Innovation in RnD: Awais Nemat, Founder and CEO at PLUMgrid

The plan from the beginning was to establish a startup in the Valley. Every job, task and modicum of experience Awais Nemat got, took him one step closer to realizing that plan. Whether it was getting his foot in the door to design engineering at Mentor Graphics or learning the ropes in the seven years he spend at Cisco Systems, in the back of his mind, Awais was always engineering his company.

Like many who end up in Silicon Valley, Awais also had a desire to build things from scratch and work in Research and Development to use his engineering talents and skill to push technology in areas that simply didn’t exist. “I have always been interested in determining how things will be in the future, create something and then move on to figuring out what the next big thing would be. I worked on the chips that enabled USB devices to be created. By the time they were created and commercialized, some 13 years later, I wasn’t working on them.”

According to Awais in order to create true innovation, you need to have a thesis on what the future will be like. “You then have to distinguish between knowledge creation and business products. Knowledge creation is being two steps ahead of the market while businesses can only afford to be one step ahead. If a business becomes two steps ahead of the market, you are too early and nobody around understands your product, which will probably make you fail.”

Awais Nemat

Founder and CEO of PlumGrid

Timing had a lot to do with the success or life Awais has had. The fact that there is ‘a time for ideas to emerge’ was a key lesson he learned when his first startup attempt in 2000 didn’t go anywhere. Perhaps it was just a sign that he didn’t know enough because his next startup developed a product that nobody else had, got acquired by one of the world’s largest storage, communications and consumer semiconductor product companies. His present company, PLUMgrid is a venture-backed startup that has already raised more than $26 million and is one of the first to be in the network virtualization space.

Back Track
Awais completed his Matriculation from KulsoomBaiValika School, continued his studies at Government Degree College MalirCantt and graduated from NED University in 1995. It wasn’t until 1997 that he ventured out to Silicon Valley to see firsthand what all the excitement was about. “A lot of my friends had already gone to the Valley for work and since my father worked at an airline, I traveled there on one of the free tickets he would get.” He interviewed with companies including Mentor Graphics, where he was offered a job and he converted his visit visa to a work visa.

“When you come from a middle class family, you don’t have a lot of options to spend money to go abroad. If you’re interested in making something of yourself, you attend the best schools available to you. If you’re passionate about engineering, NED is it. Awais has been interested in engineering since he was a child. “My father is an engineer and I spent a lot of time opening up car engines with him and building Lego projects. I got my first computer when I was 10 years old, in 1983, so I was already programming in BASIC very early. Engineering was the only thing that made sense for me to pursue.”

Awais studied hard and got good grades, but what helped him more was his uncanny ability to be surrounded by people of diverse backgrounds. “I would find myself sitting next to or being with people who were interested in being actors, doctors and other professions and that, I think, was great exposure to what else was out there.” In case you haven’t figured it out, the NED alumni is quite a close-knit one and tend to look out for one another. When Awais was coming to the Valley, there was someone from the network to pick him up, an apartment of another he could crash at and others he could take advice from and get the introductions to companies he could meet. “To this day, the network still exists where someone in the network opens the door so that one of us can make something of the opportunity.”

Awais always wanted to be in Silicon Valley and it wasn’t an accident that he landed there. As class Valedictorian, he had a lot of offers from companies coupled with a fair amount of societal pressure. “I really wanted to stay in the field of Research and Development within Engineering rather than just follow some mundane blueprint that was supposed to be my life. I wanted to build things from scratch and challenge the norm.” His Final Year Project was a real time Operating System which caught the attention of a very small, startup-like company called Data Communications and Control (DCC).

Sameer Hoodbhoy founded DCC and ran an interesting setup of about 20 people doing hardcore RnD. They were designing PCB circuit boards with Motorola 68000 processors and writing code, and had a project where they needed somebody to do exactly what Awais and his group had built as their university project. The three worked at DCC for the next two years. “It was so different than the normal jobs everyone else was doing. We were inventing things and innovating and improving. It was like a little Silicon Valley culture smack in the middle of Karachi. “But two years of working there, I felt it was time to move on and do something in core RnD, a decision that was enthusiastically encouraged by Sameer. I mean, what kind of a boss says things like ‘go make your mark’ and ‘ don’t settle for anything less’?”

But getting into RnD was not as easy as Awais thought. “You need to come from a brand name school. If you are from Stanford or Berkeley, it’s much easier to get into company as a junior software engineer. If you are from any other school, you always start as where in tech support or another business functions in a large organization. It was almost a counter-cultural because I had too much experience to join into a junior position, and didn’t have experience to join anything senior. This made the interview experiences pretty horrible!”

