Image: hiking in the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado.

Biochemistry, Hobbits & Veterans for Peace — An Interview with Security Lead Kris Hardy

We’re sharing the stories of people who help make Propellerhead tick. In this edition, we interview our Security Lead, SRE and Senior Developer Kris Hardy.

I was born on a US Air Force base in rural Illinois, USA. My dad was in the Air Force, so we traveled for several years around the US and spent the earliest years of my memory learning to ride a bicycle in West Germany.

Images: Me with Grandad and a few other pics. Interestingly, my grandad was in the Army Air Corps during WWII as a radio operator for the Flying Tigers in SE Asia.

When I was school-aged, we returned to the US and I spent nearly all of my school years in Albuquerque, NM.

Albuquerque is a very interesting place, and one of the most diverse states in the US. It was one of the last states to become a state, and has a large indigenous Native American population, Old Spanish colonial influence and heritage, and a mix of Latinx populations from Central and South America. It is the only US state where white Europeans are a minority.

Yes I did. When I was in high school, I got a job writing software to test satellite components at Sandia National Laboratory, a US government research lab. I was fascinated by code that could interact with hardware, and when I went to University I wanted to study what would later become widely known as bioengineering, but it wasn’t yet a major field.

Images: Defence Support Program (DSP) satellites that I worked on at Sandia Nat’l Labs in high school. It is used to detect inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches.

My family has a deep military background. I have an ancestor that was a Minute Man in Massachusetts at the start of the the US-British Revolutionary War. Both my Grandfathers fought in WWII, one with the Flying Tigers in South-east Asia, and the other on the European front. My uncle served in Vietnam, and my father served in the Air Force during the late Cold War. So, I believed that it was my duty to serve my country, and I received an appointment to the US Air Force Academy.

Being a military academy and a strong engineering school, the options were somewhat limited, but I decided to study biochemistry in the hope that I would be able to work in international biological weapons inspections and infectious disease response to help keep the world safe, and eventually work on medical research instruments when I would leave the military.

After I graduated from the US Air Force Academy, my first position was as a Project Manager and Research Chemist for the Air Force Research Laboratory, where I worked on rocket propellant research.

One of my large projects was to manage a project to dispose of rocket propellant waste. At that time, and it is likely still the process today, when you needed to dispose of rocket propellant you would truck it into the middle of a large sandpit, drop it off, pack explosives around it, and literally blow it up.

That’s obviously not very good for the environment, so we tried a new way by chemically deactivating the propellant so that it could be disposed of in a safe manner.

While I was working on that project, the September 11th attacks happened. I was called in to work for the General in charge of the base to help coordinate our communications, security and emergency response, and all other base-wide actions.

After about a year of that, I spent 2 years in a biological research lab working on finding ways to genetically engineer bacteria that could eat chemical warfare agents. I then spent several years in another chemical research lab at the Air Force Research Laboratory working primarily as a Project Manager, managing research projects into paints to prevent aircraft from corroding. In the mid 2000’s, the Air Force was spending over USD$2-billion repairing aircraft due to corrosion, so anything that could be done would have a significant impact.

When I left the Air Force in 2007, I decided that I wanted to get back into software. I was lucky to have started programming at 6 years old, and I was always writing small projects, but I was pretty new to web development and “Web 2.0” was just barely a thing.

So, using an open-source e-commerce application and the idea of making a SCUBA diving location geolocation and review site, I taught myself PHP4, MySQL, and Javascript. In one of my early projects as a contractor, I found a huge number of security vulnerabilities in a client’s code.

I showed my client that I could dump usernames and passwords via their login page, and that set the seed of my interest in ethical hacking.

In 2010, I was lucky enough to get the chance to work on scientific instruments, and write code that actually ran motors, turned valves and did things in the physical world. You haven’t lived until you’ve hooked up a pressurized cylinder to a motorized valve, hooked the motor to a single board computer, and then run your code to open the valve, realizing about 1/2 second too late that the polarity of the valve is set backwards, so the valve with 100 psi of pressurized boiling water is turning the wrong direction. Protip: Always be ready to pull the power cord.

In 2015, I went back into consulting doing a number of things for clients: building machine learning-based systems, automating deployments, attempting to launch products, building prototype hardware, and penetration testing web and mobile apps.

To keep things exciting, I also taught IT courses (CompTIA A+, Security+ and EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker) for our local University, organized the Albuquerque Python User’s Group and DC505 (the Albuquerque DEFCON Community Group), and was part of the group that was hacking voting machines at DEFCON in 2017.

Image: Hacking voting machines at DEFCON 2017.

I moved to New Zealand just last year, after accepting a role with you at Propellerhead. New Zealand has been wonderful so far. The people here are amazingly friendly and seem to care about each other. The first day I was here I was looking at my phone and trying to decide which way I wanted to walk home from Auckland Domain, and someone came over and asked “Do you need help? Is everything OK? Do you know where you’re going?

I got my chance to pay it forward last month when I noticed a woman by University of Auckland looking at a map and trying to get her bearings. I stopped and helped her find her way to her dormitory. It turns out that she had just arrived from the UK that morning!

Image: Arriving in New Zealand and visiting Aotea Square, Auckland.

I am the head of Information System Security, a Site Reliability Engineer and a Senior Software Developer for Propellerhead.

