Alumni Spotlight: Rohit Khare’s Distinguished Career, Defined by the Web

July 5, 2022

On May 13, 2022, at the 7th Annual ICS Hall of Fame Celebration, the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) honored its 2022 inductees, including tech entrepreneur Rohit Khare. If you know Khare, it should come as no surprise to see him in the ICS Hall of Fame. The breadth of his knowledge — and his passion for putting that knowledge to practical use — is evident from his impressive resume. After earning dual bachelor’s degrees in engineering and applied science and in economics from Caltech, he started his career as a technical lead for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Since then, he has helped develop critical internet standards, spent almost a dozen years at Google as a product manager, and launched two successful startups — with a third currently in the works. He credits the research done in ICS as he earned his master’s degree in 2000 and Ph.D. in 2003 as the basis for his three startups: KnowNow in 1999, Ångströ in 2006; and a stealth-mode cloud security startup he is currently working with in Irvine.

Dr. Khare speaks with such passion and enthusiasm for his research into software architecture, cybersecurity and decentralization that you can’t help but admire his experience and expertise. “The most cutting criticism that I’ve ever heard,” he says laughing, “is that if you ask Rohit what time it is, he will tell you how to build a watch.” Here, we ask everything from what first drew him to technology to what he views as the secret to his entrepreneurial success, as he shares stories of his time at UCI and efforts to help pioneer the web, and about how he’s still solving problems he first studied 25 years ago.

Rohit Khare with his award at the ICS Hall of Fame Celebration, held at the Balboa Yacht Club.

What sparked your interest in computer science?
I had always known that I wanted to do basically software business stuff. I had the luck that my dad immigrated here from India — he was also a scientist and entrepreneur — so I became one of those Apple II kids, back when computer literacy was coming to elementary schools here in Southern California. I was very young, so I idolized Steve Jobs, long before it was cool to do so! By 1989, Jobs had announced the NeXTcube workstation, and I became such a fan. I wanted to study computer science and economics, so I ended up picking Caltech as my undergrad in part because the NeXT Computer only sold to colleges, and I told admissions, “I’m going to show up for the orientation weekend and order one of those workstations, right?”

When I got to Caltech in Pasadena, a very research-oriented school, I got the chance to help work on early hypertext systems through an NSF electronic textbook initiative. That research got me into writing what was the first WYSIWYG editor for HTML. This was in 1994, so another person I got to know who was also hacking on NeXTSTEP, trying to get the NSText object to support clickable links, was Tim Berners-Lee. I graduated in ’95 and became one of the first employees at the World Wide Web Consortium, when Tim came over from CERN to the U.S. to establish W3C at MIT.

What led you to UCI for your M.S. and Ph.D. in Informatics?
I was considering grad school right after Caltech, and I’ll admit that UC Irvine wasn’t on my radar then. As soon as I got to MIT at W3C, though, what led me to UCI for informatics was the quality of students, because I found UCI already had pioneers like Roy Fielding, who spent a summer at MIT as a visiting researcher. I got to know him well and hear more about his enthusiasm for UCI. The following summer, his fellow UCI grad student came over, Jim Whitehead, who is now a professor of computational media at UC Santa Cruz.

Rohit Khare (center) with Roy Fielding (right) at a W3C event in the late 1990s.

At that point, UCI was still an “up-and-coming” institution — I recall that it had just been invited into the Association of American Universities (AAU), placing it among the top 50 for research [in 1996]. Yet UCI had already built a unique reputation in the computing world, dating back to the very beginnings of ARPANET — and it was probably the only place where you could study what I did for a living, which was leading the development of new internet standards.

While at W3C, I worked on fundamental web standards and published research into the history of other internet standards, so I started a “standards strategy consultancy” called 4K Associates. That was my first entrepreneurial venture, and it grew immensely once I arrived at UCI after Roy Fielding and Jim Whitehead convinced me to come work with Professor Dick Taylor on his Hyperware research team. It became absolutely clear to me that UCI was the No. 1 school for not only studying — but actually creating — the future of the web. There were very few places with the opportunity to do so much research and practice, because UCI also had helped start the Apache Software Foundation here. So the web has defined my career: it got me to where I went from undergrad and to my first job, and it got me into grad school.

As an example of the unique opportunities the Irvine Research Unit in Software (now the Institute for Software Research, ISR) offered, even as first- and second-year grad students, Jim Whitehead and I and another student, Greg Bolcer, were able to put together and host an international workshop series on Internet-Scale Event Notification, WISEN. It was obviously sponsored by faculty, but I would say these were as close to student-initiated and student-run as they could be, which was an amazing experience.

