CTO Sessions: Raj Yavatkar, Juniper Networks

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? “Quantum cryptography. While quantum computing is already here, quantum computing applied to cryptography is going to change the way we do network security…”

Juniper Networks

Name: Raj Yavatkar

Company: Juniper Networks

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: December 2019

Location: Sunnyvale, California

In his role as Chief Technology Officer, Raj Yavatkar is responsible for charting Juniper's technology strategy. He leads and executes the company’s critical innovations and products for intelligent self-driving AI networks, connected security, Mobile Edge Cloud, network virtualisation, packet-optical integration and hybrid cloud. A technology and products pioneer throughout his career, Yavatkar has envisioned and implemented how emerging technologies can be applied to creatively solve enterprise and business problems ahead of competitors to help establish new product lines.

What was your first job? While studying at the Indian Institute of Technology, my first job was as a teaching assistant for a computer technology class. My first full-time position was at the University of Kentucky as an assistant professor in computer science.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes, my fascination for IT started with a transistor radio. I wanted to open it up and explore how it worked, but instead I went to a radio repair shop. There, I worked as an apprentice learning about voltage, potentiometers, etc., leading to the start of my interest in electronics. By the time I got to my undergraduate degree, I was interested in studying electronics and telecommunications. I switched to studying computer science in my post-graduate degree.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they?  In India, I completed my undergraduate degree in electronics engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology. I then received my masters and PhD in computer science from Purdue University. I have also completed the Engineering and Leadership Professional Program at UC Berkeley College of Engineering.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I came to the United States with the goal of being a professor, and after I finished my PhD, I became a computer science faculty professor at the University of Kentucky, and later a visiting research professor at UC Berkeley. After I became a tenured professor, I took a two-year leave of absence to join Intel to start a new Internet technology lab in 1995. It was then that I took a detour and permanently left my academic career to make the transition into the technology industry, first focused on advanced research and development, and later, I moved to the product side of the business.  At Intel, I was appointed as a Fellow, the highest technical position, focused on driving the vision, strategy and implementation for programmable network processors.

What type of CTO are you? I like to make things happen. My role as CTO involves having a broad corporate perspective across Juniper’s product portfolio, driving technology strategy and especially anticipating evolving trends. This includes focusing on technology advancements and pathfinding for the next three-to-five years. It’s also very important for me to be involved in the development and delivery process of making these technologies a reality.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Quantum cryptography. While quantum computing is already here, quantum computing applied to cryptography is going to change the way we do network security and truly secure data to prepare supply chains against attacks. When it comes to building chips, quantum cryptography will also allow us to provide line-rate cryptography in a way that’s really hard to penetrate and will secure key exchanges even if exchanges are intercepted. We can also do key generation independently and still be able to meet in the middle, and that’s exciting.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Yes, autonomous cars rise to the top. While we’re seeing initial rollouts of this technology, I think we’re still far away from truly achieving it. When people hype AI and machine learning (ML) for things which still require human intelligence, I get worried. We will continue to see AI and ML evolve – we’re already seeing it play a major role in computing infrastructures, and when it comes to dealing with big data, AI is amazing. However, anything that still requires some human intelligence, specifically autonomous cars, is still just hype. Today, Marvis, our virtual network assistant, is a good example of AI that is self-driving, helping network operators troubleshoot and remediate issues without any human intervention.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? At Juniper, one of the most notable things I am proud of implementing during the past year has been delivering on our initiative to provide more software-as-a-service (SaaS) products and building out our SaaS infrastructure. Our teams have worked to define a common cloud infrastructure so customers with SaaS applications do not have to worry about implementing all of the right infrastructure elements in order to switch over. In the last couple of months, I have worked closely with our teams to launch a number of Juniper SaaS products including our latest product suite, Paragon Automation, which includes Paragon Insights, a SaaS product that uses advanced algorithms and machine learning to translate real-time analytics into actional insights across networks and application layer services.

Additionally, separate from product achievements, I’ve created a career development model within my organisations to help employees grow their careers. Throughout my own career, I noticed many engineers do not always know how to achieve their professional goals. The framework I’ve created helps provide a holistic view of where you are, where you want to go and the gaps you need to fill. The model is applicable for any job role, not just engineers, and more than 100 people have already asked to try the method. I’m very proud of the initiative. I used a similar framework at two previous companies.

