By Peter High, published on Forbes
As a gifted athlete who was also six feet and five inches tall, all Fortinet founder and CEO Ken Xie wanted to do was to become a professional volleyball player in his native China when he grew up. His parents who were academics at Tsinghua University had other plans for him: to get a PhD at Stanford University and then to return to China to become an academic like them. Xie’s life was transformed at Stanford, as he met fellow students who aspired to start businesses. He notes that the entrepreneurial culture was not something he had ever experienced growing up in China.
He started a company while he was a student to help small companies get online and do so securely. That company would become SIS. He founded a second company, NetScreen, which he would eventually sell to Juniper for $4 billion.
As Xie defines it, these two companies represented the first generation of network security. In 2000, he founded Fortinet to offer the next generation security platform. As the company has grown, it has evolved along with the threat landscape. Fortinet now boasts revenue in excess of $1 billion. In this interview, Xie describes his entrepreneurial path, the culture of innovation that he has fostered at Fortinet, the advantages of having started businesses with his brother Michael Xie, and a variety of other topics.
Peter High: Please describe Fortinet’s business.
Ken Xie: Fortinet was founded in 2000 with the goal of making an impactful change in the network security space. Fortinet is our third company in the same space. Our previous two companies, NetScreen and SIS, dealt with the first generation of network security. However, starting in 2000, this was no longer good enough. It is like air travel, where with the first generation, all you needed was a ticket to get on the airplane, but today, they x-ray your luggage. It is the same thing with the second generation of network security, we need to look inside the connection because most malware comes from permitted connections, whether it comes from the user, the partner, the customer, or from inside. That is how Fortinet started. Seventeen years later, we are nearly 5,000 people strong with over $1 billion in revenue, and growing quickly.
High: You work in a field where you must think proactively, but also where an element of reactiveness is necessary because you need to adapt as the threat landscape evolves. How do you and the company remain current?