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Once an Owl, Always an Owl

CTO Jesse Rothstein on Rice U, the Internet's early days, and ExtraHop.

In the glory days of local college networks and the dot com boom, ExtraHop was nought but a gleam in co-founder and current CTO Jesse Rothstein's eye. He had his hands full with a double major in Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering, as one does, and the road from Rice University to successful entrepreneurship would have a few pit stops along the way.

How do you go from smart, enthusiastic undergraduate to co-founder of a globally recognized company that leads an entirely new realm of IT? And whatever the secret, can you bottle it?

Recently Rice University Department of Computer Sciences sat down with Jesse for their alumni series to talk Owlnet, the dot com boom, and transforming the network with IT analytics. Check out the full profile below.

Interested in joining Jesse and the rest of the ExtraHop team? Check out our careers page.

Jesse Rothstein: Network Miner

Before co-founding ExtraHop to help enterprise IT organizations improve system performance, security, and operations, CS alumnus Jesse Rothstein helped invent the Traffic Management Operating System (TMOS) platform for F5 Networks.

ExtraHop CTO Jesse Rothstein

ExtraHop CTO Jesse Rothstein

"I've always been attracted to systems and the network," he said. "In fact, while I was at Rice, one of my student jobs was working as the lab assistant in Dave Johnson's COMP 421, the course on operating systems and networking. But my favorite job was helping William Deigaard, the director for educational technologies, expand Owlnet."

Owlnet was a local network that was only available to engineering students and faculty at Rice. Rothstein said, "The Internet was just becoming popular and people were excited. Only the engineers had access to it through Owlnet; I knew non-engineering majors who wanted those special privileges. Working for William, another student and I built the first registration system to automatically apply for a email account using your student ID number."

At Rice, Rothstein decided to pursue two different degrees – a BA in Computer Science and a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering. He said, "After visiting Rice during Owl Days, I turned down MIT and Stanford. I loved the strength of the engineering program and Rice's focus on undergraduates. And I went for the dual degree because I enjoyed the two subjects equally; I had a fabulous experience in both departments."

After graduation, he worked for several dot coms in Austin, Texas. "It was the middle of the dot com boom and bust, and I rode that rollercoaster up and all the way down in one company," he said. Then he moved to Seattle to work for F5 Networks.

"They were the early pioneers of load balancers and smart network infrastructure," said Rothstein. "The team I led took load balancers – which were pretty much just dumb packet forwarders – and turned them into smart networking deviceswith the ability to slice and dice transactions."

Rothstein helped invent the TMOS platform, which created an entirely new market category around application delivery controllers – now worth over $3B. The new platform also catapulted F5 to their current place as an industry leader and one of the only companies to compete with Cisco's range of network products and win.

"I was the lead architect of F5's flagship product when I left," he said, "but all entrepreneurs --at some level-- have a problem they want to solve and something they want to prove, and I had found mine. It wasn't about money or financial success. I'm a product person. I love building products and solving problems."

The problem Rothstein and his co-founder focused on was a way to capture and use all the data companies were sending and receiving across their networks (wire data). The two scribbled some ideas on the back of a napkin and felt they could combine off-the-shelf products to capture wire data.

Because his work had always been in the realm of enterprise IT (the infrastructure used by large organizations to meet and support technology demands), he had been observing an alarming IT trend. He said, "The growing complexity seemed to be spiraling out of control. Applications that used to run in a single silo or data center were distributed all over the globe. Third-party services and APIs replaced monolithic architectures, and VMs (virtual machines) could be spun up or down. All of this was happening with the expectation that IT services would become faster and more reliable."

Rothstein felt the biggest problem faced by network architects and IT operations teams was not knowing what was going on inside their IT infrastructure - until it broke. "IT service delivery teams seemed to be flying blind," he said. "But there were these packets of information – packet controllers – that were not being utilized. These packet controllers flew across the network, could make intelligent decisions, and then be discarded a split second later. Could we harness that power to increase uptime and performance? Contained within all of those packets is incredibly powerful information about infrastructure health and performance, but there was nothing that could extract insight from it anywhere close to real time."

It was Rothstein's favorite type of system problem – networking scalability with real time constraints. So the partners started off in a loft in Seattle and hired early engineers. After two years of research and development, they felt ready to go to market. "Now our customers are well-known enterprises across the world," he said. "I'm extremely proud of our customer list, but we are also recognized as the leading next-generation solution for IT analytics."

He said that the ability to extract value from massive quantities of wire data makes ExtraHop part of a larger trend in the industry, moving from infrastructure-focused to data-driven IT operations. "Rather than storage and pipes, companies are looking at their data," said Rothstein. "I strongly believe that those companies who can extract the most value from their data – and they are using our platform to do that – are able to make the best decisions, and those will be the ones who win."

Rothstein helped steer ExtraHop to success by double-hatting as both CEO and CTO. "But my CTO hat was only part-time," he said. "We were a small company and I needed to run the business, think about sales execution and the go-to-market process and that detracted from my ability to focus on the product."

When a new CEO was identified, Rothstein was thrilled to return his full attention to the technology. "As CTO, I can indulge my passion for the product. That is what I love doing."

He also loves to recruit new talent from his alma mater. "We absolutely do college recruiting at Rice," he said. "At the career fair every year, we hire one or more Rice students to come work here in Seattle at ExtraHop."

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