Two-man team directs Juniper's innovation

CEO Kevin Johnson and CTO Pradeep Sindhu chart the company's new directions

To the storied names of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, add Kevin Johnson and Pradeep Sindhu.

Johnson, CEO of Juniper Networks, told analysts on Thursday that he tries to model his partnership with Juniper Chief Technical Officer Sindhu after those successful executive pairings at Microsoft and Apple. Their relationship is so central to Juniper that even major innovations such as QFabric, the network architecture at the heart of the company's future data-center strategy, come out of meetings between them. Johnson spoke at Juniper's annual Financial Analyst Meeting in San Francisco.

Juniper's management approach is far different from that of rival Cisco Systems, which is built around a plethora of councils and boards focused on particular areas of technology. Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers implemented the new management structure across the company in 2007, replacing what he called a "command and control" organization. Though they ultimately report to Chambers, the councils are responsible for finding potentially profitable new markets and carrying out initiatives to enter them. Cisco has entered more than 30 new adjacent markets in the past several years.

Granted, Juniper is a much smaller company than is Cisco. It reported just short of US$4.1 billion in revenue for the year ended Dec. 31, compared with Cisco's more than $40 billion in revenue in its last fiscal year, ending in July 2010. And unlike Cisco, Juniper has focused exclusively on networking rather than branching into other areas such as consumer electronics and computing systems. But the way the company addresses major technology issues is notable for its intimacy.

Working with the Office of the Chief Technical Officer, Sindhu identifies upcoming changes in the world of IT and conceptualizes ways to address them, Johnson said. Then, Johnson will get a call from his assistant that Sindhu wants to meet with him.

"Pradeep will come in, and we will sit in my office, [writing] on my whiteboard, and I will have a lecture on some new disruption that's possible," Johnson said. "I will ask a thousand questions." Then, he often asks Sindhu to write a white paper of one to three pages on the issue they had just discussed. Johnson keeps a portfolio of these papers.

"Typically, we keep them between the two of us" and continue talking about the concept for a while, Johnson said. In time, they pass many of these ideas on to Juniper's incubation lab, where the company's top inventors work on no more than five proposals at a time, in teams of no more than five people, he said. The best are passed on to Juniper's business units, where they become part of each division's three-year product road map.

QFabric came out of such a meeting between Johnson and Sindhu and became a three-year, $100 million research and development initiative called Project Stratus, which ultimately produced a series of products announced last week. The new products are designed to transform a data-center network into a single logical switch, improving performance and efficiency.

Creating major corporate strategies through one-on-one whiteboarding sessions is a luxury that Juniper has because of its relatively small size, analyst Mark Sue of RBC Capital Markets said in an interview at the conference. However, the company may have to re-examine that approach over time, because it would not scale past a certain point, Sue said.

Johnson and Sindhu each has his own role in the partnership, something like the way Gates and Ballmer worked together at Microsoft, Johnson said. The Juniper CEO knows something about that relationship, having worked at Microsoft for 16 years before joining Juniper in 2008. He ended his Microsoft career as president of the Platforms and Services Division.

Sindhu understands the technical challenges as well as what's possible, Johnson said. It helps that Sindhu also has been with Juniper since the beginning in the late 1990s, Johnson said. He holds the titles of founder and vice chairman in addition to CTO.

"It takes a partnership with someone like Pradeep, combined with someone who can then take a view of those disruptions and figure out, 'How do we operationalize that? Which ones do we bet on?'" Johnson said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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