Fayyaz Hassan Gillani saw a great deal of potential in Awais and suggested he interview with him at Mentor Graphics. “I wanted to design silicon and this looked like it fit well on my path.” Awais studied for 15 days, passed the interview and joined Mentor Graphics as a Design Engineer. He joined the group that had actually designed the silicon to make USBs possible. “For me, that was really cool!” Initially he started off just helping with design verification and gradually moved to designing chips until he got to the point where he would enhance functionality in the PCI cards. He finally had a starting point to his track record, had enrolled in Stanford for a few courses and moved onto Cisco Systems.

“The person who interviewed me at Cisco was also a Stanford graduate and we had the same professor, so that helped.” He joined Cisco without realizing how large the company was and or how extensive the scope of networking was. Unbeknownst to him, he was joining Cisco’s flagship group, the Catalyst 6000 group. In 1998 and things were still in the design phase when Awais joined but it turned out to be a $4 billion product line for the corporation. Awais contributed to some of the products during the design phase and that’s where his career development took its shape. “The 7 years I was part of an organization that was rapidly growing and we all grew with it.”

Awais’s approach has always been to identify a goal and then figure out how to get there. “I think that approach has always helped. I realize that there is a common as an ‘entrepreneurial trait’ which makes people resign from good jobs to go and identify a problem and figure it out, without necessarily having a plan. I have always been driven by my passion to do things differently.”

Awais may have been the second Pakistani to be part of that group. “There were actually a lot of Pakistanis in Cisco at the time but very few in RnD and lots more in tech support, network design or other functions. Over time I brought in multiple Pakistani friends who could contribute to what we were trying to build and there were probably more than a hundred or so by the time I left. “Yet another thing that was really great about Cisco was the number of people who could be mentors – if you wanted to learn something, there is always someone willing to talk to you and guide you through it, as long as you have the eagerness to learn and willingness to put in the time for it.”

So Awais started off in RnD and ended up in a group that essentially took care of a lot of the acquisitions that Cisco Systems was making. The exposure and learning here was immense. He got the opportunity to look at technology from business perspective, learned how to manage people, interact with teams, picked up conversational dynamics, vendor relationship management, corporate development and how to manage and even build a business from ground up. A lot of the street smarts that NED had taught him, also helped.

Once his maturing interest in business had taught him what he needed to know, he left Cisco to be an entrepreneur.

Living on Hope
And so, D5 Networks was established as a Startup. By this time, Awais also wanted to take advantage of the labor arbitrage that exists between Silicon Valley and Pakistan along with the sense of giving back to his roots. “Unfortunately with the cost differential comes the talent arbitrage. The Pakistan office eventually didn’t work out.” More importantly, it was just not possible for such a young team of 5 guys to keep a remote office running. “In order to do so, you need a leader to manage the team and we were just unable to keep the team motivated enough to keep working.”

And there was no middle management to coordinate between Pakistan and the US work ethic. “It was 2005 and we were funding everything out of our own pockets so we didn’t have enough to hire the right kind of people. We were trying to live on hope as opposed to living on dollars. It just wasn’t done right.”

Meanwhile back in the US, the team devoted their time to developing a leading edge security technology that many of the large vendors needed and D5 Networks were the first ones who had it. Awais had been working on an IT Security standard for about 4 years while he was at Cisco when. “After 9/11, IT Security and Cryptography were extremely hot topics. It was just a matter of time before the implementation of the standard on the silicon would happen.”

Awais had a professional relationship with a world-renowned cryptographer named David McGrew while at Cisco. McGrew would frequently come up with cryptography algorithms and give them to Awais to design, and many times Awais would reject the algorithm on the basis of the limitations of the hardware. “I couldn’t understand the mathematics behind his cryptography and he couldn’t understand the technology constraints behind the implementation, but we had great respect for one another.” And that diversity, exposure and mutual respect is what makes teams work.

The challenge McGrew had was coming up with an algorithm that had a multiplier that Awais could implement into the silicon without slowing it down. The back and forth yielded the discovery that you can use a Galois Field Multiplier, or a GF Multiplier, which is very easy to implement in hardware and mathematically has the same properties. “That was the breakthrough and David actually invented a mode called AES GCM, Advanced Encryption Standard Galois Counter Mode.”

