Cloudflare TV

Legends of Tech

Presented by Chris Georgellis, James Ball
Originally aired on 

A weekly podcast where Chris Georgellis, on the Customer Development Team, interviews people across the tech industry. From veterans, to hall of famers, day to day tech industry people as well up and comers. Get to know them as individuals, find out what drives them, how they got into tech, and what they see now.


Transcript (Beta)

Hello friends. Welcome to Cloudflare TV for our segment Legends of Tech. And today we have a super legend himself, a man who's a keen runner.

He leads a team of champions here at Cloudflare.

He's worked with some interesting companies like the World Health Organization, the United Nations and a few other tech companies.

Please welcome James Ball.

Thank you, Chris. Really, really exciting to be here. Good morning, James.

How are you, mate? How's things? Yeah, good. Really good. A little bit early in Singapore.

It's still dark outside, not used to being up this early normally.

We appreciate you joining early in the morning. So thanks for your time today.

It's an honor and privilege to have you on the segment. A true legend of Cloudflare and, you know, getting to know you over the last six months.

I've learned a lot about you, but I'm keen to learn a lot more about you today.

So, mate, you know, upon discussion, you know, I guess I'm always interested in to understand how did you get into computing and how did your love affair for technology start?

Yeah, that's a great question.

I have a very non-traditional route into computing. It probably started off traditional when I was a kid, but pretty non-traditional.

So I think my love affair of computing and technology probably comes from my grandfather on my mother's side.

So my grandpa was an engineer, a civil engineer, but before that he was ground crew in World War II for Lancaster bombers.

So he joined the RAF came down from Scotland, moved to England, lived in England all of his life, never returned to Scotland, but never lost this incredibly thick Scottish accent, which was amazing.

And after leaving the RAF, just after the war, he went on to be a civil engineer and he was involved in building some of the really big significant bridges around the UK.

So I think that's where my love of technology comes from him.

And, you know, I grew up in the UK in the 70s and the 80s. And I don't know if it was the same in Australia, but back then if you bought any electrical device, you got the cable and it didn't have a plug on it.

I don't know if it was the same in Australia or not.

So you had to wire on the plug and be in the 70s and 80s, you know, when you need a plug wiring on a new electrical device, you get your four -year-old and then, you know, at Christmas, I'd get my sack from Santa and Santa would never wire the plug for me either.

So I'd get the sack, there'd be an electrical toy in there.

Obviously, there'd be a plug sat in there. And then the first thing I'd have to do is wire it up myself.

So I didn't have to wake my parents up who were probably had a late night the night before and didn't want to get up at 4am.

So I think that's where it came from.

And then I've been a gamer most of my life. I think like a lot of people in tech, unfortunately, I don't get much time now.

And then it would have been probably about 1982, my one Christmas, I got an Intellivision video game.

So there was a console called the Intellivision. It was by Mattel.

It was the competitor to Atari. My whole life, I have a history of my parents always bought me the competitor to.

I never got the leading product. Always the second best one, one that normally went bankrupt.

And well, all of my friends had the leading product.

So I got a Mattel Intellivision console. And that's really why I started to get into gaming.

And then a couple of years later, they bought me a computer for Christmas, which was a Sinclair Spectrum.

I wanted a Commodore 64.

I was going to say, that's another competitor to the Commodore 64. Yeah, if anybody remembers the Spectrum, amazing machine, but graphics weren't particularly great and the sound wasn't great, whereas a Commodore 64 had amazing graphics and sound.

And I guess this was my real foray into computing. So I used to get the magazines, and the magazines used to come with code, right?

Usually basic. And you type in the programs, and then you could play a game.

And I remember just sitting, having a computer set up on my bedroom floor and sitting typing in this code, which would take hours and hours and hours.

And there was typically mistakes in it.

So a lot of time, it just didn't work anyway. And then I didn't realize that you could save it.

So I remember playing this Donkey Kong game from a magazine. And every time I wanted to play it, I'd sit there for an hour or so, typing in all the code.

And I didn't realize that you could actually save it onto tape. I worked that out later on.

So yeah, that was my foray into computing. And it really just grew from there.

No, that's fantastic. So tell me a little bit about the fact that you had to do plugs as a four-year-old.

Did anyone show you how to do it firstly, or did you just figure it out on your own?

Yeah. Weirdly, it wasn't my parents who showed me.

It was a neighbor. So a couple of doors down, we had a neighbor, and he was a boat builder, a guy called Jim Heason, and really good family friend.

He had a boxer dog, and I used to go and walk the dog with him.

And we'd just pop around.

We lived in this really small street of nine houses at a time, alongside a river in a place called Newark in the UK.

And there was a real, real community spirit, and everybody in the night, because it was just nine houses in a row on a street, and everybody knew each other really, really well.

So I remember, I've got a memory of getting...

I knew how to do the wires when it was red, blue, yellow, and green, so the earth neutral, and no brown in the UK, earth neutral light.

But then I remember getting a cable for something one day, and it was just two black wires, so I went around to his house.

Jim, this is two black wires. How do I wire this up?

He says, oh, it doesn't matter. Just one goes to live, and one goes to neutral.

There's no earth. It just doesn't matter which way around you wire it.

So I suspect it was him who showed me how to do it the first time. That's pretty cool.

Pretty cool. So having a keen eye on computing as a kid, you played gaming, and you did a bit of programming.

What made you want to actually work in IT? How did you come to that realisation, and how did you get into it?

Yeah, I think it was always there.

So I think, at the back of my mind, I always wanted to go off and have a career in computers.

