Dr David Hughes
Chief Executive Officer, Silver Peak Systems, San Francisco USA
Doctor of Philosophy (Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences) 1993
Networking may mean something different today than it did when David Hughes left the University of Wollongong more than 20 years ago, but the principle is the same – more connections, better outcomes, bigger business.
Hughes is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Silver Peak, a privately held company in the US that improves back-up, replication and recovery between data centres as well as facilitating branch office serve and storage centralisation by improving application performance across the Wide Area Network.
It’s a mouthful for even the most tech-savvy, computer-literate among us, but essentially his is a business of networking. Not the social kind that we’re all now more familiar with, but the kind of networking that helps businesses – large and small – run more smoothly, efficiently and profitably.
Hughes grew up in Auckland and completed a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Auckland before taking up a scholarship at UOW to study for a PhD.
“I was awarded a scholarship from OTC, which later became part of Telstra. Professors Hugh Bradlow and Gary Anido had a very big impact in attracting me to Wollongong and guiding my post-graduate studies,” he said.
“At that time, the University of Wollongong had a very well-funded research initiative focused on packet switching technology. Professor Bradlow, who was head of department, convinced me that packet switching was going to become really important in the future. Packet switching technology is the foundation of the Internet, and so his opinion might seem obvious now, but this was 1989 in the early days of the Internet before the web and http even existed.”
Although the internet has its own catchy shortened ‘www’ acronym now, when Hughes started his thesis, ‘Traffic Control for the Broadband Integrated Services Digital Network (B-ISDN)’, the worldwide web was just as convoluted and hard to understand.
“The B-ISDN was a network technology that was ultimately subsumed by the Internet, but the fundamental principles I studied and techniques I developed for handling congestion apply to any packet network, including today’s Internet,” he said.
“I was interested in computing and engineering from when I was quite young, but I will credit Professor Bradlow and UOW for getting me interested in networking technology. I’ve always liked designing things, be it architecting a physical thing like a house, or something virtual, like developing a software algorithm or creating a successful business. It wasn’t until I started at the University of Wollongong that I realised how much impact networking technology could have on society, and how much room there was for innovation.”
In 1994 Hughes made the move to the mecca of technology – Silicon Valley in the United States. After going through the usual rights of passage (joining a smaller company, being acquired by a larger one, leaving the big company to join a start-up), in 2003 he began working on ideas for his own company as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Benchmark Capital, a venture capital company.
“I had always wanted to build a technology company from scratch. During the time I worked at Benchmark Capital I became convinced that there was a big opportunity to improve the way companies move data around the globe,” he said.
So in 2004, Hughes took a gamble and started his own company, Silver Peak, which in 10 years has become a global leader in WAN optimisation technology.
“Although there is a lot of competition in Silicon Valley, there are many advantages to being based in such a dynamic place, including access to a large pool of talented and experienced people. Ultimately technology companies that grow almost inevitably become global, so you will face the same global competition no matter where you are based,” he said.
In 2011, Hughes took Silver Peak to the Australasian market, and opened offices in Sydney and Melbourne.
By 2012, Silver Peak was named by one of the industry’s most respected publications, Network World, as the leader in the WAN optimisation market. It cited the company’s expanded partnerships with global giants, EMC, Hitachi, Dell and HP, as well its international growth in the preceding year, and its shift from a data centre storage replication provide to a market for optimisation as the key reasons for its elevation in the sector.
With more than 35 patents under his belt and staff of more than 150 worldwide, the UOW alumni is one of the world’s go-to people in a sphere that is constantly changing.
“When you build a successful company you want to attract people that complement you, that in many instances are better than you. Silver Peak would not have been able to win our biggest customers or develop our most important partnerships without some of the key people we hired. So the real lesson is to bring in people with the experience that you lack, rather than learning everything the hard way,” he said.
“Technology tends to go in cycles. Networking was an extremely hot area in the 1990s, with large amounts of investment and big returns for investors. In the 2000s things cooled off a lot, with consumer internet companies coming to the fore. Right now the advent of cloud computing, software as a service and server virtualization are creating a new surge of activity in networking.
“Personally I’d rather be in a dynamic market – while there may be fierce competition, where there is change, there is also a lot of opportunity. Another thing about innovation is that it can be asymmetric. In many cases a very small team can invent something and bring it to market faster and more effectively than a large existing company. So size is not always an advantage.”
Hughes admits that when he first entered the grounds of UOW back in the late 1980s he had no idea his career would take him not just to Australia but around the world, and reminds the new generation of engineering students that keeping an open mind is necessary in an industry that is constantly evolving.
“When I was an undergraduate, of course I did not really know exactly where my studies would lead. In fact, if I was asked back then, I would never have guessed that I would spend the next few years in Australia, then Japan, then the US,” he said.
“However what I did know was that I loved building and designing things, and that lies at the heart of engineering (even if I did not like every single course). It seemed that an engineering career would provide me with career options doing something I enjoyed. Fortunately that turned out to be the case.
“UOW certainly laid a great foundation for me, and my colleagues in the postgraduate program. From what I hear that continues to be the case today.
“[My advice] is rather than trying to pick a winning segment to work in, I would focus on choosing do something that you enjoy, or choose a job opportunity where you will learn a lot, or even better, find something that provides both.
“I’m really enjoying my current role as CEO of Silver Peak. I would love to see Silver Peak continue to grow, and for my experience to grow along with that.”