What Is NEC Doing in Silicon Valley? Part 1

This is my first time to interview a representative of a Japanese company in Silicon Valley. I was an employee of one of the US subsidiaries of NEC about 20 years ago for several years. Like any other large corporation in the world, NEC has many divisions working on many different areas of C&C (computer and communications).

I was lucky enough to have a chance to chat with Dr. Atsuhi Iwata, Director Optical IP Development Division of NEC Corporation of America. His areas of expertise include image/video recognition, and networking, including SDN/NFV, analytics, IoT, and the Industry Internet of things (IIoT). Incidentally, NEC belongs to the Industrial Internet Consortium.

Dr. Atsushi Iwata

Iwata’s work history

The image/video recognition area was what he researched at his university. It is interesting that this background helps him in conducting deep learning as part of analytics applied to data collected during networking monitoring.

When he joined NEC, he was deployed to the Central Research Laboratories and was tasked with networking research because he desired to work on the networking area, with the Internet getting a lot of attention then. As part of this task, he visited Stanford University around 2007 to explore new networking topics and to work with researchers there, including Professor Nick McKeown.

Incidentally, that was when Martin Casado was conducting research on Openflow under McKeown. He later was awarded a PhD from Stanford and cofounded Nicira with McKeown and Scott Shenker in 2007. I looked into Openflow and Nicira when I did some research work last year and found Casado’s story fascinating. It is very interesting to find out that Iwata and his people have been in close contact with those movers and shakers since then.

Iwata has been a researcher for most of his career at NEC, with a few years at a business unit to create business with the new networking technology based on the work with Stanford University. Since last September, he was assigned to head the US networking team in Santa Clara conducting business development as well as technical work.

Research environment differences between US and Japan

Iwata has had a unique experience in both university and corporate research environments in both the US and Japan. He likes to be in Silicon Valley, as he feels closer to many people with technical expertise in many areas. I can understand this. He can have informal conversations and exchange ideas with startups, which are abundant in many technical areas, such as IoT and networking.

The open and collaborative Silicon Valley culture is unique. People here with many different kinds of talents (including management, business, sales, marketing, technologies, legal, and financial) are willing to collaborate to create new business. In any society, networking and developing a web of business and personal contacts are a must for successful professional lives. Compared to that, in Japan professionals tend to belong to distinct organizations and companies, and people there are reluctant to share information and expertise because that may be deemed as revealing company secrets.

In Japan, to date, many technology initiatives have been proposed and carried out in a top-down manner. Most of those initiatives are led by governmental entities like the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) (telecom-related ones) and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) (computer-related ones). The companies are (sort of) forced to collaborate to produce a result to be shared with everyone.

Iwata said that even technical discussions in the US consortia include some flavors of business in the US. This is a good contrast to discussions in Japan in a similar setting.

NEC considered a viable player in Silicon Valley

Even with cursory research, NEC is deemed a viable player in the area of SDN. How did they do it? Because there are so many smart people with business minds in the Valley, it is not easy for non-US companies to get recognition. Without that status, those smart people do not want to bother to talk to you. Initially, NEC was considered one of many companies.

What NEC did was to assign a few engineers of their own to Stanford’s research labs and work with local researchers for Stanford’s internal projects. Along with this, the research results were put into NEC’s new products at a quick pace. With all of these conscious efforts, they gained the confidence of the Stanford’s research team, although it took some time.

Continued to Part 2

Zen Kishimoto

About Zen Kishimoto

Seasoned research and technology executive with various functional expertise, including roles in analyst, writer, CTO, VP Engineering, general management, sales, and marketing in diverse high-tech and cleantech industry segments, including software, mobile embedded systems, Web technologies, and networking. Current focus and expertise are in the area of the IT application to energy, such as smart grid, green IT, building/data center energy efficiency, and cloud computing.

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