Steve Nelson, founder of Calibre Secured Networks

Robert Gibson meets the founder of Calibre Secured Networks, a company which has given security advice to many leading business names, including BT and Virgin

Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson

Around 800 people try to attack Steve Nelson's computer network every day.

He knows that as all unusual activity is recorded on an intrusion detection system. “I think that’s typical, quite low even,” says the 44-year-old founder of Newcastle’s Calibre Secured Networks, who has given security advice to the likes of BT, Virgin Money and various multi-nationals. If a company has a number of computers or deals with sensitive information, then they’re even more likely to be targeted.”

Indeed, its estimated that cybercrime costs UK businesses billions of pounds a year – not to mention the damage a serious breach in security can do to a company’s reputation.

Recently, there have been numerous high profile cases, including the well-publicised attack on Sony’s Playstation Network. According to Steve, though, there are many more lower key incidents – he mentions the case of two elderly ladies he helped after their theatre ticket business nearly collapsed following the loss of credit card information – and many that go unreported.

“I think companies are reluctant to report it if their security is compromised and there are several reasons for that,” he said.

“Firstly, many may not even know. Secondly, nobody wants to say, ‘We’ve let the thieves in the front door, and, by the way, the data’s gone.

“Thirdly, a lot of people have a very laid back attitude towards information security - we have customers who say things like ‘I’ve got a firewall, so I’m okay’. “That’s so far removed from the truth, it’s scary.”

Certainly, it would seem most businesses are oblivious to the sheer scale of the problem – and to the frightening truth of how much network information is available to be exploited.

When it comes to attacks, then, criminals can take their pick, from cross-site scripting, whereby a code is embedded into a web link that effectively hands over control of the computer, to the ever-popular SQL injection, in which the simple use of a website’s search bar can give hackers access to confidential databases. Arguably the most threatening technique, though, is distributed denial of service.

“We were involved in a scenario about two and a half years ago in which a large company received a call from someone asking for a large sum of money or else they’d shut down their online trading presence,” Steve recalled. They didn’t act on the threat and the service was shut down. They were on the verge of paying the ransom until we were able to mitigate the damage.

“There may be thousands of connected devices sending data to the site, so you’re unable to identify what is legitimate traffic and what is non-legitimate.

“Instead, you selectively drop and eventually they will go elsewhere.”

It’s little wonder the Government is starting to view cybercrime as a serious threat, with he National Crime Agency looking specifically at tackling the problem. Steve, however, has echoed shadow policing minister David Hanson in suggesting the organisation isn’t anyway near robust enough. “It’s good that they’re recognising there’s a problem and it’s good that they’re doing something about it.” he said.

“I just don’t think it’s enough to make businesses aware of the fact that the problem exists right now on a daily basis.”

Listening to him, it’s clear that Steve has a natural knack for all things digital, which isn’t surprising given he’s been working with computers since around the age of 10.

What is perhaps surprising is that he doesn’t hail from the kind of progressive, urban background one normally associates with the embracing of new technology, but, from Linton, a small Northumberland village, where, as he puts it, “everybody worked in the colliery and everybody looked after each other”.

Steve’s mother left when he and his brother Paul were still small children, which was “a big thing at the time, especially in a mining community”.

His father, James, a miner himself, however, stepped up to the mark and raised the boys single-handedly.

“He’s responsible for much of my outlook,” said Steve.

“And I think that a lot of what he gave to me I now pass on to my customers - always be honest, it’s nice to be nice, always do a good job. If I could attain even 10% of what he passed to me, I would be doing well.”

It was James who, keen his son should avoid the struggles of working down the pit, bought Steve his first computer, a BBC Model B.

The young lad, then, quickly became been a aficionado when it came to games design, and was soon making money from his hobby.

“I was self-taught,” he said. “There were a bunch of guys I hung around with from different parts of the region. We got together in Blyth, going to each others houses – it was almost like a mini-competition. When all the other kids were at the arcade playing Defender, I was the kid asking, ‘How does that work?’”

Never particularly academic, Steve left school at 16 and went to study programming on a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) course. Although he found the work undemanding, the new environment brought him together with other like-minded young people, inspiring him and allowing him to make good friends, some of whom he’s still close to today.

A number of different jobs followed, ranging from handling West Midlands Travel’s time-tabling software to working in Newcastle music shop, Rock City.