And really, the programming thing never stopped through, and really into my late teens, and yeah, maybe even into my little 20s.

Although I'm absolutely not a programmer now, and I ended up going in a totally different direction in the end.

So I mean, I remember probably being around 14, 15 years old, and my dad bringing home an old word processor, green screen word processor that they weren't using in the office anymore.

And he brought that home, and I realised you could write code on that as well.

So I was writing games on that, and even did a conversion of a game that I'd really enjoyed a few years before.

But well, I'll make a version for this word processor, which no one will ever need or require.

But it was a fun thing to do, tinkering. So I think I always wanted to work in IT, but I didn't enjoy high school at all.

And I, you know, for me, there was never, I never felt like there was, university was an option.

So I think it was, you know, I went to a high school in very, very rural England, sort of north of Birmingham, south of Manchester.

And our family had moved from a different part of the country to there, and I never ever felt like I fit in that well.

By the time I reached high school, I was into heavy metal music, and all the other kids at school are into Naina Cherry.

And, you know, Paula Abdul and stuff like that.

I'm into heavy metal. I was trying to grow my hair long, but my mum wouldn't let me grow it really long.

I ended up with this like, little mullet thing.

And I was playing guitar at the time, and I was playing in bands. I just didn't enjoy high school.

So I didn't try hard. I didn't do great in my GCSEs, with GCSEs, which is the secondary qualification in the UK at 16 years old.

But I did go on to, went on to college, but I didn't really try hard in college as well.

So, you know, I never felt like university was an option. And where I grew up, there was definitely a feeling of only the smartest kids went to university, not that I wasn't smart, but, and the kids who worked really, really hard.

And everybody went to do very academic subjects, like math or physics, you know, not like today, when you've got these amazing vocational qualifications.

I also feel that then that, I mean, I did IT at school, but I think what they were teaching in schools in the UK in brand computing was very out of touch with what was actually happening, happening in industry.

So I went on to work for my dad's family business. So my dad had a security company where they did a cash collection from banks and security guarding.

Funnily enough, you've got a security company in Australia called Armourguard.

Yes. And my dad, my dad's business partner was a person who started Armourguard in the UK in the 60s.

And then they set up Australia and then he sold it to an Australian company, but that brand name still exists.

So that was the family business.

And, you know, my sister worked there and I went to work there after school.

But even then, there was always a computer in the office. There was no, there wasn't networked computers, there was one computer.

So whenever there was any downtime, I'd always be on that computer tinkering with stuff and automating repetitive tasks.

So one of the things we had to do was, you know, when you collected all the, all the, the, the, imagine that there's a chain of stores, like retail stores, and the van drives around and collects all of the cash in the area for those retail stores.

You bring it back to a central location, you have to count it all and then bulk it all up before you send it to the bank.

So you don't obviously send lots of little packets of money, but banks just want to receive a full bag of dollar notes or $10 notes and stuff.

So we did that. But as part of that, you have to do, fill out a docket that said, you know, it was, you know, $10 note, $10, $20 notes and the coins.

And that was all handwritten. And I just realized, you know, just using a computer and a printer, we could just print all this off and just do it really, really quickly.

So we did that. Yeah, so always a computer in all of my roles.

And I was always finding excuses to use it and tinker with it.

And yeah, just, just finding out ways to make things easier to do and better for the other stuff.

Cool. So that, so, so was that, would you say, was that your first IT job?

No, I wouldn't call that my first IT job. That came later on.

So I ended, I ended up leaving the family business for anybody who's ever worked in a family business.

Wow. Yeah. If you want to love your family, you never work for them.

Yeah. I mean, and you know, in my particular, my dad, my dad was the MD, right.

And if I'd made the slightest small mistake, I mean, he didn't even, thank God he didn't even work in the same office as me, but he used to visit.

I was in a different city to him.

But, you know, you made the slightest mistake, you get a dressing down, but nobody else would have got for making that mistake.

Yeah. Usually, and it's the eighties, right?

So usually in the middle of the office with 200 people watching.

There's probably a whack in between them as well. But then when I got home, I remember this one specifically, he destroyed me.

And I was hours later, I'm really upset.

And I drive home and I can see this as pure as day to day.

I drive home, I park my car and he's in the garden, water in the garden with the hose pipe.

And he's, you know, he's just dressed me down a few hours before he's like, Oh, hi, James, you have a good day.

And I thought, you know, I didn't have a good day.

But he had this, you know, he has this amazing way of just disconnecting his work and his personal life, which I don't think I have.

But so it was very, very hard to work for family business.

So I moved on. I actually moved into sales, which I was really good at.

But being early, early 20s, at this point, probably 1920 at this point, just moved out of home, got my own first place.

I wasn't too good at getting up in the morning and making it into into the job.

So that's the only job I've ever been fired from.

Fun fact, they're a current Cloudflare customer.

So I lost that job. So then I had to, I signed up with one of these temping agencies and actually did started doing some really, really interesting work through them.

So one was working for an engineering company, an engineering company in the UK, and what they wanted was just somebody to do some basic admin stuff, but then some of the engineers would get me to make small changes to CAD drawings.

So this company made big industrial boilers. So, you know, there was sat in front of a computer with AutoCAD.

And, and I just have to make some really, really simple changes, probably just a text or something on these engineering blueprints in AutoCAD.

So again, that was another example of what I was on the computer.

And then I went to work for a really big pottery manufacturer in the UK.

So I grew up in an area called the potteries where all of the pottery factories used to be.

And I ended up working down there, finance department, I think, finance and payroll department.

