For Akamai’s Chief Technology Officer, “New ideas emerge where existing ideas can mingle”

When Robert Blumoff was a boy, he and his mother would take the 30-minute drive from their home to Los Angeles International Airport to watch planes fly in and out of the oceanfront travel hub. The big draw: The new Boeing 747, which debuted in 1970.

“That massive, sleek look, that massive power, and a great crushing sound was really amazing,” said Blumofe, SM ’92, PhD ’95. “But in addition to the purely emotional reaction, I was thinking about how to build this thing: from coming up with it, to designing every piece, to putting it all together. Honestly, even now, after all these years, it still seems to me like an impossible feat. So they were there, and here they are.”

In the decades since the days of LAX’s aircraft discovery, Blumofe continues to apply this appreciation for gathering and combining ideas in his role as Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of content delivery, cybersecurity and cloud service provider Akamai Technologies.

We spoke with Blumofe about other things that inspire him, the lessons he learned from his famously funny grandfather, and ideas gleaned from Akamai’s “wizarding contest.”

What inspires you?

since i read [computer scientist] Alan Turing “On Computable Numbers, with Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” I thought about the amazing act of creativity that was going on in Turing’s mind when he came up with this evidence. It is one of the basic building blocks of all that we call computing and information technology. Anyone who thinks that mathematics is not creative does not know what mathematics is. Turing’s creativity has more in common with Picasso’s painting than it does with someone doing a long division. I find inspiration in the fact that our fellow human beings are capable of such creativity.

Who inspires you?

My first hero nerd was Kelly Johnson, who was Lockheed Skunk Works’ first captain, in charge of the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird. He was a brilliant engineer and a wonderful organizer, and the plane his teams created over half a century ago continues to inspire today.

I recently caught 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 to approach leadership for artistic organizations. Although it was his radio and TV show, he rarely made the funny lines. Instead, it gave space for other cast members or stars to shine and deliver funny lines. In the end, it was all about the group.

Where do you get the ideas?

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

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The first is The ability to truly empathize with customers. We are a firm believer in using our own technology. We call it Akamai on Akamai, although some call it drink your champagne. Through this hands-on experience of being a customer and using our own products, I developed a new degree of customer familiarity which elevates my customer conversations.

The second thing that helps in thinking is Selective interests and knowledge bases. Although depth is important in the relevant field, breadth and a certain degree of knowledge are drawn from faraway regions. Since we bring existing ideas together to form new ideas, the diversity of those existing ideas really matters.

Third, I think so Thinking takes time. In our busy lives, it can be hard to find that time, but it is really necessary. Sit outside without doing anything or walking. Find that time regularly. If you also take the time to talk to people and develop eclectic interests, 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 in-house cloud platforms and develop the edge they can use to develop and prototype new ideas.

We also have some formal structures to encourage reflection and allow anyone to get an inside view of their ideas. Most notably what we call our processor platform. We have an annual Wizards competition for employee-generated ideas, and we have regular Wizards challenges that focus on specific areas of the business, including less obvious 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. Then we pull judges from driving around the company so the teams get to know their ideas. Many of the Wizards’ ideas, not all of which were winners, led to products, such as the Enterprise Threat Protector.

How do you test ideas?

I have a wonderful cadre of friends and colleagues with whom I can share and test ideas. I find value in this cadre, because I know they will challenge me. Moreover, they have knowledge and skills that complement my knowledge. After that, I always go to the relevant practitioners in our IT organization, since they are Akamai on Akamai clients who are easy to reach, and I don’t have to worry about looking silly with a really bad idea. From there, it’s up to the (external) clients.

When do you know it’s time to let go of an idea?

If our in-house teams can’t provide a solution or make a service for our in-house projects and programs, it’s generally a great canary in the coal mine. If the idea doesn’t work for us, why would I expect it to work with clients?

At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas that are made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have a meaningful impact on the world. In this context – what is your idea to be important?

The best idea we had as a company was to launch our business in cyber security. This was over 10 years ago, and at the time we were a content delivery network. But with a little imagination and looking at it through a different lens, we can see that cybersecurity was, in fact, a natural juxtaposition. We’ve been providing content to our customers and we can see that content – why can’t we also identify and block anything that might be bad?

Cybersecurity is an essential part of who we are, our goal, and our mission: We make life better for billions of people, billions of times a day, and we do so by enhancing 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 cyber attack on a business you didn’t know existed can make your life unmanageable. And the effect not only makes it difficult to do things online, it also makes it difficult or impossible to do anything, from buying food to filling your car with petrol. Protecting life online is protecting life everywhere.

Read: How Dropbox CEO Drew Houston stays motivated by solving critical problems

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