I was also excited that the predecessor of Hyperware was another research initiative that defined the field of “software architecture,” ARCADIA and its C2 Connected Components architectural style. I’ve always been a fan of real-world architecture: one of the most popular pages that I authored with that first WYSIWYG HTML tool was an essay introducing Patterns of Software Architecture to Vincent Scully during his sabbatical from the Yale School of Architecture. Learning from a leader, Dick Taylor, who literally wrote the textbook on the subject was an incredible experience, alongside peers who made fundamental contributions to the literature.

Can you talk about KnowNow and how that developed out of your research at UCI?
What became KnowNow started while I was working on an NSF grant proposal with another student [and fellow Hall of Fame 2022 inductee] Peyman Oreizy, alongside Roy and other grad students. Writing grant proposals was something else that Irvine, unlike many other programs, entrusted students to do. Getting grants is as much a part of research life as doing interesting coding. UCI gave us that early access and really involved us in the life of the department.

We wrote a proposal for NSF called PagerNet, suggesting real-time alerts and push notifications over one-way radio links, which roughly came back stamped “too commercial.” So Peyman, who was just graduating; myself; and Adam Rifkin of Caltech founded KnowNow in 1999 on the back of a demo that we made of real-time chat in a browser using streaming JavaScript, getting it to work in Netscape 4.77 without any additional plug-ins. That’s my story of getting to Irvine to do my master’s but dropping out to start KnowNow in Seattle, following Peyman.

Later, long after we raised venture capital from Kleiner Perkins and came back to California, I returned to UCI to finish my Ph.D. dissertation, which became one of several successful sequels to Roy’s work on REST. In true Hollywood style, another contemporary [and 2019 Hall of Fame inductee], Justin Erenkrantz, completed his dissertation on CREST for Computational REST, while I did mine on ARREST for asynchronous systems, which was probably one of the first publications about software architecture with “decentralization” in the title.

Can you also talk about creating Ångströ, which Google acquired in 2010, and your work at Google?
After my Ph.D., my career continued on an interesting path as a hybrid of research and practice as I became the director of CommerceNet Labs, a consortium that demonstrated the first encrypted credit card transaction on the internet. It was a leader in the early pioneering world of electronic commerce and, later, B2B exchanges. At our decentralization lab, zLab, we also invested in startups such as PowerSet and SupplyFrame. It also provided the seed funding for starting Ångströ, which in some ways was the sequel to KnowNow. Our goal at KnowNow was to build a “two-way web,” so everyone could not only use the web to fetch information, but to also push information back for things like real-time microblogging and content syndication. Ångströ delivered alerts about real-world news about people in your professional network. Ultimately, our demo that mattered most was being able to analyze social graphs to find friends across multiple services, which is what got Google Plus interested in one of their smallest acquisitions ever!

I really enjoyed my ensuing 11 years at Google. One of the real highlights was coming over to Cloud from the social developer platform and actually building Google Cloud Pub/Sub, at a scale KnowNow only ever dreamed of. There are planetary-scale utilities like Twitter, just as we had imagined in the early 2000s with PagerNet and Irvine’s workshops on Internet-Scale Event Notification. In that rarest of things, 10 years after I finished my Ph.D., I got a chance to solve the same problem for a third time, and we got “exceedingly good at it,” to quote The Architect in the Matrix movie. It’s still world-leading technology that taught me so much about product management.

After a few years of working on the Cloud, I also tackled a key security challenge the Google Cloud Platform had keeping up with Amazon and led me to the cybersecurity startup I’m currently working on, founded by Curtis Castrapel out of Irvine. We’re in stealth mode right now, making Cloud Identity and Access Management (IAM) simpler, smarter and stronger, using technology open-sourced by Netflix.

What’s the secret to your entrepreneurial success?
I admit I’m a technologist. I care both about computer science and economics, almost equally. There are lots of great software businesses, but I’m a “Version 1.0” person, and the teams I’m attracted to evangelize new technology and bring new capabilities to market that weren’t possible until that moment.

That’s not the only path to entrepreneurial success — it just happens to be my preferred path. On the same hand, though, the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my career is that “being right and early is just another way of being wrong!”

There’s a commonplace metaphor for conquering a market based on the Marines, Army and police. The first wave are the Marines, courageous scouts who are landing on the beach and comfortable in a completely unstructured environment. They’re just trying to get that first product out there! After that, you need Army “boots on the ground” to expand your market. Finally, the police sustain and protect the market by keeping products safe and secure. You don’t want to assume the same person can succeed in all three roles; know the stages you specialize in.