Every day is different. Some days I am debugging systems and working with clients to handle outages. Other times I am writing software to improve our clients’ systems or improve our own processes. Other times I am conducting security analysis or responding to incidents. It’s fast-paced work and incredibly stimulating. I tell my family that it’s like solving puzzles all day, and sometimes the puzzles you are handed were designed by a half-mad, deliciously evil toymaker.

Right now, I’m occasionally working on software that decreases the amount of time that my wife and I spend grocery shopping.

It’s a simple problem (I mean, they’re just groceries, right?) but it’s a great excuse to do some more machine learning work, play on mobile user interfaces, and learn another language. I’ve always found that if I want to learn something, the best way to do it is have a project. Maybe you finish it, maybe you don’t. But you sure learn a lot along the way.

I am an avid rock climber, backpacker/tramper, and back-country skier. I’m also a pretty hardcore cyclist, but have gotten a bit softer over the years. But I still ride to and from work every day, regardless of weather.

Image: Back-country skiing at Pecos Wilderness, just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I have an embarrassingly large list of podcasts that I listen to, off and on.

Some of my favorites are: RNZ’s The Detail, Reveal, Planet Money, RadioLab, Deconstructed, Revisionist History, Stay Tuned, Freakonomics, Security Now, America Dissected, Welcome to Nightvale, This American Life, History of Aotearoa New Zealand, Embedded, Intercepted, The Service, Wind of Change, Darknet Diaries, Arm and a Leg and Uncivil.

I don’t watch much TV, but I do enjoy the occasional episode of Wellington Paranormal. There’s something about Kiwi humour that I love. Rhys Darby is probably one of the lesser reasons why I’m here in NZ.

I’m a member of Veterans for Peace, an international organization of military members and supporters who believe that most war would end if people truly understood the horrors and costs of war.

Image: Participating in an anti-war protest in Albuquerque.

As I listened to the 2020 ANZAC Day ceremony this year and have since learned more about Australia and New Zealand’s role in Gallipoli, and visited the top floor of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, I believe that New Zealanders understand the costs of war better than most.

Two years ago, our Veterans for Peace chapter received a message from a US Marine veteran named Cesar Lopez, and despite having served in the US military in the ’90s, and taking an oath to support and defend the United States, his permanent residency was stripped from him and he was deported to Mexico in 2013.

He grew up in a rough area of Los Angeles to a single mother in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the year 2000, about a decade after he left the military, he had found himself needing money for university and had made a bad decision which led to him being arrested for marijuana possession. He assisted the authorities to take down a drug distribution operation, and the judge decided to give him a deferred sentence. As long as he kept his record clean, the arrest would be removed from his record.

He finished university, worked as an engineer, then worked in social work to help at-risk youth. In 2013, as he was saving up money to start his first company, he was detained by US Customs and Immigration Service after he flew back to the US from Costa Rica. The reason why they detained him, they told him, was that his conviction 13 years earlier meant that they could deport him whenever they liked.

They held him in prison for 40 days, then deported him to Mexico, leaving his 2 young daughters without their father. Cesar is a big, intimidating-looking Marine, and after being repeatedly threatened and nearly killed by drug gangs in northern Mexico, he decided to return to his family and re-enter the US illegally by hiking through the California desert. He barely survived, but so many others haven’t been so lucky.

He had been living on the run and trying to restore his permanent residency so that he could live in peace. When he contacted us, he was about to give up. His last hope was to get the Governor of New Mexico to issue a pardon to him. With that, it would remove his conviction and he would be able to get his permanent residency reinstated. What made it especially hard was that he lived in Las Vegas, which is nearly a 1000km drive to New Mexico, and everytime he left his house he was at risk of being arrested and deported.

Image: On the right is Cesar Lopez, and on the left is Manuel Valenzuela, who doesn’t have a birth certificate. He was born in northern Mexico in the 60s to US parents (the border was completely open at that time) and he grew up in the US. The US now considers him an illegal immigrant. This picture was taken during one of our trips to the New Mexico capital to put pressure on the Governor to consider Cesar’s case for a pardon.

Once we learned his story and met him, we decided that we needed to help. Five of us from our chapter petitioned the Governor, helped Cesar through the pardon application process, set up and attended meetings with attorneys, picked up and dropped off documents for him so that he didn’t have to risk himself by traveling, and made sure that our elected representatives didn’t forget about him. Thankfully, he finally won his pardon just this month on 1st of July, and will be getting his residency returned to him so that he can bring his life back to normal.

We believe there are somewhere between 300 and 1,500 US military service members who, like Cesar, have been deported from the country that they defended.

My wife and I are starting our family, so I look forward to seeing what is to come. I have some projects in cybersecurity that I would like to see materialize, but there are two truths I’ve learned: you can’t predict what is unpredictable, and not everything needs to be predicted.

I suspect that the big thing that I’m working on in 10 years is probably something that I can’t fathom today.

An Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon and a firestarter (no philosophy here. I just want to survive and get home!)

My wife and I baked a dozen lime cupcakes for a co-worker’s birthday. We usually have cake at Propellerhead for people’s birthday, but because of COVID-19 and remote work, that has stopped temporarily. But we didn’t want him to think that we forgot about him.

I was thinking about this the other day, oddly, and I decided that I would be really interested to have J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson over.

My wife would want to create a meal inspired by the first chapter of The Hobbit (it won’t be the first or second time that she’s done it), and we would sit and listen to them argue over the finer points of the Elvish language and the Ent culture.

Image: Potential location for Hobbit-themed meal perhaps?

You can read more interviews from our team here, and learn more about how we build software at Propellerhead here.