March 09, 2010, 10:44 AM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Lance Watson has done a little bit of everything -- from working on a fishing boat in the Florida Keys, to digging ditches and delivering pizzas. His job at a company installing and troubleshooting voicemail systems took him to a project in the Arctic Circle, where he went ice fishing and ate whale meat with an Inuit named Harvey. It's been a long and interesting road, to say the least.
Always "the computer guy" to his friends and family, but never making a career out of it until a lucky meeting one day took him on the path to becoming an e-discovery and digital forensics expert, Lance's career goal was to have a job that gave him stories to tell - and he's got plenty.
You've been working with computers since seventh grade. What first attracted you to technology at such a young age?
At that time, there wasn't much there. To give you some perspective, it was around 1980, and computers weren't around for everybody to use. The attraction was that for our entire school system in my town, we had a total of two computers. They were TRS-80s - green-screen, molded metal, one piece units with a big disk drive and no hard drive to speak of.
What about college?
I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. When I got to be a senior and wanted to go to college, I hadn't thought about what I wanted to do with life. So my decision was to go to OSU. School always came easy for me, and college probably would have come easy too, but nobody told me about racquetball. And so I found that when I got to OSU, I didn't go to class much. I found that I could go and learn the computer stuff, but had no interest in English and History and those kinds of things, so at the end of the year, I got a letter from the dean that said, "Hey, don't come back."
So having been kicked out of OSU, what did you do?
I decided the best thing to do was marry my girlfriend, who is still my wife, and it's been 20 years. It seemed like the best thing to do, with me not having a career and her going to Tulsa University trying to get a degree. To support us, I took an endless stream of jobs in an attempt to find myself. Why I didn't ever decide to do something with computers at this point, I don't know. Eventually, I get lucky and my wife gets hired by the university, and my tuition gets paid to go back to T.U. When I get there, I realize, maybe I can be a student. The problem is, I'm the oldest person in all my classes. I figured out that the coursework was too hard to study for by yourself. So I found the smartest guy in our class, who was Benjamin. I approached Ben and we made a deal. We study together, and we take tests. Whenever we take a test, whoever has the highest score gets a dollar a point for the difference between him and the other person. So I tag along with the smartest guy there, a Goldwater Scholar winner and everything else, taking tests for four years, and I end up paying him a total of about $100. So my grade point average is a function of the fact that I was gambling a dollar a point versus a Goldwater Scholar trying to get myself along. It cost me $100 for four years, I like to think that's a good deal.
It's a great deal.
I realized that I can do some things with the computer, and I get my first real computer job, working with the University of Tulsa putting Internet in the high schools around Tulsa. Then I got my degree in Engineering and Computer Science, and got hired by a small company in Tulsa called VST Voice Systems, which had recently been bought out by Boston Communications Group.
How did you come across that job?
It was one of the weirdest situations I've ever been in. I send out 12 requests for an interview. I get 12 interviews. About the third interview out of this set is with Boston Communications Group. They had a night job they offered in the paper. I didn't want the job, but it had been so long since I had gone out and interviewed, I just wanted to make sure I got in front of people and could interview well. So I go into the interview, and the guy's excited. The problem is, I'm not excited about him being excited, because I don't want a night job. What I didn't realize was, he saw my resume and was calling me about another job. So we have this weird interview where he's trying to give me the job and I'm turning it down, and he's putting more money on the table. I don't even know that he's offering me a completely different job. We've talked at cross-purposes for over an hour. When I realized what we were talking about, I said yeah, I want that job. I went to work for them in their tech support department for voicemail. These voicemail systems were small, DOS-based systems scaled to work for a small phone company. We'd put these little systems in all over the country.
Where did you get sent out to?
They found out I didn't mind going to the cold places, so I got sent to do all the cold installs. We had a voicemail system that we had installed out in Kotzebue, Alaska, just north of the Arctic Circle. It's a little town on the coast that's the hub for about 12 native villages. I fly up there and not sure what I'm going to see. There's not a lot of hills or mountains, or anything else. It was white.
And cold, too.
