Published September 15, 2009
Volume 17, Number 9

Bivio Networks CEO Elan Amir Plays to His, and Company’s, Strengths

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

Five years into his tenure as President and CEO of Hacienda’s Bivio Networks, Elan Amir finds the work more absorbing than ever. Bivio’s business focus is, broadly, network infrastructure, a highly complex technical discipline that often passes unnoticed in the consumer marketplace. However, the latest applications for the company’s technology have a much higher profile: the growing field of information assurance.

“Our technology is not consumer facing, but like many technologies it is probably used by almost everyone,” Amir explains. “We build communication equipment that is used for tasks such as security, surveillance, monitoring, data leakage prevention, and parental control filters, and our products are sold to large enterprise organizations, service providers, and government agencies.”

As reliance on digital communication has increased over the years, so too have the requirements to protect “digital assets,” data in electronic form. “The Obama Administration is very active in the area of cyber security, and we are involved in a lot of those programs,” Amir continues. “With our well-regarded products, it’s a very interesting space to be in. The wider economic environment may not be so favorable for other industries, but we have not slowed down.” 

Amir is well prepared for his position at the head of a company with cutting-edge technology. Studying at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1990s, he earned a BS in electrical engineering and computer science and an MS and PhD in computer science.

“The world changed here in the early 1990s,” he says, referring to the emergence of the Internet. After graduate school he did “what a lot of others did”—jumping on the start-up bandwagon to become an entrepreneur. 

He co-founded FastForward Networks, a developer of broadcast media distribution software that was ultimately acquired by Inktomi. He next moved to the post of CTO and vice president of engineering at ProxiNet, one of the first developers of web browsing solutions for mobile devices. He then joined OmniSky Corp., a pioneer in the wireless data application, software, and services sectors, as CTO.

In November 2003 Amir took his technology expertise and leadership skills to Bivio, which was then just three years old. He was in the CTO position for less than a year when the CEO spot opened up, creating an opportunity he was eager to embrace. Making the transition to “the business side of the house” has been a learning experience.

“When you move from technology to business leadership, it definitely involves several changes,” he reflects. “Probably the broadest one is that in the technical role, almost by definition, you are responsible for all the details. You have to have a thorough understanding of the technology in order to make the right technical decisions.” The CEO, in contrast, manages across all disciplines—not just technology, but other aspects like sales, marketing, business development, and fundraising in the venture environment.

While it took some time getting used to delegating responsibilities to others—“change doesn’t come naturally, especially when you’ve been in technology for a long time,” Amir observes—as CEO he branched out deliberately to involve himself in all the other facets of the business.

“It is pretty unusual for a technology leader to end up in the general management position. Being able to understand the market through a technical lens at such a deep level builds credibility and relationships. It’s a big advantage for me,” he comments.

One of the lessons he has learned is a riff on Harry Truman’s famous remark, “The buck stops here.” “A leader sets tone for everything that goes on in a company,” Amir notes. “That means you have to give people motivation—they have to have something to look forward to. Employees also need to understand the big picture. A leader will keep employees focused beyond the daily ups and downs. Reminding them of what we do and why it is important goes a long way in keeping them productive and satisfied.”

Amir says he has not encountered too many business surprises in his career, but he is a staunch believer that one can only prepare for, not predict, the future. “In retrospect, it may look as if things were preordained, but life is very random and things could have turned out very differently at several points,” he muses. His approach is a blend of determination and flexibility. “You need a steady hand on the wheel to get where you want to go, but you also want to pay attention so when opportunity comes knocking, you can take advantage of it.”

Bivio’s current market focus is a good example of this posture, buttressed by another of Amir’s life lessons: play to your strengths. “We recognized that cyber security was about to become more important, and the need for our expertise was very real.” The result was a shift in corporate strategy to satisfy the new demand, primarily by supplying the federal government. “It has been an unmitigated success for us.” 

The importance of being open to new opportunity has also been evident in Amir’s personal life. His father, an Israeli, was a student at Cal when he met his wife, who was from the Bay Area. The family moved back to Israel when Amir was just three years old. He lived there until completing his military service, returning to the U.S. in 1989 to attend Berkeley himself.

At that point he was undecided about where he would launch his career. “I knew I could stay in the U.S. if I wanted, but at age 22 I didn’t think anything was too certain. I didn’t know that I would wind up in graduate school, but I tried it and liked it, so I stayed to get my doctorate.” As he was finishing up, the budding Internet opened up a new universe of opportunities. “If circumstances had been different, I might have gone back to Israel, but the environment was so exciting and inviting it was an obvious choice to stay here.”

His younger siblings followed his example, attending college in the States, settling here, and becoming high-achievers in their own right. Amir’s younger brother is a financial analyst, living in Marin, while his sister is a well-regarded art curator in Manhattan. Their parents remain in Israel.

Amir is now married and lives in San Francisco with his wife, 18-month old daughter, and a newborn son. They enjoy city life, although Amir confesses to spending more time than he would like in his car or on a plane for business. His travel schedule has intensified since he became CEO. “There’s a limit to how close you can connect to customers over the phone,” he notes. “It is always satisfying to get out and see how people are using our technology.”   Still, he is careful to reserve half his time to be on site in Pleasanton.

In his downtime he recharges with an infusion of fresh air, mountain biking or kite-boarding on the bay. It’s always a toss-up whether to go to Crissy Field, where the water is clean but cold, or to San Mateo, where the water is warmer “but you don’t want to fall in.” Either way, he is well prepared to take advantage of the opportunity, just as he is in business.


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