CTO Sessions: Aron Brand, CTERA Networks

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? "Amidst the covid-19 pandemic, our customers are scrambling to change their work model from dense HQ open spaces to work-from-home and small remote branch offices."

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CTERA Networks

Name: Aron Brand

Company: CTERA Networks

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: May 2008

Location: Israel

Aron Brand, CTO of CTERA Networks, has more than 22 years of experience in designing and implementing distributed software systems. Prior to joining the founding team of CTERA, Brand acted as Chief Architect of SofaWare Technologies, a Check Point company, where he led the design of security software and appliances for the service provider and enterprise markets. Previously, Brand developed software at IDF’s Elite Technology Unit 8200. He holds a BSc degree in computer science and business administration from Tel-Aviv University.

What was your first job? At age of 17, I worked as a software developer in a company which created video-enabled multimedia kiosks for museum visitors. Back in the mid-nineties, the whole idea of playing videos on a personal computer was quite awe-inspiring. I remember enjoying collaborating with the artists. I learned a lot from their creativity and sense of aesthetics in our user interface designs, which were quite cutting edge for the time.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes, I’ve been quite a computer fanatic for as long as I can remember. Back in the early eighties, my parents purchased an IBM PC model 5150 with a Brother daisy-wheel printer that sounded much like an AK-47. This was a business class machine, which cost my family as much as a new car. I remember myself as a kid, sitting in a room lit only by the phosphorus green glow of the 14-inch screen, trying to figure out arcane IBM BASIC and Assembly language manuals that came with the machine. I was immediately hooked.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a BSc degree in computer science and business administration from the Tel Aviv University.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Around 1996 I was drafted to 8200, an extremely advanced technology unit of the Israel Defense Forces. In many ways this unit is run like a startup company (an extremely well-funded one, that is). This experience has really helped to kickstart my career. I was fortunate enough to serve there with some of the most brilliant minds in Israel, many of which have later founded and occupied top positions in Israeli and Silicon Valley companies.

During this time, I met Zohar Kaufman and Liran Eshel, who remained my mentors and partners through my career. Together with them, I joined the founding team of SofaWare technologies, a company that was founded as a joint venture with Check Point with the aim to downscale Check Point’s expensive, enterprise grade security appliances and adapt them for small branch offices and small businesses.

In my role as Chief Architect, I designed a scalable cloud service, which was unique at its time for its ability to manage tens of thousands of security appliances from a single console, effortlessly and with little hardware resources. After seven years at SofaWare, Liran, Zohar and I decided to move on to a new challenge, and in 2008 we founded CTERA Networks, where I assumed the role of CTO. CTERA’s core idea is to develop a global edge-to-cloud file system for large, highly distributed enterprise companies - especially those with strict security requirements.

What type of CTO are you? What I love about the role of CTO is that it is very diverse. For the last 11 years I’ve been busy in defining the company’s technological vision and architecture while being involved in product management, engineering methodologies, intellectual property, marketing and many other aspects of our business. Moreover, my role as CTO has, without doubt, changed over time - along with the maturing of my companies.

Today, I think a CTO needs to combine the skills of a tech visionary with deep understanding of product management, a sprinkle of UX and a handful of marketing.  Above all, today I believe the key for me becoming a successful CTO is to help other people in the company succeed. In every tech company I’ve seen, most people in the company don't have a full grasp of how the stuff that they make is really working at the deep level, and what is the true value of their product. By becoming a focal point for knowledge, a good CTO is in a unique position to help other people succeed - whether by writing better code, delivering a better pitch, or making smarter decisions. That’s what I’m trying to achieve.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? The rapid pace of improvement in Artificial Intelligence is mind boggling. We are starting to see things like natural text generation with qualities exceeding human levels, AI composed music tracks, and we are advancing greatly towards a world of autonomous cars. Many AI applications, such as using AI in radiology, are a blessing to humankind, while some applications like deep fake videos are extremely dangerous and disturbing. AI is exceeding human cognitive abilities in many areas which were previously unimaginable, such as painting in the style of Vincent van Gogh, or dreaming up imaginary portraits of non-existent people. In 10 years AI will be prominent in our lives as the Internet is today.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I’m not too excited about companies providing poor service by forcing us to chat with moronic chatbots instead of humans. I’ve recently had this experience with a Taxi company I’d rather leave unnamed, which led me to pull out most of the very little hair I still have left. Companies focus too much on scale, scale, and scale, and simply fail to understand the huge damage they are doing to themselves by providing such a frustrating level of service. Having said that, this is a real pain point, and who knows, with the huge advancement in natural language generation (such as recently seen in OpenAI GPT-3) chatbots may become much more tolerable in the next couple of years.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? I’m especially proud of an invention we’re rolling out to our customers later this year (2020). To explain it very briefly: traditionally in a distributed file system, there has always been a trade-off between security and performance. That is, implementing a centralised security authority for the file system is very resource intensive and harms the scalability of the systems. With our new service, CTERA Direct, we’ve been able to make clever use of digital signatures in order to enable endpoint devices to directly communicate with the backend cloud storage services, while keeping the strict security guarantees of the traditional centralised model. This disaggregated secure storage architecture (which is patent pending) has worked exceptionally well in improving performance, while enabling complex global storage topologies which were never possible before.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? At CTERA our vision is to enable digital transformation for our large enterprise customers in enabling their files to be accessible from everywhere – from the company main headquarters, to the cloud, remote branches, and all the way to home workers.  IT departments everywhere are spending a huge amount of time and money on managing edge storage today - when employees get a new laptop, IT needs to transfer their data from the old device to the new one. When a small branch office server fails, IT needs to drive to a remote location and spend days on restoring the data from a backup and getting everything running again. That’s expensive, inefficient and scales poorly.

