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TU alumni cracking cases as digital forensic investigators 

The sky is the limit when you’ve got a TU degree in computer science or cybersecurity. Between the two of them, alumni Gavin Manes (B.S. ’01, M.S. ’02, Ph.D. ’04) and Lance Watson (B.S. ’96, M.S. ’03) have earned five degrees from the Tandy School of Computer Science, and their flair for entrepreneurial ventures grows with each new idea. Among the several businesses they have established, their digital forensic and e-discovery firm, Avansic, has a national reputation for private investigative work.

Learn more about the Tandy School of Computer Science and TU’s cyber programs.

Digital forensics: The early years

digital forensic
Gavin Manes

When Manes founded Avansic in 2004, the legal world had not yet embraced the concept of digital forensics. In hindsight, Watson said the firm was ahead of its time — especially in Oklahoma, where he and Manes spent much of their time providing educational outreach to prospective clients. “For the first five years of the business, paychecks were thin,” Watson explained. “We had to educate people about what they wanted, what they could get from our company and then, ultimately, why they needed our help.”

Despite resistance from some corners of the legal profession, Avansic did its legwork and created an initiative to inform clients about how they could use and benefit from digital forensic services. “Computer forensics is the act of investigating what happened on a computer to explain a story,” Manes said. “With e-discovery, you’re facilitating a group of lawyers to review the content from that computer to prove something to help you in court.”

Both tactics are based on the same function of evidence processing and preservation. Digital forensics examines how a document was placed on a computer, who looked at it, who opened it, who copied it, etc., while e-discovery looks at what’s stated in the email or Word document. “Early on, we were just doing digital forensics because e-discovery didn’t exist yet,” Gavin explained. “At least 70 percent of our business was outside of the state.”

Cell phone secrets

Avansic’s primary customers are law firms who represent an individual or corporation. Much of the work involves cell phone forensics for family matters or family court cases. Avansic private investigators can perform a service known as “turn and burn” where they retrieve information on a child’s phone and hand it over directly to the parents. Other expert witness work focuses on interpreting mobility user reports using cell site locations. Most of Avansic’s cases are civil in nature, but Manes said the company will take on a criminal case in special circumstances. “We’re like Dog the Bounty Hunter, but we’re nerds,” he said with a grin.

Lance WatsonBy 2015, the climate of digital forensics had advanced to the point that clients began to contact Avansic with specific requests. The company’s computer scientists and IT specialists are a special breed who can crack the case while communicating effectively with lawyers and other clients. In one instance, Watson’s digital forensic testimony led to the release of a prison inmate after his research determined the person had been incarcerated on the premise of a misinterpretation of data. “Sitting on a stand, talking to a judge or jury, you have to be relatable and convincing,” Manes said.

Tulsa’s entrepreneurial climate

From a closet office where four employees shared the same workspace, Avansic has grown into its current offices in downtown Tulsa. The firm’s success during the past couple of years could be replicated in other cities around the country that are known for their startup and tech industries, but Manes and Watson say there are benefits to keeping home base in Tulsa. “We’ve got more fiber than practically anyone in the United States, and office space is affordable,” Watson said. “It’s not hard to find qualified people to work for us here. The state is training a lot of people at various levels but with skills we can use.”

Manes reiterated that it can be difficult to stop Oklahoma’s current “brain drain,” but opportunity lies in the additional hiring of cybersecurity and digital forensic specialists at corporations, in-house. “There’s a lot of energy and desire to build entrepreneurship in the city of Tulsa, it’s just a matter of how we get it done,” he said.

The world is your oyster

TU’s degree programs in the Tandy School of Computer Science aim to prepare students for exciting careers while preventing them from leaving the state. Watson grew up in the Tulsa area and attended TU as a nontraditional student while working full time. He received a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s in cybersecurity thanks in part to supportive faculty such as Dale Schoenefeld and the late Travis Tull. “I have a deep appreciation for the professors I worked with there,” he said. “Dale Schoenefeld did so much for me and my wife. I cannot thank him enough for all he did for us.”

Manes, from Dallas, came to Tulsa for his bachelor’s degree in computer science and never left. As an undergraduate, he worked on robotics projects with Professor Gerry Kane, sang in the men’s chorale group, filed a patent with fellow student (now Tandy School of Computer Science chairman) John Hale and took one of his favorite courses, genetic algorithms, from Professor Roger Wainwright. While earning his master’s and Ph.D., he helped established the Computer Information Security group, which later became known as the Institute for Information Security (iSEC) and led the effort to match TU computer science students with Tulsa law enforcement to solve cybercrime cases — an initiative that is still active today. “We paired young students who knew everything about computers and technology with law enforcement officers,” Manes said. “The officer learns everything about computers, and the student learns everything about humans and interacting with people.”

Manes and Watson remain involved at their alma mater through the occasional lecture or Q&A session with students. Manes is the scheduled keynote for the Collins College of Business Friends of Finance speaker series in January. Whether meeting with clients or answering questions from students, both alumni tout the benefits of a computer science degree from TU. “The world’s your oyster if you’ve got that degree,” Watson said. “When we talk to seniors, we explain it’s not a matter of what you can do in computer science but what can’t you do — the possibilities are endless. Our skills apply to data, programming, computer operations in every industry these days.”

“Computer science is one of those things that once you learn it, you can teach it forever,” Manes explained. “There were a lot of opportunities for me to do interesting things as a student, and I don’t think that’s changed at TU.”