Home M3AAWG Blog Pioneers of M3AAWG: Michael O’Reirdan Chairperson Emeritus
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The 20th Anniversary Interview Series

M3AAWG is exploring the historical journey that has shaped our organization for two decades. This month’s interview is with Michael O’Reirdan who served five terms as M3AAWG’s Chairperson.  

O’Reirdan was a Comcast Engineering Fellow with over 20 years of experience in the ISP field and with public facing messaging platforms.  He chaired the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s CSRIC III Working Group #7 that produced the first U.S. voluntary industry code to help reduce end-user bots (ABCs for ISPs). O’Reirdan has served on executive advisory boards for several major computer vendors and is active in other industry organizations. 

Here is our interview with the M3AAWG pioneer, Michael O’Reirdan.

How long have you been with M3AAWG? 

I first got involved with M3AAWG back in 2004. I remained involved in one way or another until a year or so after my retirement in 2016. I still attend the odd meeting if it is local to me or somewhere I’ve been wanting to visit. It is largely a social thing for me now, seeing old friends and hanging out with many people who almost became family over the years. 

I may no longer be in M3AAWG, but I am of M3AAWG. My involvement and work there remains for me one of the things I am most proud of in my life. In fact, it is up there with when I became a flying instructor. After qualifying, I was asked by the guy who taught me, a former RAF Red Arrows pilot, to work at his flying school. Having a former Royal Air Force Red Arrow pilot believe that I was good enough to work with him, well, things do not get any better. 

What inspired you to engage and contribute to M3AAWG? 

I was a relative newcomer to the mail industry. It became apparent to me as someone who worked for one of the most substantial ISPs in the USA that unless spam was brought under control, it had the potential to curtail both user confidence and the use of email. Spam drove our users mad and was also a major source of customer complaints. This was not news to many others in the field, but as I say, I was a newcomer. Immediately prior to my personal direct involvement, an engineer working in my team had been quoted in an article in ZDNet. “We're the biggest spammer on the Internet,” said my network engineer at a meeting of an anti-spam working group in Washington, D.C. This story was subsequently picked up by The New York Times. Needless to say, there was quite a bit of fallout at my company. That event was my immediate inspiration. Subsequently, I saw that as a major player in the industry, the company I worked for could make a difference, and to its credit, I was allowed to go ahead and do so. In fact, to be honest, I was in fact emphatically “encouraged” by my management to get involved and to be very active. 

What would you say M3AAWG’s most important contribution to the industry has been over the past 20 years? 

I think that the biggest contribution over the last 20 years has been to facilitate a common industry approach to the problem of abuse on the Internet. In all its different forms, messaging, malware and mobile abuse are not problems that are amenable to action by a single player. Spam and other kinds of abuse affect all participants in the industry, so they require a cooperative approach. It is very hard to say if there is a single “most important contribution” in technical terms, but on the messaging front, one that sticks in my mind is the initiative to control the use of Port 25 by ISP consumer users. For our sender community, addressing the use of the technique of email appending sticks out. I leave it to others better qualified than myself to address the contributions made by M3AAWG work in the mobile sphere.

What would you consider to be the biggest change in M3AAWG from its early days to now? 

This is a fun question to answer because it requires some candor. The biggest change for me in the early days was the change from MAAWG to M3AAWG. The board of M3AAWG meets three times a year in person after the annual meeting has finished, and when everyone is either on the way home or out at the post M3AAWG celebrations. The board members hang on behind in the empty halls, in the remnants of the meeting, to guide the organization forward. By 2010, MAAWG had done a lot of very fine work with regard to spam, and to me it felt as though we were spinning our wheels to some extent. To me, the future looked a bit bleak for the organisation. It felt as if we could evolve, or we would surely die. Importantly, by then one or two of our board members had begun to joke that I was a benevolent dictator, and I think that could have been close to the truth at the time. 

So, there we were; we needed to move forward. I can’t remember where the meeting was, but as I was listening to some of the same discussions I had heard at the last board meeting, it came to me: It is not just about messaging abuse; it is about messaging, malware and mobile abuse problems. Yes, three problems where there had been one, not just one M, but three of them. At that point I thought, “Messaging, Malware and Mobile” were areas we needed to address in the future. Hence it was not just MAAWG but M3AAWG. I remember interrupting the meeting and like all good dictators, I did some declaiming. Someone got online and claimed the domain M3AAWG, and to be honest, the rest is history as they say. I believe my successors have carried this evolution onward, and when I see posts about dealing with AI and its certain malign effects on abuse, which confirms it for me. As the problems evolve, it looks to me that the organisation has evolved, too. After that meeting and our name change, I did another “dictator” thing and decreed that we should have a meeting where the issue of bots featured in every presentation. I think I said “bots with everything”. It was at times a stretch, but I think it was in Fort Lauderdale that we held that meeting and that was the first new M3AAWG meeting. It also reflected in a presentation that I subsequently gave to the OECD. It was about M3AAWG and spam. The members of the OECD were meeting to discuss what they had done about spam. At the end of my presentation, I ad-libbed a bit, but the essence of it was, “OK, you are doing spam” but really, it is malware and bots you have to worry about. I am not sure it was entirely diplomatic, and I know all sorts of activities were going on in parallel in many member countries, but it made it clear that M3AAWG was moving on. Others have carried the torch of M for mobile. It has never been an area where I had any expertise, and I doff my cap to those who have done so. I think the work there has been influential, even significant, and that what I see as the third M, mobile, has been addressed with great professionalism and ability.

