Remarkable Career Path Prepared Him to Become Nutanix CEO

Rajiv Ramaswami talks about his 30-year journey from the railways of India to the driver seat of some of the technology world’s most innovative companies.

By Tom Mangan

By Tom Mangan April 05, 2021

Rajiv Ramaswami is a traveler at heart. The story of his life, however, emerges from his stops along the way.

His employers have included the biggest names in technology — IBM, Cisco, Broadcom, VMware. He had front-row seats for the meteoric rise of optical networking and the infamous dot-com crash. He found stability at Cisco and Broadcom and helped VMware cement its role as a leader in data center virtualization and software for IT infrastructure.

On December 9, 2020, he became President and CEO of Nutanix, a pioneer in hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI), which virtualizes all the elements of conventional hardware-defined systems, including storage and networking. Nutanix’s enterprise software helps IT build and run private cloud, hybrid cloud and multicloud computing operations.

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He joined Nutanix after the company shifted to a subscription model, which is a major business recalibration. He also joined in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which accelerated digital transformation for many businesses and organizations. 

In an interview with The Forecast, Ramaswami talked about his journey from the railways of India to the boardrooms of Silicon Valley.

His work experience reveals a knack for having the right interests, training and skills in the right places and times for some of the biggest technology waves of the internet era.

A Child of the Rails

Born in 1965 in India to middle-class parents who worked in the nation’s sprawling railway network, Ramaswami moved frequently during his childhood.

“I grew up in a family where Mom and Dad were on equal terms, not the typical male-female hierarchy,” he said. 

His parents often worked in different locations simultaneously, teaching him and his younger sister to make new friends quickly and develop a sense of independence.

“We were left a lot to fend for ourselves,” he recalled. “We were quite used to change. We were quite used to moving things around and we were quite adaptable.” 

India has about 40,000 miles of railway, one of the world’s biggest systems. Those rails carried his family all over the country, where he learned three of India’s languages.

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The travels paused for about four years, long enough for him to complete high school in Chennai, where math and science were his favorite subjects. Faced with the choice between medicine and engineering, he traveled the STEM path to a bachelor’s degree at India Institute of Technology, Madras, and then a master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley.

Today, he’s the picture of the polished, cosmopolitan Silicon Valley CEO. He can talk leadership, strategy and digital transformation with the best of his peers. But back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was a researcher — expanding the world’s understanding of optical networking and gaining some three dozen patents.

That’s when he met the man who helped him pivot into technology leadership.

The Mentor who Aimed Radar at Venus

While pursuing his master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science at UC-Berkeley, Ramaswami landed a job with IBM Research Labs. His mentor was Paul E. Green Jr., one of the pioneering American engineers of the 20th century.

Green helped develop one of the world’s first spread-spectrum systems for wireless communications, a foundational technology for cellphones developed decades later. 

“He built a receiver that goes into most cellphones even today,” Ramaswami said.

A man of multiple interests and ambitions, Green led an effort to map the surface of Venus, whose terrain was a mystery hidden beneath thick clouds.  

“He used radar to map it,” Ramaswami said.

Green also guided a young scholar from India.

“I was very lucky to go into that kind of an environment where I was welcomed,” he recalled. “I had a champion looking out for me, really taking care to ensure I grew in that first job.”

They remained close friends for over 30 years until Green’s death in 2018.

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Ramaswami said his IBM Labs years were among the most creative of his career. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he and his colleagues probed the mysteries of optical networking. The challenge was getting their ideas off the whiteboard and into the marketplace.

“Can we turn this stuff into reality?” he remembers asking at the time.

“It was nice to sit and write papers and do patents in new areas, but one thing led to another and we found an application and actually built a product.”

From Bright Idea to Working Product

Ramaswami’s first product was an optical wavelength division multiplexer (WDM), which pumped massive volumes of data across fiber optic cables.

This was before the World Wide Web made the internet a visual medium. The prime audience for Ramaswami’s product was on Wall Street, where trading firms lost access to their on-site data centers in the first terrorist attack at the World Trade Center in 1993.

They wanted backup data centers in New Jersey and Long Island. Ramaswami’s WDM provided the bandwidth to make it possible.

“It became a hundred-million-dollar business over time,” he recalled.

Optical networking wasn’t a priority of IBM’s at the time (circa 1994), but the company gave Ramaswami’s team the freedom to develop the technology and find a buyer.

That buyer would be Tellabs, where he directed the Optical Networking Group in 1997-99. His team there shot up from a dozen to over 130 in short order. “And right after that, this field was continuing to get hotter and hotter and even hotter,” he recalled.

In the span of a few years, he discovered the boom-and-bust realities of the technology business.  

Moving to Silicon Valley in the Crazy Years

Ramaswami’s work at IBM Research started catching attention in the Silicon Valley. Offers began pouring in as the dot-com boom ramped up. In 1999, he moved his wife and two small children from the East Coast to the epicenter of the dot-com bubble.

Naturally, he was one of the first handful of employees in a new company. “In the late ‘90s, everything was being hyped up in the internet boom,” he said. “It was my first experience as an entrepreneur in a real startup.”

Things went well at first. Soon, companies started throwing staggering sums at his enterprise. Nortel, the Canadian telecom giant, offered $3.5 billion in stock for his startup. One of Canada’s biggest companies, Nortel didn’t look like an especially risky bet. Selling for paper stock instead of hard cash seemed perfectly sane. They took the stock. Then came the crash of 2000.

The dot-coms imploded first. Then the telecoms collapsed. Nortel’s stock cratered more than 90% in the 12 months after its August 2000 peak. 

“I never dreamt that this could happen,” Ramaswami recalled. “And, of course, it happened. It was a life lesson. I learned not to be too greedy.”

Finding Stability and Growth

Cisco Systems, whose network routers enabled the internet boom, survived the crash bruised but intact. They recruited Ramaswami in 2002. 

“That's when I transitioned to being a general manager,” he said. 

Cisco was a global company with an expansive product line and a raft of opportunities to try new things.

“I thought I'd go to Cisco for a couple of years, but I ended up staying eight years, because every few years, I got a chance to go run a different business,” he said. “That was a big growing-up thing for me.”

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He left Cisco as the VP/GM of their Cloud Services and Switching Technology Group in 2010 to lead the Infrastructure and Networking Group at Broadcom, the chipmaking giant. After six years, he moved on to VMware, the innovator in virtualization, where he moved up to COO of Products and Cloud Services.  And then, at the end of 2020, he became President and CEO of Nutanix.

“It's been a good ride,” he said. 

“Every one of these things, they were just a logical, natural transition of opportunities that came along. I took them and never regretted it.”

Tom Mangan is a contributing writer. He is a veteran B2B technology writer and editor specializing in cloud computing and digital transformation. Contact him on his website or LinkedIn.

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