Credit: Stephen Sauer
Ideas Made to Matter
For Akamai CTO, ‘new ideas emerge where existing ideas can mingle’
When Robert Blumofe was a boy, he and his mother would make a 30-minute drive from their home to Los Angeles International Airport to watch the planes flying in and out of the oceanside travel hub. The big draw: the still-new Boeing 747, which debuted in 1970.
“That enormous but elegant shape and that tremendous power and glorious, overwhelming sound were truly awe-inspiring,” said Blumofe, SM ’92, PhD ’95. “But in addition to that purely emotional reaction, I was thinking about how the heck that thing could have been built: from coming up with that shape, to designing each piece, to putting it all together. Frankly, even now, all these years later, it still seems to me like an impossible feat. Yet there they were, and there they are.”
In the decades since his plane-spotting days at LAX, Blumofe continues to apply that appreciation for collecting and combining ideas in his role as executive vice president and chief technology officer at content delivery, cybersecurity, and cloud services provider Akamai Technologies.
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 from Akamai’s own “Wizarding competition.”
What inspires you?
Ever since I read [computer scientist] Alan Turing’s “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” I’ve thought about the stunning act of creativity that took place in Turing’s mind as he came up with that proof. It is one of the foundational building blocks of everything that we call computing and information technology. Anyone who thinks that mathematics isn’t creative doesn’t know what mathematics is. Turing’s creativity has more in common with Picasso painting than it does with a person doing long division. I find inspiration in the fact that fellow human beings are capable of such creativity.
Who inspires you?
My first nerd hero was Kelly Johnson, who as the first leader of the Lockheed Skunk Works, was responsible for the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird. He was a brilliant engineer and a brilliant organizer, and the aircraft his teams created more than a half century ago still inspire today.
I’ve also recently discovered inspiration from an unexpected source: my grandfather, comedian Jack Benny. I’ve discovered that his approach to comedy can teach me a lot about how I should approach leadership for technical organizations. Though it was his radio-television program, he rarely delivered the funny lines. Rather, he gave room for the other cast members or guest stars to shine and deliver the funny lines. Ultimately, it was about the ensemble.
Where do you get ideas?
New ideas emerge at the intersections where existing ideas can mingle, so interaction — especially in the form of listening to customers — is paramount. There are three things that I've tried to do to make those interactions more productive and more likely to lead to great new ideas.
The first is being able to truly empathize with the customers. We are huge believers in using our own technology. We call it Akamai on Akamai, though others call it drinking your own champagne. Through this hands-on experience of being a customer and using our own products, I developed a new degree of customer intimacy which leveled-up my customer conversations.
The second thing that helps with ideation is eclectic interests and knowledge bases. Though depth in the relevant field is important, so too is breadth and some degree of knowledge drawn from areas that are far afield. As we bring existing ideas together to form new ones, the diversity of those existing ideas really matters.
Third, I think that ideation needs rumination time. In our busy lives it can be difficult to find that time, but it really is essential. Sit outside with nothing to do or take a walk. Find that time regularly. If you're also taking 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 some formal structures to encourage ideation and allow anyone to get internal visibility for their ideas. Most notable is what we call our Wizards platform. We have an annual Wizards competition for employee-generated ideas, and we have regular Wizards challenges that are focused 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 other people with relevant skills to form teams. We then pull in judges from leadership around the company so that teams get exposure for their ideas. Several Wizards ideas, not all of which were winners, have led to products, such as our Enterprise Threat Protector.
How do you test ideas?
I have a great cadre of friends and colleagues with whom I can share and test ideas. I find value in this cadre, since I know that they will challenge me. Moreover, they have knowledge and skills that complement my own. After that, I always go to the relevant practitioners in our own IT organization, since they are Akamai on Akamai customers who are readily accessible, and I don’t have to worry about looking silly with a truly bad idea. From there, it’s on to the (external) customers.
When do you know it is time to abandon an idea?
If our internal teams can’t make a solution or service work for our internal projects and programs, it’s generally a great canary in the coal mine. If the idea isn’t working for us, why should I expect that it will work for customers?
At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have meaningful impact in the world. In that context — what is your idea made to matter?
The best idea we’ve had as a company was launching our cybersecurity business. This was 10-plus years ago, and at that time we were a content delivery network. But with a little imagination and viewed through a different lens, we could see that cybersecurity was, in fact, a natural adjacency. 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 a core part of our identity, our purpose and mission: We make life better for billions of people, billions of times a day, and we do that by powering and protecting life online. Paraphrasing and adapting a quote from Leslie Lamport, SB ’60, I often say that today we live in a world where a cyberattack on a company you didn’t even know existed can render your life unmanageable. And the impact isn’t just making it difficult to do things online, it’s making it difficult or impossible to do anything, from buying food to filling your car with gas. Protecting life online is about protecting life everywhere.
Read: How Dropbox CEO Drew Houston stays motivated by solving problems that matter