Demirjian Cracks The Secrets of Lost Hard Drives



By Anna Yukhananov

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Alfred Demirjian, the founder and chief executive of one of Boston’s first data recovery companies, careens through a yellow light before merging across four lanes onto the expressway. He speeds up, then takes both hands off the wheel to adjust the radio tuner.

“When I drive, I think,” Demirjian says. “It calms me down.”

He must be back in the office by 6 p.m. to collect a package from a customer. In the world of data recovery, there are no regular business hours.

“It’s always an emergency,” Demirjian said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

His company, TechFusion, is a place of last resort for recovery of data. Customers with overwritten hard drives, crashed servers, or disks that are physically burned or smashed, bring their problems to the small office hidden on a narrow lane among gas stations and auto body shops. The company has worked on cases for the government, for victims of Hurricane Katrina, for legal firms, for desperate employees.

“They come to us when they have no other choice,” Demirjian said.

From Wild Boars to Business Gambles

While the services of TechFusion are needed now, when Demirjian started the company in 1988 hard disks were still a novelty and data recovery was unheard of.

“People were laughing at me,” he said.

His initial idea for the company proved far-sighted. While electronics could be built with cheaper labor abroad, Demirjian focused his company on the most valuable thing produced within the United States: data.

Yet Demirjian did not come from a technological background. He grew up in a small village in Iran, a town with a tiny Armenian community, and wild boars and tigers running through his backyard.

Demirjian came to the United States to study electrical engineering at Boston University. After graduating, he worked odd jobs to raise capital for his start-up, selling computers, collecting garbage and waiting tables.

Demirjian said he made most of his start-up capital not from any of those difficult jobs, but from gambling: he played poker for two years, until he had enough money to put his company on firm ground.

But he adds: “I’m not a gambler; business is the biggest gamble you can do.”

One Step Ahead

The work of a data recovery company depends on having the right instincts, Demirjian said. Much of what TechFusion does has never been done before, as technology changes much faster than the manuals written to explain it.

“Usually you depend on your gut feeling when you go after technology,” he said. “You have to relax and think about it without any pressure. And if you keep missing it, you go out of business.”

Demirjian thrives in this high-stress environment. He is always in motion, gesticulating on his cell phone, tapping his foot.

“One of my friends once asked me, how do you get up every day and keep pushing yourself after so many years?” Demirjian said. “It’s because I know what environment makes me push: when things are hard.”

“The more [of a] disaster there is, the calmer I feel. I function well if there are no rules.”

Demirjian said his company prides itself on going after the hardest jobs; their motto is, “When No One Else Can.”

Demirjian leans back in his office chair; his shelves are lined with row upon row of square hard drives with their small, spinning disks — over 15,000 in the office, each with its own story.

Once, the company worked for the Massachusetts State Police department to help them recover over 2 million emergency calls lost from a central routing office. In other cases, TechFusion helped with data recovery for veterans of Iraq and victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Demirjian said cases with individual customers are always more emotional.

“Once a father came to us with a burned hard drive,” he said. “It was all that was left for him. His whole family died in that fire.”

Demirjian said his hardest case was working on the hard drive in the case of Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist who was assassinated by a Turkish nationalist in 2007. Demirjian was able to recover surveillance photographs of the scene of the murder. The case was difficult not only because of the technical work — the hard drive had been overwritten — but also because of Demirjian’s personal involvement. He said he received a threat to stop working on the case. But the threat only motivated him to push harder, he said.

“The Turkish government is connected to those who killed our parents, killed our grandparents. If I didn’t do it, it would feel like spitting on my grandparents’ grave,” he said.

“Genocide was something I’d been raised with. I used to have dreams. I was in the desert, and a wall separated me from the greenery, from the green wheat. All the Armenians around me were behind that wall.

“When the Hrant Dink case came to me, I felt like my section of the wall fell down, and I was walking in the greenery.”

Demirjian recalls that when he first started working, he was shy about asking customers for a specific price.

“When I used to talk on the phone about money, my face would turn red, yellow, purple, any kind of color,” he said. “But then I thought, why should I feel guilty? I’m providing them a service.”

Demirjian admits that sometimes he is hard with customers; he does not like bargaining for prices when people come to him with an emergency.

“Sometimes I have to put my foot down,” he said. “I tell them from the beginning, if you want your data, that’s the cost. It’s like a good steak. It takes 30 minutes. Can I do it in five minutes? Sure. But will it be edible?”

Demirjian said his company’s prices are reasonable for the industry, and he only charges a small fee if he is unsuccessful.

“If I don’t recover, you don’t pay. Our livelihood depends on the biggest gamble. Sometimes we spend the night not sleeping. I tell customers, we have 52 weekends a year. One of those weekends has your name on it. When I think about my life, I think of you. How can you bargain on a price for that?
Demirjian said his favorite moment is calling a customer to tell him that his data is safe.

“I had a customer at a hotel who was almost crying: all my data is gone, they’re going to fire me. The whole system went down. When I told him everything was fine, it was such a great moment.”