Ashar Aziz is the CEO of FireEye and a highly technical engineer with extensive knowledge of networking, network security, and datacenter virtualization. Prior to FireEye, Ashar founded Terraspring, a company focused on datacenter automation and virtualization that was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 2002. Ashar spent twelve years at Sun as a distinguished engineer. He has a EE from MIT and a CS degree from Berkeley.
SM: To start, take us back to where your story begins.
AA: My story begins in Pakistan where I was born and grew up. I was born in Karachi and I grew up in Islamabad. I still maintain a residence in that part of the world. When I was very young, one of my cousins told me I was smart and that there was a technical school out there called MIT which was the best in the world. I was 13 at the time, and I did not know how to get there. I decided to pursue that opportunity, but the way I went about it was a bit odd.
I did not know the address, so I went to the American Center where they told me I could not go there for undergraduate school, only grad school. That was completely untrue. There was a scholarship for a school in Turkey, and I heard that if you went there then you could go to MIT. I decided to try for that scholarship, and I ended up winning it. I went there en route to MIT because I thought that was the only way to get there. True enough, there were two people who went to MIT from that school every year as transfer students. I managed to be one of those two, and transferred to MIT as a junior.
I also had always had a desire to be an entrepreneur.
SM: Why? What gave you that idea?
AA: My role models where superheroes and entrepreneurs like Ironman. I always wanted to build something and make a difference. I did not know any better way to do that than by being an entrepreneur. A technologist can either work somewhere or can build something that can have a bigger impact. After I graduated from MIT I came here to the Valley. There was no mentorship group at the time, and there were not too many organizations that promoted it.
SM: Where did you work?
AA: I ended up working for a small startup making disk controllers. I then went to Berkley for grad school and worked for a little company in Berkeley that did Unix and networking. That is how I got into Sun Microsystems. It was great for me because there were a lot of smart people at Sun and I learned a lot from them. They had the smartest people in the Valley.
I wanted to be an entrepreneur and I did not know how, but it did seem to me that I would need some credibility to get there. I decided to become the highest technical level possible at Sun, which at the time was Distinguished Engineer. I made that after about four or five years at Sun.
I was still spending a lot of time thinking about that idea to get a business going. I had a lot of thoughts, but at the time I lacked the confidence to pursue my dreams. I did not know how to execute. The confidence to go pursue something when you have not seen people around you do it can be a difficult thing to obtain.