|t the annual RSA Conference this year, Jim Bidzos uncorked a bottle of champagne and toasted the panel of government officials sharing the stage with him.
After a 13-year battle, the policy makers in Washington had finally come around to see things Bidzos' way by relaxing the export controls on encryption. Then, gazing at the cheering crowd, he realized his work was done.
RSA Security, the Bedford, Mass.-based company he had worked so hard to build as CEO, was generating more than $200 million in annual revenue, and its authentication and encryption technologies had become the de facto standards in the industry. He saw happy employees, content customers and a government that was no longer breathing down his neck.
"It was that one defining moment," Bidzos says. "I had pretty much accomplished everything I wanted to."
RSA's software is embedded in more than 450 million copies of widely used applications, including Netscape Navigator, Lotus Notes and Microsoft software. Whenever you buy a book on the Web or bank online, chances are RSA technology is securing the transaction.
VeriSign, an RSA spin-off Bidzos founded in 1995, is also a powerhouse in securing the Internet. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has issued more than 215,000 digital certificates, which act as electronic IDs in cyberspace.
Bidzos saw the potential of the Internet and the need for security long before others, says Ed Hart, former deputy director of information security at the National Security Agency. "He had the foresight to lay the groundwork for the industry. E-business could not take place were it not for the confidence of security," he says.
Bidzos' contribution is immense, says Lynn McNulty, director of government relations at RSA and a former official at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
"He almost singlehandedly commercialized the use of public key encryption," McNulty says. "He's been a missionary, an advocate, someone who played a key role in formulating some of the fundamental public policy issues related to the use of encryption and export of commercial encryption products," he says.
Bidzos was a programmer turned marketing executive when he joined RSA in 1986. The company was nearly broke when it enlisted Bidzos to turn it around. "He displayed all these really great gifts," says Len Adleman, one of three Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists who invented RSA's cryptosystem. "He had boldness, vision [and] the ability to paint a pretty picture for others to see. He could negotiate and steer a ship in waters that were entirely untried, with no real bearings to go by," he says.
Adleman, now a professor of computer science at the University of Southern California, says RSA had two major battles to fight, and Bidzos readily took the challenge. First, RSA had to educate the market about the potential of the Internet and, in turn, the need for computer security. Second, it had to dissuade the government from trying to control cryptography development in the name of national security.
"Jim had to steer the ship in such a way that every time the NSA would put up a barrier, he would have to steer around the barrier to keep the company going," Adleman says.
Colleagues say Bidzos' keen blend of technical skill and business know-how helped him succeed in his mission. "Jim has an enormous range of skills," says Ron Rivest, a professor of computer science at MIT and co-creator of RSA's technology. "He's amazingly adept with the technology, but he also has great people skills and the ability to see his way through negotiating a contract."
Charm, along with a fearless nature, also propelled Bidzos to success, Adleman says. "He is someone who is not afraid of confrontation and someone who may even thrive on it," he says. "He doesn't feel intimidated by many situations where others would."
Indeed, Bidzos thrives on adrenaline-inducing situations. He's a self-described thrill seeker with a penchant for fast cars, motorcycles and planes. He says his ultimate thrill was flying a Russian MiG-25 fighter plane at its top speed of mach 2.7 (more than 2,000 mph) at an altitude of 85,000 feet, or "on the edge of space," as he describes it.
"If it has a motor and goes fast, I like it," Bidzos says, relaxing in jeans and a T-shirt at his home in Mill Valley, Calif., on the quiet outskirts of San Francisco. "If it has a jet engine, I like it even more."
Born in Greece, Bidzos came to the United States as a young boy. His parents settled in Ohio, where his father worked as a barber and his mother managed a restaurant. A quick study, Bidzos was good at math but was always on the lookout for excitement. Motorcycles were his passion then and now. "My mother jokes about all the gray hair I gave her," he says.
"All of these people were building these systems for e-commerce, and when they looked around for some security, boom, here's something that's tried and true, proven and ready to go," Bidzos says.
Still, he had plenty of lobbying to do in Washington, where wrangling with policymakers about encryption export rules became a chunk of his workload. He traveled countless times to the nation's capital to meet with federal bureaucrats and elected officials, including President Clinton. His mission: Convince them that the U.S. encryption export policy was weakening the country's economic competitiveness and compromising national security.
Those who sat on the opposite side of the table from Bidzos in Washington describe him as tenacious and tough but also as someone who earned their respect.
"Jim is an excellent debater. He has the right blend of humor and knowledge of the industry and is firmly convinced he's right," says McNulty, who debated Bidzos over a digital signature standard that the government proposed as an alternative to RSA's standard. "He's tough to argue with. I really respected him because he had all those qualities."
McNulty recalled an RSA conference where Bidzos invited him and another NIST official to talk about the government's proposed standard. McNulty joked to Bidzos that he might need a hard hat to protect himself from the audience during the Q&A. Bidzos promptly met the request.
In his work, Bidzos was driven by a passion for what he believed in, as well as a feeling of not wanting to disappoint RSA's employees. "He cared for the employees of RSA and the value of the stock that enabled each of them to benefit from their ventures with the company," Hart says.
Today, Bidzos savors his free time and flinches when he looks back at the hectic pace he kept up for so long, running to meetings with a cell phone pressed to his ear. He remains vice chairman of RSA and chairman of VeriSign. He also sits on a handful of boards but makes no time commitments. "I can do as much or as little as I want; I have no obligations," he says. "I can honestly say I'm doing exactly what I want to do. That, to me, is a good definition of success."
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