Why I employed a felon

Yesterday, I joined one of our Mahalo employees at Federal District Court as he was sentenced to 48 months in jail for crimes related to computer security.

Before my employee John Schiefer was sentenced, a violent career criminal was facing 60 months for beating up a prison guard. I could hear John’s breathing deepening as the judge spoke–his fiancee’s leg shaking more and more as the reality of John’s situation set in. John wound up getting 48 months in prison, a number which could be reduced if he behaves himself. He goes to jail on June 1st, and maybe he’ll be out in two or three years.

We didn’t know John was convicted of infecting 250,000 computers with bots when we hired him. We have a rigorous hiring process at Mahalo, in which each candidate must go through an average of five to eight interviews, and in which at least three, but more typically five, references are checked. Our CTO, and one of my oldest friends, Mark Jeffrey, did all of this with John, and he passed with flying colors.

However, Mark screwed up by not doing a simple Google search on John’s name. If Mark had, he would have easily found out about these crimes, we would never have hired John, and I would not be writing this letter. Why would we even take the risk of hiring a felon hacker? No one would, right?

Months after John’s hiring, our VP of Operations found out about the crimes John had committed. We sat down with John and learned about what he did when he was younger, how he was abused as a child, his anger issues, and how he found some level of peace in being part of the team at Mahalo.

Now I was left with the decision to fire John on the spot and cut my losses and responsibility. This was the easy choice, obviously. If I really wanted to cover my butt, I could turn on one of my best friends, Mark Jeffrey, and fire him for making the only mistake he’s ever made working for me. The other option was to keep John on and deal with the potential firestorm of criticism that we’re now facing.

I chose to put my job and reputation on the line and keep John employed.

At this moment, I’m honestly glad we didn’t know about what John did when we hired him and I’m happy we’ve kept him on board. It’s taught me a lot about society, computer crime and rehabilitation. In John, I see almost every computer programmer from my time “hacking” on BBSes as a kid, attending hacker conferences and hiring “white hat” hackers for a living.

Almost all talented developers push the envelope when they’re young. Anyone in technology knows this dark, dirty little secret.

When I worked for Sony, I watched folks in the IT department read their bosses’ email. When I was in high school and college, I watched daily as folks explored the areas of the computer networks they were specifically told not to enter. In fact, I was fired from my first computer job for creating a partition on a hard drive in the computer lab where I stored my files.

When the Web emerged, I watched as folks created honey pots to prove they could socially manipulate people into giving away private information.

Many of these folks moved on to marketing firms which do essentially the same things–except they play by the rules. At conferences, I see people pop out WiFi sniffers and show me passwords of executives in the room. I’ve heard senior executives recount stories of putting keyboard monitor software on computers in their offices and recording all instant messaging traffic to find out what their employees are up to.

What is the difference between the hackers who put one foot over the line and the ones who race past it? Being bored? A lack of guidance? Low self-esteem? I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t tell you exactly.

However, I consider myself a fairly decent judge of character, and after spending months with John, I’m convinced he was an angry stupid kid when he launched his botnet attack (which did .000000001% of the damage it could have). Now he’s an adult who just wants to make a decent living, spend time with his significant other and breathe the clean air off the Pacific Ocean by our offices in Santa Monica.

John’s going to have to spend a couple of years in jail for what he did. Certainly we have to punish those who’ve committed crimes. But watching this go down, I wish in my heart of hearts that judge had given John a sentence from home, where we could have supervised him.

I’m hoping that the time he’s spent being a productive member of the Mahalo team inspires him to keep his head down in jail. When he comes out, I hope to be able to offer him a job and that we can work together again. Life is short, we all make mistakes and I’m glad we’ve been given the opportunity to work with someone who needs the help and guidance.

Note to Mahalo Users: John’s work is well-supervised. Mahalo follows strict security policies and we don’t store any sensitive data anyway. (Even if one of our employees did go off the deep end, the most they would have access to would be your questions and answers on Mahalo Answers–not much damage can be done there since they’re all public anyway).

Thank you for taking the time to hear me out.

all the best,

Jason

157 thoughts on “Why I employed a felon

  1. So your faith in someone who is an accomplished conman, duping his clients into entrusting him with the keys of the kingdom, outweights your responsibility to your investors, employees and your customers?

    What happens when a year from now you find that he’s planted malware on hundreds of mahalo pages?

