How Early Streaming Video Led to the Unraveling of the Enron Scandal

How were some analysts able to figure out that Enron was fudging its numbers? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Stan Hanks, CTO of Columbia Ventures Corp, on Quora:

Analysts were able to determine that Enron was fudging the numbers because of one simple event. On March 21, 2001, this ran in the press: Enron and Blockbuster Terminate Partnership for Video-on-Demand.

Now, to understand why this mattered, you need to rewind to July 20, 2000, when Enron, Blockbuster Partner For Movie Mania on a twenty-year deal, whereby Enron Broadband and Blockbuster agreed to a deal wherein Enron would deliver video-on-demand (sidebar: Netflix was still shipping DVDs, and wouldn't deliver streaming video for another seven years; in point of fact, Netflix was in acquisitions discussions with Blockbuster as this news was breaking).

This was huge - it was the mega-hype event of the year. Streaming video across the Internet at that point was bad, being mostly crafted in Adobe Flash or RealPlayer, with ultra low bit rates and very small images. No one believed that you could actually deliver broadcast quality images over the Internet at that point.

At least until the 1999 Internet edition of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, three days after Super Bowl XXXIII (it was announced in a halftime commercial). That pulled in over two million viewers, and completely "broke the Internet" as all the traffic went to a single point-of-service rather than being load leveled across content distribution networks - because they didn't exist yet!

At Enron Broadband, we were changing that. My group pioneered edge distribution servers and had a pretty good track record - we'd simulcast the Country Music Awards in 1999 and an episode of The Drew Carey Show, and the response was pretty good. We knew that there was still a pile of work to be done, mostly in getting good last-mile partnerships and better control software. And that was work which was on-going.

So, after the January 2000 analyst conference, much work was put into "doing something big" which would emphasize the cool and sexy to which Enron Broadband aspired. Enter Blockbuster.

And enter mark-to-market accounting. Mark to market is brilliant, and used for its intended purpose, provides incredible insight into where you need to invest for the future. One of the things that it lets you do is take the entire future value of a contract and book it as revenue at the time of recognition. If the value changes in the future, you re-book it at the new value - either up, or down.

At Enron, it was used to obfuscate many things. One of those was the value of the Blockbuster deal. Taking twenty years of forward projections on video-on-demand views for movies gives a really huge number - in this case, $110 million of profit (not revenue, profit). All booked to the financials for mid-year 2000. The future looked bright, the stock shot up even further.

And then, it un-wound. Turned out that the studios got a little testy about Blockbuster contracting to provide video-on-demand over the Internet when they didn't have the right to do so. Deal fails - no biggie, value in mark-to-market gets set to zero.

And that's where the ride really began. Richard Grubman noticed this and started thinking about it - a lot. And he was a serious activist and pain the ass for everyone at Enron - see this story for some color.

But sooner or later, he managed to get enough people looking at not just the Blockbuster deal but other deals which Enron had marked to market - and re-marked, and re-re-marked - to have the whole house of cards unravel.

For most people who were covering Enron at the time, there was huge pressure to focus on the positive and promote the notion that it was a hot stock - the "Chinese wall" between the buy-side and the analyst pool was porous and paper thin. A bad report would lead to the clients of the firm wanting to shed the stock, instead of buying more, or holding - and that flux would have consequences, of Enron moving their more valuable investment banking business to other firms.

The hedge funds didn't have that on board, and were able to take a harder look at things. Rather than taking the press releases from investor relations at face value, they went deeper. They had a lot more money on the line, and no competing business models to protect.

These days, it would be a lot harder to create that level of obfuscation. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act completely re-structured the nature of reporting, for starters, and the vast amount of info on the Internet publicly means it's a lot harder to hide, if anyone, anywhere has a negative thought about financial news.

This question originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:

Looking for Advice from Someone You Trust? These 5 Tips Will Help You Secure the Right Mentor

Whether your an entrepreneur or an business leader, few things are more valuable than a great mentor. Perhaps you are stuck in a career rut and need some advice of how to rebuild momentum? Or maybe you are wondering if you should leave your corporate job to become an entrepreneur? Maybe your startup is performing well, but you're worried about the underlying health of your startup and if it is set up to succeed long term?

I know several mentors have been extremely helpful to me, especially in the first year of my think tank and advisory firm, EddieWouldGrow. So I am always eager to pay it forward to others.

So this is why early in January I went back to my alma mater, the University of Chicago, to participate on a panel of alumni in consulting to 1st and 2nd year undergraduates who are curious about the industry and eager to learn how they can prepare for it.

The panel was very enjoyable and I've had several students reach out for follow up. I had conversations with three different students that were a fascinating juxtaposition of the dos and don'ts of the very first meeting with a potential mentor. Specifically there are five tips to get and insure the first meeting with a potential mentor goes well enough to keep going.

Gumption: Have the guts to ask in the first place. 

First, you have to ask. If you ask in a considerate manner, the worst that can happen is they say no or don't respond back. I had several students reach out to me afterwards in person or by email to make contact, but a number failed to make the explicit ask. I responded positively to those who did. 

Kyle Okimoto was recently the Head of Marketing for E*TRADE and noted that he gets frequent emails from Northwestern Alumni. Each time he says he's willing to talk and to set it up with his assistant, but he observed only a quarter actually follow through. 

Grease the skids: Take the time to set the right context. 

If you're going to ask for someone's time and you don't know them, make sure that you are set up for a high quality call. Find a quiet room to make the call so there is no background noise. Have time before and after so that you are not rushed. One student set up a call right after a class was over and was clearly walking and talking at the same time, which made it very difficult to hear and was not a great first impression. 

