Alison Chung has parlayed a phenomenal gift for numbers into a computer forensics firm.
Alison Chung of Chicago is not wired like most people. This can present challenges socially, but from a business perspective, it’s her competitive advantage as the owner of a consulting firm that is essentially a digital detective agency.
As a child in Hong Kong, Chung obsessed over mathematical puzzles, detective novels and committing people’s license plates to memory. While studying at Wellesley College in the 1970s, her favorite pastime was taking the bus to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for three-dimensional tic-tac-toe tournaments. “Whilst other people were going on dates, I could not wait for the week to end, so that I could get into the competitive games,” she said.
At social events, she used to ask people for their Social Security numbers — this was before people started worrying about identify theft — and got lots of attention when she demonstrated that she could remember them all. “I tend to remember numbers a lot easier than I do people’s names,” she said. More recently, she would try to imagine what was on someone’s computer –such as files, photos or music – but staring with “bulging, penetrating eyes,” as she puts it, would turn people off. “I’ve since stopped that,” she said.
Chung has had more success making use of her unusual gift for numbers at her technology consulting firm, TeamWerks, which specializes in computer forensics. Since 1997, she has been hired by dozens of clients — large insurers, big software firms, even wealthy individuals — to dig for electronic evidence in cases that involve fraud, theft or corruption. Her work has grown as data and mobile devices have proliferated, and she now employs 22 people.
Since the recession, the majority of TeamWerks’ cases have involved corporate clients who fear that top-level executives have stolen company secrets when they were fired or laid off, Chung said. “When the economy has a downturn,” she said, “there is much more of that activity.” She advises clients to keep every device that the executive has touched — work-issued computers, laptops, tablets or smart phones — so her firm can see what’s going on.
Chung has a master’s in mathematics from Stanford University and spent years working in computers for IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers and a Chicago law firm before starting her own company. On a personal level, she said she identifies a bit with Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant character in “Rain Man,” although she’s never been diagnosed with any sort of autism. “I have been told that I’m different, that I’m wildly eccentric and I think some of that might be true,” she said. “I am proud of that.”
For Chung, digging through hard drives to discover deleted files or poring over boxes of documents printed with source code is something like heaven. She testifies frequently as an expert witness in litigation on behalf of her clients. Her firm has been hired in more than 35 cases, she said, and in all but one, her client has won.
Initially, Chung said, she was intimidated at the thought of testifying because she’s not an extrovert. But she likes that the process allows her to show off her recall abilities — plus, she said, she is addicted to the thrill of justice. As a mathematician, “I like black and white,” she said. “It’s either right or wrong, and I don’t really like the grays.” She said she won’t take clients if she believes they are involved in something unsavory, such as pornography or organized crime.
Chung’s firm also does information technology consulting, and was recently hired by the city of Chicago for a long-term project providing information technology services in connection with traffic violations. But computer forensics pays more. She doesn’t disclose annual revenue but said her firm typically bills $300 to $500 an hour in forensics cases, some of which drag on for years and months.
While she finds the work meaningful, there are drawbacks. The business took a hit after the financial crisis, when clients started paying their bills much more slowly. Far worse, Chung said her identity has been stolen, and her home has been burglarized. She doesn’t know for sure, but she said she believes it’s related to her work.
Chung also has to maintain self-control as the leader of a 22-person agency. A few years ago, she said she briefly became addicted to an international computer game. “I was the reigning queen, and then the Russians took me down,” she said. “I had to say, ‘Alison, you’ve got to run the company. Stop it!’”
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Now, Chung said she enjoys hiring people who remind her of herself. Recently, a young man who was a job candidate for a data-processing position showed up 20 minutes late “and so shaky and nervously sweating one might contemplate he might not have had a bath,” she said. She hired him anyway — against the advice of her team.
“It’s been one month, and he’s been a top performer,” she said. “I knew that he was gifted.”