    What troubled me about this particular case is that it involved an
    individual entrusted with making sure that computers are safe – he was
    an information security specialist – but while at work, he was
    infecting people’s computers, putting wiretap programs on them,
    catching people’s user names and passwords, and forcing the infected
    computers to disgorge the most confidential banking information, and
    then encouraging juveniles to use this information to steal people’s
    money

  2. I appreciate the fact that you didn’t just go with the knee-jerk reaction, and that you took the time to present your case.

  3. Sounds like you’ve experienced a changed man. Hopefully
    others will see this and know that all people make
    mistakes and some will learn from them. Those that do need
    to be given the right to reintegrate themselves into society.

  4. Congratulations on your ethics.

    Too many times, our felons when released from prison are
    condemned to committing further crimes because they can’t get
    an even break at acquiring decent employment.

    True, most criminals are not likely as educated as your
    individual is; but none the less; without social reform by
    corporations to hire the felon the detention system becomes
    more of a revolving door; hence the high repeat
    incarceration rate.

    Jason, I applaud your personal integrity; perhaps you should
    start a movement to “Hire the Felon” when they are released
    from prison. Perhaps your actions will go a long way towards
    reversing the re-incarceration rate we currently observe.

  5. Mr. Calcanis:

    You should have done a more diligent job of vetting him
    prior to hiring. He did not provide full disclosure during
    the interview/hiring process, which in most companies is
    cause for termination.

    The laws exist for good reason…like to maintain social order
    and prevent abuses of other’s rights.

    Our society expects laws to be obeyed.
    This is in the interest of all citizens.

    Youth is not an excuse for lawbreaking, abuse or otherwise.

    Character matters and integrity counts.

    Maybe if it was your own personal identity that was stolen
    by hackers you may feel differently.

    He is getting a strong dose of reality currently.

    Good luck.

  6. Jason, I’m sorry to hear about your experience with Mr. Schiefer. Unfortunately, I’ve heard too many of these kinds of stories in my line of work. I run an investigative services firm that specializes in providing due diligence and fraud investigations to businesses. In pre-employment background checks, I’ve seen everything from fictitious work experience to omitted lawsuits and criminal records. Even with the limited resources of a startup company, it pays to invest in a pre-employment screen, especially for someone who will be overseeing security. As I’m sure you realize, the situation with Mr. Schiefer could have turned out a lot worse than it did. Kudos to you for handling the situation responsibly once you learned about it.

  7. Good for you Jason and good for Mahalo. It sounds like John has turned his life around since his childhood problems. Sometimes people deserve a second chance.

  8. Great to see someone’s boss actually support them, especially
    regarding something like this. Here’s hoping he can return to work
    out there in less than 48 months.

  9. Well said, I think that putting people to work with skills such as this gentlemen had is a far better avenue.
    Think what kind of contributions this guy could make in a supervised enviroment while still being a productive member of society.
    Given the current state of the economy I think a Not for Profit could have used his skills or something along those lines
    2 words, Shortsighted and Wasteful.

  10. I am glad to hear that you are willing to work with John once he is released from jail. Not many companies are willing to take that chance but as you stated in your posting, everything is highly monitored and there is very little threat or need to worry.

    If John did he job accordingly and didn’t do anything malicious on the side, then I too would agree that by re-hiring him for your company would be a wise choice, especially if he was good at his job.

    I do not feel that it would be the appropriate thing to do by limiting John out of a future career due to his past of ignorance and violence towards the community given his past circumstances.

    In all, best of luck to John and the Mahalo company.

    Ryan

  11. Many of the best programmers in the games industry coded demos and/or cracked games in their youth.
    That was part of learning in the 1980s when there were few books on the subject.
    It shows passion.

    The real question is how much harm did a person’s capers cause.

  12. You’ve got to be kidding me with this statement right? You are willing to hire a conficted felon to your company knowing well what he did? It shows how little integrity in your company is!

  13. Hi Jason,

    Gee .. pehaps the poor little abused angry punk should have thought of the CONSEQUENCES of his behavior when he did his nasty deed infecting AND affecting so many good citizen’s PCs and their lives. I think people are a little fed up with the excuses these little angry punks feed us about being abused as children. As far as statistics go, there aren’t many of us in society who haven’t been abused in one way or another as children.

    Hopefully, none of the families and friends of the DEAD victims of university killings, 911 or other senseless crimes will stumble upon your dribble, defending the angry punks of our society. Hopefully, you or one of your family or friends will never become one of those victims either.

    I hope John’s happy-ass gets a good beating from all the other poor “abused-as-children” punks sitting in prison with him who can’t conform to society and our laws. Let’s put a big message out there that this behavior will NOT be tolerated anymore! Maybe our society will be a better place.

  14. “Three, but more typically five, references are checked”, “well-supervised”, “strict security policies”, “must go through an average of five to eight interviews”.

