Song is best known as the guy who started and nurtured a cybersecurity company worth billions in Ann Arbor, MI—outside of the big, traditional tech hubs. Duo’s $2.35 billion acquisition by software giant Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) in August represented the biggest exit by a Michigan venture-backed company in modern history.
Song is also beloved around these parts due to his commitment to being a connector and doer in the local startup ecosystem. I recently spoke with him, and followed up by e-mail, to flesh out his personal journey and the story of Duo.
He landed in Ann Arbor in the ’90s to attend school and from there served in a number of leadership and advisory roles at various tech companies. In 2008, he founded a2geeks, a nonprofit supporting Ann Arbor’s startup community. Tech Brewery, a startup co-op community, came a year later. The monthly meetup held by a2geeks regularly attracts a packed house and has likely launched hundreds of collaborations. More recently, he’s turned his attention toward building skateparks in Southeast Michigan. Ask anyone with inside knowledge: much of the growth of Michigan’s technology industry in the past decade can be directly linked to Duo’s success and the broad mentorship of Song and his team.
An ardent freethinker, Song also retains a maverick stripe, perhaps an artifact of his youth as a punk rock-loving skater and editor of an urban exploration zine (scroll down to the entry under 1994). Growing up in Maryland, his first work experience was doing data entry for his dad, whom he calls a “fellow geek” and gadget lover, at the liquor store he owned in West Baltimore. It was during those early days that Song got his first inkling that he had a gift for hacking.
“It was exploration more than hacking,” Song says. “It was getting to see things and have conversations with people not limited to my backyard.” That same spirit of exploration also drew him to skateboarding. “I’ve always enjoyed the culture of skating and DIY folks creating their own brands and products. I was going to build a skate company, but I built a tech company instead.”
The turning point? He was a member of w00w00, a turn-of-the-century collective described by TechCrunch as “the billion-dollar hacker club” that also included Napster’s Shawn Fanning and WhatsApp founder Jan Koum. Rather than seeking to cause mayhem, w00w00 was essentially a team of volunteers hacking the security systems of various entities to demonstrate vulnerabilities. “It was a big group and a lot of interesting work,” he recalls.
Thanks in part to his w00w00 membership and work he did right out of college for security consulting firm Anzen, Song scored a job in the early 2000s as chief security architect at Arbor Networks, a Burlington, MA-based cybersecurity firm that spun out of research done at the University of Michigan. He felt comfortable with the company’s bohemian culture. “There were a number of folks who didn’t wear shoes, or wore tie-dye,” he adds with a laugh.
One of his projects at Arbor involved setting up a “honeypot” on its network to lure hackers and test the system’s security. “It was like a burglar alarm accessible through the wireless network,” Song told CNBC. “We wanted it to be interesting enough so it could be our canary in the coal mine.”
The honeypot proved too tempting to resist for 17-year-old Jon Oberheide, who, while working at the Starbucks below Arbor’s office building, took the bait and broke in. Oberheide’s hacking skills impressed Song to the point that he gave the teenager a job at Arbor. Oberheide went on to become Song’s Duo co-founder when the startup launched in 2010, not long after Arbor Networks was acquired by Tektronix. (Tektronix was later bought by NetScout in 2015.) Song spent a total of seven years at Arbor Networks, until it began moving toward acquisition. “It started going in a direction that didn’t appeal to me, so I left to do something different,” he says.