Akamai CTO Says “New Ideas Emerge Where Existing Ideas Can Mix”

When Robert Blumofe was a boy, he and his mother would drive 30 minutes from their home to Los Angeles International Airport to watch planes come in and out of the oceanside travel hub. The big draw: the still new Boeing 747, which made its debut in 1970.

“That huge, yet elegant shape and tremendous power and glorious, overwhelming sound were truly awe-inspiring,” said Blumofe, SM ’92, PhD ’95. “But on top of that purely emotional reaction, I was thinking about how this thing might have been built: from creating that shape, to designing each part, to assembly. Frankly, even now, all these years later, it still seems like an impossible feat to me. Yet they were there, and they are there.

In the decades since his aircraft-spotting days at LAX, Blumofe continues to apply that appreciation for gathering and combining ideas in his role as Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Akamai Technologies, content, cybersecurity and cloud service provider.

We spoke with Blumofe about other things that inspire him, the lessons he learned from his famously funny grandfather, and the ideas that are conjured up in Akamai’s own “wizard contest.”

What inspires you?

Since I read [computer scientist] “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidung Problem” by Alan Turing I thought about the incredible act of creativity that took place in Turing’s mind when he found this evidence. It is one of the building blocks of everything we call computing and information technology. Anyone who thinks math isn’t creative doesn’t know what math is. Turing’s creativity has more in common with Picasso’s painting than with a person doing a long division. I find inspiration in the fact that other human beings are capable of such creativity.

Who inspires you?

My first nerd hero was Kelly Johnson, who as the first head of Lockheed Skunk Works was responsible for the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird. He was a brilliant engineer and a brilliant organizer, and the planes created by his teams more than half a century ago still inspire today.

I also recently discovered inspiration from an unexpected source: my grandfather, comedian Jack Benny. I found that his approach to comedy can teach me a lot about how I should approach leadership for technical organizations. Even though it was his radio-television program, he rarely delivered the funny lines. Instead, he left room for other cast members or guest stars to shine and deliver the funny lines. In the end, it was about the whole thing.

Where do you find ideas?

New ideas emerge at intersections where existing ideas can mingle, so interaction – especially in the form of listening to customers – is paramount. There are three things I tried to do to make those interactions more productive and more likely to lead to great new ideas.

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The first is being able to truly empathize with customers. We strongly believe in using our own technology. We call it Akamai on Akamai, although others call it drinking its own champagne. Through this hands-on experience of being a customer and using our own products, I have developed a new level of customer intimacy that has enhanced my conversations with customers.

The second thing that helps ideation is eclectic interests and knowledge bases. While depth in the subject area is important, so is breadth and a degree of knowledge drawn from distant domains. When we bring existing ideas together to form new ones, the diversity of those existing ideas really matters.

Third, I think ideation needs time to reflect. In our busy lives, it can be hard to find that time, but it really is essential. Sit outside doing nothing or take a walk. Find this time regularly. If you also take the time to talk to people and develop eclectic interests, the ideas will come.

How are new ideas discovered and developed in your organization?

We try to maintain a non-hierarchical and decentralized organization that allows ideas to come from anywhere. Everyone has access to our internal cloud and edge development platforms that they can use to develop and prototype new ideas.

We also have formal structures to encourage ideation and allow everyone to gain internal visibility for their ideas. Most notable is what we call our Wizards Platform. We run an annual Wizards contest for employee-generated ideas, and we run regular Wizards challenges that focus on specific areas of the business, including less obviously technical areas like human resources or sustainability. Anyone can participate, and we connect participants with mentors and others with the skills to form teams. We then call on judges from the management of the company so that the teams can make their ideas known. Several Wizards ideas, not all of which were successful, have resulted in products, such as our Enterprise Threat Protector.

How do you test ideas?

I have a great group of friends and colleagues with whom I can share and test ideas. I find value in this setting because I know they will challenge me. In addition, they have knowledge and skills that complement mine. After that, I always reach out to concerned practitioners in our own IT organization, because they’re Akamai customers on Akamai who are easily accessible, and I don’t have to worry about looking stupid with a really bad idea. From there it’s to (external) customers.

When do you know it’s time to give up on an idea?

If our internal teams can’t make a solution or service work for our internal projects and programs, it’s usually a big canary in the coal mine. If the idea doesn’t work for us, why should I expect it to work for customers?

At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter – ideas that are carefully developed and have a meaningful impact in the world. In this context, what makes your idea count?

The best idea we had as a company was to launch our cybersecurity business. That was over 10 years ago, and at that time we were a content delivery network. But with a little imagination and from a different angle, we could see that cybersecurity was, in fact, a natural contiguity. We were delivering our customers’ content and we could see that content. Why couldn’t we also identify anything that might be bad and block it?

Cybersecurity is at the heart of our identity, our purpose and our mission: we improve the lives of billions of people, billions of times a day, and we do so by powering and protecting lives online. Paraphrasing and adapting a quote from Leslie Lamport, SB ’60, I often say that today we live in a world where a cyber attack on a company you didn’t even know existed can make your life unmanageable. And the impact doesn’t just make it difficult to do things online, it makes it difficult or impossible to do anything from buying food to filling up your car with gas. Protecting life online is protecting life everywhere.

Read: How Dropbox CEO Drew Houston stays motivated to solve the problems that matter

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