I was proud of being the first product manager for Google Pub/Sub; and that’s why I also admire its second product manager, who took it to a whole new level using a different sort of skillset. I’ve followed my nose for novelty, which led me to NeXTSTEP, which led me to hypertext, which led me to W3C, which led me to standards and security.

While I was considering my current job, I looked up a book that I contributed to 25 years ago, Weaving a Web of Trust. I was like, “I wrote that down? Back then?” Indeed, we can’t go on like this: we need computers to help us automate security, so we need a trust management engine, something I’m working on again.

If “good taste” is the secret to success, my twist might be that “bad design should make you physically ill!” Or as a funnier syllogism puts it: “Good judgment is just a result of experience …  while ‘experience’ is just a result of bad judgment!”

How has your ICS education helped you throughout your career?
We were lucky the faculty trusted us so much. We were expected to be able to run research projects, apply for grants, run workshops, mentor undergraduates, write and teach. That’s a lot of power and responsibility, which is the foundation of a culture worth building on.

Three simple ways ICS helped were that:

  • it was such a practical place, with respect for real-world applications;
  • it was a pioneer on the web, with an amazing crop of colleagues; and
  • our research results were fundamental enough that they bore fruit in three of my startups: real-time notifications for KnowNow; real-time news for Ångströ; and real-time trust management for cloud security, which is another thread through my dissertation on decentralizing the web with cryptography and consensus.

I’m lucky, because usually you finish your graduate work and never look back!

I’ve also gained insight from UCI research by staying in touch with Dick Taylor’s group as well as the recent research into open source dynamics from Walt Scacchi, and commercial software engineering from André van der Hoek. Of course, ICS also has great theoreticians and systems researchers! Although, since I’m not a theoretician or systems developer, I’ve stayed in touch with far-flung alums from my early connections — and more recent students at ISR events. 

What did you think of your experience at UC Irvine, as a whole?
I appreciated the advantages of the sheer scale and breadth of Anteater life on campus. Not just the bar and the radio station and the sports teams and the concerts, but other disciplines as well. Another faculty member who inspired me, personally and professionally, taught at the [Merage] School of Business: John L. King, who later became the founding dean of the School of Information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He not only taught about the industry of information technology, but also taught an essential seminar on how to succeed in graduate school, a crash course on the nature of this centuries-old guild with gowns.

The student support staff was also essential, right down to the medical center. Only after arriving at Irvine, after bouncing through several campus clinics trying their own “quick fix,” did I find an on-campus medical professional with the time and space to deal with an attention disorder. An adult ADHD diagnosis was uncommon back then — and unlikelier still for someone lucky enough to function near the top of their field. That insight into decades of frustration surprised me, so I suppose that’s another way UC Irvine changed my life!

Speaking of mental well-being, what do you like to do in your free time?
Free time? What’s that? I have an 11-year-old and 8-year-old twins … which, come to think of it, is also another story that started at UCI: I proposed to my wife in the acknowledgements of my dissertation!

The girls know their dad is a nerd, so we build stuff together, like custom furniture or Lego cars with gearboxes or model airplanes, and participate in important cultural events like Weird Al concerts! Another UCI alum invited me to their science fiction book club, so here we are, 25 years out from grad school, still geeking out.

Rohit Khare with family at the Hall of Fame Celebration.

What was your reaction to learning you were being inducted into the ICS Hall of Fame?
I heard the news first from Greg Bolcer, so I was very grateful to him for the honor of even being nominated. I was extremely proud to join a group of people whom I respect immensely, as colleagues and as friends. I was also pleased to see Peyman honored for his own award-winning work this year and excited to meet a legend from just before my time, Don Box [recognized at the event as a 2021 Hall of Fame inductee].

Any words of advice for ICS students hoping to follow in your footsteps?
First of all, never assume it’s too early for research. Find a way to pitch in and help out, even if it’s as a volunteer for an experiment, participating in a study, or testing a user interface.

And a more general piece of advice is to understand that you’re embedded in a much larger university. Go beyond the department and go to on-campus conferences and events and the other schools. For example, you now have the law school there, if you care about things like privacy and intellectual property rights. So get out of the department and take advantage of the entire university.

Finally, the cheesy one that comes to mind — which isn’t quite the “use sunscreen” commencement speech, but … pick problems that matter, challenges that will still be hard decades from now. We can’t talk to the web, we can’t trust computers, we can’t figure out how to share information without dividing citizens. Computing as a career doesn’t have to also be your calling, but if you do feel that calling, ICS has the scale and reach to help you be successful. So the problems you start working on could take you a long way.

Shani Murray