Matthew Gast is an authority on Wi-Fi, with a love of flying
Matthew Gast is director of advanced technology at Aerohive Networks. He has been a long-term contributor to the IEEE’s Wi-Fi standards work, has chaired committees there and at the Wi-Fi Alliance, and written shelves of books about wireless networking.
How long have you been at your current employer?
May 1 was day number 1499 for me at Aerohive, which is four years, one month, and one week. But who’s counting?
Silicon Valley boy
Tell us something about your IT career
I was in college when Netscape went public, and I remember seeing Marc Andreessen on the cover of Time, and hoping that I could get out to Silicon Valley before it was too late. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t too late — and boy have I learned some interesting lessons living through the Valley continually reinventing itself. Along the way, I’ve held roles in support, sales, marketing, and product, plus I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to a number of industry standards groups. I’ve also been lucky to have a long collaboration with O’Reilly, which keeps me young-ish at heart technically. I meet all kinds of interesting people through my work with them.
What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
In 2004, I had already started working with Wi-Fi. Of course, at that point, we were trying to help Wi-Fi users replace desktops with laptops, and most people didn’t realise there were two frequency bands that Wi-Fi can use. I was even using a Compaq iPAQ handheld, which I used much like I use a smartphone now.
What tech do you expect to be involved with in ten years’ time?
Wi-Fi, of course, but Wi-Fi is already dissolving into devices such that it’s not special any more. One of the big lessons I learned is that as Yogi Berra said, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. I would not have predicted Wi-Fi would take over the world, or that the Internet would become as much of a social platform as it has. The best way for you to answer the question is that I expect to be involved with something interesting that hasn’t been invented yet, though it will probably be based on data and APIs. Naturally, I hope to be working with a load of people smarter than I am.
Linux and IP change everything
Who is your tech hero (and why)?
It’s hard to say that I have one hero in the tech world. Linus Torvalds popularised a whole new way of developing software. The first time I read about Linux, I was in high school and saw a mention of it in a trade magazine. My thought was something along the lines of “That’s crazy. Who would ever use software like that?” Three years later, I was installing Linux, and nearly twenty years later, I can’t imagine running a network without Linux servers and Linux-based network devices.
Mark Shuttleworth has done incredible work making Linux-based systems easy to use with the Ubuntu project. Without Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, the Internet wouldn’t exist, the industry would be a lot smaller, and probably nobody would be interested in my answer to your question!
Who is your tech villain (and why)?
My parents told me that if I couldn’t say anything nice, not to say anything at all. I hope they see this interview and realise that I took that lesson to heart.
What’s your favourite technology ever made? And which do you use most?
The Internet Protocol. I could name many other things, but they’d be pretty useless without that basic connectivity. It must be at least 20 years since I have had a day in which I did not touch an IP network in some fashion.
Apart from your own, which company do you admire most, and why?
I hate to sound like a cliché by naming Apple here, but I will. What I most admire about them is that they’ve shown us a world in which technology is well-designed and easy to use — a lesson that everybody is struggling to apply, even in enterprise networking. Building a company around a core design strength is the next big trend, which you’ve also seen in companies like Nest and Jawbone.
What is the greatest challenge for an IT company or department today?
Miniaturisation means that small devices are useful, whether it’s a smartphone, a smartwatch, or some other wearable technology. Users expect to be able to get the information they want when they want it, and on the device they want. IT departments can either help users achieve that goal, or get run over by users using these tools anyway.
Cloud outsources your problems
To Cloud or not to Cloud?
To. First off, there are very few organisations that can run a data centre better than Amazon, Google, or Microsoft, so it pays to let them do it for you. When you first write an application, it is hard to know how it will evolve, and what the right mix between compute, storage, and connectivity will be, and of course, it might shift over time.
In some ways, it’s like cooking. One of the reasons I love visiting the UK is that I adore Indian food, but I can’t really get it right myself because of the subtleties in getting the spice mixtures right. Fortunately, I can outsource the problem to somebody who is way better at it than I am.
Secondly, building services in the cloud lets them be accessible. We’ve moved into a world in which the core application functions need to be accessible to users because users are going to customize the base functionality that is provided. APIs are a huge part of that, and they’re much easier to use in a cloud environment.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
An astronaut, and my enthusiasm for going into space was unaffected by the Challenger disaster. Fortunately for me, even though I’m probably too old to be an astronaut, it looks like there will be commercial space travel in my lifetime. In the meantime,
I spend much of my free time in the aviation community learning to fly. Even though I am a pilot, I phrase it as “learning to fly” because you can never stop learning. I’ve had a blast learning to fly the Schweizer SGS-1-26 glider, which was reportedly one of Neil Armstrong’s favorites. My current personal ambition is to become a flight instructor.
Aviation is a lot like IT in that recurring training is important to keep your skills up, and I’m certainly lucky that the trend to make information available on mobile devices like tablets is second-nature for me given what I do professionally.