At five, Reuben Paul came up with his first video game – a simple program where big fishes chase and eat smaller ones.
Recalled Reuben, now 11, with a wide grin: “When the big fish swallowed the small fish, it would go ‘yum, yum’! I still remember it – it sparked an interest in coding.”
Today, the boy hacker, cyber security advocate and acclaimed conference speaker is swimming among the big fishes of the cyber security industry, speaking at HaxPo in the Netherlands, the Houston Security Conference, GeekFest Berlin and, more recently, The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum.
Earlier this year, he shared the stage with the US Defence Intelligence Agency’s chief information officer Janice Glover-Jones as a co-keynote speaker.
He amazes his audience with tricks such as hacking into his soft toys, phishing for passwords from volunteers and bypassing the security systems of some online services.
Still, the young prodigy, a sixth-grader at Kelly Lane Middle School in Austin, Texas, has had his share of criticism, even cyber bullying, from those sceptical about his abilities. “Do you remember that one guy who kept on saying those mean things…” Reuben asked his parents who were seated with him during an interview with The Sunday Times, before trailing off.
Rather than feeling diminished, Reuben said he channels the negative energy from hurtful comments into positive action for his non-profit organisation, CyberShaolin, which he started with his father to educate children about cyber threats, such as online bullying, Internet addiction and IT security.
“I want to teach kids to protect themselves from being hacked and the dangers of the Internet,” he said. “When I grow up, I want to be a cyberspy for a government agency, stopping foreign and domestic agents for my country,” he added.
Behind the boy genius are his parents Mano and Sangeeta Paul, both of whom are in the IT field. They accompany their son on his trips around the globe. Reuben has travelled to 23 countries and spoken in seven of them so far, with Singapore being his latest destination.
However, they have been called stage parents by their detractors.
“They say that I have robbed him of his childhood. But you can never get your children to do something that they don’t want to do. Reuben would not be the Reuben you see today if I had to force him to like something,” said Mr Paul, 40, a cyber security strategist. “His interests are completely his own.”
Away from the stage and “IT stuff”, Reuben is a regular boy who enjoys hanging out with his schoolmates. At home, he plays first-person shooters, like the video game Halo, with his father.
At the interview, it was clear his parents and brother, five-year-old Ittai, meant the world to him. “A baby sister,” he declared, to laughter from his parents, when asked what he would like for Christmas.
“My wife and I don’t feel like he is a genius or a celebrity. To us, Reuben is a normal kid,” said Mr Paul.
Instead of trying to create another Reuben, Mr Paul said parents must strive to discover where their children’s own passions lie and then give them the opportunities to bloom. A child’s interest can change, which is normal and should be encouraged, he added. “As soon as Reuben says he is no longer interested in computers and IT, and perhaps wants to pick up another skill, we will move on too,” said Mr Paul.