Q&A with Mark Tamminga
Who Is . . . Sharon Nelson & John Simek
Our professional lives are indeed hectic (and come to think of it, so are our personal lives), but there is a tremendous serenity to it all.
Combining their expertise in technology and the law, Sharon D. Nelson and John W. Simek lead a nationally known legal technology and computer forensics company. Their work includes computer forensics and data recovery services, expert witness testimony on a broad range of technology and electronic evidence subjects, and litigation support services related to e-discovery. Sharon graduated from Georgetown University Law Center and has been in private practice ever since. John holds a degree in engineering from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and an MBA in finance from Saint Joseph’s University. Both write and speak widely on technology and the law and have established a leading-edge reputation in nearly all things related to electronic security. Oh, and did we mention that along with partnering as a professional team, they are a husband-and-wife team? We wondered how they can maintain the equilibrium—here’s how.
First, a question for Sharon. You’re the chair of ABA TECHSHOW® 2006. How did you get involved with the “world’s premier legal technology conference,” and how did you come to be its chair?
SN: Truth be told, my growing involvement with ABA TECHSHOW was mysterious. There I was, merely a rapt attendee for several years. Then out of the blue, Ross Kodner, who had spoken with John and me in Virginia, kindly put our names forward as speakers. I never politicked to get on the board—heck, I was thrilled just to be a speaker. But someone (I still don’t know who) put my name in the hat as a good board candidate. The next thing I knew, Jim Calloway (our good friend and chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2005) was handing me a bullwhip and announcing me as chair for 2006. Jim, thanks, I always appreciate another addition to my bullwhip collection, ha!
You’re a lawyer, but your professional life is heavily tilted toward matters technological. How much of a technology user are you?
SN: Here’s the part where extreme modesty is requisite. When something technical goes belly up on my machine, I frantically press a lot of keys and, nearly always, make the situation worse. My next step is easy, being married to John. I holler his name and my personal tech support is on the way.
Because I am a reasonably adroit user of technology, it makes me a great test case for anything a lawyer might use. We operate on the theory that,
“If Sharon can do it, so can anyone.” On the other hand, if my salvation depended on fixing a network, I’d put on a fireproof suit and prepare for the inevitable.
In addition to ABA TECHSHOW, you have a busy practice; you and John have speaking gigs all over the place; you both write prolifically on technology and the law; and you run a thriving consulting business together. How do you keep it balanced?
SN: It’s an old chestnut of an answer, but love makes all things possible. I get to go to work every day and home every night with the guy who is my best friend and the love of my life. Lucky me. And it’s not all work. We adore our two labradors and working with Lab Rescue. We always have a foster dog and we transport dogs all over creation to get them medical treatment and place them in kennels or foster homes until they get adopted. That work is wonderfully rewarding—and a long way from technology.
We also enjoy working together in our herb garden, which enlarges every year. Most of all, we have six terrific adult children who keep us engaged in all manner of activities. Our professional lives are indeed hectic (and come to think of it, so are our personal lives), but there is a tremendous serenity to it all, born of the love we bear one another. John’s half-Japanese background probably helps, too. His “Zen” characteristics are contagious.
John, what’s it like being married to a lawyer?
JS: It’s actually not too bad, and it sure makes getting a will done a lot cheaper! Seriously, it is no different from being married to any other type of career woman. The days are always hectic and stimulating. With Sharon, anything at all might happen—and often does. I am never bored.
More seriously, I didn’t always have a good opinion of lawyers. But Sharon seems to know all the ones who are fine people as well as good lawyers. We’ve become heavily involved in supporting the Fairfax Bar Association and the Fairfax Law Foundation, especially in helping to bring them to technological “warp speed” and in getting legal services to the poor. If all the lawyers in the world were like Sharon and her generous-hearted colleagues, the lawyer jokes would be history. It’s fun to be a part of the “good stuff” of life. Sharon’s always quoting someone who once said, “Service is the rent we pay for the air we breathe.” It’s a pretty good line.
John, you’re a geek’s geek. How did you come by your expertise, and how is it that you began applying your dark arts to the legal profession?
JS: First, let’s be clear that I do not own a pocket protector or have a beanie with a propeller. I started programming on a DEC minicomputer when I was in high school. (Don’t ask when that was.) We had one DEC that was shared between the two high schools in my hometown of Everett, Washington. My high school had to use 300-baud modems with acoustic couplers. (Now you have an idea of how old I am.) Most of my expertise is self-taught and gained through experience. I have always been interested in computers and automation. My first job after graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy was sailing on a gas turbine tanker for Chevron that was fully computerized. It was like working on the Star Trek Enterprise. You could control all of the engineering systems from one room.
I officially got involved with computers in 1986 when I was working for Mobil Oil. I worked with mainframes and ultimately came to do the design and troubleshooting for Mobil’s networks in the Western Hemisphere. I left Mobil in 1999 when Sharon and I made Sensei Enterprises our full-time occupation. It was a natural fit to work with the legal profession because of Sharon’s contacts in the legal community. Sharon is a great marketer. Some of our clients swear that she could sell ice in Antarctica. She makes the promises and I (along with our staff) deliver. It’s a great system. At least for Sharon!
Who of the two of you pushes the technology harder in your lives and your professional endeavors?
SN: John, for sure. He is the most expensive-to-maintain man imaginable. His “tech toys” are a prodigious line item in the company and the household budget. Just for cooking, we have four digital timers with all sorts of multiple programming capacities on our refrigerator—and one that hangs around my neck in case I go upstairs to check my e-mail! John’s forensic hardware and software needs at work are very costly, and must be updated constantly. He’s always asking the company president, “Honey, can I buy this?” Fortunately, she’s a soft sell and he usually gets whatever he wants.
JS: Sharon’s right. The difference between me and a lot of other guys is that not only do I know how to use the technology and make it efficient, but I can typically fix it, too. The one thing you didn’t hear Sharon complain about is our 62-inch DLP HDTV. (We love to watch our movies.)
A great deal of your combined focus is on the inherent insecurity of computing. Will the technology we now rely on collapse under the weight of employee ambush, criminal invasion and other threats we don’t even know about yet? Should we hold off sending that last Selectric to the dump?
JS: It is no secret that security vulnerabilities are uncovered every day. Are we doomed? I don’t think so. The key is to be conscious of any weakness in your technology. Change the defaults and keep advised of any vulnerability for hardware or software that you own. Just be reasonable in assessing where to put your energy. There will always be “lower hanging fruit” for someone to attack since so many folks just employ the defaults for their software or take the hardware out of the box and merely plug it in.
I guess you really are dating yourself, Mark, by referring to a Selectric.
The scary part is I know what one is. If you have a working one, I’ll take it to go along with my genuine IBM AT Model 339.