Computer-security expert Rob Shein has some of his industry’s most coveted information-protection skills, but that doesn’t make him recession-proof. So after he was laid off from a local IT company in early 2003, he did what any other unemployed computer nerd living under Code Orange would do: He wrote a novel about how important his nerdiness is to national security. Published this past July, Zero-Day Exploit: Countdown to Darkness concerns two D.C.-based computer-security experts who are called upon to save the United States from a cyberterrorist attack.
“I don’t think I had written fiction since grade school,” the skinny, 35-year-old Adams Morgan resident says. And even then, he admits, he was more interested in technical pursuits than artistic ones.
“They had rules, and the rules never changed,” he says of the bulky Apple II+s that mesmerized him as a student. “That appealed to me. For the first time, I had control over an environment. That’s powerful for an 11-year-old who feels like he doesn’t have control over anything.”
Over time, Shein honed his skills working with a broad range of vendors. At infrastructure-service powerhouse VeriSign, he was a member of the elite FIRE team, a group of programmers who hacked into computer networks and security systems to test their vulnerability—experience that he drew on to complete the book project he originally intended: a computer-security guide.
By October 2003, he had sent that manuscript to Rockland, Mass.–based Syngress Publishing, which specializes in manuals for the more advanced user, not the novice Shein had in mind. The company declined to publish it, but instead approached Shein about developing a novel. Syngress was hoping to repeat a rather unexpected success: Earlier in the year, the house had published Stealing the Network: How to Own the Box, a book of short stories written by computer programmers that ended up selling extremely well.
Initially, the prospect of writing a novel was daunting for Shein. “It’s so much easier to write nonfiction, because the information is already out there,” he says. “With fiction, you are responsible for creating all the information. I thought, There’s no way I can do this. But once I wrote one chapter, I knew I could write the book.” Soon, he was regularly sending Syngress drafts filled with the tricky combination of plot twists and industry jargon its audience demands.
Shein also managed to slip in a little local color: Much of Zero-Day’s intrigue goes down at such Adams Morgan haunts as Tryst, Felix, and the Reef. “Reuben sat in Tryst…alternating between attention to his coffee and his laptop,” one chapter reads. “In the dim light of the place, his face glowed white with the light of the document on the screen….He had a feeling he’d be here a lot more over the next two or three days.”
Syngress couldn’t be more pleased with the result. “It’s really a new category of book—somewhere between technical publishing and fiction publishing,” says company vice president and co-founder Amy Pederson. “So far, we’ve marketed the book at computer-security conferences like DefCon and Black Hat. It’s sold well and been fairly well-received.” The book is also on the shelves at several chain bookstores—and even at the usually staid Reiter’s Scientific and Professional Books on K Street NW.
Though Shein is currently working on another novel for Syngress, he doesn’t foresee jumping into the literary life just yet—especially now that he’s found a new day job as a full-time computer-security expert for a government contractor. “I was out of work,” he says. “I was just trying to find something to do with my time.” —Michael Kabran