Paul Galea: Hello, Justin. Paul Galea here from International Grammar School. Your old stomping ground. How are you, mate?
Justin: Doing all right. How about yourself?
Paul Galea: Well, thank you.
Justin: It’s good to be back in Sydney.
Paul Galea: Nice. Although, you wouldn’t have loved the weather lately, but at least today was a little bit nice. So, mate. We’re going to delve into what you’ve been doing since you left school. What year did you leave school?
Paul Galea: So let me know exactly what you’ve been doing in that time because I believe you’ve done some interesting stuff.
Justin: Yeah, it’s been a wild ride. So I left IGS and went to UNSW to study Physics and Law. That turns out to have been a colossal mistake, and it was fixed about a year later when I switched out of Law for Computer Science. I finished my Honours in Physics and a BSc in Computer Science together in 2009. Off the back of that I got a summer scholarship that turned into a research engineering job at a government research lab which now doesn’t exist anymore. It changed names three times, got funded and de-funded twice and finally folded into the CSIRO. I worked there for two years before applying to do a PhD programme in Computer Science and computer security at the University of Oxford. I left for the UK to do that in September 2011. I was there for just under five years and I finally left the UK in February 2016 to move to San Francisco to work for Google as an SRE. I have been at Google ever since.
Paul Galea: SRE? Explain what that is.
Justin: SRE is a site reliability engineer. Google’s notion is, if you want to build things that are reliable, you take software engineers and charter them with solving specifically that big problem, which is don’t worry about the software you’re running, but you should know it really well. Worry about making sure the infrastructure supporting it is rock solid, and keep it rock solid.
Paul Galea: Ok, that sounds like a fairly large job
Justin: Yes, it’s a very large company with a surprisingly small number of reliability engineers. But my team numbers twenty.
Paul Galea: Now can we just go back a second there? You said the University of Oxford? That’s Oxford University, the Oxford University?
Justin: That’s the one.
Paul Galea: And you spent five years there, right? Doing what in particular? I heard what you said but I’m not very smart! In layman’s terms?
Justin: I’m happy to give you some more detail. So I was doing a PhD in the security of embedded systems. If you imagine networks that are very small devices holding sensors, the kinds of things you might spread all over a power grid or that you might instrument a smart home with. Well, it turns out those kinds of devices have wireless networks on them and it turns out you actually care about the security of those wireless networks because you would like that the sensors turned on throughout your home or your power grid are not necessarily reporting data to the entire world, and it turns out that you are just as worried about the security of those things as you are about the security of the open Internet, but with a whole hell of a lot less computational power available to enforce those securities and variants. So the question is, how do you do it?
Paul Galea: And this was an area that was becoming an area of concern in terms of people’s security? But because there wasn’t much complete computational size or flexibility to deal with it, that’s what you were looking into?
Justin: Yeah, basically, how do you solve big problems or small problems like that on small devices? Really small devices.
Paul Galea: Yeah. Okay. Very interesting, because obviously we all know that computer fraud and fraud through the Internet is massive business. I’m getting the vibe that you’re one of the good guys who is trying to keep the ‘baddies’ out!
Justin: That’s a good summary. And I try my level best.
Paul Galea: So you’ve moved now to Google. Well, okay, let’s just go back a little bit. So you began your uni career doing Law and Physics. That’s an interesting combination.
Justin: Yeah, as one of my teachers in High School, you would know that Law probably sounds like a surprising choice. And, indeed, it was a horrible choice.
Paul Galea: Okay, let’s look at this, because some of the Year 11 and 12 kids listen to these interviews. Why did you actually end up choosing law? Because one of the things that we see a lot in these interviews is people tend to choose First Year uni courses that they don’t last very long in. I’m just interested in why you picked Law, which obviously, after a year, you’d had enough of it. Why did you actually pick it?
Justin: So you probably know that you have to do Law along with some other subjects and mine was Physics. So the Physics certainly stuck and that’s probably not a surprise to anyone who’s ever known me. Law didn’t and, to be blunt, the reason I picked Law is because I thought I would have the marks for it and I did. The area of study is really, really interesting and I enjoyed studying the law and understanding the law. But I was a completely horrible writer, and I hated writing and if you’re going to study Law, you have to be a prolific, fluid writer, so I could probably do it now, truth be told, but then,18 years ago, there’s no way, and honestly, if I’d given it any thought, I would have known that at the time. But the ambition garnered by my good marks got the better of me.
Paul Galea: Okay, this is a really interesting point. Maybe the advice to young people is don’t be seduced by your good marks. Do what you love.
Justin: I would take that phrasing, and I would keep the idea, but move the phrasing sideways and say, if you have good marks, they’re a gateway. You can use them to do whatever you want, but ultimately, use them to do something that you like and you enjoy and you can keep doing.
