#DevelopersofMSAB – Sebastian Zankl

Oh, this sounds cool!

This one thought has propelled Sebastian into a thriving career in mobile forensics.

Over a decade ago, he started his professional journey by joining MSAB as a software developer. Since then, he embarked on an impressive ascent, climbing the ladder from developer to an accomplished team lead, and finally, assuming the pivotal role of Engineering Manager for one of MSAB’s dynamic teams.

In the heart of the bustling MSAB office in Sweden, I sat down with Sebastian Zankl for what was supposed to be a brief interview with one of the company’s youngest managers. Little did I know when I entered that conference room that I was about to be privy to an insightful exploration of team leadership, software development, mobile forensics, and so much more.

How did he get here?

Sebastian’s path began with a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a major in digital crime and e-security. His program offered broad education in IT forensics, covering programming, networking, and the use of forensic tools.

“The programming part was what I liked the most,” recalled Sebastian. “And in this field, it’s even more compelling, because it’s not only about implementing a solution to a specific problem. First you need to figure out how to solve the problem. And the investigation part itself is actually really interesting.”

During his degree at Dalarna University was also where he first learned about XRY, the flagship MSAB product used for extracting mobile data. Fast forward a few years, and his code now plays a big part in what makes XRY truly exceptional.


From thesis research to applicable solutions: Making the invisible visible again in SQLite Databases

Sebastian’s thesis work revolved around SQLite databases, his interest being to find out whether it’d be possible to have a generic method to find deleted data in this type of database.

This is a particularly pressing issue within digital forensics.

It’s not uncommon for suspects to take steps to conceal their tracks, making the recovery of previously deleted data a vital aspect of the process for law enforcement. Fortunately, a multitude of browsers and a vast array of apps employ the same database system for data storage: SQLite. Reason enough to take a closer look at this product and try to find ways to find deleted data within them.

Upon joining MSAB, one of Sebastian’s projects became to put into practice what he’d theoretically studied for his thesis: to write a solution capable of not only reading data from these databases but also identifying deleted data and pinpointing where the data is located.

“Extracting data from the SQLite databases was a significant project that I’m quite proud of. I mean, this database is used on almost every app on Android and iOS. And our app decoding requires this part of the code to do its job and to do it properly.”

A career defined by meaning

Our lives are nowadays intricately intertwined with smartphones, so it’s no wonder that the field of mobile forensics has undergone such a transformative shift. “My personal main device is actually my phone. That’s where I do 90%, if not more, of my personal tasks, like internet browsing, checking my mail and so on. So, I think IT forensics is more and more being replaced by mobile forensics.” This speaks volumes about the pivotal role mobile devices play in our daily routines and, subsequently, in the field of digital investigations.

And speaking of digital investigations, law enforcement is always going to need forensic tools and technology. “People can stop purchasing new furniture at Ikea to save money. But the police can’t really stop purchasing more forensic products because they simply cannot do their job without them,” said Sebastian as a striking reminder of the crucial nature of the work carried out by MSAB and all the talented people working for the company.

“As a developer, the code you write directly affects the product that we then put in the hands of our customers.” What better way to exemplify MSAB’s mission to make the world safer than the realization that the product of your work can help put a criminal behind bars, exonerate an innocent person, or aid someone at their most vulnerable.


Rising Through the Ranks

Sebastian Zankl joined MSAB right after college as a developer, but it didn’t take long for his trajectory to veer into leadership territory. “I began as a developer,” he mentioned, “then, a few years later, I was Scrum Master for the team. After that, I became Team Lead. And now, in just a few more weeks, I’ll mark my third year as the team’s manager.”

Sebastian’s experience within the company speaks volumes: “When team members have questions,” he explained, “I can usually provide the answer, direct them to the right resources, or suggest who might help. It’s a valuable skill set I’ve honed over the years. While these days I might not make changes to the code myself, I can guide others on where to look or what might need fixing. And now, as a manager, my mission is to maintain a happy team, one that’s motivated to give their best”.


Empowering developers

Sebastian’s knack for being a great manager boils down to one simple fact: he cares. He’s hands-on when it comes to his team of 16 developers – his Minions as he jokingly calls them – making sure they can get their work done smoothly, have everything they need, don’t run into roadblocks, and, most importantly, stay happy on the job. Unlike Gru, however, who started off as a sneaky, grouchy and cynical supervillain, Sebastian didn’t need a change of heart; he’s been leading with heart and humor all along.


Witnessing MSAB’s Evolution

Over his time at MSAB, Sebastian saw firsthand the company’s impressive growth. Even as MSAB has grown, it hasn’t lost its close-knit atmosphere.

“When I started,” he recalled, “we were around 60 to 70 people, and it had the vibe of a startup. Suddenly, we grew to nearly 200. I would definitely say it was like a small family during my first years. Now, we’re too big as a company to still call ourselves a small family. But that feeling survived in each team. Now it feels like each team is like its own family unit.”


Balancing leadership and software development expertise

The transition from developer to engineering manager is interesting in and of its own. “I do miss it,” said Sebastian recalling the days when all his time was spent writing and implementing code, researching, reverse engineering, troubleshooting and debugging code. “But I have other work now that keeps me busy, and this new work is also fun in a different way. So, even though the job description has changed, it’s still interesting and meaningful and I feel like I’m getting something rewarding out of it.”

“In the beginning, things like figuring out problems and reverse engineering were some of the things I enjoyed the most. Now, I’m focused on my team and making sure everything goes smoothly. And I do like that – seeing my team grow.”


Looking Ahead: A Future Fueled by Growth

Sebastian’s career journey is a perfect example of the organic growth and evolution that can occur when one’s passion for their work is allowed to flourish. At the crux of his professional path was always the thought that as long as you keep learning, improving, and enjoying what you’re doing, you’re on the right track. It is this commitment to personal and professional development that propels him into the future, ready to embrace whatever opportunities come his way.

“When I started here,” he recalled, “I thought I’m just going to be a developer and the idea of management sounded boring. Over time, that changed.” In the same way he enthusiastically welcomed this unexpected turn in his career, Sebastian intends to maintain a receptive outlook and allow his professional journey to adapt naturally, aligning with the dynamic and constantly evolving tech industry landscape.


Cultivating a Collaborative Culture

“I would say, be curious and ask a lot of questions,” he advised newcomers. “I think some people might be afraid to ask or show that, ‘Oh, I don’t actually know something, so I need maybe help.’ But we have a very open company culture, so I don’t think anybody would think it’s weird if you had questions about something. Everyone is happy to help and try to help to solve problems.” Plus, Sebastian added, “You grow more and faster and become more independent quicker if you actually ask for help when you need it, instead of getting stuck in places and trying to solve it all on your own. That’s when you end up wasting time. If only you had just asked, maybe it would have taken five minutes instead of five days.”


Striking the perfect balance

Sebastian Zankl, undoubtedly one of the most driven and growth-oriented professionals I’ve encountered, has mastered the art of balancing hard work with well-deserved play. MSAB, in this regard, is a perfect match.

“We have an open and friendly culture,” Sebastian says fondly. Whether it’s board game nights, relaxed after-work meetups, or the grand kickoff event, these special bonding moments make being a part of the company an absolute blast.


Sebastian Zankl’s journey at MSAB is a testament to the power of passion, perseverance, and a company culture that values collaboration and growth. His story, filled with memorable projects and a deep commitment to his team, mirrors the ethos of MSAB—an organization that continues to evolve and innovate while making its mark on the world of digital forensics.

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