies didn’t even know they could be hacked,” said Lex Arquette, head engineer. “They had the need for our product, but didn’t realize it.”

Since 2001, WhiteHat has provided businesses with the tools and services they need to write and deliver secure, safe and quick software. The company has also established regional offices across the U.S. and Europe, Grossman said.

Maui High School graduate Jeremiah Grossman caught the attention of Yahoo in 1999 when he hacked the company to show the vulnerabilities in its software. Grossman went on to found his own web security company, WhiteHat Security, with his wife, Llana, and high school pal Lex Arquette. -- Photo courtesy Jeremiah Grossman

However, after a long journey, NTT Security Corp. in Tokyo bought out WhiteHat Security on March 5. The original WhiteHat team said that the price was right and that it was time to move on.

“I just think you need to find a problem that you’re passionate about and solve it,” said Grossman, a Maui High graduate and the company’s founder. “That’s what a business is at the end of the day, just solving a problem.”

His wife, Llana Grossman, also a Maui High graduate and mother of three, controlled all of the web editing, marketing and the public relations. Jeremiah Grossman eventually recruited his high school pal Arquette shortly after.

From 2008 to 2012, Arquette was also the second user interface engineer for Facebook, building its homepage, user profile registration page and much more. Over 1 billion people used the features he had built for Facebook, which was the same skills he brought to WhiteHat.

Prior to their professional careers, the two kids would prank online chat users by injecting a code they designed into the system, which in turn would change users’ chat names, change their instant messages and sometimes disable accounts.

The original WhiteHat Security team and Haiku residents Llana Grossman (from left), Jeremiah Grossman and Lex Arquette pose together after a long business journey. -- The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

“Jeremiah had the idea of turning our automated hacking software into a service that companies could pay to use,” said Arquette. “It was a brilliant idea, it was a needed product, we were great friends, and building a startup just sounded like a lot of fun.”

Being able to build software took practice.

Jeremiah Grossman started tinkering with old devices when he was 10 years old, like the Commodore 64, x286s and x386s, and a Power Macintosh 6100. Practicing and creating codes as a hobby taught him and Arquette the basics on how to eventually hack any software system.

After graduation, Jeremiah Grossman left Maui to pursue a degree in electronics engineering, which lasted a year or so, at ITT Technical Institute in San Diego, Calif. He landed an entry-level position at a biotechnology company, Amgen Inc., where he learned a great deal about day-to-day web operations, security and disaster system recovery.

It was just before the summer of ’99 when he decided to explore Yahoo Mail, sending the company an anonymous email about the vulnerabilities in its software.

He said he was certainly aware of the potential repercussions of hacking a large industry, which is why he remained anonymous. However, instead of getting in trouble, he got a T-shirt and a thank-you note from David Filo, one of the founders of Yahoo.

“It was a pretty awesome day,” Jeremiah Grossman said. “Then they said to let them know if I find anything else, so I took that as permission to hack Yahoo and I found a half-dozen more ways to break in.”

A Yahoo recruiter eventually contacted him with an invite to join their engineering team, where his new business card read “The Hacker Yahoo.”

After two years with Yahoo Mail, he returned to Maui as founder and chief executive officer of WhiteHat Security.

Together, the three Maui kids were able to kick-start a security company that would later be publicly thanked by Microsoft, Mozilla, Facebook and Google for privately informing them of weaknesses in their security systems.

“The largest challenge was the fact that neither Jer, Llana or I went to college, and despite this decided to start a technology company,” Arquette added. “We had to continually learn a great deal and do so while trying to build a product faster than our competitors.”

The three Maui High grads encouraged people to pursue what they’re passionate about, despite the challenges. A career in tech is constantly changing, which favors the “perpetually curious,” Arquette added. Just go for your dream, regardless.

“I was employee one just doing it on my own, but then I got too busy, so Llana jumped in. And then I got too busy, so Lex jumped in,” Jeremiah Grossman said. “We spent every last dollar.”

Their business survived many setbacks, including the Great Recession and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“There was never a point of smooth sailing,” he said. “Competing against HP and IBM, competing against companies that had more capital rates than we did. . . . Our intent was to be the best at what we do.”

Little by little, WhiteHat Security began to grow, eventually raising about $52 million from investments. Over the 17 years of business, Jeremiah Grossman did over 400 public presentations on six continents and in 30 countries.

“I just think it’s crazy how some of the best technologists in the world came right out of Maui,” Llana Grossman said.

Since NTT Security Corp. acquired WhiteHat earlier last month, the team has been working on a new project, Bit Discovery, a software that helps companies keep an inventory of their internet-accessible technology. While they thought WhiteHat “would be bigger,” they will use what they learned and apply it to their next venture.

Jeremiah Grossman, who’s also a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu, said that “working from Maui is the perfect scenario.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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