What would you consider the most significant challenge M3AAWG has faced in its 20-year history? 

I think to some extent I addressed the most significant challenge up above, so I will take a slightly different tack and look at a more organisationally focused answer. Because M3AAWG is an industry funded organisation, it relies on the people that the sponsors and members allow to participate. These vary over time and as organisational priorities change and as individual careers evolve, people become available or move on. This has been apparent from day one of M3AAWG. Some great people have appeared and then moved on. I am not going to name names, many of you may know the people I am thinking of or may have others that this brings to mind. We have lost some great talent, but right now looking at how the organisation has evolved, it is evident that we have also gained many new ones. The major challenge is relevance. Without that relevance, important industry players will move away.

What is one of your best memories or proudest moments with M3AAWG? 

I will address best and proudest memories separately. It is not a messaging related issue that is likely my best M3AAWG memory. In 2013, I was representing M3AAWG at a conference in New Delhi and was invited to dinner with a number of other speakers. It was pretty august company. One of the guests had been pointed out to me as the second- or third-richest guy in India. Another was the Indian deputy national security adviser. I wondered why I was there, in fact, but as you may know, I am pretty keen on a good dinner. I sat down at one of the tables and introduced myself to the others at the table and, as you do, asked, “And, what do you do?” Well, it turned out that one of the other diners was a former Chief of Staff of the US Air Force and had been responsible for the legendary Top Gun School in Nevada. I was in my element talking about aviation and air warfare. We spent dinner discussing the network warfare aspects of the Battle of Britain in 1940 and how the setup of the command and control system was to some extent a human-powered analogue of a modern air defense system. He was a true expert in the field, and I was able to hold my own in a conversation with him. As for a proudest memory, there really have been a few. Being asked to be Chairman was one, and then being elected and then reelected by people whom I respected and liked. I think it was meant to be a one-year term, but like all good dictators I hung on for a bit longer. For me overall, it was about working with an amazing group of smart people to create an organisation that has been a force for good in the industry and has made a difference. Watching new people come into M3AAWG, reticent and quiet initially, who then moved on to take leadership positions both at M3AAWG and in their companies has been very rewarding. 

What role has M3AAWG played in your career? 

M3AAWG was really a force for good in my career. It gave me a wide public profile in the industry, reflected well on my employer and extended my personal network. I believe that my work with M3AAWG was a major contributing factor in my promotion to Engineering Fellow at my employer. I still get the chance to mentor one or two people in the industry, and I always tell them that participation in industry bodies is good for your career. It helps you within your company, and when the time comes to move on, it also helps you because you are a known entity and have built a network. 

What advice do you have for someone getting started in M3AAWG? 

Do not be a shrinking violet. Leap into the fray. Ask questions, because there are no dumb questions. People at M3AAWG want to be friendly and share their knowledge. Take advantage of this, and network widely. I have seen careers grow with M3AAWG work being a substantial contributing factor, so make sure M3AAWG works for your job and for you, too. Those who participate, who speak, who contribute, are those who grow, and I have seen more than a few careers go onward and upward. I know the participation of those people in M3AAWG activities contributed in some measure to their professional success. 

What is your greatest fear/hope for the online security/anti-abuse industry? 

This is a hard question for someone who is now retired. However, I talk to one or two former colleagues who are still active, and I read quite a lot. From the outside, I worry that the consumer is confronted with very sophisticated attacks via social engineering that in many cases have been shown to be very successful, and this will go on to get worse. AI is going to make threats more complex and the attacks more “credible” to the end user. The work that M3AAWG does is obviously not the whole answer, but based on what I have seen, it is a part. We cannot give up on the struggle, because the same tools that our opponents use are available to us. We need to deploy them with the same brains, diligence and honesty that I see at M3AAWG today. I hope I have a long retirement so I can see how M3AAWG evolves and wish everyone there best wishes and great ongoing success.

The views expressed in DM3Z are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect M3AAWG policy.