    Blah, blah, blah… what a boatload of CYA BS.

    You sound like Ken “Wasn’t Me” Lay.

    Epic Fail.

  15. This is certainly a cautionary tale for others to heed about the importance of performing proper due diligence on job candidates. It is also a tough lesson for anyone to have to learn. I am a bit troubled by your “remedy” though. Perhaps a Google search might have helped you in this instance, but the prescribed best practice is to conduct a thorough background check on prospective employees. In this case, a criminal record search would have revealed the charges and would have provided valuable information about the nature of the offense. While a conviction hadn’t taken place yet, you would have known about pending court dates. As an owner of a global background screening organization, I know I am a bit biased, but you can’t discount the fact that organizations both large and small have incorporated this process into their every day hiring practices.

  16. What an interesting perspective.

    I was referred to the story of John Schiefer from a friend whom I’ve told how excited I am about Mahalo and specifically, Mahalo Answers.

    Jason, I find your seemingly transparent view of Schiefer’s actions interesting. Working on the Internet has exposed me to both the squeaky clean whites through to the darkest blacks. I think that to obtain an expert level knowledge of any industry, one must learn each component as a whole.

    I also feel somewhat sorry for your CTO, Mark Jeffery. Prior to this going public, he must have felt somewhat ashamed of exposing the company to a PR event but more than that, he was likely disappointed with the possibility of loosing a talented team member.

    However, the real story here is in the details that have been glazed over both in popular syndicated media and in your own recollection of recent events. Questions such as “when did he choose to turn the botnet off”, “what are the short and long term reach of his network”, and especially, “how much money (both tangible and not) was lost as a direct result of his actions”. I’m sure that the legal system did a good job of evaluating these questions and to be frank, I don’t want the answers.

    I’d really like to commend you for evaluating the skills and current desires of an individual employee. You’re right to say that it would have been an easier path to fire him, but it must speak volumes in your office that you’re willing to stand behind them both professionally and personally.

  17. Jason,

    You made the right choice. Sometimes people (especially white
    collar people, make choices without thinking about the actual
    harm. They only think, do. Test the waters. Etc. The
    person they become is much different if their morals are there.

    Some of our best IT has come from people who broke the law.
    Unfortunately, it is the truly talented people who test this
    to know how really “good” they are. I hope your employee
    survives this and comes back better and more loyal for it. It
    will be an ordeal for sure.

  18. wow that was a very inspirational story! i wish there more understanding people in the world like yourself. may john have a good future, and you keep making good decisions!

  19. Good for you Jason at seeing the good in John and going to bat for him. I had someone who saw the good in me when I didn’t see it, stood up for me when I couldn’t and caused me to be committed to paying it forward ever since.

    Someone said that the measure of a civilization is how it treats those who have hurt it and those who are hurting in it. I think that is also the measure of evolution, namely the less evolved resort to “an eye for an eye” and ignoring the legitimately hurt and legitimately needy (as opposed to those who merely claim to be).

    Clearly John on a small level hurt society, but even more clearly is how he has been hurt by it.

    And by the way, Jason, your secret that you really have a soft side inside your tough outside is safe with me.

  20. Bravo to you sir.

    You have made an example that should be the new bar, after all, a lot of people don’t realize just how many ex-cons are really out there.

  21. wow…. being an ex-felon myself and to read this was
    incredibly inspirational. i myself did not commit a computer
    crime, however, i did commit a non-violent crime and was prosecuted. i was young
    and did not make a good decsion. fortunately i did not recieve
    the maximum sentence, but i do have to admit that the stigma still
    haunts me. good for you for looking beyond some of the tarnish
    that sits on many americans. while i commited a felonius act,
    i myself still consider myself a great employee and asset to
    any organization that will invest in me. im grateful for those
    that still believe in their own ability to judge character. thanks for the poset.

  22. The legal system will determine John’s fate (as it apparently has), but it is refreshing to see a company support an employee and give them the benefit of a doubt. Many “techies” undertake activities when they are younger that would not be approved of later in life. I’ve employed former hackers and code breakers who have turned out to be exemplary employees. Each employee deserves to be judged on their individual merit and hopefully the blogosphere will not wrecklessly attack you or your company without knowing the full story.
    Bill

  23. I appreciate jason’s sincerity in this situation, but even more i can appreciate DrMark’s response/comment(S).

    Let bygones be bygones and let it go. Life really is to short.

    People have done further worse things, and now it’s going to be the american tax payer picking up the tab for the next 48 months, what a shortsighted judge to say the least.

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