CTO Sessions: Dave Larson, Spirent Communications

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? “Zero trust. It allows you to simplify your security policy domain and get much more secure outcomes.”

Headshot of Dave Larson, CTO at Spirent Communications
Spirent Communications

Name: Dave Larson

Company: Spirent Communications

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: January 2021

Location: Austin, Texas

Dave Larson is the CTO for Spirent Communications and General Manager for Spirent’s Cloud & IP business. He is responsible for overall company technology vision and strategy, leading the Spirent Advanced Technology team that incubates forward looking test, measurement, and assurance solutions in the Cloud-Native realm for incorporation across all of Spirent’s product lines. Larson has more than 25 years’ experience across networking, network security and cloud architecture, working in both emerging technology start-ups and large public enterprises.

What was your first job? I was an assistant purchaser for a wholesale plywood company that my dad owned. My degree was in Physics and I had no intention of going into IT. I intended to sell plywood, but my dad decided to sell the company. He retired and said, “You’re going to have to find another job.” So I went from selling plywood to networking, starting as a software engineer, but very quickly moved beyond engineering into technical marketing. My first IT-related job was as a Novell Network and Lotus Notes administrator in the early 1990s.

Did you always want to work in IT?  I had no intention of going into IT, but I was newly married and I needed a job. I started working in IT because a friend happened to be working at a start-up networking company and he recruited me to join him. The rest is history – I’ve been in the industry ever since.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a Bachelor’s degree in Physics and I took a fair number of computer science classes. I am also a CISSP, Certified Information System Security Professional.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I’ve gone back and forth between straight networking and network security as opportunities came my way. The technologies are complementary and I’m glad that I spent time in both domains. I’ve taken a few detours to pursue high-risk start-ups to try to hit it big, but none of them ever did. I did have one reasonable outcome with a company called Xedia that was sold to Lucent, but everything else is less interesting from a financial outcome perspective. You see people succeeding in high-value start-ups and it feels like that’s the path to take but for every one that succeeds, there are 8 or 10 or 20 that don’t make it – I’ve spent a little too much time in that latter category unfortunately.

What type of CTO are you? I consider myself to be a marketing-first CTO with some systems architecture skills. I am not really an engineer, although I was early-on in my career. I am capable of understanding and synthesizing the architectural needs at virtually every level. I’ve been able to build a career in the CTO domain because I understand the technical principles of why we build what we build. I can work with engineers and can speak about the things we’re building with virtually any type of audience. That’s why I call myself a marketing CTO. It’s more about being able to bring the message about the benefit of an emerging technology, more than it is to actually go and create that technology. Change is daunting for most people and lately in my career the driving focus is to educate folks about why new paradigms that are emerging with respect to cloud are applicable to more businesses than many people think.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Zero trust. The technology exists today to create security associations between application components that are by definition secure without legacy firewall inspection and enforcement, which really doesn’t work well in any case. Zero trust flips everything on its head and will only allow communication between previously authorised entities. Trust relationships can be established using a cryptographic handshake and an exchange of information that proves the identity at either side of the conversation. You can do that without any intermediary security apparatus. It allows you to simplify your security policy domain and get much more secure outcomes.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Blockchain is a very important technology. Distributed ledger technologies are very interesting, but there are people who will try to apply blockchain to anything. There is a lot of hype that never really yields an outcome. The cryptocurrency, digital currency realm is a great example of an interesting technology that allows us to do things we otherwise couldn’t. Because of that people want to extrapolate it everywhere and there are nonsensical combinations of blockchain with various kinds of IT domains. That’s not to say that there aren’t non-digital currency uses for it, but there are a lot of people chasing too many angles with blockchain in my opinion. 

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? I am really excited about the work Spirent is doing to bring legacy networking test methodologies to cloud-native architectures, and to begin to understand the impact of the underlying infrastructure on the behaviour of the applications they host. It’s straightforward to test the application for its behaviour, but it’s a much bigger challenge to simultaneously test the application and the host environment, whether it’s public cloud or private, to determine where problems with an application’s performance or stability originate. In many cases, it may not be due to an inherent defect in the application itself but may be caused by an artifact of the host environment. 

