Chintan Patel: “Connectivity is critical to equality”
In the latest in a series of interviews with CTOs of the world’s leading technology companies, Robert Scammell hears from Chintan Patel, chief technical officer Cisco UK&I, about architecture dreams, the power of connectivity and separating hype from disruptor
As chief technical officer of Cisco UK&I, Chintan Patel spearheads a team of specialists in areas ranging from artificial intelligence, to cybersecurity, to future workplaces.
Patel has been at the American multinational conglomerate for more than 14 years and is focused on bringing the technology and business worlds together at the networking hardware, software and telecommunications equipment maker. Patel often speaks at industry events and also provides mentorship to startups.
In this Q&A, Patel explains why he’s excited about 5G in healthcare, shares his admiration for Tim Berners-Lee and reveals how a childhood neighbour gave some important life-long advice.
Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
I was actually working at a startup before joining Cisco as an engineer in 2005. Having had a soft spot for design, architecture and large-scale systems, the opportunity to join Cisco and be at the heart of the tech that over 80% of the traffic on the internet touches was an opportunity I could not miss.
I’m a big believer in equality and a level playing field for all. The internet is one such platform that has given so much to so many, but we are not done yet – I feel it’s my mission to play a role in connecting the unconnected.
“I’m driven by the opportunity to transform using the power of connectivity.”
Having been on both sides – the buying and selling side of technology – I enjoy bringing the business and technology worlds together. But it was the synthesis between science and commerce that led me to my current role as chief technical officer at Cisco UK&I. I’m driven by the opportunity to transform using the power of connectivity.
What's the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
2020 will arguably be known as the year that dramatically changed both society and business. Within a few short weeks, billions of us were forced to re-think how we live and work. We are now more connected than ever before and the pace is not slowing down.
“We block 20 billion threats on our cloud platform every day, yet there is still more to be done.”
We are seeing huge shifts with the cloud and how our services are deployed and consumed, the way applications and infrastructure are being used in new ways and how we need to protect against growing cyber threats – we block 20 billion threats on our cloud platform every day, yet there is still more to be done.
We have seen advances in the ways we can use artificial intelligence and machine learning to help us generate insights and make sense of the huge amounts of data collected from an increasing number of different kinds of devices we are connecting through the internet of things.
We’ve also experienced improvements and changes in how we can manage network performance and drill down to provide visibility to the things that we rely on as organisations, but that we might not necessarily own and manage ourselves – things like public cloud tools.
Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures?
At the heart of everything we do is connectivity – simply put, without the current internet access available, the world would look very different. There’s still so much we can deliver, particularly with 5G.
We’ll get a lot of enrichment in healthcare and education as well as from being able to meet the needs of those who currently receive little to no access. 5G offers 100 times more capacity and 10 times the number of devices per square kilometre compared to previous generations of connectivity, but with 10 times less energy use.
“With the pandemic ongoing, telemedicine and virtual healthcare have moved to become a more central part of patient care.”
Take remote care, for example. Use of this has risen rapidly both for public services and patients in the private sector. With the pandemic ongoing, telemedicine and virtual healthcare have moved to become a more central part of patient care, and the introduction of 5G will help scale these even more, and provide the foundation for further efficiency gains and improvements.
How do you separate hype from disruptor?
There is a balance to be had. I’m a big fan of new disruptive technology, but it’s always important to take a step back and work out why something is getting the hype that it is. I like to do my own research, listen to leaders in that particular field, talk to customers to see if this is something that would really help them.
Too often, the hype of something gets ahead of the real disruptive value and ultimately what could have been really powerful is lost.
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given?
Growing up in London, I had a neighbour who was a professor of mathematics. If I was ever stuck on my homework, my parents would say “Go next door!”.
He would regularly tell me about the things I should think about for a future career and that tech was going to be huge when I grew up, so I needed to know all about it – but he’d also say “don’t forget what it means to a business!”. He was a big influence on me and that advice to marry tech with business value sits at the forefront for me.
Where did your interest in tech come from?
From an early age I enjoyed tinkering with electronic gadgets, taking them apart, repairing them. I became the go-to kid amongst our family and friends for getting tech up and running. But my passion moved to design and the idea of becoming an architect. In my spare time I would study architectural building designs!
“I feel it’s my mission to connect the unconnected.”
With further studies on the horizon, it became crunch time to make decisions and I decided to take on a computing course at college along with some business disciplines.
Eventually I went on to a very new degree course (at the time) that combined computer science and economics at Brunel University. I loved the tech, I loved the economics and this was at the intersection of what my neighbour had told me about, so it was a perfect match.
When I started working at Cisco, over 14 years ago, I truly felt that I was at the heart of the internet and that it could have a global impact. I feel it’s my mission to connect the unconnected.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Every day is different for me. Typically, I get up early as I am most productive in the morning. Some exercise to get the energy levels up, breakfast with my family and a quick catch-up on world events. Work-wise, I like to get the most important overnight things from our US teams digested and responded to.
Then it’s onto reading internally and externally, writing points of view, directional items and contributions to blogs. I’ll typically meet multiple customers and partners during the week, meet with my team, attend industry engagements and spend time mentoring others.
What do you do to relax?
Spending time with my family, playing golf, a bike ride, going for a long walk or a run – watching a football game with friends. The simple things!
Who is your tech hero?
It has to be Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Having invented the web, the single biggest application on the internet, it’s hard to imagine a world without it.
“Tim Berners-Lee is a great inventor, engineer and an incredibly humble person.”
I’m a big fan of web tech having spent time at university studying large-scale information systems and using web code.
Tim is a great inventor, engineer and – having had the opportunity to meet him – an incredibly humble person.
What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?
I believe a world with equal access to opportunity could really start to address our collective challenges more quickly, rather than shying away. Digital communications infrastructure is a big part of doing that because it gives people access to the tools, knowledge and contacts that they need to build their skills and have a personal impact.
Connectivity is also critical to equality, as demonstrated by the fact that internet usage and lower levels of inequality often have a close correlation. It’s the foundation of access to education, jobs and opportunities of all kinds.
“We need to envision a world in which people and communities are not held back by their physical location.”
But access to opportunity is not evenly distributed. Women in urban areas in developing nations are half as likely to access the internet compared with men in their communities, according to the World Wide Web Foundation, even if they are equally likely to own a mobile phone.
Tech-based solutions can be leveraged to ensure access to education and skills training, especially where social systems are poor and full-time education or retraining are undeveloped or even inaccessible.
We all need to envision a world in which people and communities are not held back by their physical location in accessing opportunity. Connectivity and access to safe online digital services will play a vital role in doing that.
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