CTO Sessions: Ashwath Nagaraj, Aryaka

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? “The most important thing for a customer from our perspective is user experience and productivity. Our products need to be orientated towards creating great customer experiences.”

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Aryaka Neworks

Name: Ashwath Nagaraj

Company: Aryaka

Job title: Co-founder; Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: 2009

Location: California, United States

As part of the founding team, Ashwath Nagaraj has been responsible for building Aryaka’s vision and technology since its inception in 2009. Nagaraj has previously been part of three successful San Francisco Bay Area companies. He was Founder, CTO and VP of Engineering at Allegro Systems, a security startup. Allegro Systems was acquired by Cisco Systems in September 2001 for $185M. At Cisco, Nagaraj held senior management positions in the Security Technology Group, and the Internet Switching Business Unit. Prior to Allegro, Nagaraj was part of the founding team at Assured Access Technologies, which developed WAN access and aggregation products. Assured Access was acquired by Alcatel in 1999 for $350M.

What was your first job? My first job out of college was with a company called Schlumberger, which operates in the oil field industry. Looking back, it was an incredibly interesting job because it gave me a great opportunity to travel, and I was fortunate enough to work in Japan, China and Malaysia.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes. Ever since I was young, I would go to radio engineering classes, trying to build my own little electronic devices. I was always interested in working in electronics, and at that time, IT was still a little bit of a new trend. My interest was not so much in software, I was always much more interested in hardware.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a bachelor's degree in Engineering/Technology from the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, and my subject was Electronics. I have completed a few courses in various fields of engineering, but with no specific certifications.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. When I graduated from college, I landed that job offer from Schlumberger, which was the ideal job for me starting out - a multinational company in the oil field industry. This job had little to do with electronics in its traditional form, but the tools were electronics focused, as was much of my training. After three years there, I made the decision to get back into electrical engineering, my core area of interest.

What type of CTO are you? With many of the companies that I have been in, I have been less of a CTO and more of a VP of Engineering, if we are looking at those jobs through a traditional lens. At a previous start-up, and now with Aryaka until about last year, I was running the engineering department. Now, my role is more about laying out the future direction of the company. Sometimes it's good to be able to connect the dots between what you're doing today, what you have to deliver tomorrow, and what do you think is needed the day after.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? There is no shortage of interesting technologies that are disrupting the technology and business landscapes. It could be easy for me for example to say IoT or AI, because these are technologies that are having a real effect for the modern enterprise. But, ultimately, the emerging technology that I am most excited about, and it is one I have been following for several years now, is Low Earth Orbit satellites.

For a lot of countries in the world, internet connectivity is not commonly available, and in other regions it is barely usable, often controlled by local monopolies. The internet has created a world of possibility for billions of people across the world but it is still a greatly unequal model. LEOs have the potential to be the first technology to offer internet globally.

The conversation around 5G is ongoing, but people need to realise that it is only applicable to places where strong 4G connectivity is already in place. LEOs can change the game, as local infrastructure is no longer needed!

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? There are many, but some of them are going to be ones that change the way we live, work and do business. So, all of them need a fair run, and the ones that matter will stick.

If you look at Bitcoin - 10 years ago, I would have called it completely overhyped, but today it is starting to become mainstream despite being once again at the top of the hype curve.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? It may not be an initiative in the classical sense but one thing that I have pushed our team to focus on its product and feature differentiation. It is all well and good having a road-map, knowing what you need to do, but ultimately we all need to be looking at any item that we are building, and think about why the customer would buy this our product instead of one from someone else. This is a mindset that needs to be part of the company-wide culture.

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? From day one, Aryaka has been about driving digital transformation for our customers. Today, enterprises are moving to a new way of doing business en-masse. What we offer is a great infrastructure, application performance and high flexibility to ease this transformation.

When it comes down to it, customer experience is always number one. Customers who see Aryaka as a partner in their business transformation efforts are great references for the growth of our company.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? One thing we can look back on over the last eight months or so and proudly say is that our customers did not see a significant impact on their network and people productivity after the shift to remote work. They were able to easily transition from work in the office to a work from home environment with very little impact to their productivity, and this model that we help facilitate is here to stay. The fact that we have this managed service has been central to our growth in the last quarter. If you look at the market, During Covid, technology really has come to the rescue of industry. Most companies that have managed to successfully continue their operations have in some way been reliant on technologies. This is far and away the biggest issue that we are helping customers with, managing the infrastructural change away from the office.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? The most important thing for a customer from our perspective is user experience and productivity. Our products need to be orientated towards creating great customer experiences. The technologies we sell, whether they be best-of-breed firewalls, through our partners, or a managed cloud-first WAN, are designed to meet our business goal of creating this great customer experiences.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? When you are matching product strategy with tech strategy it comes down to finding a balance between hype and reality. Only by understanding your product strategy can you put in place a tech strategy that will move your company forward. For product, we make sure that we focus on serviceability and that our customer always comes first. This then informs our tech strategy, where to place investments that drive positive change for our customers while ensuring an unparalleled customer experience.

What makes an effective tech strategy? An effective tech strategy is something that needs to balance every part of the organisation, and crucially understand how this will be changing over time. A great tech strategy is one that is rarely stationary, instead incorporating new technologies into the system. There needs to be a balance between moving forward quickly but also ensuring that the customer experience does not deteriorate at any stage.

With a lot of start-ups, they might have great technology, but because it isn't serviceable or sustainable, it can damage a company's growth. So our tech strategy needs to be such that the product/features that we add are supportable before they are inserted into the customers hands.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The way I see my role changing in the future is broadening my focus away from being plugged in to our current technologies and instead adapting to technologies that are coming out in the future, but still through the lens of differentiation in the eye of the customer. As people are talking about them, the CTO of the future needs to be working on them.

The role of the CTO for me is being a transformation agent for the company, and specifically with Aryaka it will be about moving us away from being only an SD-WAN company towards a company that is able to bring innovative products on an easily consumable platform.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Whilst I was working at Mylex, I was part of a team that built RAID technology into a PCI adaptor card. The company was very successful, and this preliminary step laid the groundwork for RAID as we know it today. There were big vendors in this space, but we made a product that “democratized” RAID, and I am proud to have played a part in this.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? If I look at Aryaka, one challenge has been the importance of finding a balance between customer satisfaction and the pace of innovation. We have tended to focus on the former in the past, and sometimes this can stifle innovation to an extent. We are blessed to have many happy customers, but at points we could have kept the innovation pipeline much fuller, maybe taken a few more risks.

What are you reading now? I read a lot of mystery novels and thrillers, and for whatever reason I have never been a massive technology reader.

Most people don't know that I… Am a private pilot.

In my spare time, I like to…Hike where possible.

Ask me to do anything but… Discuss politics.