Arguably, though, the real foundations for his expertise were laid while with North East company, Knowledge IT, where he first started working with Cisco products (Steve is now one of only 1,000 or so Cisco Certified Internetwork Experts, holding two coveted accreditations for over 10 years).

After eight years or so of contracting with HBOS, then, a number of factors led him in a different direction. His father, who went on to die from the illness, had been diagnosed with leukaemia, and Steve wanted to spend more time with him. At the same time, he felt he had gone as far as he could with building his expertise in working across large networks. The solution, therefore was to set up his own business. To begin with, the company consisted of just Steve and his wife Karen – now managing director - their focus being on security testing and consultancy. As the business has developed, however, it’s also added network creation and other specialisms to its list of services.

“For the past three years we’ve doubled our turnover every year and within the next six months we’ll be nine people strong,” Steve said.

“It’s not huge but we’re heading in the right direction and we have a very high customer return rate. At the end of this year, our turnover will be between £500,000 and £750,000.”

In it’s relatively short life so far, Calibre has worked with a range of high profile clients from Sage to G4S. But Steve – who talks about himself and his colleagues as expert technicians rather than businessmen - is just as delighted to “give something back” .to the likes of St Aidan’s Catholic Academy in Sunderland, where he recently secured a £500,000 three-year ICT contract.

“I think we’d like to be able to grow the business further, but not to the point that it becomes massive,” he said. “We don’t want lots and lots of staff. The main thing for us is that if we’re going to do something we’ll do it right 100% of the time. Going the extra mile is the default for us.”

The Questionnaire

Q. What car do you drive?

A. I’m not really a material person- a car is a car to me; at the moment is a Peugeot 306SW

Q. What’s your favourite restaurant?

A. Panis Café, High Bridge

Q. Who or what makes you laugh?

A. My three kids and Laurel and Hardy

Q. What’s your favourite book?

A. Weaveworld by Clive Barker

Q. What was the last album you bought?

A. Jonny Boyle, Radio.

Q. What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?

A. Chef

Q. If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?

A. Howay the lads!

Q. What’s your greatest fear?

A. Not sure…

Q. What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

A. My dad always said: “It’s nice to be nice.” That’s the best piece of advice anyone can receive.

Q. What’s your poison?

A. Single malt whiskeys, specifically Balvenie Caribbean Cask or Glen Kinchie

Q. What newspapers do you read?

A. The Journal & The Chronicle and I only really read the football pages.

Q. How do you keep fit?

A. Occasional swimming and walking.

Q. What’s your most irritating habit?

A. A lack of patience.

Q. How much was your first pay packet?

A. Probably a royalty payment for some of the BBC model B games I wrote with a friend, I can’t recall how much it cost because I was about 12 or 13 at the time.

Q. What’s your biggest extravagance?

A. Probably some of the Family Holiday’s we have been fortunate enough to have had.

Q. What historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?

A. Alexander Graham Bell.

Q. How would you like to be remembered?

A. As someone who tried to become a better person with each day that passed.

Q: Which four people would you most like to dine with?

A: Mark Knopfler, Alan Sugar, Kevin Keegan, Brian Blessed

Typical day

6.30am – The morning alarm from my 4-year-old son, then getting up and making breakfast and getting the kids ready for the school run.

8-9am – The morning commute, sometimes by car, sometimes by Metro. If I am on the Metro I’ll stop by Starbucks and grab a latte if it’s a cold morning.

10am – This really is the tricky bit, my day can be anything from consulting with clients on projects or issues or it may equally be spent in front of a rack in a datacentre somewhere delivering a solution for one of our clients. It’s different every day and part of the reason why I really enjoy what I do.

1pm – Lunch time. If I am in the Office I try to get across to Panis on High Bridge to see Robbie and the boys, sometimes with clients in tow! Failing that it can be a simple sandwich on the go!

2pm – More of the same from 10am, I am a creature of habit to be honest and I tend to stick with what I do best.

6-6.30pm - Usually leaving work at this time to try and be home in time to see all the kids before bed.

Evening – Most nights I spend with my fantastic wife Karen who to put it simply “ is the glue that holds us all together” now that one of the kids is old enough to baby sit we may venture down to the local, but more often than not we are in front of a good drama on TV from 9pm.

Then bed….. zzzzzzzzzz

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