Christopher P. Hardy is a Forensics Project Manager at HAYSTACKID. Chris boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of litigation support technologies, techniques, trends, and client pain points. This whiz kid, jack of all trades is well-known for his ability to tackle and complete any type of project in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible.
Because he started on the ground level at HAYSTACKID and had a front-row seat during the firm’s rapid growth, Chris has a unique and wide-reaching perspective on the industry at large. His unique combination of problem-solving aptitude, early education in computer science, and unparalleled communication skills positioned him for a lustrous career in the emerging markets associated with litigation support.
We recently sat down with Mr. Hardy to get his perspectives on the company, the industry, and the tale of his career to this point.
HAYSTACKID: Tell me a little bit about your background. Take me through your education and early professional career.
Chris: I have done many things on the education front. I’ve been building computers since I was 12 (it being much more economical to assemble your Quake/Half-Life rig than to buy it pre-configured). Along with Mark Landers, I got my start in computer science early, while still in high school.
After a short stint at Ithaca College’s film school, I ended up transferring to the University of New Hampshire and dual majoring in American History and Politics. So that took about six years, all-in-all, and after that, rather than going into teaching – which was the original plan – I ended up drifting into sales in Boston.
Not long after, I started on the ground floor at HAYSTACKID. At the time, I was a jack of all trades, if you will – I had my finger in all the eDiscovery pots, collections, general technology, processing, review: basically, everything and anything that needed to get done.
What were the early years of HAYSTACKID like?
We were doing lots of transactional eDiscovery work, which is akin to making copies but with electronic data. It was very fluid, you know, having 40 or 50 or 60 jobs per day rather than 20-30 giant projects that were going continuously. It was the shifting to these huge, continuously running projects that allowed us to grow as quickly as we did.
Did you encounter any challenges with that strategic shift toward the larger projects?
Of course – any change is going to come with some complexities. For example, we had to create entirely new workflows, and develop innovative ways to manage projects.
This was also when we began to write our own software. We used the knowledge that Jefferey Stevens, Michael Sarlo, and I had accrued up to that point to make LAW PreDiscovery better than it had been; we had to force LAW to do what we needed it to do. It was the industry standard eDiscovery tool, but it lacked many essential functions out-of-the-box. Without the development team, we would not be where we are today. That’s something that many of our competitors sorely lack, and has been a vital driver of our success.
Having access to people who can implement your vision of how things should work has been a massive help all along. I would not be where I am now without those resources.
Along the way, I ended up on the forefront of learning and implementing new technologies and coming up with workflows with Michael just to stay on top of the workload. It would have been impossible to handle said workload without a team that was as good as ours, and that continues to be the case.
Were there other notable shifts that contributed to the company’s growth and your professional development?
Yes, we branched out to not only do processing and collections but also added in-house Relativity to the toolbox and started hosting our own review cases. We brought the right people on board, who in turn got our Relativity infrastructure up-and-running very quickly, and added a whole new level of service offerings.
At that point, I became a Relativity Certified Administrator. Having our entire project management team certified as RCAs allowed us to support very large clients properly since we were able to offer everything from forensics and collections through eDiscovery and managed and hosted review.
We’ve always been very much an if you need it we will figure it out and get it done sort of shop, and that kind of forced me to learn and adapt to the changing needs of big eDiscovery clients because every case is obviously different. What works for one does not work for another, and many times in this business you end up inventing innovative ways to do things on the fly because the circumstances of the matter or case you’re working on change.
In many cases, there is simply no tried-and-true method to get the job done due to a confluence of factors.
If it hasn’t been done before, it’s on you to figure out how to get it done accurately, efficiently, and as cost-effectively as possible, and that’s something we’ve always been great at because we’ve been given the tools we need to do what needs to be done. Big ups to our senior leadership on that, because it would have been impossible to do what we do now if we could not try new tools (both hardware and software) as seamlessly as we were able.
Do you believe that element is somewhat unique to HAYSTACKID in the context of the industry?
Absolutely. A lot of places and a lot of people get stuck in unfortunate situations where they are not given the tools they need to get things done. And you can’t always – there’s often a problem trying to shoehorn something into a piece of technology that isn’t well suited – accomplish what you’re trying to do with the wrong tool. Fortunately, we have a policy here that does not force us into that box. That has been instrumental.
On the flip side of that, though, it means we have to constantly stay on our toes, learning and developing new ways to do things with new software. So, although the eDiscovery workflow itself is generally very stable and stays the same, getting each unique project done is an entirely different story. You can do most anything six or even a dozen different ways, but only one of them is going to be the best way. Luckily, we have a team that is highly adaptable.
And you believe that adaptability is essential?
Oh yes, probably the most necessary characteristic to be successful in this business is to be able to quickly develop new solutions for new problems. I’m pretty good at that. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.
Listen, there are people who figure things out, and there are people who say things cannot be done, and I do not like the idea of being in that second camp, at all.
Understood. So how did you progress from there?