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? I’m not leading a digital transformation in the traditional sense because I am leading a product development organisation. We are pursuing digital transformation in the non-traditional sense. Historically, we have created most of our test and measurement solutions using full custom hardware. The nature of our business is that we must have test solutions available before the standards are ratified for each new version of Ethernet networking. So custom hardware is a key enabler for us. However, as we expand our market presence by addressing test and measurements needs in Cloud environments, we need to transform our technology so that it can be deployed in a cloud-native manner, which requires, in essence, a digital transformation of our portfolio. 

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? The world’s largest telecommunications operators make up a substantial portion of our customer base. They are currently challenged with expanding their infrastructure capability beyond their own private estate and out to the public cloud. Many of the application components of their environment that were designed to run in a network functions virtualisation (NFV) environment, are now being transformed to be deployed on cloud-native infrastructure as containerised network functions. This transition is not a simple one. We are well situated to help them understand their traditional network functions and we are able to guide them and provide benefits as they expand their infrastructure capability with public cloud partnerships as to how their core applications will perform, operate and scale in a cloud native environment

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? When COVID hit, we were well situated by using collaboration tools like GitHub and Slack. But when our entire operation went remote, we had to find better ways to leverage automation so that our engineers could be productive without the ability to be physically present in our development lab environments. We needed to organise things in a way that would achieve the results we needed and we had to do a substantial amount of retraining, coaching, and expectation setting. It wasn’t a straightforward, easy transformation to go from working together in a single facility to working remotely and staying productive but we were able to make the change work. We are constantly optimising for productivity using the best practices of tooling and applications support that exists within our IT department. Because we are a high-tech company and a development company that is analogous to the IT function, were able to build upon that as we continue to grow the business. 

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Spirent has historically been a product-focused company. However, in the last 3 or 4 years we’ve been pivoting the focus to be services-led. It allows us to have a much stronger connection with our customers and to be able to better leverage our product advantages with the expertise of human analysts, developers, and consultants that can help guide our customers to the best possible outcome. In combination with that, we get much better feedback from the customers and from our service deliverers (the people who do that work) that enables us to more quickly advance our state-of-the-art products and meet market needs more quickly and economically, and with better competitive advantage. We’ve made the investment and it is yielding tangible benefits, particularly with very large customers. 

What makes an effective tech strategy? One that solves a real customer problem that they can’t solve themselves and they’ll pay money to solve. If you can find something like that, you can build a business. It’s rare that a perfect elegant solution to a technical problem actually solves something. It’s usually by working closely with customers to understand where and how they are experiencing difficulties that the best technology arrives. Most of the important technological innovations of the last 10 years have been developed by the open-source community because they are touching the problem more closely, working in concert with the community, and bringing different perspectives and experiences. In my opinion, we see much better acceleration and quicker paths to maturity in the open-source community than we do in the standards bodies. Standards bodies are necessary for interoperability between products, but the innovation and technology that is really making a difference in our world has been developed by the open-source community in popular programs and projects.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? Many CTOs will need to have a less narrow and deep focus on a particular technology domain and a more broad and shallower understanding of many different topics. There are so many interesting technology vectors that are evolving rapidly and you need to have some measure of understanding in order to be effective in the high-tech world. I think you’ll see a bifurcation; companies that are specifically focused on solving problems in one area will require CTOs who are very domain specific while the majority of companies will require high-breadth individuals with some reasonable technology depth in one or more areas in order to be successful in the role.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I’ve had a good career so far. My greatest career achievement is the network of fascinating and talented people that I’m connected with. Any successes I’ve had have been more about my ability to build relationships with people who are doing really interesting things; whether it be customers, my partner community, or the open-source community. On virtually any topic, I can usually find someone in my network of connections who can help me understand in a much deeper way some element of the constantly evolving technology backdrop. As a CTO this is invaluable. 

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have gotten an MBA early in my career. I thought about doing it, but I had a lot of other responsibilities. But what I’ve learned over my career is that the business acumen gained with an MBA is much harder to gain by experience when you are focused on the technology domain. I have managed to get myself integrally involved in the finance side of the businesses that I’ve been involved in and I’ve been able to build a reasonable amount of business acumen, but I would have been able to significantly accelerate my business skillset had I undertaken to get an MBA earlier in my career.

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