Taesoo Kim may never have found himself working as an assistant professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Computer Science, doing research in the Institute for Information Security and Privacy (IISP), if not for a handful of choices.
They are decisions evident of an individual who can’t do things at half speed. Kim attacks new challenges like the security threats he studies: he identifies vulnerabilities and formulates defensive responses one task at a time.
He graduated summa cum laude with degrees in computer science and electrical engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, but had never done much work in security outside of his two years of military service.
During those two years, he worked almost exclusively on systems security, but, because of the secretive nature of the job, couldn’t share anything about that experience when he applied for the Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a result, he applied for machine learning and robotics programs, but switched to his preferred focus on security immediately after being accepted.
During his time at MIT, he helped develop a startup that received $2 million in initial funding. The startup eventually moved west to San Francisco, where it was picked up by a bigger company. Kim, who was determined to finish what he started in regards to his Ph.D., passed on the enormous financial opportunities that went with his startup to return to school for his final two years at MIT.
“It’s an accomplishment,” he said of earning his Ph.D. “When you start something, you want to finish. Being a scientist and earning my Ph.D. was something I had always wanted, so it was a big deal for me to finish what I started.”
And upon earning his Ph.D., he elected to go into academia, sharing knowledge and continuing research at Georgia Tech rather than continuing work with his company in California.
Kim admittedly had no interest in information security at the outset of his educational career.
“Security, in general, was not a popular topic at the time,” he said. “I was mostly interested in writing system software, operating systems and larger-scale systems.”
The fundamental foundation came from his military experience. There he worked to track and defend against vulnerabilities in infrastructure, gaining a respect and deeper interest for the field. Like most things he works on, Kim began to dig deeper into the topic from the moment he began work on it.
“That’s something I really like about security,” he said. “Not only do you need a broad understanding of the system, but you need to understand the nitty-gritty details in order to break or improve their security.”
He brought this mindset, the need to understand the smallest of details, along with him when he was asked to join the faculty in the IISP. He brings it not only to his field of study, where he is working to automate attack and defense systems, but also to the less-glamorous tasks that go along with it.
When he came to Georgia Tech in the fall of 2014, he had never written a grant proposal. In the two and a half years that have followed, though, he has already been awarded nearly $6 million on his proposals.
He achieved it like he achieves most other things in his life – he put in a lot of time and effort into learning the finest details of how to do it.
“Nobody taught me how to do a proposal, so I was a little worried about getting money,” Kim said. “So, I decided I wanted to write some right away to get some feedback from the community. I wrote about eight for the first year and, fortunately, almost all of them were accepted.”
That meant more funding, bigger classes, and bigger responsibilities. It was a problem that Kim was skeptical about at first, despite seeing the need for growth in the program. He feared losing the tight interaction he had with his students, something both he and the students value.
His classes are consistently among the highest reviewed in the College of Computing, but he sees room for improvements as the challenges with class sizes loom.
“For the most part, students are passionate about this topic, and I am too,” Kim said. “I want to make sure there isn’t a drop-off.”
He takes time to sit down with the students and evaluate their expectations against what they are currently getting out of the class, specifically as it pertains to their grade. Then, they discuss strategies for how to make those two ends meet.
“Most of the students end up achieving the grade they want,” he said.
And ever the student, Kim continues learning himself. He does not take time for leisurely reading. Instead he spends his time in technical books or books about improving writing skills.
“When I study something, I have to get all the way down to its core,” he said. “I have to look as deep as I can into it and then move on to another topic.”