Ashar Aziz '81

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Ashar Aziz, Founder, Vice Chairman of the Board, and Chief Strategy Officer FireEye, Inc.
Founder, Vice Chairman of the Board, and Chief Strategy Officer FireEye, Inc.

Growing up in Pakistan, Ashar Aziz at a young age had a goal to be a technologist and an inventor and entrepreneur. When he learned from one of his cousins that MIT was the best engineering school in the world, he decided that would be the best way to reach his goal.

But he didn’t actually know how to apply directly to MIT — something that was not common knowledge in his country. “I heard through the grapevine that if you went to a certain school in Turkey [the Middle East Technical University in Ankura, also known as METU], and you did well there, you could transfer to MIT,” he said. Fortunately, the information was correct. He applied to METU and went there for two years, transferring finally to MIT in his junior year. Aziz looks back noting about his unusual entry to MIT that it was “a curious journey, but not one that was uncommon in those days.”

On completing his SB in 1981 in electrical engineering, Aziz earned an M.S. in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, where he also received the U.C. Regents Fellowship. He then went to work at Sun Microsystems where, for twelve years, his work focused on networking and network security.

Aziz’s first company called Terraspring, Inc., was founded in 1999. A data center automation and virtualization company, Terraspring, Inc. was acquired in 2002 by Sun Microsystems. Aziz served as Chief Technology Officer until October 2003. Throughout this period he was building patents in the field of cryptography, networking, network security and data center virtualization.

Lessons Learned to Define a New Problem

And, Aziz was setting out to learn from his first startup experience so he could launch into his next. His thinking: “Work backwards from a problem to a novel solution, making the solution easy to deploy and to use, and making it track the problem trajectory much better than existing solutions — making it truly disruptive in the market. These are just some of the lessons I learned during my first startup.”

Aziz then began his quest for an interesting and very hard problem to solve — one that the world was going to have to confront. He found the problem description in the U.S. Department of Defense archives — proposals that were soliciting for answers to solve the problem related to highly stealthy self-propagating malware.

“The more I studied the problem, the more I was convinced this would be a defining problem in the 21st century,” Aziz says. He also realized on continued examination of this problem, that the fast evolution of the malware threat was going to make all current efforts obsolete.

Aziz determined that the solution was to develop a brand new defensive architecture blueprint. His extensive work culminated in FireEye, Inc. and its product portfolio. “The last 10 years have massively validated the cyber-security problem, the failure of traditional approaches, and the efficacy of the solution I developed!” says Aziz, who founded the company in 2004.

The core of the FireEye platform is a virtual execution engine, complemented by dynamic threat intelligence, to identify and block cyber attacks in real time and across the different stages of an attack life cycle.

Aziz noted in an online interview in 2012: “Our goal is to bolster the security and key infrastructure that is pervasive across financial, government and credit card infrastructure to protect from three very important threats: crime, espionage, and warfare.” Aziz noted: “These are not one-off failures in say Google or Juniper or Adobe, it’s a systemic fault in enterprise security architecture. The reality is everybody can go down at any point in time, and the majority are [vulnerable].”

Building the Disruptive Technology that works

As Aziz shared with the students in Start6, the IAP workshop for innovators and entrepreneurs held in mid January 2015, finding the disruptive technology that answers a large and growing need makes it possible for even a small startup to gain significant market interest in a short time. As cyber attacks increased and the large incumbent, dominant providers were not coming up with the solutions, the market for a less known company – but one that could solve the security problems – led to FireEye’s recognition and success.

He noted that building the team for a company means finding high-quality talent, which he says is rare. When he built FireEye’s team he was fortunate to recruit a technical team that he already knew from his previous startup. What is he looking for in recruiting? “Fire, passion, the desire to make a difference, and not being satisfied with the status quo,” he says.

And, he shared with the responsive group of Start6 engineering and management students, advice based on his experience: “Before you even have an idea, think about how you construct it – backwards – from the problem. Once you have reverse engineered the solution,” he continued, “you have to validate it with a potential customer.” He cautions that “…it should not be something that represents an incremental change to an existing product – but something out of the box — uniquely addressing the problem in ways that make the solution value proposition significantly better than anything that the incumbent market can offer.” From there the job is to get investors. As he puts it, “Raising the money is getting a ticket to the game, but figuring out how to win the game is the most important thing.”

He tops off this advice with: “You need to have courage, because when things go wrong, not only will you need to look in the mirror and motivate yourself, you’re going to go out there and have to motivate your employees too.”