Because of the discovery of the methodology, it was possible now to encrypt traffic at hundreds of gigabits. Even though David McGrew invented the methodology, he was gracious enough to name Awais as a reviewer in the NIST Spec, a National Institute Standard Technology Specifications. That has led to the creation of 802.1AE Standard in Ethernet. Now that the discovery had been made and David’s work was done, it was Awais’s turn to figure out how to commercialize this for D5 Networks. “We ended up designing a custom chip and showed it to the market.”

Marvel made an acquisition offer to buy out D5 Networks along with the intellectual property rights to manufacture that chip a year after it was founded. Awais continued to develop the chip at Marvell Semiconductors as Vice President of Enterprise Business Unit in Communications and Consumer Business Group. Together, they grew their business from zero dollars to $70 million.

Two of the largest silicon providers for Networking are Broadcom and Marvell. Open up the Networking boxes of the large equipment providers like Cisco and you’ll find chips from one of these two companies. Awais grew Marvell’s business from $60 million to $300 million over the course of 4 years. Though details of the acquisition were never shared publicly, it was a win-win for both. “Marvell added a business that eventually earned them $70M a year, and I learned to build a start up along with understanding how to grow a business.”

He already knew what he wanted to do next and with the benefit of experience and hindsight, he went on to setup another company. “This time, I wanted to do it the right way from the beginning.”

Round Three
Your people network is probably the most valuable network you will ever have, shares Awais. “I have always stayed in touch with people from I have worked or studied with.” Because an entrepreneur will often dabble into spaces that need a specific kind of profile, having a diverse network of people you can readily tap into, is essential. The four years at Marvell gave Awais a better understanding of what the future trends would be. “I could already see a shift in the infrastructure where people don’t want to buy hardware boxes from large companies anymore. They want to buy commodity servers and switches and run Open Source software on top of it. I saw the same trend in networking as well. These trends were just starting and I saw an opportunity to set up a business around the Cloud.”

Awais left Marvell in 2011 and shared the idea with an old friend and distinguished engineer at Cisco, Pere Monclus. “Pere is probably one of the most brilliant guys I have ever known. I told him I had an architecture in mind, and he agreed to meet up to see if they could figure it out.” Awais and Pere started a company called PLUMgrid.

What we are building is what is referred to as a virtual network Infrastructure As A Software. It’s a new platform that allows the creation of these networks, routers, switches, load balancers and all those appliances and components that are needed in any data center as pieces of software. “Traditionally if you need to install a router or any component, you have to buy a piece of hardware, a physical box, then go and install it in the data center. With us, you don’t need to buy the hardware; you just buy our software and create the functionality entirely from the software. It is high performance, fully scalable, fully distributed and an entirely new way of doing networking. It’s a new category. It just doesn’t exist so we are inventing a new category of new products as we go along.”

The biggest problem when you invent things is trying to figure out who your buyer is. “In our case, our customers are the people who are building cloud, who are in need of automation because their infrastructure cannot run or scale up without it. Companies Comcast who want to offer video-on-demand as a service. Can you imagine managing the millions of subscribers, millions of movies, moving content assets across and managing the contracts and licenses? All of this activity determines how the underlying network will be impacted. If the design and redesign is done manually, that will take a lot of time. If this network is automated, life can become simpler and services can be deployed much faster. Service providers need to provide the service and not worry about the technology. We provide the infrastructure.”

Awais is helping to determine what the next generation of things will look like, how enterprises will operate and perhaps even what the competitive landscape is going to look like. “When we started virtual networking was at least 5 years ahead of its time. We just happen to one of the early ones to begin building in this space.” A PhD professor runs their Pakistan operations from NUST, Ali Khayyam, and manages a team of more than thirty people. “We have been fortunate to have some brilliant people but we’re always looking for more. There is a lot of work to be done.” PLUMgrid’s turning point was when AT&T tested and deployed PLUMgrid’s solution. “The telecom service providers are mammoths and make changes very slowly. For them to be onboard with us was a huge testament to what we are trying to do.”

At 41, Awais Nemat still has a long way to go and much more to achieve in what shape he wants the future to be, but it’s a pretty good start. “Education is the fuel for innovation,” he says. “The curiosity and the desire to question things is so incredibly important for the country to create scientists and engineers who can build things. And we desperately need more RnD coming out of the universities across the country. Without RnD, there will be no future.”

These sentiments have been shared time and again by many entrepreneurs, but because of his expertise and experience in RnD and innovation, perhaps Awais sees what the lack of it will mean for an entire nation. This was a guy who started taking apart car engines with his father before he could write. He’d definitely know.

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