Carnegie Mellon University
December 17, 2021

From Young Entrepreneur to National Cybersecurity Advisor: Interview with Harshvardhan Chunawala

By Deana Lorenzo

Even before he graduated university, Harshvardhan Chunawala was already a successful entrepreneur, company founder and CEO of Bite Group. Now, as a full-time graduate student in the INI, Chunawala can add another title to his already impressive resume: National Cybersecurity Advisor for the Council of Information and Broadcasting (CIB) registered under Government of India.

According to Asia News, Chunawala’s appointment comes at a critical time as the agency faces new and increasing cyber threats, including recent ransomware attacks in 2020 and in 2021. The CIB’s Vice President told the news outlet that Chunawala had already been working with the CIB for a few years and was “perfect for the role.”

“I would like extend my thanks to INI at CMU for its strong curriculum that helped in honing my skills for this assignment,” said Chunawala, who is completing his M.S. in Information Technology-Information Security (MSIT-IS), in an email correspondence with the media. “Special thanks to faculty, staff and the Director of INI—Professor Dena Haritos Tsamitis—for her guidance and motivation to the students.”

Harshvardhan Chunawala with INI Director Dena Haritos Tsamitis.

We asked Chunawala to tell us more about his story and how he manages to do it all. 

First, congratulations on your new appointment! But we know this isn’t your first major career accomplishment. Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey and how it all started.

My entrepreneurial journey started way back in 2012 when I found a vulnerability in an Indian Payment Gateway startup. It was affected by Cross-Site-Scripting and Cookie Hijacking. I reported it to the company and was offered a job there. I politely refused the job, but I worked there part-time and helped the team build a good product. I soon learned to make websites (on $25 Shared Servers) and got a few clients by cold calling and online marketing (hustling is the key here!). This led to the formation of my own startup, Bite Media, where I would make websites and do SEO and marketing for clients.

Soon, I started investing the profits into budding startups and partnered up with co-working spaces, providing mentorship and office spaces to new companies—this is how Bite Ventures was born. Down the line, the websites I made would face attacks, and I would have to solve them, igniting the fire of cybersecurity inside me. Months later, I started Bite Security to provide pentesting, threat detection, and incident response services. I was able to find a high severity bug in the Rivet Networks (Acquired by Intel) Advanced Stream Detect feature which affected millions of MSI and Alienware users around the world. I worked with the Rivet Networks team to squash the bug, and it was deemed a gold level bug and received bounty and a letter from the CEO himself.

A few years later, I worked at NECTAR, an organization under the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, as a research fellow. I learned Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and advanced satellite data analysis from raw satellite data procured from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), USGS, and Planet. I later formed Bite GIS by implementing all the learnings I acquired at NECTAR.

All of the Bite companies are now a part of Bite Group. I’ve gained about eight years of industry experience by working for companies and running one—while completing my undergraduate degree at the same time!

What led you to study at the INI?

My journey to the INI started when I watched a video of Dr. Dena Haritos Tsamitis about imposter syndrome. I connected to it instantly as I had it all these years and never knew about it. I chose INI as my way forward after reviewing the curriculum, and when I came to know about the bicoastal program that was offered, I knew that this was it.

I personally think that the bicoastal program and the Practicum Project offered by INI is one-of-a-kind. No other universities have such a thoughtful curriculum deployed at a scale. It prepares the students by making them work with the companies and giving them a smooth transition in that work environment that they will soon enter. Soon, I was connected with the admissions team. They worked with me day and night for my documents and answered other questions I had. I fell in love with INI before even joining it. Little did I know, my heart was already in the Network!

How has your experience in the program so far influenced your career path?

My experience at INI has been amazing, can’t emphasize it more! The classes, culture, care, and support from the staff and faculty are truly profound. Not to forget the flexibility of INI that extends to an individual level and supports students with their needs from the day they join. You become a part of the INI Family, which will always be by your side; in your happy days and sad days—shoulder-to-shoulder. The fiery curriculum of INI prepares you well for your future life ahead.

Apart from the hard skills you learn in class, you will learn to manage your time, commitments, and work-life balance, which comes in handy in the future. The strong curriculum accompanied by super talented faculty is what I wanted for my growth, and INI gave me exactly that.

INI has had a great influence on my career ahead. I have always been an entrepreneurial person after I founded my company when I was 17—joining INI has only fostered and fueled my spirit.

Describe what you'll be doing as National Cybersecurity Advisor.

My role as a National Cybersecurity Advisor includes developing new security policies, refining existing ones, and working with the different teams to ensure it is followed. The focus will be on preventing and mitigating cyber threats and advising on safeguarding the systems. There are many on-premises servers that also do get attacked; I plan to migrate them to AWS and create automated Incident Response and Threat Detection.

What are your goals moving forward? How would you like to shape the position of National Cybersecurity Advisor?

My long-term goal is to have the systems secured at CIB so that the organization doesn’t face operational issues and high availability. There was a need for a Cybersecurity Advisor when the cyber-attacks started becoming a little concerning. Solving the security issues and forming new Work-From-Home and Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policies would be a focus. Not to forget completing my forthcoming semesters with a great GPA stays on the priority amongst all my short-term goals.

I believe the work in the pipeline, which has been discussed with my seniors, shall set a benchmark for the organization and would really ease the work and maintenance of systems in the future. I believe that a National Advisor has a lot of responsibility towards the organization, and I will strive to prove that “My Heart is in the Work.”

What do you think your biggest challenge will be in this role?

Challenges are everywhere. One thing that INI has taught me is to accept them as they come and never back off. Developing a vision of filtering opportunities within the challenges is essential. I foresee a few challenges like time-zone differences where I would have to make myself available for the meetings with my seniors in the Indian Standard Time.

Another one I see is coordinating with a remote team. I am leading a team that sounds and is overwhelming in many senses; likes to manage, keep track of work done and work remaining, and review weekly reports—all of it online! I plan to follow the Polyphasic Sleep Schedule to keep up with my productivity and achieve good rest.

What are your internship plans and what do you hope to get out of this experience? 

My internship will be with AWS Professional Services. I will be working in the Migration and Security space and helping customers to fortify their security posture on AWS and migrate to the AWS Cloud.

AWS is a leader in the Cloud Market and working with the great team of ProServe will give me an opportunity to deep dive into a lot of nitty-gritty details of how companies of varying scale migrate, secure, and leverage the cloud for their business.

What advice do you have for INI students looking to pursue a similar path?

  • "Develop an interest in a particular skill. Analyze for yourself and ask yourself: do you really love it? If the answer is yes, then deep dive into it."
  • "Stay in touch with the amazing faculty at INI and CMU. Get into research work with them and give it your best and try to get some hands-on experience with things they’re working on. Doing this will not only hone your skills but also make your future possibilities and opportunities limitless."
  • "Connect with the alumni of INI. The network is amazing, and you would find at least one graduate of INI working at almost any leading tech company."
  • "Keep a check on your health and follow a healthy lifestyle. Eat well and sleep well. The rigorous curriculum at INI isn’t made to break you but to make you and test your potential for yourself. You need to let that happen by taking care of yourself and learning on the way." 
  • "Don’t forget to enjoy your time here in Pittsburgh! Embrace the winter, go out with your friends on weekends and share your difficulties with your advisors; they are here to help you."
"Believe in yourself and things will fall into place at the right time when it is destined to. Never give up on anything, keep trying, keep asking and keep the Hustle Mode ON!"