And then again, it was Lotus one, two, three, lots of spreadsheet work.

And I'd never used one, two, three before, but then I pretty much worked out how to use it, I could use it better than anybody else in the office.

So I was a go to person for writing spreadsheets and stuff. And then in 96, me and my girlfriend at the time decided to move to London.

And again, I signed up for another temping agency in London, double my salary, what was on before in a different city.

And that was just a role as a filing clerk in a law firm.

Literally, you know, imagine back then, this would have been 96. Law firms weren't particularly automated at all.

There was computers and computer networks, actually mainframe based stuff.

But the lawyers would fill out a timesheet which would be used to bill the client, you know, spend so many hours on the phone, did this research, I need to handwrite these.

I'd date input them into the mainframe and then go and store them in filing cabinets.

And I expressed an interest of, I think the company, everybody knew I was keen on computers.

It was a small company, 180 people.

And I decided to start, go to university. So I went to the University of London and I did an information systems and management degree part time, which was really, really tough.

So imagine doing that 40 hour week and then having nine hours of lectures per week.

And that, you know, you're doing basically a full degree course in four years.

So, but I started that and then the law firm offered me, they were moving away from the mainframe, they were putting in Windows NT.

And they offered me a chance to go and transfer to the IT department. Just out of the blue, the newest interest, they said, you know, you seem really keen, you're really good at doing this job.

How about you go and work in the IT department?

So I did that as like the junior guy in the department. And then with, I was about 97 and within a year I was a help desk team leader.

So that was my first IT job.

That's fantastic. So you were team lead for the help desk. Then how did you become a pre-sales SE?

So team lead for the help desk was a bit of a disaster because I was about 24, 25 years old.

And I'd suddenly been made, I had zero management experience.

And suddenly I was managing people at 45 years old. So I wasn't very particularly well accepted.

I think by some people I was. And so, you know, I stayed there up until 2000.

I am the only, I'm probably the only person around that time who didn't get paid for Y2K because I changed jobs a week before Y2K.

That's one of my regrets. I wrote down here when I made some notes is don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

I definitely should have stayed on for a few more weeks.

So I did all of the preparation work, all of the firmware upgrades and operating system.

So then I left and started a new job. And that was to go into pre-sales.

And that was actually the company who was supplying the networks for the law firm, all of the networking kit.

So I always got on with them really well.

And they a few times approached me and said, oh, we'd really love you to come and work for us.

So that was my first foray into pre-sales, which didn't actually turn out to be initially quite true.

So it's come and work for us. And I agreed to work for them.

And then all of a sudden I'm the onsite engineer to support a Cisco network in one of the banks in London.

So not actually doing pre -sales at all.

They actually needed somebody to be as part of a contract they'd signed with one of the banks, they had to supply an onsite person.

And that was actually as working as part of the market data team.

So I'm not even supporting the network that they shipped in because I ended up supporting market data.

So it was a good experience supporting Bloomberg data and Reuters data on the trading floors and the fund managers.

So I did that for six months, but then they did move me back into the office and into a pre-sales role.

Well, actually I found a friend of mine who wanted to work in IT and got him the job to replace me so I could go and do pre -sales.

That's great. I want to get back on your team lead role because you see a lot of people, they start off in a career, then they get propelled into a management role when typically it's a younger person managing older people, more experienced people.

How did you deal with that scenario and that situation and what did you learn from it?

I didn't deal with it well.

Yeah, definitely looking back, definitely didn't deal with it well. And it wasn't that I wasn't supported by the company because the point of my career that I decided to leave, they just signed me up for all of these management training courses.

You know, I mean, earlier on in that role, they'd invested really heavily. I was on the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer path.

I'd done a bunch of those exams and pass them.

But then they signed me up for some management training, but I was already thinking of leaving.

So I actually told them, you know, I've decided to move on.

I've been looking for another job. And funnily enough, I just remembered one of the other places I interviewed at that time was Enron and I was really gutted I didn't get that job, but that was probably a good thing, right?

So I didn't handle it well.

And I was still young. I was something like 24 at this point.

So, you know, late nights, gaming, socializing with friends. So I probably wasn't in the best position to do it.

And rightly so, I probably didn't get the respect of some of the people who were reporting to me.

So, you know, I didn't, I wouldn't say I handled it well at all, but I was too young looking back.

Yeah, fair enough.

No, I mean, it's always good to learn from that. And, you know, I guess there's a lot of, I've seen a lot of individuals that go into those roles, probably a lot younger than what they are.

They get thrusted into it, and then they have a really bad experience and never get back into it.

So, you know, it's always good to learn from what you've gone through.

I think it was almost 20 years before I got back into it as well.

The scars were deep for a long time. Fair enough.

The one thing that's fascinating for me, and, you know, we're seeing that they're playing a critical part to what's happening in the world, was the, you know, the World Health Organization.

I see, you know, you spent quite some time there, and I'm always fascinated, you know, they're on the front line helping, you know, countries and, I guess, us getting through these pandemics.

And I'd love to understand, you know, what role did you play then?

I guess, what did you see during your stint at the World Health Organization?

Yeah. So, firstly, got to say that I was there in various roles for nine years.

Very, very, very special, special place to work.

And, you know, the work that they do, and the UN does in general, is absolutely amazing.

And I think as outsiders, we don't really see that.

You know, it's very different when you work inside the organizations. And, you know, when you're working in, you know, countries in Africa, and these people have got nothing.

And, you know, the UN gets a lot of criticism for waste. And maybe some of that is warranted.

I think some of it's unfair, maybe some is warranted.