I turned my focus more toward getting the data and setting it up right so our forensics team could do what they’re good at. This is about when – well from the beginning we used things like EnCase and Cellebrite – but around the time when we saw an explosion of certain types of projects.
We started going into organizations to help them map their data and take stock of literally everything. With transactional eDiscovery projects, you’re often just handed little bits of data, but what we’re best at is the start-to-finish model where you go into an organization as their partner for them and their counsel, help them figure out what they have and what’s actually needed for a certain case, and often it’s questionable so you end up with everything.
How big of a difference is there between the smaller transactional projects and this end-to-end setup?
Well, suddenly, you can have a project that might start with a smaller collection of let’s say someone’s email or laptop or cellphone, but then scale out to a whole department that includes 50-100 people, and we’ve gradually started to specialize in that latter sort of thing – that’s what we do very well. So, it’s a massive difference, to say the least, but the transition is another reason why we’re competing at such a high-level today. Clients know that we handle large scale projects better than anybody, while still providing nimble service and adaptability.
How did your shift toward being a specialized project manager play out?
Well, to keep the collection machine well-oiled and running, you need someone to manage projects. Examiners cannot do what they do best if they’re also constantly concerned with the logistics and tracking and planning ahead for the projects they’re working on.
Being the adaptable type and having such strong working knowledge of the entire case lifecycle, I transitioned full-time into the role of a Forensic Project Manager.
Do you believe that your unique experience – starting on the ground floor and learning every moving part involved, makes you a strong project manager in this forensics specialization?
Well yes. Having been in the organization for many years, and having the understanding and institutional knowledge of everything from custodial interviews and collections moving into eDiscovery, review, and production – it’s a whole spectrum that someone would have to start where I started to actually understand the process and be able to exhibit that knowledge in practice.
I think that experience and 360-degree knowledge is vital because it smooths out some of the bumps that can otherwise occur when you have teams that are too separate – you know, specialization is good but people still need to know what each other really do. If you do not understand what people in ‘X’ or ‘Y’ department do on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard to help them do it. It’s not a forensic examiner’s job to have a laser focus understanding on the entire project lifecycle either.
They need to be aware of what’s coming down the road, but you know, most people with this kind of specialization have never been on the eDiscovery or hosted review end of things, so it’s better to have an aficionado of sorts that has been there setting up projects all along.
Where do you this industry heading in the coming years?
Well, for starters, processing is going to be the real element to watch in the next five years.
As various pieces of software evolve and devolve, there’s definitely a shift away from the mentality of giving someone your data to help get it ready for your review, and instead moving toward just dumping data into a do-it-all, black-box processing tool. That way, data gets into your review tool without anyone really seeing the data at all. We don’t use this type of workflow because it has severe drawbacks; this applies to basically any of the ‘raw data in/reviewable data out’ tools currently available.
So, something can go wrong and you have no way of telling what it was. It’s fine for 90 percent of cases – I shouldn’t say cases – it’s probably not going to fail you with 99 percent of the data that you’re going to be dealing with, but it’s not fine for the outliers. Usually, when processing problem data with these tools, it will either just not come out, or come out and be completely wrong.
Can you expand a bit more on that shift away from transactional to end-to-end?
Sure. As someone with experience both in the eDiscovery processing and forensics worlds, I’m confident that current transactional eDiscovery data processing workflows will soon become a thing of the past. Cases that rely on providing many small data sets to a vendor on a regular basis for processing from raw data into review sets for tools like Relativity will soon become rarer, and are really already becoming so. This is not to say there’s necessarily anything inherently wrong with these types of workflows; rather they often provide the best and most consistent outcomes.
The impetus for this industry-wide change is the preponderance of newer tools that allow users to largely – or sometimes entirely – automate most eDiscovery processing tasks. Tools like these often seem to make sense from a cost-effectiveness standpoint because they allow law firms and corporate legal departments to process their own data easily without resorting to third-party vendors. This perception has fueled a shift in recent years from sending eDiscovery projects to expert vendors to keeping such projects in-house.
After some reflection, this approach to data processing can seem too good to be true. That’s because it often is. What is lost when turning to automated eDiscovery solutions is twofold. First, one loses the expert eye of a good eDiscovery vendor who can anticipate issues with data sets before they occur and who has the knowledge to fix them if they do go awry. Secondly, automated processing tools are usually based on black box technology that doesn’t allow for serious manipulation of, or reporting on, the data being processed.
Data is fed into these tools, and then structured data comes out the other end. What is lost in between? Were there unhandled exceptions? The answer to this question is almost always an emphatic yes! No automated tools allow anywhere near the level of access to the data that more traditional tools like LAW PreDiscovery and Nuix do. With these tools, an experienced vendor can identify problematic data, report on it and, more often than not, fix it. This is simply impossible with automated processing.
Despite these setbacks, automation is undoubtedly rising in prominence across the market. So, are HAYSTACKID and other vendors futureproofed?
