As one of only a few people in the world who are experts in the arcane field of computer viruses, Shane Coursen is used to his phone ringing at all hours. So when a production coordinator at ZD Net in Boston called a few weeks ago with a frantic request for help, Coursen sprinted into action.
The ZD Net exec suspected that a computer virus--a software program with the ability to copy itself into or onto another file--had invaded one of the files the company was processing to put online. If the virus was left undisturbed, he feared, it might infect the computers of millions of users that download games and other software from its popular Internet site. Would Coursen check it out?
Coursen rose early the next day, retrieved the suspected virus through e-mail at his home office, copied it and analyzed it. He then shipped it to a lab in England for further study. Within 24 hours, Coursen destroyed the virus. And nothing calamitous befell ZD Net or its users.
"An incident like this happens once or twice a month," says Coursen.
Like a physician on call, Coursen, 29, is a virus expert with Dr. Solomon's Software, a British company specializing in software that combats this contemporary problem.
Demand for Coursen's services has grown with the explosion in computer viruses. Today there are as many as 12,000 known viruses, he says. Some are harmless pranks that make a computer beep when users hit certain keys.
"Think of this as electronic graffiti. Like signs on bridges, only this is in the digital world," Coursen says. Others are malicious: They can fill up or erase a hard drive, for example.
Ten years ago, Coursen was a professional nobody. Fresh from high school and a brief stint as a supermarket bagger, the then-Florida-based teenager and computer nut landed his first high-tech job: Typing the names of 2,000 customers into a database of a computer retail chain. He didn't stay at the bottom long: Within two weeks, Coursen was learning computer hardware repair in the company's service room. Within a year he was managing the department.
But Coursen had bigger ambitions: He longed to establish a career in computer software development, despite his lack of higher education or solid professional credentials. Coursen's opportunity arose in 1990 when a former colleague helped him land a job at now defunct Network Research Corp., an Oxnard-based software firm, as a quality assurance engineer. Two years later, the company went bust. Coursen says he was naive about the roller-coaster volatility of the field: "I didn't have a clue. I don't think that way."
Within two months, he landed a post as a software development engineer in the virus lab at Symantec Corp. in Santa Monica. Symantec had just acquired Peter Norton Computing, best known for software that helps users recover erased data. At the time, Coursen was completely uninitiated. "I had no idea what a computer virus was," he says. But that changed with months of intense study in the Santa Monica lab. He spent more than four years at Symantec.
In 1996, Coursen joined Dr. Solomon's, a 13-year-old international firm that had recently established U.S. headquarters in Massachusetts. Coursen operates from his beachfront Malibu apartment, but the demands of the job keep him from gazing on the blue Pacific very often. Half his schedule is spent on the road, trouble-shooting.
Since most clients are facing a potential crisis, Coursen maintains a beeper, cellular phone, e-mail and other tools for round-the-clock communication.
"It's a personal choice," he says. "I make myself available."
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Name: Shane Coursen
Job: Senior technology consultant
Employer: Dr Solomon's Software
Education: Graduated from Palm Beach Gardens High School, in Florida.