But you also realize that there wasn't a UN system. You know, these people haven't got a lot now, but even a lot less, you know, techie, you look at the work that, you know, World WHO is doing, and UNICEF, and the UNDP, the United Nations Development Project, amazing.

So how I got into that is so that my first pre-sales role is kind of got a close link to the work we do at Cloudflare as well.

So, you know, one thing we do, we were doing some really, it was a small network systems integrator, we were doing some really cutting-edge stuff.

So obviously, there was the traditional business, which the law firm used, which was just Ethernet switching, and what we were doing in the banking industry.

But the founders of that company recognized early on that there was going to be a need for supplying really cutting-edge products, primarily to the boom to Internet startups.

So we were actually building private CDNs.

So Layer 4 switches from a company called Arrowpoint Communications, which was like 120% company, Cisco paid $5.1 billion for it.

And then like two weeks later, there was a competitor called Altion, that's still a brand name, which is used by Radware, I think, and Altion, Nortel, yeah, Nortel paid $7.1 billion for Altion, just like this incredible money.

And then we were using those, what we called Cisco Content Services switches, and then reverse proxy caches from a company called Cashflow, which is later was renamed to Blueco, just to, because, you know, servers were pretty low power, and you could start to make intelligent decisions on content at Layer 4, and use that to route to through cash boxes or servers and to low-balance traffic.

So we were doing that, and I got really into that business.

And then the other, and also we're doing WAN optimization.

And at WHO, they contacted us because they were looking for ways to improve data transfer across their wide area network.

So I actually went over to Geneva in Switzerland in 2001, yeah, 2001, 2001, maybe 2002, to run a proof of concept on WAN optimization.

And, you know, they literally said to me in Geneva, we'd really like somebody like you to come and work for us.

And I wasn't interested. I got put off by the brown walls, really weirdly.

So all of the offices were very old-fashioned, and they had like a brown carpet on the wall of them, not my surroundings too much.

I don't know, I don't know why. But then a year later, I was actually in Switzerland for holiday, and I'd always kept in touch with some of the people I'd worked with, and I popped my head, I just went to meet them for lunch, and a guy who, a guy I got to thank to bring me into the organization, a guy called Alan Stewart, a Canadian chap, said to me, he says, look, we haven't been able to fill this vacancy.

We'd really like somebody like you. Would you be interested?

I said, yeah, yeah, I think I would be interested. He said, can we interview you now?

So literally, just met this guy for lunch, and an hour after lunch, I'm on an interview panel.

An interview panel, and then I got the job, and then typical UN bureaucracy is the paperwork took a very long time to complete.

But finally, I made it over to Switzerland.

I think it was April 28, 2003. I'd had the interview in January, I think, to join WHO, and it was really, really, really interesting career.

So what you've got to understand is, so this was 2003, they had 165-ish offices around the world, but they only had eight with any connectivity.

So the main regional hubs like Manila, Cairo, Delhi, what they call the regional offices were the only ones which are connected to each other, and then one or two of the smaller country offices.

So the project was to get everything connected, and the big, big drive was voice over IP, because in a lot of developing countries, telephone circuits just don't work.

So one of the local staff in one of the offices explained to me that this is incredible, that if he wanted to communicate with HQ at all, the telephone just didn't work in the daytime, and it very rarely worked for voice.

So what they would do is write out what they wanted to say on a piece of paper, they'd go back to the office 10pm, 11pm at night, and then fax it.

Wow. And it would take nine to 10 attempts for the fax to actually get through and be complete, and that's how they were trying to communicate.

And then it was a very similar time to now, the situation we're facing.

COVID was when I joined in 2003, it was just shortly after SARS.

So there was lots of funding in the UN system, particularly WHO.

Actually, WHO were facing the same issues then that they were now.

I've been recently, I don't know if you read, but WHO has been under these huge cyber attacks of people trying to break in and collect information.

Well, in 2002, 2003, it was literally journalists walking into the front door in the office in Geneva, and rifling through filing cabinets, trying to find data for news stories on SARS.

And a lot of the UN offices, and this is also great about it, didn't have any security, you could just walk into them and walk out of them.

And that's when WHO put security in just after SARS.

So there was a lot of funding to improve the network, and that was the project that I worked on.

Great. So once you got that job, what sort of projects did they get you to work on?

So the first project, I'm really, this is going to sound, this might sound bizarre to a few, but my first project was supposed to be Iraq.

I'm really, really sad to this day that I didn't get to go to Iraq.

So it was just after the liberation of Iraq, there was really, really good feelings that this amazing thing had happened.

People had been under oppression for a long time, and the country had been liberated.

And then my boss went over there, and he went around to see, there was basically five key cities that we needed to put satellite connectivity into.

So I'm not sure about today, but back then, most of the World Health Organization network, and in fact, all of the UN systems networks were all via satellite, which obviously has challenges, very, very high latency.

So we'd surveyed five offices in Iraq, and the idea was that I went into Iraq and supervised the installation of all of the satellite dishes.

I did all the configuration work on the firewall and the switches and the LAN.

And then somebody from our satellite services partner would install the dish and provide a connectivity.

But then literally, a few weeks before I was supposed to go in, there was the Canal Street Hotel bombing, which killed a lot of people, including WHO staff.

And they decided, the UN system decided to pull out all international staff from Iraq.

And all projects were run with contractors and local staff.

And to my knowledge, maybe it's changed now, it's been a long time, but for years and years and years, there was never an international UN staff member in the country.

So I didn't get to go to Iraq, but I supported all of those installations remotely.