Paul Galea: Yeah, yeah, that’s better put. So with Google the big part of your job, I’m assuming, is that you’re trying to make sure that their systems and, like you said, their hardware and their software are strong against infiltration/corruption.
Justin: Both. And reliability. Both reliable and secure. My job kind of has both of those slants on it.
Paul Galea: Okay. And this is the stuff you sort of honed your skills and your expertise and your knowledge by doing your PhD?
Justin: Yes. It turns out I’m I’m one of the lucky few whom Google hired out of my PhD to do the things that I’m really good at.
Paul Galea: Yeah. Okay. Did they head hunt you or….?
Justin: I kind of got lucky. A friend of mine helped. So as I was finishing my PhD, I did a whole hell of a lot of teaching of largely undergraduates. This is not uncommon. Most PhD students do a lot of teaching. I happened to really enjoy it, and I happened to make friends with a couple of the undergrads and from the graduating class, one of these friends separately got a job at Google, also doing reliability engineering and referred me to his recruiter; “You should go hire this guy. Go talk to him.” They gave her my name and she talked to me and said, “You know, yes, we should hire you. Why don’t you go to San Francisco for an interview?” So they flew me to San Francisco for an interview from London. Yeah, that was an adventure and a half.
Paul Galea: And the interview was grilling or friendly or both?
Justin: Yeah, the interviews are both. The only way I can describe it is that every interviewer is friendly and has a positive attitude and really wants you to succeed as a candidate. But the interview questions themselves are going to test of the limits of both my intellect and my knowledge. That’s what they’re designed to do and one of the things I now do internally is to interview other candidates, and that’s, separately, a skill I am also honing, which is testing the intellect of my candidates. Suffice it to say that it really is a trial. It’s not an unpleasant one necessarily, but it is exhausting. At the end of the interview day, you kind of go back to the hotel room and are like my brain cannot work. I require pizza and sleep, and that is the end of it.
Paul Galea: Yeah, and obviously you did well. Did you have to do another interview, was it a series of interviews or did you …..?
Justin: That was the last big one there. There was a series, but the day in the Bay Area was the big one. Or, sorry, that was the end one. I had done two or three phone calls in the lead up of about 45 minutes apiece.
Paul Galea: Okay, so they ascertained that you knew what you were talking about. They get you over to San Francisco to do the final grilling. Wow, and so you worked in San Francisco. Aren’t you in New York now?
Justin: Correct. About three years ago, my team decided it no longer wanted to be located in the San Francisco Bay area and it moved to New York. And I went with them.
Paul Galea: Your team. So you say you’ve got twenty people in your team? So all twenty of you decided en masse that you’re going to move to New York?
Justin: Sort of. It’s somewhat more complex than that, but that is actually not far from the truth. The team itself is split. There’s half the team in the States and half the team is in Munich, Germany. Also it was smaller at that time. So when the team moved over, there were only six of us in Mountain View, in north San Francisco. The team manager basically gave us the option to come to New York or stay in the Bay area and transfer to another team. So I think about half of us took up his offer and the other half found other teams and then the rest would be hired and the team expanded, and so on and so forth.
Paul Galea: That’s interesting. Was it just based on that people wanted to move away from the Bay Area and live in New York as an experience or were there other reasons?
Justin: There were a few reasons. The big one is time zones. The business hours overlap between the West Coast of the US and Europe is nothing. So, actually, getting the two halves of the team to talk to each other is a ferocious nightmare. So after years of this causing frustration and dysfunction, the manager made the decision to move the California part of the team to New York in order to give us three or four hours of time zone overlapping on any given workday in order to make sure the two teams can actually talk to each other.
Paul Galea: Well, I’m going to tell you something. International business and family business are similar, because my wife is in Ireland at the moment, and my daughter is in Europe at the moment and getting the time zones right is difficult-just to be in the right time for both of you, with your work commitments or sleep commitments and all those. Yeah, I can see the reasoning-that’s very interesting.
Justin: It’s a phenomenal pain in the backside. And to be clear, it wasn’t exactly a sudden move or leave thing. I made it sound fairly fast, but it actually dragged out over a couple of years, so nobody was kind of given a sudden ultimatum. “Alright, we’re all leaving the Bay Area. Get on a plane or get lost.”That’s not what happened.
Paul Galea: Okay. So there was a bit of lead time. Okay, New York must have been a bit scary during the beginning of COVID because I was there then actually.
Justin: Yeah. So COVID. I moved to New York in March 2019, and the COVID lockdowns began in March 2020. So almost exactly a year after I moved there, New York at the beginning of the pandemic was kind of scary. New York itself I don’t find scary. I actually really quite like the city. It’s a big city, but that’s okay, but the pandemic lockdowns were scary. And in fact, I have this one image stuck in my head of where, at some point, I was standing somewhere where I could see the Hudson River, because Manhattan is bordered on both sides by rivers because it’s an island. The US military sent a hospital ship to New York to help with the pandemic and I have this image in my head of this hospital ship sailing up the Hudson, surrounded by its giant military escort. And it was a sight. It was really freaky.
