Interview with professional hacker Philipp Kalweit: Being a boss at 20

Philipp Kalweit

“As soon as you can do something that is not intended, you feel very privileged and exalted in a certain way.”

(Foto: Kalweit ITS)

Hamburg Philipp Kalweit, 20, is Germany’s youngest professional hacker. Kalweit, who grew up in Hanover as the son of a single mother with Filipino roots, has been advising companies on IT security since he was 16. In 2017 he founded the consulting company Kalweit ITS in Hamburg.

His mission: more security for the digital world. The young entrepreneur was included in the “30 under 30” list of the world’s most important young talents by Forbes magazine.

Read the full interview here:

Philipp, you worked on a PC for the first time when you were nine. What was it that fascinated you so much?
At first I just wanted to have a computer. Later it was the endless possibilities that were presented to me. Especially those that not even the device developer himself had planned.

Kind of a detective game?
It could be compared to a difficult math problem. Some people enjoy solving them. On the other hand, I have always found it very interesting as a user to find errors in the system.

As soon as you spot a mistake and can now do something that is not intended, you feel very privileged and sublime in a certain way.

Can you give a concrete example of this?
Let’s take deposit bottle machines. With such a machine I once found an energy drink can from a special batch with 25 percent more content than usual. When I put it in, the machine wasn’t prepared for it. The device recognized the seal, but ejected the bottle. It was exciting that it was still credited. That means you could throw the bottle in again and again and the amount on the receipt increased accordingly each time. And that’s exactly what I find exciting: knowing and being able to do more than others. Even to be allowed to do something that is not actually intended.

“For me, hacking is nothing that has to do with IT”

What happened that you offered your skills to companies? Did your mother encourage you to do this?
No. IT was my hobby. My mother accepted that, but she lacked the affinity for the topic to give me great support. It was like saying I was going to play football now. Unlike young people who are enthusiastic about sports, I went to IT conferences and, over time, gave lectures there myself. This is how the first inquiries came from companies.

Companies book you so that you can track down weaknesses in their IT systems. How would you explain what hacking is to an eight year old?
For me, hacking is not something that has to do with IT. For me, hacking means bypassing a process or adapting technology for other things. If you know, for example, that a kettle with heating elements works, you can theoretically throw a potato or noodle into it in addition to water. That would probably be done then. Technology can often be used for things that were not initially intended. That’s where we start.

You were only 16 years old when you founded your start-up. Was there any time for school, parties or dates at all?
Yes, yes. But in my free time I mostly dealt with IT. So I missed a bit …

… have you set priorities?
Yes, that’s very nicely worded. I haven’t wasted my life in the past four years. I set priorities (laughs).

As an entrepreneur and boss, you are extremely young – and the people you talk to are often much older. How do you assert yourself there?
I move correctly within the scope of my respective role, be it as an expert or as a manager. And in doing so, I am very aware of what I can do very well, a little, and what I can’t do at all – and what I have to get expertise for myself.

Are there situations that make you angry at times?
I don’t like it when someone pretends to know more than me just because they’re older.

“I have all the freedoms in the world”

Your youth makes your counterpart insecure. It probably took them decades to get into a position comparable to yours. What would a sovereign response be?
Even if I may not correspond to the worldview of a boss in his early 50s, I would like him to be open to working together and exchanging ideas with me. And that in general the young and the elderly work together on an equal footing according to the motto: You have strengths, I have strengths – together we are better.

You didn’t study computer science yourself. What do you recommend to people who want to achieve as much as you do?
Basically, it certainly makes sense to study computer science. A degree conveys broad knowledge, which is particularly important in IT security. For me, the course simply didn’t work out because I was asked by customers during my school days.

But doesn’t it help to go deeper into the subject with a degree?
I firmly believe that everything you need is inevitable to learn. I’m not a big fan of learning everything first and then starting my professional life. Because you never know beforehand what you will need. If I’m walking through the streets and someone gives me tips on how to tie a rope properly, it doesn’t do me any good. But if I’m going mountaineering right now, I’ll soak up these tips.

Mathematically, you still have 45 years of work ahead of you. How is your career going?
The nice thing is that I don’t even have to know what I’ll be doing in five or ten years because I’m still so young. I could still do an apprenticeship or start studying. I have all the freedoms in the world. I just know that it is super important for me to live in the here and now in order to be happy. And right now I’m very happy with what I’m doing. But of course I can’t speak for the rest of my life today.

Thank you for the interview.

The interview was originally published in the “#Start” magazine, the Handelsblatt application guide.

More: Significantly more cyber crime – perpetrators are taking advantage of Corona


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