The next big project that I was was supposed to work on was Nigeria.

So they were moving, the WHO office was still in Lagos, and the government moved everything to Abuja.

So we needed to move the WHO office because they typically need to be where the Ministry of Health offices are in our country.

Quite often, WHO offices is inside the Ministry of Health building.

And then I can't remember, that didn't fall through, that didn't go ahead for some reason, but then I did end up visiting Sudan.

So bearing in mind, I was 28 at this point.

I think the last time I'd been overseas, apart from living in Switzerland, was on my last family holiday with my parents.

And then I'm just flying, dropped into, flew me business class, which was very nice, but then flew into Sudan on my own.

And that was like a complete culture shock. I'd never seen anything like it.

So there'd been obviously a lot of problems in Sudan for many years.

So it was the first time I'd witnessed, you're driving from the airport and there's machine gun posts and checkpoints there.

And the project I was in Sudan was the same.

We were building a satellite dish on the roof of a building.

It was really, really interesting because the things that stand out were is that to get on the roof of a building in Sudan, you haven't got this, you know, you haven't got lift access, or you haven't got a nice stairway or a nice ladder.

What you had was this old rusty metal ladder, lent against the side of the building.

And it was tied to some rusty metal at the top of the roof with an old piece of garden hose pipe.

Oh, wow. I HNS, not a problem there. And I don't like heights.

So I remember my colleague from the Egypt office, he shot up this ladder, used to do it all the time.

I was just at the bottom of this ladder. I just didn't want to go up the first time.

And one of the locals showed me how to do it. And they're all laughing at me because I didn't want to go up.

Anyway, I did. I think on day two, I did make it up the ladder.

But we're working on a roof all day and temperatures were hit 48 degrees Celsius.

And the problem was, was coming down the ladder.

Because it's been baking in the sun all day. So literally, the metal was either you could fry an egg on it.

So what you have to do is like have long sleeves and roll the material up and kind of make some pads with your hands.

And then just balance on the ladder, walk down and then just push off with your hands if you if you lose your balance.

So that was that experience that ended up being a one week installation because there was the pedestal which the satellite that goes into was misshaped.

And we built the whole thing took three days and we have to take it all down again and rebuild it again.

It's a bit of a nightmare. But again, I mean, the how to get, you know, 3 .8 meter satellite dishes weigh a couple of tons.

To get that on the roof, it was it was the same way. So I've been told in Geneva is like, you know, one of the things you need to coordinate when you get there is a crane.

We need to get a crane to lift all of the equipment onto the roof.

And then so I get to Sudan, here's me asking for a crane, there's probably not a crane for miles.

And the guy from our chiropractor said, no, no, James, you don't need a crane.

And then the crane turned out to be a human crane. So just lean two big planks of wood up against the side of the building.

And I've got 20 guys on top of the building pulling it up with ropes, again, laughing at me because I've been asking for a crane.

But what's really amazing is that is how quickly your brain adjusts to these situations.

So this for me was complete, complete, complete culture shock. And then but within a few days, everything's just normal.

You know, it's normal that you drive past a checkpoint with machine gun emplacement.

I remember opening the back door in the Minister Health building to get to the roof access and there's a guy stood in front of me with an AK-47, not in real uniform, doesn't look much older than 16, 17.

And I didn't think anything of it. And that was just like after a couple of days.

It's just incredible how you adjust. Yeah, that makes you realize, I mean, you know, I guess it doesn't matter where you are in the world.

And, you know, technology always plays a part, doesn't matter where you are, doesn't matter what type of situation you're in.

I guess the thing that fascinates me the most, and I think it's something that maybe we take for granted, I mean, how important was technology for the World Health Organization during your stint there?

And what part did it play to help?

Oh, yeah, I mean, vital. You know, to support these medical programs, it was it was critical.

You know, back to the 160 offices and only eight and nine connected in 2003.

And then with nine years, it took us nine years to get all 165 connected.

And that was voice over IP, really critical. So I, it still makes me smile today when you see these voice over IP documents and Cisco saying, if you have higher than 250 milliseconds latency, it's just not going to work.

Well, if anybody knows anything about satellite communications, the minimum latency you get is about 540 milliseconds round trip time because geostationary satellites, if I remember right, you know, you know, we hear about the space shuttle and it goes one or two miles up to launch a satellite.

Geostationary satellites are actually 33,000 kilometers above the Earth.

So when the space shuttle drops them off, that's fine.

They then have to move them into position. So to stay geostationary, they have to be about 33 ,000 kilometers.

So if you do the math, the speed of light, that gives you a 500 and something, 500 and something milliseconds round trip time.

Many of you think about two offices connected by a satellite, want to make a voice call together.

Now you can do something on a satellite called cross trapping where you go, you know, the IP connection goes up and then inside the satellite there's effectively a switch.

It's not an IP switch, but it's a switch.

And then they connect it directly down. The problem is that it's so expensive.

It's limited resource on the spacecraft and it's hyper expensive.

So we were all doing double hot voice communications. So now you're up to 1100 millisecond round trip time, give or take with no other data on the circuit.


So, but it, the VoIP that way works. I mean, we had the two biggest, the African regional office was split between two countries, between Zimbabwe and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And, you know, they were talking to each other on the phone all day, all day long like that.

Again, it's, it's amazing how your brain adapts.

It's, it starts, it feels like a walkie talkie conversation, but you very quickly get used to it.

So, so voice over IP was a driver, then email, Internet access, Internet, Internet access in a lot of these countries, the local Internet is incredibly unreliable.