Paul Galea: I can understand that. My eldest daughter was in New York at that time, and I was actually stuck in a room in Peru. We were getting images of corpses being laid out in like a temporary sort of morgue in Central Park. That’s a pretty confronting image and you were living that.
Justin: Yeah. I will admit that I wasn’t living the temporary morgue in Central Park, but the I was certainly living the stories, and the stories were really something.
Paul Galea: What about now? How are things now?
Justin: Honestly, New York at this point has taken the view that the pandemic is over and we should all move on with our lives. So the restrictions are all but gone, but for a requirement to wear masks on public transport. The vast majority, if not the overwhelming majority of the population, has been vaccinated like at least twice, some three times, a very few four times against COVID. As far as New York is concerned, the whole thing is done.
Paul Galea: Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s a little bit …
Justin: … confronting in its own way, truth be told.
Paul Galea: It is because it’s just I think people are just getting to that stage where they may even be thinking that the ‘cure’-big lockdowns etc might be worse than the actual disease. It’s an interesting time in our history. Australia is usually a little bit behind the US in terms of how things are happening and we’re at that stage now, where we’re having to make those sort of decisions, as you know, because you’re here at the moment and you’re sort of seeing it.
Justin: Yeah, and it’s like New York five months ago. It’s crazy. It’s felt like here has been about five months behind New York for the past two years.
Paul Galea: Yeah, that probably is true. Ok, you’ve given the kids a bit of advice already, which I think is really good. What about happy memories from your time at IGS? Can you remember back that far?
Justin: I have two examples. One of them, you might decide not to publish because it’s really funny, but you might decide not to publish it, and that’s acceptable. Do you remember in High School at IGS, whenever anyone said the word ‘computer’, my name came up. This was just a thing. There were two or three of us who, for teenagers, knew our stuff and had a nasty habit of breaking into the school computer systems. The people responsible knew what was going on and were supportive of us. They were not supportive of any vandalism, because that’s not fair but were certainly supportive of us doing things that involved learning more about the world and about computers and about how all this stuff fit together. So the memory is at some point, I was paged on the school PA system, which is one of those experiences that just about makes your heart just about leap into your throat, especially for me, because it never bloody happened to me. They called me to the library and said, “You know, all that stuff we keep telling you to please not do? Well, we have an HSC music student who has forgotten her music. We need you to find a copy of these songs. Do it. Don’t tell us how you did it. And don’t ever do it again.”
Paul Galea: But again, if you think about it you were wearing a ‘white hat’; you’re a good guy; that as long as you weren’t doing evil or damaging things, I think people would probably say they were learning a little bit about what the vulnerabilities in the systems were.
Justin: Indeed, and that’s what I meant by they were very supportive. I forget the name of the guy who was head of IT but he was a really lovely man. And for that matter, Ms Sheldon, in her way was also the same. They were very supportive because I never damaged anything. It was all in the spirit of learning and understanding and occasionally giggling, but no more harm than that.
Paul Galea: Yeah. Good. And what’s the other memory you have?
Justin: Uh huh. The other one is-do you remember Francis Kavanagh?
Paul Galea: Very, very well.
Justin: Me, Francis, Alex Jarky, Jesse Green and Chris Lee. We were always looking for places to play Dungeons and Dragons. I’m still friends with them, by the way. We still play Dungeons and Dragons every week, eighteen years later! I just have this image of, for whatever reason, we couldn’t use the library. Probably because a lot of us were kind of loud and obnoxious. So the library is kind of the wrong place and this one lunchtime, we were just getting booted from classroom to classroom to classroom. We were just looking for a place to get forty five minutes of D and D before the end of lunch bell rang. Oh, most most days we managed to find somewhere to settle. There was just these one or two times where you just kept getting booted from room to room to room because there just wasn’t a space.
Paul Galea: Those names! I’ve been in contact with Chris recently and a couple of those other guys. Jesse Green, he’s alright somewhere?
Justin: He’s still around. Yeah, he’s doing all right.
Paul Galea: Uh, good. He was a good little man. Alright, that’s nice to hear that. Alright, well, look, you know what? I found it extremely interesting because it is an area that I don’t really understand that well, but you’ve explained yourself and articulated what you’ve done and what you’re doing very well. I think the important thing to take out of this is that you followed your dream in terms of what you liked. And once you started on that path, you’re pretty well set, but it took you a little while to get on that right path after your first little mini mistake. Taking law. Very nice to talk to Justin. You know, I talked to and interviewed your brother, Jordan and that was hilarious.
Justin: He’s a character. I could see that being a barrel of laughs.
Paul Galea: Well, thanks again. And hopefully, Justin, at some stage, we’ll see each other in person, and that would be great.
Justin: Sounds good. I’d like that. Thanks again, Mr Galea.