By Robert Stolk, Pointer CEO
In order to help our clients protect their brands with maximum impact, we’ve built Pointer around several key principles. One is that we hire the very best people; from investigators to qualified legal minds, but another is that we build our strategies around the most innovative, market-leading software solutions. To keep track of the rapidly modernizing pace of e-commerce, IP protection needs to be similarly forward looking. It’s no longer good enough for brand protection businesses to be solely one thing (legal, investigative, or technological) because success means incorporating insights from all three into an integrated service.
We believe that Revlect is already the best software solution for brands who need to protect themselves against counterfeiting, but our goal is always to provide more for clients. So, as part of our long-term strategy to keep improving, we’ve appointed a new VP of Engineering, Alessio Nobile, to bring a wealth of experience from the software development sector. Whether it’s working on image recognition systems, or the implementation of AI strategies, Alessio will be at the forefront of maintaining the technological side of Pointer’s reputation as the place where intellectual expertise meets practical application and high-tech systems.
I sat down with Alessio to find out more about him.
Alessio, how did you start out working in IT?
Back at home in Sicily, my father has been working in IT for almost 40 years. I grew up immersed in that world and from the age of 12 or 13 I played with the early IBM computers that we had lying around at home and at the office. I remember him working late at night with the very first IBM ThinkPad laptops, which were more like bricks than laptops. He would spend whole nights typing weird codes on a blue screen and I loved to just sit silently next to him to try and understand what he was doing. He would also write out lists of words and numbers, which I later learned were dataset record layouts. Since then I never stopped asking “why?”.
While I was still at school I helped him to move his old BASIC software towards Windows98, and then to WindowsXP. After that I learned much more about programming and I would also help him set up networks and fix broken hardware. It was a lot of fun to just disassemble a PC and reassemble it from scratch. When the internet came in I became especially interested in Linux, which was perhaps the most important IT skill I ever learned. Through it I mastered things like firewalls and security.
After I finished my studies, I decided to dedicate myself full time to IT and our family business. I started building websites in PHP and then migrating our accounting software to the web. But we were too early and not experienced enough in international business. Yet, it was a lot of fun and a great learning curve.
How did you put those early lessons into practice?
I moved to the Netherlands to work for CustomerGauge, who are a customer satisfaction analytics company that help brands such as Philips, Vodafone, and Tommy Hilfiger to get customer feedback that they can turn into actionable insights. We started out with just six or seven people; I got promoted quickly and helped them to scale the software and the business to the point where we grew to about 50 people around the world in a short time.
It was a real learning experience in how to take a system that was initially quite basic and then to build consistency and scalability into it so that it could grow in a fast but stable way.
After almost five years at CG, I went to DiManEx, who develop smart systems that streamline 3D printing supply chains for manufacturers and distributors like the Dutch Railways (NedTrain) and the Dutch Army.
It was a fascinating field for all sorts of reasons. We were analyzing parts catalogues, looking for mechanical and supply chain information to help our clients decide how to build an on-demand manufacturing and supply chain with 3D printing. We had to build a very strong cloud-based platform that could analyze and process data and then use it to coordinate human and machine tasks. Great fun.
What made you decide to move on?
What really interested me was the idea of coming back to an industry that is, to a large degree, dependent on software. The delivery of excellent brand protection solutions, especially in terms of the data we can scrape and the infringements we can monitor and report, relies strongly on the level of innovation that we can incorporate.
Also, I’ve always had a strong personal interest in cyber security. I’m fascinated by how networks are composed and secured against attacks – the whole thing is a kind of chess game between different actors. Although brand protection is a different field than cyber security, I think that hacking and security is going to become increasingly important for brands who need to protect their domains and social media integrity.
Where do you see the field going in terms of innovation?
What I’ve seen so far is that there’s already a ton of data in use, so the next batch of innovations is going to be about how we get the best out of it. Introducing more machine learning and AI in order to add elements of automation will help to refine the online enforcement process. One of Pointer’s strengths lies in the education and client-facing skills of the analyst teams, so the technology should be here to improve the efficiency of how they can work. It’s important that we lead the way in terms of how humans and machines can work together effectively.
AI will certainly play a big role helping to discern exactly what is counterfeit, but it’s also got another huge contribution to make in helping to set up information systems that can lead us to better investigations into how criminals behave on a wider scale. To set up large counterfeiting operations you require capital and facilities on a global scale. Now, we may not know exactly who the next people are going to be, but the data we have might lead us to develop important models that show us how those people already operate in terms of funding and supply chains. That’s the kind of data that we could collect, refine, and furnish to clients and enforcement.
Do you see counterfeiting crossing over with cyber security and the dark web?
From an IT perspective the issues are separate, but there is a very strong correlation between them in other ways. Why? Because in order to be a counterfeiter you must know how to stay anonymous on the web and master some of the tools that the internet provides to avoid detection.
From a behavioral perspective, whether it’s counterfeiting or hacking, we’re still talking about criminals, and the mindsets are similar. For big brands, or for those in specialist industries like pharmaceuticals where sales of certain products are more likely to be restricted, offering counterfeit goods away from the surface web appears more likely, so there might be a link to dark web activity. What we need to do is continue to implement the data we have, to model criminal networks across the entire internet, and then to connect it to offline investigations. Pointer is already doing this, but I think that in the future we’ll see even more of it.
Pointer has great talents and, as far as I can see, there’s no one else in the industry who has such an effective platform. Their history proves it. I see some big developments coming from here in the next few years.
To take one example, all IT systems work depends on trying to get the best juice out of every dataset. In brand protection it can be very difficult to get the noise in the data reduced because there are so many millions of listings on hundreds of platforms. They’re all in different languages, contain different data and metadata – it can be a real headache. The innovation that Pointer has already brought, and will continue to bring, is to really remove that noise. The scrapers behind Revlect give our clients the ability to get the most amount of juice out of the available data with minimal noise. The most important thing to remember is that Pointer is helping them to identify the elements outside their business that are hurting them and then to efficiently reduce them by removing infringements.
And thinking of the future, isn’t fighting all sort of fakes a noble purpose?
Grazie, Alessio, and welcome!