So yeah, I mean, absolutely critical that, you know, the doctors in the offices can't access medical data without connectivity, right.

You know, they're working on a pandemic, they need to be able to, you know, share what they're seeing within the country and also receive advice in the latest days.

So, so really, really, really critical.

You know, it's just something we take for granted.

Yeah, I was gonna, I was saying, I was listening to that now, we just take it for granted.

Now it's, you know, especially the general, you know, the generations coming through that didn't have to build these networks back in the, you know, back in our days, it's, you know, everything connected, everything's working.

But no one really understands how it all sort of hangs together in the background.

And I think, you know, having people like you explain how difficult it was back then.

And, you know, you're delivering critical infrastructure for critical services to deal with critical world problems at the time.

So I think, you know, it's just, I just find it fascinating how technology plays such a vital part to anything that we do in this day and age, whether it's just connecting to an application or delivering medical services for in, you know, in Sudan, for example, it's just, just amazing.

You know, during your stint there, was there any, you know, I guess, moments or highlights for you that stood out as, you know, things that you were proud of?

That's a great question. I think I'm super proud of the whole project in general, and all of my, all of my time working there.

I don't know whether there was one thing.

No, it was just everything they were doing was, was so rewarding.

You know, yeah, I don't think it'd be fair to say that Sabre was one thing.

Iraq was, I remember Iraq was probably up there.

I mean, that was like, emotionally challenging as well. I mean, I remember being on a phone call on Saturday morning, you know, my mobile had run and it was one of the engineers from Iraq had finally tried to get through.

And so I shot into the office, because they were trying to get the circuit up and it just wouldn't come up.

And I shot into the office and, you know, the guy saying to me on the phone, he says, James, you just don't understand what's going on here, how bad it is, there's bombs going off, there's people being shot in the streets.

And, you know, that really, really brought it home to me.

And all they wanted to do was get this circuit up so they could communicate with the outside world.

And, you know, I spent a good hour.

And I don't think there was anything wrong with our side, though, wasn't quite 100% sure, but kind of had a hunch that it was something on the satellite provider side.

And it absolutely turned out to be that and they fixed it and they got it up.

So I think that was a pretty, just a particularly proud moment, because that was a really, really, really difficult, difficult time for those, you know, for those people in the country, you know, it's a kind of on the cusp of civil war, right?

Yeah. You know, similar again, a situation not quite as extreme for Afghanistan, but similar for Afghanistan as well.

So yeah, definitely proud of that.

But you know, but proud of the entire project as a whole, and there were some real highlights as well.

So, you know, I did four years in Geneva.

And then I briefly worked for another UN organization in Indonesia. So the Organization for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, so that UN organization that in a disaster, just make sure that, you know, UN agencies are not doubling down in certain parts of the country, you know, not that not the three agencies aren't delivering food to one part of the country, nobody's delivering it to another part, for example.

So I worked on a project for them in Indonesia, the earthquake relief in 2006.

And then I went back to WHO in the Philippines. And in Asia, the projects were very, very different.

So you know, a lot of the Asian countries did have some reasonable connectivity.

And, you know, there was, you know, wasn't really dealing with countries which were on the cusp of civil war.

And that project was really, really heavily focused on the Pacific Islands.

So I went to Fiji multiple times, Samoa multiple times, Vanuatu, Tonga, Solomon Islands, spent a lot of time in the islands.

So that was that was definitely a real highlight, because I remember in, yeah, I think it was in Samoa, my hotel was on a beach called Bovalon, which is like renting one of the top 10 beaches in the world.

So as I work in the office, get some voice over IP kit up and try and get back to the hotel for four because the sun sets quite early in Samoa to go and have a swim in this amazing beach.

So yeah, it was definitely some some some real, real highlights as well.

That's great. That's great.

So when did you first hear about Cloudflare? Yeah, so this is this really interesting.

So I left my final stint with the World Health Organization was in the US in Washington, DC, it was actually called the Pan American Health Organization.

So I was there for a couple of years.

And I went back to the UK and I'd actually contacted some friends in the UK.

So I knew we were coming back. We had a young baby at the time and wanted to settle down.

So I mean, all of my UN roles were contract roles.

And for anybody who's been a UN contractor, sometimes you don't get your contract renewal until you after you've started your next contract, or that's at least how it used to be a few years ago, unless you've been working two weeks, you don't even know your contracts going to be renewed, you haven't got the paperwork.

I think they've got a lot, a lot better now. But so, you know, my wife said, Look, let's get a permanent job.

We've got a small family now. So we moved back to the UK.

And I contacted some friends in the UK, who had started a network and security distribution business.

And it just started doing really well.

So I went over there, I went and joined them and became their CTO for a while.

And I remember getting a really excited phone call from a friend who said to me said, I've just seen this guy called Matthew Prince speak at a conference.

And he said, and I've had a look at their technology.

So he says, I think it's really good, but I'm not sure, you know, could you could you take a look at it for me.

And then I had a look at the website and our website back then was not good. I'm not not talking about the UI, the product that was good, but our actual website and explaining what Cloudflare does was not particularly good.

And then in in my role as is in in as a CTO in this distributor, what what we used to do is we were we would look for emerging technologies in the US and typically Israel, security technologies, and we'd be interviewing vendors constantly.

And the problem with technology companies is they're very good at explaining the technology, but they don't cover the basics, like, you know, who's buying your technology?

Why are they buying your technology? And what's the customer pain point that it solves?

So we used to do these, you know, we used to do these vendor interviews, and then our header product would, our product director would wait, wait for them to get 25 slides in.