To solve this problem, we built a hybrid solution that combines the benefits of edge and cloud storage, providing operational efficiency to enterprise IT teams, while improving internal corporate collaboration and ability to work from home, both of which are essential for productivity and revenue - especially these days, when work from home is becoming the new normal.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Amidst the covid-19 pandemic, our customers are scrambling to change their work model from dense HQ open spaces to work-from-home and small remote branch offices. We are helping many of our customers with making their files accessible at those remote locations, with high performance and great security. For example, one of our customers, a large financial company, has just transitioned all 100,000 employees to work from home within a single day. We were extremely happy to see a change at this scale work so smoothly.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? As CTO of an R&D company, my focus is perhaps less about the technology we use internally, and more about aligning the technologies that we develop to meet the business goals of our current and future customers. To achieve this fit, we have built a product management process which is driven both by tactical and forward-thinking inputs. The tactical inputs include a stream of feedback and requests from our customers, brought in by the field, that are carefully stored, analysed and prioritised in our customer RFE database. In parallel, we have a research team focused on predicting the challenges of our future customers (or future challenges of our current customers) and to propose innovative technologies which meet these anticipated needs.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Aligning technology to business goals in a fast-moving industry such as cloud storage is always a struggle between meeting immediate customer needs, maintaining high quality, and keeping pace with constant innovation. To me, it feels like we’re always juggling three bowling balls. To succeed we need to be agile and constantly find the best compromise between these three competing initiatives. Just like juggling, there is a rhythm and skill involved, and that is part of the fun of it.

What makes an effective tech strategy? As the business world is becoming more and more data-driven, companies are increasingly competing based on technology. In this world a company having a well-designed and well-performing IT stack can easily outrun a competitor stuck with dinosaur-era technologies.  As making the correct choice of technologies has substantial impact on the effectiveness of modernisation initiatives, it is more important than ever for a CTO to align the technology initiatives with the organisation’s long-term goals and objectives. This alignment requires intimate understanding of the business roadmap. Once the gaps between goals and the existing technologies are understood, it is the job of the CTO to come up with a plan to fill the gaps, based on available resource and predictions regarding which technologies will be most dominant in the future.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The alignment business objectives with a technology strategy is not a one-way road. In the future data-driven enterprise, the CTO does not only accept the technology roadmap and adapt it to the company’s business roadmap. Instead he is involved in the decision-making process, affecting the business roadmap so that it is more aligned with emerging technologies and new business possibilities created by them.  

What has been your greatest career achievement? Designing a product that is good enough to be trusted by some of the largest companies and organisations in the world for storing petabytes of their most mission-critical data is my greatest career achievement, so far.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I’d probably have invested money in much better stocks. But kidding aside, I’m quite pleased with my major life decisions so far.

What are you reading now? I recently read the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling. It is a clever guide for thinking more clearly about the world, based on data. I’m always fascinated by the question of how objective our view of the world is, and how can we successfully debate and persuade people who are seeing our world in a distorted way due to fake news and various psychological phenomena.

Most people don't know that I… As a child, I developed a few computer games and distributed them as shareware on BBS systems. This was before the Internet … I still have postcards and letters sent to me by people who enjoyed my games.

In my spare time, I like to…If I weren’t a software exec, I’d probably be pursuing my second passion, photography. I especially enjoy street and travel photography, unfortunately a style which is currently quite difficult due to the pandemic we are going through. When I have a camera in my hand it makes me intensely aware of the subtlest changes in light, color and shape, and quick instincts are needed in order to preserve this fleeting moment of beauty. It’s a magical feeling, and I think that my approach to software development is very much tied to the same sense of aesthetics and intuitive composition that I employ in my photography. Building a beautiful piece of software is more about art than engineering.

Ask me to do anything but… I don’t own a tie and have never worn one, not even on my wedding. But that’s quite typical for an Israeli guy.