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? Yes, we are leading digital transformation initiatives internally at Juniper, as well as externally with our enterprise and service provider customers who are going through their own transformations. Our North Star right now is focusing on delivering an experience-first network. It’s no longer just about delivering reliable and high-quality products, it’s also about delivering seamless operational experiences. We’re doing this through the cloud and our Mist-based AI/ML technology to simplify operations. Our technology constantly monitors the state of the network and connected devices to self-heal/self-remediate as problems arise.

By emphasising the simplification of operational experience for network operators, like telcos and enterprises, they benefit by making their jobs easier – lowering operational expenses and having improved operational agility. In turn, this provides a much better user experience to their customers.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Many customers today are looking at hyperscalers with envy and admiration; they want to emulate what they’re doing in terms of how quickly services are provisioned, deployed, aggregated and so on. In terms of rolling out new software upgrades or releases, cloud providers moved the model from traditional waterfall to continuous delivery so that software updates or new features can be released on a weekly (if not daily) basis. The industry now refers to this agile model as CI/CD (continuous integration and continuous delivery). Juniper Networks is committed to helping our customers achieve this.

Recently, Deutsche Telekom released a project called Next Generation IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) and they have selected Juniper to help them create a CI/CD based system for service management and delivery. I am using this automation model as inspiration to help our customers achieve agility in automation with respect to the provisioning of new services, upgrading existing services and keeping the release management cycle going. In a traditional model, this cycle took months, now we’re able to do it in days.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? One of the problems many customers face is they want to apply a CI/CD pipeline so they can deploy and upgrade services quickly – our goal would be to take that part of the market. Therefore, we apply Juniper’s technology competencies to CI/CD pipeline automation so we can solve those challenges.  

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Many companies use a typical business planning cycle, which is preceded by the business strategy cycle. At Juniper, we have inserted the technology strategy cycle in front, which looks at the next two-to-three years of technology trends and proposes a strategy to be ready for emerging market needs.

This is important because the technology strategy is focused on trends, and as a result, you identify potential paradigm shifts before they happen. You can then define the business strategy. If you do that, the technology strategy fits in nicely with the business strategy, otherwise it will not align well.

What makes an effective tech strategy? As a CTO, it’s my job to look at and define Juniper’s tech strategy, and I do that by looking three-to-five years out. When developing a tech strategy, you always want to start with a hypothesis and then ask, “What are the barriers for that vision to come true?” The barriers help identify opportunities – they make you think of new solutions to problems. For me, once I determine where I believe the world will be five years from now, the next question is, “Where can Juniper play?” Even if the hypothesis is disruptive to our business model, rather than avoiding the problem, we identify opportunities and work backwards to identify what we can do. I consider this to be a very effective model for technology strategy because it lets you identify potential disruptions. An effective technology strategy asks, “These disruptions are likely to happen, what can we do to disrupt our own business to take advantage before someone else disrupts us?”

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? CTOs were typically asked to deal with sales, looking at technology trends and giving input to the CEO and others. Now, CTOs must take a proactive role because industry transitions are happening very quickly. You cannot use a reactive model, instead you must be proactive to make the CTO a part of the business planning exercise.

Additionally, in my mind, CTOs should own what’s called Horizon 1 activities. Many companies define Horizon 1 as current products, Horizon 2 as next-gen products and Horizon 3 as something far out. Rather than the traditional role of just focusing on Horizon 3, the CTO role will involve owning and driving Horizon 1 and 2 activities, because it grounds you in reality and forces you to be very proactive about what’s coming next. 

What has been your greatest career achievement? When I was at a previous company, they were really trying to figure out what the company should do for cloud trends. They gave me a clean sheet of paper and asked for a proposal. I came back with an idea for a completely new product that’s still used today, which currently brings in $1B+ revenue per year for them. We started with four people, and the idea was that they would have multiple products contributing to something called software-defined data centre as a way to do on-prem or hybrid cloud. It was very challenging, and I came up with the idea to deliver a completely automated and integrated solution so people could bring up hybrid cloud in less than a day. It took my team two and a half years to release the first product and it has been extremely successful since. I am very proud of that.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? As mentioned, when I was working at a previous company we had to make, at that time, a few major product shifts (name, focus area, etc.), because we started with a very ambitious vision and project and we had to keep cutting it down to make it practical. It was my first time tackling something like this and my team was very ambitious. When you’re doing a start-up-type project, you shoot for the stars, but then you quickly learn you have to adjust. Through this experience, I learned to have a more pragmatic approach, because being pragmatic forces you to find earlier milestones with real customer proof points. Having a vision is one thing, but your feet have to be on the ground.

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