Ken Xie started his first network security company, Stanford InfoSystem, Inc., in 1993. A few years later, he realized the performance limitations of a software firewall and started NetScreen. NetScreen later was acquired by Juniper for $3.5 billion. At the end of 2000, Xie founded Fortinet, which pioneered Unified Threat Management (UTM). Ken earned his BS and MS in electronic engineering from Tsinghua University in China and attended Stanford University, where he pursued a graduate degree in electrical engineering.
SM: Ken, take me back to the beginning of your story. What is the genesis of your entrepreneur spirit?
KX: I am from Beijing, China. I have been here 20 years. I came here to study in 1990. I had earned my bachelor’s and master’s in China. My parents were both professors at home. I came to the United States to get a PhD at Ohio State. I then came to Stanford and found the environment better. My studies were all electrical engineering and Internet-related studies.
SM: Give me some context about China in the 1980s.
KW: I got into Tsinghua University in 1981. My parents are professors there and had been all their lives. In 1977, China started nationwide exams to go to universities. At the time I was preparing to enter college, I was actually training to be a professional volleyball player because of my height. Before I went to college, I had a choice of going to the Olympic Team or to just going to college like my parents had done.
I knew that a good education was important. A professional player did not make much money in those days. After I had been training for volleyball for nine years I had to prepare for my college examinations. I graduated high school in 1981. About 1% of high school graduates could get into college. I was lucky enough to get in, and it was to one of the top universities.
For me, sometimes I just like the competition. It makes things more exciting. When I was young I used to like to play with electronic gadgets. I had built a radio when I was seven years old. I then studied TVs, VCRs, and radios in college. I like to tinker with things and am very hands-on. That was beneficial later as well. I was able to use those skills to make some money in the summer.
SM: Tell us more about coming to Ohio State in 1990.
KX: I came to the United States but was not quite sure where I should go. My supervisor was also a visiting professor at Stanford. I came to Ohio State first but because my focus was on the Internet, and through networking I found my way to Stanford. People said that there was a company here and with my skill I could help them and earn some money.
SM: What company was that?
KX: It was a PC company local to the area. They do a lot of network installations such as token rings and Novell. I quickly learned how to set up a network and how to build servers. I found a job local here and made some money. That also made it easy to get a green card quickly. Today, that would take six or seven years. Once I had a green card I was able to do some consulting. I am not someone who studies hard; I am a person who plays around with technology a lot.