Profile Interview: Rupesh Chokshi

Meet Rupesh Chokshi, a self-declared “technologist at heart.” His tenure at AT&T is approaching a quarter of a century, but his passion and commitment remain as resilient as the security mission he champions. Eleanor Dallaway spent some time getting to know the man who has made AT&T home

Stepping onto one of those first rungs of his career ladder, Rupesh Chokshi joined the AT&T labs team in New Jersey back in 1997. It sounds like career love at first sight, as he describes, “I was meeting the brilliant minds focused on the next generation of technology, utilizing it to make things easier for people to do what they need to do.”

It wasn’t just his career that Rupesh fell in love with while in New Jersey. He also met his wife, and as he recalls, “a different part of my life took over,” meaning he settled down, married and had children (two daughters, now 13 and 16). I digress…

Except for a two-year break at the turn of the century, Rupesh has worked for AT&T for 24 years. It demonstrates loyalty and dedication, but what is it about the telecoms giant that has kept Rupesh willingly captive, I ask. His answer is diversity and career progression. “Over the years, I’ve been in many roles, whether it’s in the labs or technology teams, whether it’s in product management, development, operations, IT architecture, CL marketing …” You name it, Rupesh has done it. The diversity of roles has allowed him to nurture and develop multiple skills. Not to mention, he has received many a promotion along the way. His current role is VP of AT&T Cybersecurity.

Rupesh Chokshi has dedicated 24 years of his career to AT&T
Rupesh Chokshi has dedicated 24 years of his career to AT&T

“I love the brand, I enjoy the interactions I have with the smart people in AT&T, I work alongside great people, and I love to help customers do what they want and need to,” Rupesh tells me.

The recognition, the progression in his role and the accolades he has received along the way have given Rupesh both purpose and meaning. He explains that due to the size and scale of AT&T, the global nature of the business and all of the mergers and acquisitions, “every few years it feels like a brand new company.” As a result, “I’ve never had that moment of pause where I stopped and thought my AT&T journey is over… I’ve never looked back. Here I still am,” he says with a big smile.

Back to the Start 

At school age, Rupesh explains that he was mostly interested in “the mathematics of how things worked.” He did a Bachelor of Engineering, and then a master’s in industrial engineering. He always knew that, at some point, he wanted to go back to school to get an MBA. And that he did. In 2011-2012, armed with business acumen, technical knowledge and his bachelor’s and master’s in his back pocket (figuratively, of course), a combination he says that “served him well,” as he began the quest for that all-important and long-awaited MBA.

“I had a full-time job, a full-time family, and I was going to school on Fridays and Saturdays,” he remembers, almost fatigued at just the memory. “I’m a big believer in lifelong learning. I give this advice to people I mentor: work in the industry for a few years, get your master’s or MBA and get that different perspective. The combination of education, background, hands-on exposure to global perspectives really differentiates people.”

Being a mentor is something that Rupesh cherishes. “I consciously tell my assistant to block that time out on my calendar for mentoring, whether it is one on one with my mentees or in a group setting.” He calls it “giving back,” his way of sharing his experiences and helping people.

Of course, in an unofficial capacity, he also mentors his two daughters, who are currently pondering whether or not to pursue STEM as they consider their academic options. “I spend a lot of time with them talking about STEM and the experiences I’ve had, [increasing their] exposure to technology, engineering and medicine.” Rupesh is grateful that his daughters have exposure to family members in different industries: their mother is in the media business, their uncle and auntie are in medicine and he, of course, is entrenched in technology.

I’m a big believer in lifelong learning. I give this advice to people I mentor: work in the industry for a few years, get your master’s or MBA and get that different perspective. The combination of education, background, hands-on exposure to global perspectives really differentiates people

Does he subtly encourage a tech career path for his girls or foster secret — or not so secret — hopes that they will follow in his technical footsteps? “I’m a big proponent of STEM, so I’m going to do my best to keep them wanting to go into STEM, but by the same token, I am respectful and I tell people, ‘do what you enjoy and be the best’,” he grins.  

Mentoring, for Rupesh, isn’t entirely selfless. Indeed, he reaps the benefits of understanding a diverse workforce, understanding millennials and improving his leadership skills. “It’s all about understanding perspectives,” he tells me. Additionally, he has built lifelong friendships and relationships with his mentors, mentees and coaches. “Even when I’m traveling the globe for work or personal reasons, I invest in these relationships. The last time I was in India, I went back to my engineering school and chatted with the students there.”

A Cultural Shift 

Rupesh grew up in India, earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering there, and worked for Alliance Industries for six months before landing in the United States to pursue his master’s degree in engineering at Clemson University, South Carolina.

Rupesh credits his father as an integral part of his educational and professional upbringing, recalling that his father’s vision for him had been “to have the world at my fingertips.” His father taught him to “go, explore, learn, educate myself, work in the industry, then decide what I want to do and where I want to be.”

So with the world at his fingertips, he landed in Atlanta in 1995. He recalls it fondly: “Everything was being prepared for the centennial Olympic Games the following year. I’d traveled within India and neighboring countries before, but never to the United States. It was a really interesting cultural shift and transformation that I went through”. “It was my first time learning the cultural aspects and figuring out how to do things. It was a lot of fun. I had to learn how to interact with people by putting myself in their shoes and see how they were processing different interactions and information.”

