CTO Sessions: Robert Blumofe, Akamai

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? “I’m really hopeful about the prospects for clean and renewable energy.”

Headshot of Robert Blumofe, EVP & CTO at Akamai

Name: Dr Robert Blumofe

Company: Akamai

Job title: Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: March 2021

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dr. Robert Blumofe is Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Akamai. As CTO, he guides Akamai’s technology strategy, works with Akamai’s largest customers, and convenes technology leaders within the company to catalyse innovation. Previously, he led Akamai’s Platform organisation and Enterprise Division, where he was responsible for developing and operating the distributed system underlying all Akamai products and services, as well as creating solutions for major enterprises to secure and improve performance.

What was your first job? My first real job was as a Software Engineer at a start-up, called Cadre Technologies, in Providence, RI. I did that during a year off from college. It was really an amazing experience, and I learned so much from my more experienced colleagues who were so patient and giving of their time.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, but I was always interested in math and science. When I was quite young I was really into building things like model airplanes and railroads. When I was about 11 years old, my older brother, who was an undergraduate at Stanford University, taught me how to program on his HP calculator. Believe it or not, I come from a show business family, so it was really my older brother who blazed the trail into science and technology. Still, I did not pursue Computer Science in earnest until I took Andy van Dam’s class at Brown University. Andy really changed everything for me. In fact, he’s also responsible for getting me that job at Cadre.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I got my Sc.B. from Brown University and my Ph.D. from MIT. I don’t really have any certifications (unless you count my pilot certifications), though during my time at Akamai, in addition to having some great mentors, I was given the opportunity to attend the MIT Sloan Greater Boston Executive Program and an INSEAD Executive Leadership Program in Fontainbleau, France.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Coming out of MIT, I was really focused on research and joined the faculty at the University of Texas as an Assistant Professor. The big change occurred in 1999. In 1998, Professor Tom Leighton, who I had worked with as a graduate student, founded Akamai. In 1999, Charles Leiserson, my former Ph.D. advisor, was taking a sabbatical at Akamai, and he invited me to join. Charles had been a huge influence on my life, someone from whom I had learned so much about research, writing, and communicating, and someone who I really enjoyed working with. I really didn’t know anything about Akamai at the time, but I knew that Tom Leighton was the founder, that Charles was there, and that a number of other former MIT colleagues were there, and that was enough for me. I figured that so long as I stay close to such an extraordinary group of people, good things would happen. And I would have fun to boot. All of that has turned out to be true and so much more. I’ve had so many opportunities with so many different roles and experiences, and now I am CTO.

What type of CTO are you? I really don’t know yet. It’s actually a new role for me and a new role for Akamai. Akamai hasn’t really had a CTO since Akamai’s cofounder and CTO, Danny Lewin, was killed on 9/11. So I’m now in the process of figuring out how the CTO role should work to best effect at Akamai as it now exists, so different from what it was back then. One thing I know for sure is that I can’t try to be Danny.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I’m really hopeful about the prospects for clean and renewable energy. I’d like to think that there will come a time when we will look back with some disgust and disdain on this period when we extracted oil from the ground, refined it into a horribly toxic substance, and then shipped it all over the world in unfathomably large quantities. At Akamai, sustainability is a core value, and we are committed to powering our entire platform with renewable energy and zero carbon emissions by 2030. In addition, our new Carbon Calculator allows our customers to track their own emissions and follow it down to zero.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? At the risk of being cliche, it’s hard to avoid the hype of blockchain. And I’m not a detractor. I think that blockchain has some very powerful and useful applications. It’s just that the hype right now goes well beyond any reasonable set of expectations.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? As I’m in the process of defining how the role of CTO works at Akamai, one thing I’ve decided is to adopt education as part of our mission. Education for our employees and other direct stakeholders helps everyone understand what we do and how we fulfill our purpose. In addition, we have educational initiatives for groups who have no direct connection to the company to help grow access to STEM education. Through these initiatives we activate our purpose and amplify the positive impact.

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? Digital transformation is about both the top line and the bottom, so it’s both. Of course, we care about both, so we balance our investments both for revenue growth and cost savings. Sometimes, a single project can result in both.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? One big issue is the adoption of Zero Trust. Ransomware is a huge problem that’s certainly not going to diminish any time soon, and the adoption of Zero Trust can really make a difference. But adopting Zero Trust isn’t installing a single new whiz-bang product. Rather it’s an approach to cybersecurity that has to be adopted in phases. Fortunately, benefits come with each phase and some fairly straightforward early-phase wins can significantly improve a company’s cyber defenses against ransomware and other types of attacks.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? In the case of Akamai, a good example is using our own technology.  Some people call it eating your own dog food or drinking your own champagne, but we like to call it Akamai on Akamai. The more experience that our employees have in using our own products, the better we can deliver for our customers.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I think that when matching is difficult, it’s more about matching long-term strategy with short-term imperatives. There’s no easy answer here, but since the short-term imperatives are usually so clear, it’s important that the long-term strategy is also clear, so that trade-offs can be considered with full information.

What makes an effective tech strategy? In addition to being visionary and exciting, a good technology strategy also has to connect to purpose. We build things for a reason, and we all want to make a difference, so it’s important that the technology strategy resonates with employees and other stakeholders in a way that shows how the strategy helps fulfill the company’s purpose.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I think the role has to become increasingly eclectic. Of course, depth in the specific relevant technology will always be important, but increasingly it will be important to connect across technologies and into the human realm. A CTO has to be able to connect technologies from different disciplines and link it all to the impact that it has on our collective human experience.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I think less about specific accomplishments and more about the organisations that I’ve had the privilege to be part of. During the academic phase of my career, I had the good fortune to be part of extraordinary teams at Brown University Computer Science, in the Theory Group at the MIT Lab for Computer Science, and on the faculty in the Computer Science Department of the University of Texas. Of course, then for the past 22-plus years, I’ve had the further good fortune to be part of the tenacious team at Akamai Technologies, where we’ve overcome tremendous adversity to build a business that now powers and protects life online, making life better for billions of people, billions of times a day.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I’m not big on regrets, but one thing that I advise all young people to consider – and something that I didn’t do but wish I had – is to take a year or more to live outside your native country.

What are you reading now? Mostly, I read biographies and autobiographies of musicians, but recently I took a detour and read No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and it’s a wonderfully personal story of a marriage and partnership that combines and contrasts Franklin’s pragmatism and Eleanor’s idealism. A really great read.

Most people don't know that I… It’s not exactly a secret or really in the category of “most people don’t know,” but my wife is Professor Cynthia Breazeal of the MIT Media Lab, and my grandfather was Jack Benny. Cynthia is a pioneer in the field of social robots and the responsible use of AI, and she recently became dean of MIT’s Open Learning where she is bringing life-changing educational opportunities to underserved groups and refugees. As for Jack Benny, some of you of a certain age are easily recalling his voice, mannerisms, and comedy, and the rest of you have no idea who I am talking about. You can look him up, and I recently wrote an article about him for Fast Company.

In my spare time, I like to…My hobbies are juggling and music. Back in high school, I learned to juggle a basic 3-ball cascade but never got much beyond that. So when the pandemic hit and we all started working from home, I decided to learn more juggling, starting with clubs. I can now juggle a 3-club cascade, a 4-ball fountain, and a whole bunch of other 3-ball tricks. I’m always in the process of learning new tricks with clubs and with balls. Musically, I’m definitely a beginner, but I play drums and bass guitar.

Ask me to do anything but… Go on a cruise.