Groundwork: Do your homework ahead of time.

I was surprised at how much of a difference there was among the three who reached out. One student was so well prepared, he had not only read a number of my articles but had actually bought my book and read it before we talked. It certainly stood out in contrast to the other student who had done some cursory googling of me, but not enough to realize that my career is about growth strategy and that a technology oriented discussion wasn't the best fit for me. 

This is not about ego, but it's about efficiency and honoring someone's valuable time. The more you know about your potential mentor, the less they have to introduce themselves and the more time they have to focus on your question. Plus in this day of LinkedIn, Twitter and online articles, not doing this is a clear sign of a lack of investment. 

Great Questions: Invest in honing a few great questions.  

Two of the students here really impressed me. One had a very specific career question, but took a step back and wanted to understand the theory of how consulting firms worked. It was so much more fun for me to talk about that than answer a specific question, that I would gladly meet with this person again.

Similarly, nothing can cut short a potential mentor relationship than a naive or ignorant question. One student asked me if it was smart to go directly to business school from undergraduate. That's a question that can be answered by a thirty second Google search. Don't waste someone's time with a bad question, but more importantly don't risk your reputation as well. 

Generosity: Give more than you take in the interaction. 

This is a nuanced point. You don't want to only take from the interaction, by pulling information but without offering something in return. Nor do you want to over do it, by doing anything crassly commercial. But you want to give some thought to what is motivating the potential mentor to help out and then figure out what it is that you can do to help. Often times, it's not that you actually give the right thing, but your thoughtfulness can come through very loudly.

Sometimes, even just asking what you can do to help out is all that you need. Or importantly, keeping the conversation on track to the amount you asked for, or even ending it earlier is a gift that can be appreciated. And of course, say thank you promptly!

How To Protect Yourself From The Biggest Cyber Threat We Personally Face Today

With a new year comes new challenges, and few have become as problematic as online or cyber threats.

Martin Giles, San Francisco bureau chief for MIT Technology Review, points out that there are a number of significant cyber threats for consumers this year, including data breaches, artificial intelligence and cyber-attacks as weapons, and  and cryptocurrency hacks.

While these threats can affect all of us, there is very little we can do to protect ourselves, since we are at the mercy of the companies holding our data to protect it.

Giles points out that one threat in which we have a great deal of power to control is becoming a growing concern for individuals and businesses: Ransomware.

Ransomware is a malicious online computer program (malware) that blocks access to or steals outright important and private electronic files. Once compromised, the victim is often forced to pay a ransom to retrieve access to their files, typically in the form of cryptocurrency.

As more and more companies move to software as a service (SAAS) in lieu of offering downloadable programs we use and manage on our devices, more and more of our information and data is going into the cloud. And while some argue that data is more secure in the cloud, the fact is that it becomes accessible to anyone with the proper credentials to do so.

Giles points out that there was a "plague of ransomware attacks" last year and suggests that the problem could become worse. He emphasizes that hackers most likely will be targeting the cloud, hacking into our private information being stored on servers all around the world.

And while these services are owned and operated by huge companies, more often than not, hackers exploit areas of vulnerability in accounts, such as using social engineering to determine online credentials, then using simple algorithms to hack a password.

In the past, victims have typically paid the ransom, and for a long time, ransomware hackers policed their community to ensure that "honesty" was adhered to and data was returned. Some hackers even provided "Support Centers" and "customer service."

Things have changed, however, and the practice of ransoming data has become more popular, even birthing off-the-shelf ransomware programs available to those who know where to look. Moreover, victims are finding that paying the ransom does not always assure return of their data. In fact, one survey found that over half of companies that paid the ransom actually had their data returned.

Turns out that the community of thieves has been infected with criminals.

So while we may not be able to control or have an impact on how companies manage our data, we can take personal responsibility in how we protect the data on our end. 

1. Protect Your Email

Just like our eyes are the window to our soul, our email is the window to our online soul. We use emails not only to log into important accounts but also to reset our passwords. Once a hacker has access to your email, it is not difficult for them to get into most of your online accounts.

Never share your email credentials and passwords with anyone, and when possible, set up alias emails (if your email service provides them) for unimportant online accounts. It may seem like a lot to manage, but not when you compare it to the hassle of having your information breached.

2. Tighten Your Privacy Settings

We all love to share information online. The problem is that experienced hackers can use social engineering to "backwards integrate" into your accounts. Basically, by viewing your online profiles and activity, most hackers can determine where you live, your hometown, the names of your friends and family, etc. By using this information, they can then attempt act like you to contact important services that you may use to get access.

While this seems like a long shot, it works. Personally, I was a victim of an attempted social engineering. Someone called my bank and got through a number of security checks before being thwarted.

While most of us aren't going to turn off our online activity, the next best thing is to be more strict with our privacy settings, especially on accounts where we share personal information.

3. Covet Thy Passwords

By and large, the easiest way for hackers to get into your accounts is by hacking your password. That is because we all like to use passwords that we can remember, and we use common passwords across accounts. Hackers know this, and by determining a few things about you -- names of streets, kids, pets, universities, etc -- most can use algorithms to determine yours. 

When it comes to passwords, take every precaution to maximize this layer of security. And if you think your password is top notch, you may be surprised. Use this Password Strength Test to see how yours measures up.

4. Utilize Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication is a process through which access to your account is verified even after you have entered your amazingly unique password by sending an additional passcode to a mobile device or email. Most accounts offer this service, and it requires a few minutes to set up.

All of this may seem like a lot of work to protect ourselves, but given the consequence of not doing so, it is worth every minute you spend. 

What do you think? How have you protected yourself from cybercrimes? Please share your feedback and experiences with others in the comments below.