He recalls having to “work a little extra” when interacting with professors or students at the university. “I had to get an assistantship or job on campus and spent a lot of time talking to people. It was a lot of fun.” From South Carolina to New Jersey, where he began his AT&T journey, to Dallas, Texas, where he currently resides, Rupesh truly considers his roots “here [in the United States]. A lot of people like me have gone back to India and built up their businesses, but I love what I do and my family has settled down.”

Into Security

Rupesh recalls that in his first couple of years at AT&T Labs when he was looking after networks, he always had security at the back of his mind. “I was always thinking that if we were responsible for traversing so much information critical to the customer base that we served, or the government agencies that we served, having security and privacy at the core of that was key.” 

New beginnings: Landing in Atlanta in 1995, Rupesh was indulging his father's desire for him to "have the world at his fingertips"
New beginnings: Landing in Atlanta in 1995, Rupesh was indulging his father's desire for him to "have the world at his fingertips"

His main foray into security really came to the fore around eight years ago, however, when he got involved in enterprise security and products. “Security became more and more important. It very quickly went from thinking about needing a security team to [getting] a CISO, to suddenly being a C-level board room conversation. We’re now in a ‘security at the core’ era. The C-suite is very focused on, and responsible for, thinking about whether they have the right risk posture, the right cyber hygiene, the right cyber capabilities.”

In his role as VP of AT&T Cybersecurity, Rupesh leads AT&T Business’ Cybersecurity and Edge Solutions organization, which also includes AT&T Alien Labs, the threat intelligence unit of cybersecurity. The organization provides managed services and solutions to organizations of all sizes to help reduce threats, safeguard digital assets and drive efficiency to security operations.

Rupesh and his team are responsible for “securing the user, the devices, the network, the applications and the data. With all these public/private clouds and hybrid cloud architectures and SaaS applications, you have a very different kind of perimeter. Compound that with what’s happening with hybrid working or working from anywhere due to the pandemic, and it’s a very different ballgame. We’re dealing with an enterprise that is now hyper-distributed and hyper-connected, so security then becomes the blueprint.”

AT&T Cybersecurity plays a part in all of the teams across the business. “Over the last two or three years, the portfolios have started to come together as we saw the convergence of networking and security more and more. There’s a security-first mindset where we drive innovation forward and make sure it’s baked in.

“We’re dealing with an enterprise that is highly connected with security at the forefront. The convergence of security and networking is more embedded and more inherent.”

I somewhat cautiously bring up AT&T’s place in the information security industry, given that at its core, it is not a cybersecurity company. “So you’re right,” admits Rupesh. “AT&T has always been a trusted, iconic brand with a heritage that can be trusted from both a security and privacy perspective. We see 440 petabytes of data traversing on our networks every day.

We’re dealing with an enterprise that is now hyper-distributed and hyper-connected, so security then becomes the blueprint

Our ability to respond to a DDoS attack, and [our knowledge of] how to get in front of those attacks, and see where they originate is unique.” He makes the somewhat juvenile yet relatable comparison to peanut butter and jelly: “Security and networking go hand-in-hand. We are a managed security solutions provider, and we bring in technologies from other security vendors like Palo Alto, Checkpoint, Akamai, among others, and provide an integrated service for our customers. We can provide security operations, security consulting and we help customers through that entire journey.” 

Trust and Integrity 

When I ask Rupesh to share the best advice he’s ever been given, he takes a pause and truly considers the question. When he finally answers, I know he means it. “The first is around integrity and trust. We all understand what that means, but we need to live it. The second is to own your domain. Whatever you enjoy doing, go deep. Don’t be superficial; roll up your sleeves and own your domain.” He is inspired by the concept of lifelong contributions to a field. “I learned that early on from my mentors, I keep it with me, and I’ll continue to pass that on to my mentees.”

He takes pride in his own trust and integrity, and it would be near impossible to argue that Rupesh does not own his domain. “The thing I’m most proud of professionally is the industry-wide work on software-driven everything, software-driven security, software-driven networking. If you think about AI, machine learning, the foundation of all of it is software-driven everything. We can’t fight hackers or attack vectors if we don’t have the right software machinery. My team’s contribution means that collectively the entire industry has realized those benefits, and that’s what I’m really proud of.”

Own your domain. Whatever you enjoy doing, go deep. Don’t be superficial; roll up your sleeves and own your domain

Over the next five years, Rupesh hopes to see “more of the great work that we’re already doing.” More specifically, he notes that security in the 5G area will dominate much of the work. “I enjoy what I’m doing and want to continue. If there are opportunities to do something different, I’ll always take a look at those and consider whether I’ll have fun. If the answer is yes, then I’m in it, whether it’s a new technology, a new business unit, a new customer segment or a new something from the ground up. I enjoy building and scaling businesses.” 

I can’t help but ask whether he still envisions his professional home to be at AT&T as those next five years play out. “We’ll see,” he answers diplomatically. “I’m open to a lot of different things, and I’m not closed-minded, so we’ll see where the journey takes us.”

So far, his journey has taken him from India to the United States, from networking to security (and to both simultaneously), from migrant to deeply rooted husband and father. This “technologist at heart” still has a lot to give, and I bet you he does it with trust and integrity, all the while owning his domain.

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