And he just stopped, he said, guys, this is really good, this really interesting, amazing technology says, you told me how the algorithm works, but who's buying it?

Why are they buying it? What pain point does it solve?

And nine times out of 10, the people just stop and go, nobody's ever asked us this before.

And we were like, that's your problem. And then Cloudflare wasn't that bad, but it was definitely the website didn't really describe what we do.

Well, it was all about technology and technology and features.

And my initial reaction when I saw the website is, is this an app?

I was looking for the, you know, the Google Play logo or the Apple Store logo at the bottom.

And then I realized it was security.

And there was a bit of a CDN play there as well. And then this went right back to my first career in pre-sales when we were building private CDNs for .com businesses.

So I quickly realized that this was what I was doing 10, 15 years earlier, that obviously next level on technology and security wasn't a big factor back then, security is a huge factor now.

And that's how I found Cloudflare.

So just having to look at a website, there was an SE role, so I applied.

And then I got an interview with a few guys in the London office and then phone interview with Trey Gwynne, who's still my current manager.

And I was convinced and I actually, I'd had my second baby at the time.

So I had my first interview in October, 2014.

And then I just had my second baby and then it was Thanksgiving and Christmas.

So I finally got into San Francisco for interviews in, I think it was about February, March time.

And I spent two days in the San Francisco office, met with about 17 people, including Matthew.

I didn't meet with Michelle.

I was scheduled to meet with Michelle, but this is my claim to fame. Michelle got invited to sit on a power panel with Barack Obama while he was still president and Tim Cook.

And a message came from Michelle's EA saying, sorry, Michelle's not going to be able to interview you today, but she says it's fine because everybody else has given you a, given you a thumbs up.

So she's got to go and meet the president and Tim Cook at Stanford.

So that's my claim to fame. Got blown out by Barack.

I wonder if she said to, I wonder if she said to him, Hey, I'm missing out on James Ball to be here with you guys, baby.

Yeah. Legend of tech. So, you know, so I did 17 people, two days.

And then on, it was a Friday night after our internal all hands meeting, I'm in the taxi heading back to the airport.

And I literally left with the thought, if I don't get this job, I'm, I can't work in tech again.

You know, now a scene, you know, everything was amazing. I mean, it was a hundred and 130 people company back then.

So everything was amazing. The technology was amazing.

The people were super smart. Everybody was really nice. You know, there was a feeling that it was going to be a really, really successful company.

And it was just, you know, I thought I can't work in tech again. I don't want to work anywhere else.

I just want to work at Cloudflare. And then it was quite a nail biting.

I don't know how long it was before I got the offer, but I remember that it was quite a nail biting time.

Remember I received the offer and then sadly had to leave the company that we built from the ground up.

You know, the distribution company we'd gone from, you know, it exploded.

It was 25, 30 people at that point.

When I joined three years earlier, it was like five people all sat on the same desk.

Yeah. So it was sad to leave there, but you know, really glad that I did.

And, you know, and there's definitely parallels between the work we do at Cloudflare and what the UN does as well.

So if you think about the Athenian project, you know, how we, you know, make sure that we protect election sites for free of charge and make sure that, help to make sure that elections stay democratic and Project Galileo where we, you know, protect journalists and people working on sensitive material.

They're very, very, very UN like initiatives. And I think it's as close as you can get to working to an international organization, but obviously still working for a commercial company.

Yeah. Fantastic. So when you say you started off as an SE when you joined Cloudflare, how long, how long were you in that role for before you moved into, I guess, to SE manager?

I don't think there was an official, an official transition.

It was kind of generally back then, if you was the earliest person in the role that everybody assumed that you would move into a management role.

So I can't actually remember there being an actual official transition, but I think it's when we started hiring more people.

So I was, I was, so I was the first SE for Cloudflare outside of the US.

So there was only, there's probably about, I think there were almost a hundred SEs globally now.

I think there was five globally. I was the first person outside of the US initially in the London office.

A month later, Michael Tremonti, who's done a bunch of shows on Cloudflare TV, is now one of our product managers.

He came a month later and joined me, and it was just me and him basically in London supporting the sales team.

And also back then we had no marketing or product marketing.

So, you know, when a, when a customer wanted a, you know, customer said, oh, could you send me a white paper?

Yeah, sure. We can send you a white paper.

You'd be up till midnight writing the white paper for the next day or writing the presentations and stuff.

So it was really, really busy times, you know, but really, really fun back then.

And then built the team from there. And then we've built the London SE team.

I moved to Singapore to repeat what we'd done in London in May 2017.

And I think the SE team in London was six or seven people back then.

And then now it's 25 people, I think. And, and the Singapore team was like three people when I joined in, in, in May, in May.

Yeah, May 2017. And now we're 25 plus SEs in, in the APAC region, as you know, in, in the Sydney office, in the Beijing office and, and based in Singapore.

Yeah, fantastic. And what made you, what made you switch from London to Singapore?

So for WHO, I'd spent four years living in the Philippines and also a year living in Malaysia.

And we, me and my wife had always wanted to move back to Asia.

You know, we like the lifestyle here.

We like the food. I don't miss the rain in the UK, which quite a lot. So we always went, you know, the game plan was always to get back to Asia.

And, you know, so as soon as the opportunity became available in Singapore, I was like, I want that.

Yeah, yeah, no, no, no regrets. Fantastic. And, you know, you've been at Cloudflare for five years.

It feels like, you know, there's 50 new people joining every week.