I don’t know about other vendors – but as for HAYSTACKID – of course. We’re not only an eDiscovery company – that’s the piece of the case lifecycle that is somewhat threatened by automation and software. We have that, and we still have an advantage over the automation software for the time being, but we also offer end-to-end services, which are the collection, the hosted review, and the production work – and that work cannot be accomplished automatically by a piece of software.
So yes, I think we are well-positioned to not dry up and fade away because we cover the entire case lifecycle. If part of it starts to slide, people still need those other things, which are really the important parts. Kevin Glass likes to say that “eDiscovery is just making copies,” and I happen to agree with him. The processing part – what software like LAW or Nuix does – is the electronic version of making paper copies with the added need of expert oversight for when problem data-sets arise.
We don’t rely on just that to keep the business strong. So yes, I would say we are decisively futureproofed.
Do you have a favorite type of project to work on?
It’s kind of a negative reverse-answer in a way, but yes – I love projects that don’t have an immediate, obvious solution. You can be an expert at something, but there will always be cases that nobody has any idea of how to approach, and the process of figuring those out is why I love doing this type of work. And, even on the collection end of things, that happens all the time.
A couple of weeks ago, for example, we had a case, or project I should say, where a client needed to collect a preservation image of a server that had a very specialized setup because it was running out of space and they needed to create a copy of what it looked like prior to upgrading and adding more space. There’s a chance that during their upgrade process there would be issues, so they had us come in and take a forensic copy of it.
We store the image for them and their counsel so when or if they need those images, they’re there. The problem with this project was the server was 15 years old, and nobody at the company had any idea how to use it. So, they call us, we come in, we talk to the IT guys, we look at the systems and come up with a plan, we try the plan, it doesn’t work, we come up with plans B through D, those don’t work either.
Weeks pass, it becomes more and more urgent to get this thing done. Eventually, the level of urgency gets to such a point that we have a quick meeting with the attorneys, and they decide they’re all for sending us over there until it’s done, and have us kind of working in tandems and it got done. That turned into me going onsite at this place for 11 days and doing nothing else but trying to figure out this problem.
It ended up being an issue with UNIX. And this was a very weird flavor of UNIX, this particular server, that’s no longer supported by its manufacturer, so we were not able to use the entire laundry list of forensic tools we have out-of-the-box, and ended up having to invent an entirely new way to do a server collection.
That is how we got it done – it took 11 days in a row of just sitting in front of the thing and hacking away, but now it’s done. That’s the kind of project I like. You don’t know what to expect, it’s new and different every time.
Are there any specific technologies you enjoy using right now?
Short answer: No. Out-of-the box stuff does not always do everything it needs to do. I don’t actively use it myself, but one of the major advantages we have is the Relativity-Cellebrite Integrator that we developed, because nobody else has this. It takes the industry standard phone forensic image and puts it in Relativity, effectively making it look like a set of emails, so it becomes very easy to review.
The other option for reviewing phones is to look at giant Excel spreadsheets which are just dumps of images taken from the iPhone or Android. And that method is not conducive to easy, accurate, or efficient review at all. So, again, I don’t use it because it’s more for the hosting/review side of things, but it’s a great piece of software – it’s a great tool – and we made it ourselves. And, we made it because we needed it.
Having the resources we need to get a thing like that done is awesome. I’ll always favor that type of situation above just using some out-of-the-box, existing technology, and I think that is a preference I share with many of my colleagues. It does exactly what we want it to do.
How would you describe a good client?
A good client is one who allows themselves to be helped. HAYSTACKID offers expert advice, workflows, and services that are tailored from the ground up to efficiently get our clients what they need when they need it. A client who is willing to be advised and is willing to learn is always better to work with than one set in their ways. This is especially true when those ways are no longer the best ways to handle new and challenging tasks.
People are often set in their ways because it’s the way they’re used to doing it, but we come in and recommend a different approach and they ask why. They are set on the tried-and-true way and, yes, maybe it’s tried, but often it’s neither true nor useful for new and changing needs. So, I’d say the best sort of client is the one that lets us help and trusts in our guidance and consultation.
Thank you. What do you like to do in your spare time?
I noodle on the guitar, and when people are around I try to play with them as well. I am a voracious reader, as well – I read a book or two a week, as one must stay fresh.
Ah, a dying pastime.
Indeed – but not for me.
What’s on your shelf right now?
I am currently in the middle of Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Echo, Creation by Gore Vidal, and The Great Shark Hunt by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
I have light reading – which is Thompson, although light in content it is not, but it is easy to get through. Then, I have heavy reading, which is your mainstream fiction like Vidal, and the wacky academic writing exercises like Echo.
I also read a ton of magazines and periodicals. I’d say everyone should be reading the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and others to keep fresh and apprised.
It’s all good. Read kids, read!
Thank you for your time Mr. Hardy.
Check back soon for more insights from the HAYSTACKID team!
Christopher P. Hardy is a Forensics Project Manager at HAYSTACKID