Pietro Ferrara

Let’s talk about you: what is your background, what do you teach, and what are your research interests?
I work on static analysis and its application to detect implementation software vulnerabilities and privacy issues. To put it simply, I implement mathematical theories in order to find flaws in software we run every day that may compromise our security and privacy. In simple terms, I try to develop tools to prevent your laptop from crashing after you write a very long email and don't save it, to prevent a blue screen from appearing in the middle of the transaction when you buy a ticket, to prevent a crash when you connect to the video call for the exam. And as you can imagine... no, we have not (as a scientific community) succeeded, and, indeed, we are getting further and further away from the goal!

What was your academic career?
After a Bachelor's Degree (2003) and a Master's Degree (2005) in Informatics at Ca' Foscari, I started to travel the world: first a joint PhD at Ecole Polytechnique in Paris (2009) with Ca' Foscari, then a postdoc at ETH Zurich (until mid-2013) and finally a researcher position at IBM T. J. Watson laboratory in New York State (until the end of 2015). After that I came back to Italy to work in JuliaSoft, a company born as a spin-off of the University of Verona back in 2010, where I stayed until the end of 2019 and took care of Research & Development. In short, a career that combines academia and industry, and that gave me the chance to see both sides of scientific IT research.

What were your greatest professional satisfactions?
Teaching chess to primary school children a couple of years ago (I am a CONI registered chess instructor). Ah, isn't that considered professional experience? Well, sometimes I had the feeling that I was locking myself inside my research, and I saw teaching as something almost ‘accompanying’ research itself. However, being able to approach teaching with a group of students that is very different from the usual and on subjects that are far from professional activity, is on the one hand extremely rewarding (especially when you come across the almost naive enthusiasm of children), and on the other hand terribly valuable for university teaching.

Have you always known that this was going to be your path?
No, and I think that anyone of my generation who says that they have always thought of being a researcher is lying. It is a steep road, made up of a thousand frustrations, few certainties, and often even less satisfaction. It is a steep uphill road that one often travels more for the satisfaction of saying "I made it" than for the view one can enjoy from above. And it's a road full of potholes, wrong signs and people trying to make you fall. I have zigzagged along it, taking detours and sometimes stopping in the shade to enjoy a well-deserved rest. Now I have reached this peak and am enjoying the view, then, like everyone else, I will have to work out whether I can climb another peak with an even more attractive view than this one, or whether it is worth diving down in search of something else.

Can you offer any advice to researchers in the early stages of their career?
Run away. And do it abroad. But let's be clear: I'm not saying this because "in Italy everything sucks", "nothing will ever change", "it will always be the same old story". But because having an experience outside your comfort zone, in a place with a different culture and approach to life and research... Well, it will make you grow humanly and professionally like nothing else, and the right age is just that of a new graduate/doctor (when you already have some experience behind you, but also a somewhat immature mind, flexible and open to new things)! Then, if you want to come back to Italy you will try, and if you want to stay abroad... the same! I think it is good here and I am extremely happy with my choice, but I would be the same if I had stayed abroad.

Last update: 14/02/2024