Alison Chung, Founder of TeamWerks, technology consulting firm
Alison Chung (AC): Sometimes people ask me, you know, ‘when does it get busy for you?’ And I say, you know, ‘whenever there’s lying, cheating and dishonesty, it’s busy. And I’m sorry to say, we’re a little bit on the busy side.’
CARD: Alison Chung — Founder & CEO — TeamWerks — Chicago, USA
AC: TeamWerks is a technology consulting firm with a particular focus in computer forensics. Whenever there’s a question as to who did what when, it is probably on some digital device, ready for somebody like me to find.
We can tell you the text messages that were sent even if they’re erased. My family members will not allow me to be in the presence of their digital devices. When I visit, everybody locks everything up.
CARD: Alison was born and raised in Hong Kong.
AC: I had a very traditional upbringing. My parents were very strict. When I was naughty and my mother would say go to your room, I was thrilled because behind closed doors I would be doing puzzles and pretend to solve crimes. I read every detective novel in English and Chinese that was available.
CARD: Alison came to the United States for college and earned a master’s in math from Stanford University.
AC: I really liked math because it was easy for me. I was good with numbers.
CARD: In 1984, Alison started her career working with IBM.
She spent a decade managing computer systems at a major law firm in Chicago.
In 1997, Alison founded TeamWerks.
AC: That was a time during the tech boom so there was a lot of business to be had. So I just kind of went with my gut and said, you know what, I just want to form a small company and I just want us to work on tech projects.
SOT: Ok, we just received this hard drive.
AC: We fell into the forensics. I received a call from some law firm partners I had known and they said we need somebody to go through more than 20 boxes of computer code because their client had written a one line $50,000,000 write-off and the IRS’ questioning whether or not that write-off is valid.
CARD: Alison and her team took just three weeks to find evidence supporting the claim.
Her client was so impressed with Alison’s memory for numbers, he asked her to testify before the IRS attorneys.
AC: I’ll never forget this; there were five men in half-glasses and they looked very stern and they said ‘Good morning. Who is that girl? And, one of the attorneys said ‘Oh, that’s our expert.’ The five IRS lawyers started laughing and they said ‘How much do you want to bet that we can break her down?’ And the first half-glasses looked at me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Chung, our expert witness here, would you care to explain to us what happened in box #78?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I would be delighted to.’ And so, the inquiry went on and on, and box after box. I think it was at the end of the fourth hour, the question was ‘OK. What happened to 97?’ I said ‘Oh, that was an exciting time. 97 was a good box.’ And at that point, I smiled to myself, I knew I had them.
CARD: Her client won the case and Alison was hooked.
AC: When they said that we won, I was screaming for joy and I said ‘Give me another one! Give me another one!’
CARD: TeamWerks has grown to 22 employees.
They have been hired to investigate fraud, theft and corruption.
SOT: Embedded in all this code, that is a nugget of information that will be prove to be useful.
AC: We get hired by the lawyers to examine computers and then, it’s not until you get into the bowels of the system and you look at who is talking to whom, and you realize, ‘oh my gosh, this is organized crime.’ And so at this point, I have a decision to make: I could resign or just tell the truth.
It is dangerous, it is risky.
CARD: Alison’s identity has been stolen. Her home has been robbed multiple times.
AC: I have thought that I might be in physical danger doing this job because of the robberies but because I am Buddhist, I believe that when it’s my time, that’s when it will be. I’m not fearful. But I have taken the necessary precautions and I think that’s enough.
CARD: TeamWerks has won every case but one.
AC: I always wanted to solve mysteries, I just didn’t know that I was going to be a digital detective. I think differently, I look at things differently. I mean, sometimes, I go to social events and see somebody and I’m wondering, ‘Wow, I wonder what’s on their computer.’
Producers – Victoria Wang and Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Merril Stern
Director of Digital Media – Colleen DeBaise
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Production Assistant – Nadine Natour
Social Media – Thea Piltzecker
Assistant Editor – Matt Strickland
Music – Killer Tracks
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Posted: February 26, 2014