It was in his birthplace in the mountains of Kashmir where Ratinder Ahuja began his journey to become a cybersecurity entrepreneur. Ahuja, CEO of ShieldX, a U.S.-based firm that specializes in cloud security, has a reputation for establishing tech startups that get acquired by big companies. His first venture, Internet Junction, attracted the interest of Cisco. His second, Webstacks, was acquired by Extreme Networks. His third, Reconnex, was purchased by McAfee.
But for the Taekwondo blackbelt, these successes are nothing compared to his achievements in martial arts which include testing himself by living for two weeks in total darkness, meditating standing up for hours and doing a thousand kicks without stopping.
“All these tests are designed to take you to a state of emptiness,” Ahuja, who has been practicing Taekwondo and Qi Gong for decades, says. “Your mind, body and spirit are aligned. Once that alignment happens, everything flows better.”
Born an engineer
He was born in Kashmir in 1965 to a military family. His father, who was also an engineer, was building airfields in the mountains.
While the family got transferred across the country every three years, a satisfying home life was a fixture for the boy. Ahuja’s father taught him engineering concepts and got him various kits. “We would have some fun times building things. I had my own little lab!”
It was no surprise that he chose electronics engineering for his bachelor’s degree. His graduation was just the start. His parents encouraged him to get advanced studies. “They put me in a plane. Next thing I know, I am in Iowa…in the middle of cornfields and wide open spaces.”
Ahuja spent the next three years obtaining his master’s and doctorate degrees in computer engineering, with a minor in computer science, at the Iowa State University.
“I basically completely immersed myself in my grad studies, and there was this ton of information, there was so much to study, that I think for almost a year and a half I didn’t have anything else to do,” he says.
Well, almost. It was while he was studying in Iowa that Ahuja started doing Taekwondo.
At age 24, he earned his PhD.
Off to a good start (up)
In 1989, Ahuja came to Silicon Valley. “Those were the early days — the computer boom.” He remembers a conversation with three friends where they said to each other: “You know, this Internet thing is gonna take off. It’s just phenomenal!”
They knew it would be more than a fad. They put up their first venture, which was an application of Ahuja’s doctoral dissertation – designing a protocol or gateway that could connect different network types.
“Data communications was booming. There were a large number of different networks, and there was a need to interconnect these different networks. The predominant business network in those days used to be Novell Network, which was different from the Internet protocol. We came up with a system where you can use a native Novell network on your system and still be able to connect to the Internet.” Such was the birth of Internet Junction.
It was 1994. After a year and a half, they got some news. “Cisco said this was really interesting – ‘we will buy you guys out’.”
Finding a model
As a martial arts student, Ahuja was familiar with the classic text of Sun Tzu. The Art of War provided him with a fundamental model for his career. “The environment, the trends around us change. These are things we have no control over. This change disrupts the old way of doing things and introduces a new way of doing things,” he says.
The disruption is also a source or opportunity. “Wisdom lies in understanding and having the vision of recognizing a trend and knowing how that trend will affect the marketplace.”
But while he has been reading Sun Tzu since the time he began martial arts, it was only much later that he found a translation that enlightened him on what Sun Tzu was saying. “The original text was so poetic and so flowery. The information was encoded. So I finally I found a decoded version,” he says.
Seeking out shifts
Another trend emerged at around the time he was finishing his stint at Cisco. “The networks were becoming much faster, going from 10 times to 100 times the speed. Things typically on software would not be able to keep up with these speeds.”
The result was Webstacks, Ahuja’s next venture. Soon, it was acquired by Extreme Networks, which loved the concept they were doing. Ahuja spent a couple of years with Extreme.
And then came the market crash.
He coped by flying to Chang Mai in the mountains of Thailand and going into darkroom training. The theory is that by cutting off all visual stimuli to the brain, the endocrine system, specifically the pituitary gland, is reawakened.
Ahuja says the time spent in darkness, and the absence of new information coming in, enabled him to quiet his mind. He enjoyed the nothingness. “Just the pureness of emptiness was blissful. After all that time, all the turmoil in your head — about your startup, the technology and the market crash – you sort of think through everything until there is nothing else to think about.”
