Checkpoint founder and CEO Gil Shwed: The nice things at Checkpoint is the balance between the American and Israeli sides.You may not recognize his name, but chances are if you use a computer, you’ve used one of his company’s products.
And lucky for you too. Gil Shwed and his company Check Point Software Technologies are the creators of products which have long been the industry standard in internet security, protecting and preventing attacks at both the network and applications levels.
Shwed, the co-founder, CEO and chairman of Check Point is one of network security’s most successful leaders, and he’s an enigma – a young, casually dressed billionaire who ranks among Israel’s richest men. His FireWall-1 and VPN-1 software has been installed at more than 300,000 sites globally, including almost every Fortune 500 company. The company says its premier product, Firewall-1, has never been breached.
His appearance on Forbes’ 2002 list of under-35 “billionaire babies” has led to his affectionately being called the “Bill Gates of Israel.” Not bad for a 35-year old whose company emerged out of cramped, hot apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan in 1993.
Shwed launched Check Point in 1993, when he was not yet 25. In those days, few people even knew what the Internet was, let alone that it posed a network security risk. The World Wide Web was a brand new idea. And browsers yet invented. But Shwed and two friends named Shlomo Kramer, and Marius Nacht saw the potential.
During his army service in the Israel Defense Forces, Shwed reportedly joined a top secret electronic intelligence arm where he strung together military computer networks in a way that would allow some users access to confidential materials while denying access to others. When he left the service in 1990, Shwed walked off with the idea that would define his career.
With his friends Kramer and Nacht, Shwed intuitively realized that the young Internet would connect to businesses. And those businesses would need protection. “We knew eventually people would realize they had to have it,” says Shwed.
The three friends took to the mats in Kramer’s grandmother’s apartment for a year working on their idea. According to one of Shwed’s colleagues, “It was very hot, and they drank a lot of coke and ate pizza while programming for 12-14 hours a day. But after a year they had a product.”
Shwed says that despite the makeshift working conditions, there was no doubt in his mind that they were working on something big.
“The first year was marked by a lot in intensity. Yet we were always positive and optimistic – working towards a goal. It was a very exciting time, the development of the Internet. It was a new market at the end of ’93-94, and nobody knew how to make a business out of it,” Shwed told ISRAEL21c from the U.S. headquarters of Checkpoint in Redwood City, California. “Our challenge came after we came up with the product – how do we sell it? We’re sitting here in an apartment in Ramat Gan, and the customers are in the U.S. and all over the world. How do we pull it off?”
The fledgling entrepreneurs took their product and their new company to the 1994 NetWorld Interop show in Las Vegas for its public debut. They shared a booth with another company, and brought no glitzy promotional items, just their product called FireWall-1.
“We put out a press release, but back then, we didn’t even really know what a press release was,” says Shwed. Despite those obstacles, FireWall-1 ended up winning the best-of-show award in Las Vegas, and it provided the push into the limelight for Check Point which is all that was needed.
“That Las Vegas show gave us a great feeling – It was the best single moment we shared, and gave us the recognition that we were on the right path,” says Shwed.
That path quickly led Check Point more than 86,000 customers and 1,500 channel partners. Its product portfolio has expanded to include VPN technology, traffic controllers and security management solutions. Today the company is worth $7 billion, and Check Point is now considered the world leader in network security software for enterprises. It has a broad range of software solutions including firewalls and various products which integrate network management and security.
“Despite our success and the accolades, this kind of work has continued to be difficult and involved a lot of hard work,” recalls Shwed. “Just because you get recognition, you don’t suddenly get all these customers orders in the mail. And even if you do, you have to provide support for them, develop new versions.
To prove that point, Check Point recently came out with its newest technology, called AI (Application Intelligence Technology) an extension of its core business of protecting enterprise networks from outside attack, which Shwed says addresses today’s most critical Internet security threats – “the new breed of sophisticated, damaging application-driven attacks.”
“Hackers are developing more sophisticated attacks that are application-driven, such as Slammer, Code Red and Nimda. This important shift in attack methodology requires that enterprise firewalls provide not only access control and network-level attack protection, but also sophisticated intelligence on application behavior to protect against attacks and exploits. As we did with the firewall and VPN, Check Point is once again changing the Internet security landscape with Application Intelligence. By evolving enterprise firewalls into multi-layer security gateways, we are elevating attack protection to a new level and reinforcing the role of the firewall as the primary network security enforcement point,” says Shwed.
THE STORY of the wunderkind Shwed’s rise to the top is legend in Israeli hi-tech circles. At 10, he began taking weekly computer classes in his native Jerusalem and soon was showing up daily, learning on his own. At 12, he got a summer job coding for a language-translation software company. And by 15, he was asking his father and mother for help getting into the university.
“They said if you’re old enough to go to university, you’re also old enough to get yourself admitted to university,” Shwed told BusinessWeek magazine. “My parents were supportive of what I did. But they did a very good thing for me, which was they didn’t push me. The only thing they pushed me to do was balance my life.”
Shwed never graduated from college and remains single. In an interview with Information Security magazine, Marius Nacht, the company’s co-founder and senior vice president, called Shwed “very multi-layered . . . a bit childlike, but very, very mature. Tough but sensitive, shy but aggressive.”
“He has a similar approach to life and business and technical issues. He’s very consistent as a person,” says Jerry Ungerman, whom Shwed convinced to leave Hitachi Data Systems five years ago to become president of Check Point. “He’s a true visionary. He really understands customers’ needs, their requirements and what’s going on in the world,” Ungerman told Information Security.
Shwed has kept Check Point’s global headquarters in Israel, but over the years have moved the majority of the firm’s setup to the U.S. where the bulk of its 1200 employees work.
“I see Check Point as a global company – We have offices around the world, and operate in a global model. We decided to keep the Israel headquarters for a number of reasons – one I’m Israeli, two – there’s a level of patriotism at work. The Israeli identification is not a strong part of our identity with our customers though. We’re a leading global software company – that also happen to be Israeli. But we admit who we are, and don’t try to hide it,” says Shwed.
“The nice things at Checkpoint is the balance between the American and Israeli sides. We’re trying to get the get things from both cultures. Israelis tend to focus on overcoming obstacles, are very goal oriented, and a big plus is that we’re very flexible. What we learn from the American model is working in an organized way, according to process and procedures. The combination is very strong. Checkpoint is very cross-cultural. Most of our American employees are not Jewish or connected to Israel, but they’ve learned about the culture and have come to appreciate Israel and Israelis. I’ve had people come to me and ‘we really like Israel, the culture, the people, and we want to visit. This is not through a feeling of Zionism or anything, they’ve just developed a connection with the country,” says Shwed.
Schwed has no intentions of slowing down, or changing direction in the near future, citing the AI project as a type of rejuvenation process for him.
“That’s the fun aspect for me – new challenges, and doing new things. One of the things people think is that if an entrepreneur is successful, they can sit back and rest on their laurels and watch how successful they are. Most actually do the opposite and are constantly reinventing themselves.”