CTO Sessions: Darren Anstee, NETSCOUT

What type of CTO are you? "I’d describe myself as a technologist burdened with a fairly high level of pragmatism. "

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NETSCOUT

Name: Darren Anstee

Company: NETSCOUT

Job title: CTO for Security

Date started current role: May 2017

Location: UK

Darren Anstee is Chief Technology Officer, SBO International, NETSCOUT. Anstee has 20 years of experience in pre-sales, consultancy and support for telecom and security solutions. Anstee works across the research, strategy, and pre-sales aspects of Arbor's traffic monitoring, threat detection and mitigation solutions for service providers and enterprises around the world. He is an integral part of NETSCOUT Arbor's Security Engineering & Response Team (ASERT).

What was your first job? My very first job was with a landscaping company; I used to shovel soil into bags, onto vans and into hoppers for hour after hour. Not much strategic thought or technical know-how required to be honest, but it was great exercise and provided me with cash through college.

My first ‘real’ post college job in the mid 90s was working in R&D system testing for Token Ring and ATM networking products at a company called Madge Networks. Madge was a great company to work in, with some really smart people and a great culture.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do if I am honest. I was always interested in IT, but I wasn’t sure whether I’d end up working within the industry or working for an organisation that leveraged a lot of IT i.e. actuarial, management consulting etc..

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I went to a good local school that taught me ‘how’ to learn and the value of applying knowledge – not just the syllabus i was studying – which I think made a big difference to how I approach and (still) enjoy learning. I went to Southampton Uni where I studied computer science, and had the benefit of working with some great tutors who were involved in really interesting (and very new, back then) hypermedia, parallel computing and HCI projects that really broadened my interest in IT. I graduated in 1994.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I started off working in R&D, then post-sales, then moved into pre-sales and then into a CTO office function, before becoming CTO. I have always focused more on the practical application of technology to solving problems and delivering value, so working closely with both engineering and customers has always been important to me. I also like to be hands-on, and still dabble a bit with analytics and Machine Learning. When I’ve changed roles, it has always been to expand my skillset or gain experience in a new area.

What type of CTO are you? I’d describe myself as a technologist burdened with a fairly high level of pragmatism. I am a firm believer in selecting the most practical solution to a problem, so sometimes I’ll look to enhance old technologies rather than going for something new and shiny – IF -  I think we can achieve our immediate and future goals more effectively.  Looking at the ways others categorise CTOs, I think I’m a blend of the Customer Advocate and the Big Thinker.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I think Artificial Intelligence is a hugely interesting area with a lot of potential to help us identify or clarify patterns of activity in pretty much every aspect of business, healthcare, logistics etc.. However, it isn’t magic – it can help – but only when used in the right way, driven by the right dataset and as a part of an overall solution incorporating the right people and processes to achieve a goal.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? See (6). I have seen some businesses invest large amounts of money in data-centric projects where AI was supposed to bring a wealth of new insight to the business – without really defining what the goal was. In most cases the AI did deliver a lot of interesting findings – but they weren’t actionable. As I mentioned, I am all about using technology to deliver value, and building strategies around that. Don’t get me wrong, science projects have their place, if they build knowledge and capability – but that knowledge and capability IS the value of the project and needs to be defined and assessed against the investment.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Given the major shift in working practices over the last year, due to the pandemic, I’m proud of the way we’ve embraced collaboration tools to maintain productivity. There’s a whole range of things here, ranging from asking people to have their camera on during meetings, so that there is a level of presence, to shortening meetings to 45 mins to ensure people get a break between calls.

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? No, but I am working with many of our customers who are deeply engaged in digital transformation projects. I think the key to balancing these areas is good, consistent visibility across both new and legacy technologies, that can be used to drive objective metrics. If we can understand the relationships between customer experience, business performance and technology change, using the right KPIs, then we can optimise based on our tactical needs, and longer term strategies, as needed.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Understanding the threat space and security needs of 5G enterprise and IoT services as mobile operators focus on these areas to drive ROI from their 5G investments. There is a lot of complexity here, and also a lot of both implicit and explicit risks / requirements when we start looking at smart cities, ICS, enterprise private 5G services etc..

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? That’s an easy one, communication. I spend as much time as possible talking to customers, having open conversations about their current and future goals and our (sometimes different) views on the technologies needed to achieve those goals. All of these conversations are hugely useful, as they influence bi-directionally and help align what we deliver to our customers’ need. Just as important is internal communication, so that there is alignment across the organisation in terms of direction and priority, including sales, marketing, engineering, HR etc., to ensure we move as a team.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I think everyone does to some degree. There is the constant pull of new technology, and its promise of, for example, more accurate results, faster performance and lower costs; versus, the safety of well understood technologies and solutions that may deliver a more immediate solution with less risk, but which may not fulfil demands or maximise opportunity going forward. I think balancing this is a challenge for everyone, which is why it’s important to understand where the business is going strategically, so that gaining experience in new technologies that may be broadly useful going forward can be achieved within projects where there is less short-term focus and / or greater risk tolerance.

What makes an effective tech strategy? For me it’s pretty simple -  a good strategy is defined around one or more well defined goals, and the goal(s) have to deliver a measurable value to the real-world  i.e. a goal can’t simply be to solve a technical problem, the goal has to be what you want to ‘achieve’ by solving a problem and ‘why’.  If you define a strategy like this, then it is only constrained around the goal and not around how the goal is achieved, which allows for the use of tried-and-tested or innovative solutions, or both.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? Given the pace of evolution, and the complexity of some new technologies, I think CTOs will have to ‘get comfortable being uncomfortable’, to quote Colin Doherty, a previous CEO of Arbor Networks. I have always wanted to deeply understand each of the technologies I work with, but that is becoming more challenging, and I think the team of technologists around the CTO, within the CTO office, is getting ever more important. Trusted external advisers are great, but having internal expertise aligned around the same goals is always preferable.  

Another change I see is around how tightly business and technology are now inter-woven. This isn’t anything new, but the level of reliance – and the line between success / failure for a business – is now dependent on technology strategy, regardless of whether the business is in the technology space. I think CTOs will get a lot more focus at board level as we move forward.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Structuring my work-life balance so that I have time to spend with my kids whilst the are young. This may sound like an odd thing to say, but I have many acquaintances with older children who haven’t focused on this – and have really regretted it.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? The mercenary in me says I should have joined a couple of startups that were around about 10-15 years ago – as I’d now be writing this from a beach somewhere…… not my office.

On a more serious note, I think I would have spent more time expanding my skillsets in marketing and market analysis. They are key in shaping and delivering the stories we need to help our customers understand the value of our technologies, products and strategies, and in partnering with us.

What are you reading now? SPQR by Mary Beard. Not relevant at all to my working life but I am very interested in history, looking at how the world has changed (and how, in many cases, it hasn’t).

Most people don't know that I… am pretty interested in butchery, and have done some courses (the image in your head isn’t good, I know)

In my spare time, I like to…Bake, and work out – balancing these two is becoming much more important as I get older.

Ask me to do anything but… work in marketing :) No, more seriously, I don’t like very small spaces very much, so potholing wouldn’t be high on my list of recreational activities.