Jay Chaudhry: ‘Every laptop can become a spy’

Jay Chaudhry discusses why security is so vital for governments

Ritu Jha-

No country, not even the United States, is fully prepared for a cyber attack, Jay Chaudhry, serial entrepreneur and founder of a multi-billion-dollar company Zscaler, told indica while discussing India’s moves toward increased digitalization.

The bad guys are moving a lot faster, Chaudhry said, adding that governments need to catch up. Chaudhry has founded several successful companies, such as AirDefense, CipherTrust, CoreHarbor and SecureIT.

Founded in 2007, Zscaler went public in 2018 and has been a leader in the 2022 Gartner Magic Quadrant for Security Service Edge (SSE). SSE focuses on secure access to cloud services, apps, and the internet

We are popular. That is why we have a billion-dollar annual recurring revenue (ARR), growing at 60 percent year over year,” Chaudhry said.

The entrepreneur, who visited India last month, said part of the itinerary involved discussions with the government and seeing, “how we can help with more advanced cloud and what needs to be done at multiple levels.”

Chaudhry said India was optimistic, having done a lot of good work on the digital front, such as with the Aadhaar card, which started long before the current Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power in 2014. “That is a remarkable thing,” he said. “In any remote corner of India, anybody can take payment directly on the phone now.”

Chaudhry also met representatives of a large private-sector bank that is a Zscaler customer. It now has plans to open digital branches in remote parts of India, and the government is also pushing banks to open modern branches in places where no one is ready to serve.

India is also trying to convert post offices into digital banks,” he said.

But many issues remain unresolved. Banks have several roles to perform and the best ones in the private sector know it, Chaudhry said, adding, “That is why many of them are customers of large system integrators and IT companies like TCS and Wipro.”

He said India wants to move fast on these plans.

The government is bringing in some smart bureaucrats – not just guys who run ministries but smart IIT graduates,” Chaudhry said.

Technology needs to be understood, appreciated, for what needs to be done,” he continued. “I believe we have better people in many parts of the government than I am exposed to. I had a lot of doubts earlier about the government.”

Chaudhry said he wants to give back to India, knowing how poor cybersecurity is, even in the U.S.

I think India must be in very poor shape and something should be done. I can help,” he said.

Chaudhry said he had reached out to Prime Minister Narendra Modi online three years ago – to no avail.

Then it so happened that Modiji made a reference in his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ [monthly radio talk] this January to my contribution to my alma mater, IIT-BHU,” he said. Chaudhry had donated $1 million to establish an entrepreneurship center, with one area focusing on cybersecurity. So he tried to connect with Modi again.

Ashwani Vaishnaw (Right) and Jay Chaudhry in New Delhi May 6, discussed how Zscaler can help India improve its cyber defenses.

While Chaudhry has still not met the prime minister, he has met Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s minister for railways, communications, electronics and information technology.

It was encouraging to see that they are willing to talk,” Chaudhry said. “For execution, talk is important.”

Asked whether India has the infrastructure to support its massive digital plans, he said, “That is why I am trying to help. It is not just the government’s job to provide cybersecurity. The government is doing good, but anything that depends on the government alone doesn’t work well. Thirty years ago, almost all jobs were in government. Now all these private companies are creating jobs.”

He cited the need for private banks moving into remote areas.

“ICICI Bank and HDFC Bank… are pushing into rural India as part of government policy. That is good. But if the private sector is getting more involved, that means it will need more cybersecurity as well,” he said. “We are working with large companies because they are worried about cybersecurity and are taking steps. Now the government needs to do its part. It must be secured, its employees need to be secured.”

Explaining in simple terms what Zscaler can do for security, Chaudhry said when any government employee clicks on something on the internet that looks real but is not, malicious code could get downloaded into the computer, “making your PC a spy. Now it can start collecting your information and sending it to the bad guys – maybe Pakistan or China.”

Chaudhry’s team first routes all access through the Zscaler cloud, which acts like a check post.

Think of an international airport,” he said. “They check your visa, baggage, etc. You get through Zscaler, and we ensure phishing, and malware doesn’t affect you. Zscaler can scan all that and make sure nothing goes wrong.

We used to make a big deal of a guy getting into the country,” he said. “Now every laptop can become a spy. Every keystroke you type can be picked up by the spy in your laptop and sent to the enemy, and you won’t even know. That is the kind [of spying] we can stop.”

He said Zscaler believes in a Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA). ‘Don’t trust anyone’ is the mantra.

Some [security] approaches have become outdated, and the bad guys have gotten ahead,” he said. “This needs a new architecture in the cloud. We do a better job of it.”

India is a significant market for Zscaler and is home to 40 percent of the company’s employees – in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Chandigarh.

Our customers include the who’s who of India’s large corporations,” Chaudhry said. “Big names like Larsen & Toubro and Godrej – and there are customers in various sectors. This is an international business. Half of our revenue comes from outside the U.S. Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies use Zscaler service to protect themselves.”

Chaudhry said the U.S. has high exposure and is vulnerable, pointing out how an attack last May shut down gas pipelines. While the Biden administration is a big fan of Zero Trust Architecture, it needs to move faster, he said. An executive order on improving the nation’s cybersecurity was introduced May 21.

While the administration has the funds, it needs to be sure it is deploying the right technology to protect itself, he said.

Chaudhry said that while many sectors were vulnerable, retail and financial services are more at risk. Besides, he said, the government being into infrastructure, a power shutdown could affect the entire system.

Colonial Pipeline, the target of the largest cyber attack on an oil infrastructure target in the history of the United States, has an impact on the entire East Coast.

Colonial Pipeline was not government-owned,” he pointed out. “Power companies are not owned by the government. So, all need to take some steps.”

Asked how Zscaler keeps evolving, Chaudhry said, “Yes, you must transform yourself. You change and look at the trends, the markets, and make sure you don’t become complacent. People like to keep doing what they are doing, but the job of a good leader is to make sure they are actually looking at things and bringing in new technology to stay relevant.”

For this, he said, it is important to get smart people in the company.

Whether in the U.S. or in India, infrastructure needs to be strong and reliable, Chaudhry said, particularly in the face of large-scale automation. If something shuts down, the government may not directly be affected, but it has to ensure a certain level of security for everyone, he said.

Chaudhry said India was thriving.

Startups are doing good and young people have drive and hope and are learning. This is good to see,”  he said, advising these young people to work hard, go the extra mile and do more of what is expected of them.

Money always follows if you do the work,” Chaudhry said. “If you really keep trying to chase money you often get disappointed. Just do the right thing, be patient, work hard. Good things will happen.”

Chaudhry came from a sales rather than a technology background.

I don’t run after what everyone else is achieving, and I like [a] first-mover advantage,” he said. “Look to a new area and be a pioneer. If you just do what everyone else is doing, it doesn’t work that well.”

He agreed that trying to be a pioneer is risky, but said it is also good business.

In general, risk and reward go together,” Chaudhry pointed out. “Anything significant doesn’t happen without risk. Cyberspace was not my domain, but I learned.” He pointed out that he started his first company, SecureIT, in 1997 to stop virus and spam attacks.

Inventing something gave him an advantage, he said.

Then you become the leader and it’s not a waste of time. The biggest thing you learn from taking your product to customers [is that] they are facing the real problems. Listen to the customers and work with them,” Chaudhry said.

Despite earning well, he does not think money has much to do with happiness. He describes happiness as a state of mind, lying in contentment.

We chase money all day long and it has changed our lifestyle a whole lot,” he said. He’s not running for it.