What's it been like just to see the company grow as it's grown and what's it been like to be pretty much at the beginning or sort of at the beginning, especially from a London perspective and now at the Singapore, what's that whole journey been like for you?

Yeah. So there was about 25 people in the London office when I, when we joined in May, May 2015.

And now we've got London, Munich, Lisbon. I don't know how many people we have in Europe, but I guess it must be over 300 now.

So it was literally 25 people in one room in a shared office building. And we were the, and it was silent.

So you had it, people writing code, engineers in there, you had a SRE team with a customer support team.

It was silent. And all of a sudden you've got a sales team on the phone with customers.

And that, you know, the engineers obviously need their peace and quiet.

And so it was obviously that wasn't going to work particularly well.

So we got moved off into a side office, but that suited as well where we could be, you know, be loud and be on the phone and be conscious and talking to customers without, without disturbing the engineering team.

So, and then we moved into Lamington street, which was our first purpose built Cloudflare office in London, which was an old Barclays data center building in Southwark.

And we had it fitted out to our style and we had meeting rooms and furniture.

So that was a big, big, big, big, big change from, from being in a small shared office space.

So, so that was amazing. So there was obviously changes to the work environment from the physical perspective.

And then, you know, however many people we are now, I don't know, north of 1500 is that what, what I always say is back then we didn't have marketing.

We didn't have product marketing.

We didn't have all the things that we take for granted now, but the, in the five years I've been here, the company's never felt, stopped feeling any different.

It still feels exactly the same as fresh as from the day that I joined is that everyone's super smart.

Everyone's super helpful. We're all working towards, towards a common goal, you know, helping to build a better Internet.

And, you know, we really take that to heart.

And there's, there's been no change in the feeling of the company is still a very, very special, special place to work.

And, you know, I think that's testament to the leadership of Michelle and Matthew.

That's brilliant. Yeah.

And I feel the same way. Not, I've been here for five years, but being here for the last seven months, you know, it feels definitely the same way and talking to people like yourself that have been here for some time.

I think it's, I think it's a testament to, to, I guess, to the team that, you know, we've kept that culture and, you know, we're just growing it as well.

But that's, yeah, that's a really fascinating story.

I mean, you've, you've gone from working in Sudan on, you know, putting up a satellite onto a roof, and now you're into Cloudflare that's, you know, cutting edge, especially in the security space.

I think that that's amazing.

So, you know, from your perspective, you know, there's a lot of people now trying to think of, you know, how do I get into the tech world or what do I, how do I start?

What's your advice to, I guess, to the up-and-comers to getting into our space?

Yeah, don't do what I did. You know, I, I got through, I got into tech with, you know, persistence and tenacity, right?

And I was really, really lucky, you know, like, had, had, you know, had the practice manager of a law firm, you know, and he hadn't, you know, I was a 21-year-old filing clerk.

And then you got the guy who manages, you know, this is a really, it's quite a famous law firm in London.

A lot of customers were prime ministers, royal family, you know, big media companies.

It's still going today. It's like a huge, it's like a big multinational firm now.

You know, he had, you think back, you know, why was he wasting his time on, on, on, you know, helping a 21-year-old transition because he wanted to work in IT.

If I hadn't, hadn't got that break, I probably wouldn't be where I am today.

So I had a very unorthodox, I didn't finish my degree and that really harmed my career in the UN.

So, you know, I joined the UN just after SARS, there was lots of funding available.

So they were hiring contractors, but they always wanted to turn me into a permanent role, which they couldn't do because they started to tighten up the rules and literally not having a degree for the position that I was in when I left, actually needed to have a master's degree.

So study hard, go to university, and then really find the, you know, it's quite, I think it's hard to be a generalist in, in, in IT now, you really need to focus on area.

I mean, I really, I focused on network engineering for 10 or 11 years.

That was really my forte was, you know, building LAN and WAN network infrastructure.

But I, you know, I, I'm completely self-taught, but I think the opportunities for somebody to be self -taught in this industry now are, are, you know, not there.

I always like to joke that, you know, me, Bill Gates and Larry, Larry Ellis had never finished university, but I'm not as successful as that.

I'm not sure it's, it's, it's, I'm not sure it's, you know, as easy, as relatively easy as I had it to get into IT.

I think that's just a, just a thing of the past. So I think studying really hard.

I mean, that's obviously what I'm drilling into my children.

They really need to study hard to get to where, where they are. So that, that would be my advice that I've given to anybody in the tech industry and get your college degree.

You might not think it's, I just never thought it was important in the early days.

And then it really hampered my career later on. Fair enough. That's great advice.

And I think, you know, for people learning, coming into the industry as well, I mean, it's, it's completely different now to how it was, you know, I guess when we both probably came into the industry and it's always good to take the lessons learned, you know, there's a lot of, you know, take your opportunities make sure you, you know, if someone taps you on the shoulder to say, Hey, try this role.

And I think you shouldn't, you shouldn't give it up. Yeah.

James, it's been a fantastic hour with you. I've really appreciated your time.

I've gotten to know you at a different, you know, I guess at a different line as well, which is fantastic.

I'm hoping we can have part two with you at some point down the line, mate, just fascinating just to see your background and what you've done.

You know, you're, you're well respected within our organization and, you know, appreciate you, appreciate working with you and appreciate your time on our show today.

Yeah. Thank you very much, Chris. And I look forward to spending some time with you in Sydney in the hopefully near future.

Once the borders open up. Fantastic. All right, everybody. Thank you, friends.

That's that concludes our segment today for Cloudflare TV Legends of Tech.

See you next week. Bye bye. Transcribed by