He came out of the darkroom at midnight, a moonlit night. “Everything was brand new and brilliant.”
So brand new, in fact, that when he looked at his inbox the following day, he saw an email from a friend. “There is a new trend happening,” Ahuja quotes his friend. “Some of his largest customers were worried about information loss.”
The security industry was evolving.
“A few years ago, people would attack Yahoo and Ebay and bring down websites, spread viruses and malware and that kind of stuff,” he says. “All of a sudden, the attacks moved from infrastructure to information. They could now steal your credit card data, and drivers’ license, personal information and sell them to the black market so you can monetize information.”
Another trend, another start. True enough, with this shift Ahuja started Reconnex, specializing in data loss prevention. Soon it was branded a consistent Leader by analyst firm Gartner. It was not long before the company was acquired by McAfee, and Ahuja became the chief technology officer overseeing a broad range of network security products.
It did not end there, of course. Another shift happened – this time, it was movement to the cloud.
The cloud is agile. It is faster, cheaper, and it presents great economic benefits. Businesses definitely want this. But many of the security products that customers use no longer fit into this new cloud environment. “Architecturally, security has to change so it would not become a hindrance to that agility promise of the cloud. You need to have a security system that is equally agile,” Ahuja says.
“I looked at that and said: Hmmm…I think we can solve this problem.” This was how ShieldX, his current company, came to be.
A driven data-driven leader
Ahuja currently leads a team of 50, including “a brilliant set of engineers that have worked with me for years.” With them he tests his ideas and as a team they go deeper into the system, encounter problems and solve them, take the system to the customer’s environment, encounter greater problems and solve them anew.
“We relish problems – every problem helps us refine our thinking and come up with something new and creative. That’s how the process continues.” Ahuja says his routine is fairly regimented. He is up at odd hours. He describes his style as collaborative and data-driven. “That way you can analyze things in a calm fashion.”
He is keen on introducing his team to what he calls the progress cycle – an extension of the Sun Tzu model that has guided him all these years. Central to the cycle is learning fast, so that one can improve one’s vision, knowledge and positioning in the market.
A peek into the future
Ahuja believes that blockchain technology will be a big thing in the future. “You can see how much there is around us every day. Lots of companies are working on viable business models and real solutions to use the underlying blockchain technology. Something is happening there.”
Other things like augmented reality will affect, dramatically, everything we do. “Security again will have to evolve to these shifting trends.”
Amid these opportunities, Ahuja anticipates a crisis – a human capital one. “There are targeted attacks happening against critical assets and enterprises all the time. The security budgets typically are finite and much of the budget is spent getting equipment,” he says. “But there aren’t enough people trained in cybersecurity to help enterprises achieve their security policies.”
To help address the shortage, Ahuja is collaborating with his former professor, Dr. Doug Jacobson, director of the Iowa State University Information Assurance Center and professor of electrical and computer engineering. The university pits students in a quarterly competition on defending a simulated system against an attack. The university has also developed a cyberdefense curriculum.
A personal evolution
“As a human – an artist, an engineer, any kind of professional – you have to continuously evolve. You have to be aware of the new trends that will establish, and what the impact of that will be. The downside of not understanding that is that you get into irrelevance,” Ahuja says. This is his personal philosophy.
In dealing with customers, he tries to make a connection beyond a vendor-buyer relationship. “I explain on the philosophical level why we are doing what we are doing. I try to see whether that aligns with their own thinking.”
When he’s not working or doing martial arts, Ahuja spends time with his Korean wife, who used to be his student in Taekwondo. He was a black belt; she was a white belt who quit the following week. She now does yoga.
He also likes to read, always mindful that it takes a lifetime to master anything. This is another way of saying you can’t really master anything so long as you are alive, except perhaps learning itself.
His father, his first mentor, recently passed on. But Ahuja imagines him telling him: “Hey, you really wrote your own script!”