Right. But I'm not a coat guy. I wear a coat maybe two days a year. I went to Alaska in the middle of winter without a coat. I got up the next morning and walked to work at 30 below zero without a coat, and they were suitably impressed. After that, they got me a coat. When I'm up there working on the phone system, a lot of things happen that you never think would happen. So when our guys forgot to send screws, we had to find some. The problem is, there's no hardware store. So you know all those extra parts you get in consumer goods, where they send you an extra washer or screw or whatever? In Alaska, they put those all in bins and keep them for the day when you need something, and you don't have a hardware store. So we sorted through those until we found something that fit. Then as we're installing it, one of the guys asks if I'd like to go ice fishing. I've never been ice fishing before in my life, and you have to have the proper gear. So they call this Inuit guy named Harvey, and he says he'll take us. He's a big guy, my size. So we go to Harvey's house, and his wife walks out and looks at me, and says, "Oh, yeah." And she walks back in the room and starts throwing out these things for me to wear. So by the time I'm dressed, I'm in a cold suit, but I'm also wearing the parts of about half a dozen animals. I've got on seal skin gloves, beaver skin hat, and bearskin leggings. That's good, because it's cold in Alaska in the middle of winter. We're five miles out in the middle of the frozen ocean. I didn't even realize we went from land to water. The ice is about 12 feet thick, and there's a hole dug in the ice, and I'm sitting there, and I start getting cold. Harvey came to me and said, "If you're cold, you need to eat a piece of this." I asked him what it was, and he said it was "muktuk", which is whale meat. At that moment, I realize that this is a story that I'll have for the rest of my life. It was a great day.
So what finally happened with that job?
They decided to close the doors of the Tulsa office about five and a half years ago. We probably got out at the right time, because later BCG got sued into oblivion in a patent dispute. After leaving there, I go over to T.U. to meet with some people, and I run into the man who is now our principal here, and he's also hanging around University of Tulsa trying to figure out what he wants to do in life. We decided to start this company, Avansic.
What kind of company is Avansic?
We're an e-discovery and digital forensics provider.
What kind of cases do you work on?
In the last few years, we've done a lot of different types of cases, like patent infringements, divorce cases, banking cases, fraud.
Have any interesting spy stories?
We get people who call that feel they're being spied on. We had a call here from a woman who told us she was being tracked by the red lights in town. We had another who was worried that she was being spied on by the computer that was unplugged and in her closet at home. She was afraid it was listening to her. For more serious cases, we've had a number of situations where people are taking the company's intellectual property right out the door. We had one company in the repair business, which had a competitor who advertises a lot. The company that hired us had brought in the son of their competitor to manage part of their operation, but they started noticing a few months later that they're not making money at the rate they should. It seemed like they were bidding on more close-to-the-bone jobs, instead of the fat jobs with a lot of profit. We came in and did an investigation and found the smoking gun—the son was sending his father notes telling him to call different people about bidding on jobs. The guy was a mole in the organization, and he had been sending the good contracts to his father.
Would you say digital forensics is a growing field?
Oh yeah, it's growing by leaps and bounds. Try to find a business these days that doesn't have some sort of computer-related data. It's practically impossible. Everybody leaves an electronic trail, it's very hard not to.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into the field of digital forensics?
I get asked that a lot, and the answer's still not clear. There are some college programs that provide a good basis for understanding. A good technical background through a tech school or university's a good thing, but a good portion of our employees here are home grown, because there's no way to go out and find a forensics person right now. If you want to be in forensics, you have to love computers, and you have to love solving problems. You have to love a different challenge every day. This is not a 9 to 5 road, and you won't be working on the same thing two times in a row.
Is there a licensing requirement?
To be a forensics professional anywhere in the United States, all you have to do is hang out a shingle and say that you are one. There is no unified certification that everyone needs to have. In most states, there actually is a licensing for digital forensics, but it's not the licensing that you would anticipate. I'm licensed in the states of Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas as a private investigator. I had to go to PI school. It really doesn't match up. I don't use anything from my PI training in what I do, but it's the closest thing to what anybody out there would say is a licensing requirement.
It sounds like a fascinating field.
It's the kind of job I just had to have. I can't be a cubicle guy.
But why did you suddenly decide on forensics?
It sounded cool. It was an opportunity to try something different and get out of the 9 to 5 grind. Little did I recognize that I was trading the 9 to 5 grind for the 7 am to 3 in the morning grind, but I wouldn't trade a minute of it. At the time, the field was empty, and you get to break snow. You get to be the lead dog out there, doing something that other people aren't doing. I'm breaking new ground. And what's been the main point of this is that I wanted to get into doing something that not every else does. I wanted to be able to tell the stories about how I was north of the Arctic Circle, how I helped catch a bank robber, and how I helped save a company a million dollars by being able to show them who the person was who was filtering out funds. I want to be in a field where I can pick up a few stories along the way. That's what attracted me here and that's what keeps me here.