|n 1994, Gil Shwed and his partners took their fledgling company, Check Point Software Technologies, to the NetWorld Interop show in Las Vegas for its public debut. They shared a booth, brought no glitzy promotional items and hadn't even prepared a press release. They just had a product called FireWall-1.
The low-key debut turned into a show-stopper when the software snagged the best-of-show award. It was the start of big things for the little security start-up from Israel,and for its wunderkind programmer and founder. "That was one of the most important points in time when we realized we were on the right track," says the 30-something chairman and CEO.
With his sleeves rolled up, Shwed speaks quickly and shifts constantly in his chair during an interview at Check Point's U.S. headquarters in Redwood City, Calif., displaying a restless energy evident since childhood. 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 recalls. "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, who never bothered to graduate from college and remains single, may still need a little slowing down. He was not yet 25 when he founded Check Point, and he remains guarded about revealing his age, a reluctance that he says stems from his school days when he worked at consulting jobs and didn't want to be prejudged by his age.
Check Point's chairman is difficult to peg in other ways. Marius Nacht, the company's co-founder and senior vice president, describes his partner as "very multi-layered . . . a bit childlike, but very, very mature. Tough but sensitive, shy but aggressive." And, of course, smart.
Shwed developed the idea behind Check Point's firewall while serving in the Israeli army, where he worked on securing classified networks. A market didn't surface until 1993 when the Internet took off. Check Point was the first to broadly market a firewall with Shwed's patented "stateful inspection" technology, which has since become an industry standard. Shwed says he knew from the start that channel partners would be key to success.
"We recognized you can't be everywhere all the time, especially not in this fast-paced environment of the Internet, so it's critical to get the best partners everywhere in the world," he says.
Shwed treats solution providers with consideration and respect, says Gary Fish, president and CEO of FishNet Security, Kansas City, Mo. In fact, Fish once e-mailed Shwed and received a personal response within 10 minutes. Fish finds Check Point's other executives to be just as attentive to partners. "They don't put on any airs," he says. "They're very accessible."
That is one reason why Check Point now has 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. Sales rose 42 percent to $405 million for the nine months ended Sept. 30, while income jumped 75 percent to $245 million.
Shwed is not only a thoughtful and reserved technologist, he has a keen business sense with an ability to integrate past experience with a clear long-term view and vision, Nacht says. Besides, Shwed also has the ability "to be productive on little sleep," he adds.