Dr. Taher Elgamal is a tremendously successful and talented cryptographer turned entrepreneur. He is the designer of the ElGamal signature scheme which has served as the basis for the Digitial Signature Algorithm. He holds a doctorate degree in Computer Science from Stanford University. I had the pleasure of talking with Taher, discussing not only his background and past ventures, but what he is doing now and where he thinks the security market is at, and where it is likely to go.
SM: Taher, I would like to begin the interview by going back to your roots. You come from a background with a completely different cultural context where I imagine you were not exposed to entrepreneurial activities as we know it here in Silicon Valley. If you could connect some dots for us and tell us how you moved onto the path you are on today, that would be great. TE: Interesting question. I grew up in Cairo, obviously, and Cairo is an old civilization. Where I grew up was an interesting family collection because families in Egypt are collections of a lot of different things. It is true that one would not think of starting companies when you were 15 years old when you were growing up in Cairo, although nowadays that has changed. Back then, you tried to find the biggest government position you could.
SM: What was your family like? TE: My father was a high level official in the government, he ran most of the health department. He was a busy guy. There were four of us kids in the house.
SM: And your father was your role model? TE: Gandhi is my role model.
SM: What about Gandhi do you admire? TE: It is the quiet strength that I admire most. I will accomplish what I want to, but not necessarily by fighting and screaming and cursing. I think I have some of that characteristic.
SM: You were growing up in Cairo. What were you doing and what was your educational path which led into your early career? TE: I went to a private school in grade school and then went to a public high school. Very early on, I recognized that I like numbers, I was peculiar that way. If you read mathematic history books, there are groups of people in the world who are recognized as being number lovers, which are different than number theorist. I grew up as that, I just liked to play with numbers, it was my hobby. I always said that numbers do not change their mind. If you do the same operation over and over again, it is very consistent which I found very soothing because people are never consistent. I was very good in mathematics, but I was not very good in linguistics. I hated writing essays, and I was terrible at it. I always got the best grades in math. I graduated High School in 1972 and went to Cairo University and I went into Engineering because Math degrees over there are recognized as a path to teaching High School, which is not exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to go into Electrical Engineering.