MSx/Sloan Alumni

Nand Mulchandani

MS ’18
Chief Technology Officer, Central Intelligence Agency
Nand Mulchandani
Nand Mulchandani
We do everything from shoe phones to internet-scale software.
March 11, 2024

Nand Mulchandani’s unusual career unfurled as a series of pivots that make total sense — at least in retrospect.

With a degree in math and computer science from Cornell University, Mulchandani nabbed a job at Sun Microsystems. He then co-founded three technology startups and managed another, all involving enterprise infrastructure and cybersecurity. All were acquired by larger companies, and he twice moved into positions at those firms: security product management and marketing for VMware, and vice president of strategy and market development at Citrix.

Then, a surprising turn: For all his entrepreneurial success and management experience, Mulchandani decided he needed a more well-rounded business education. In 2018, he earned an MS at Stanford GSB. He followed up with a degree in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Mulchandani had hoped to run for an open congressional seat. But the campaign for higher office fizzled. That meant Mulchandani needed to pivot again. A Harvard classmate introduced him to a three-star general, and that led to a post as chief technology officer and later acting director of the U.S. Department of Defense’s new Joint Artificial Intelligence Center.

From there, it was another leap to the CIA, where he could draw on his governmental experience, deep tech background, and extensive Silicon Valley connections. “I’m an unabashed technology and American maximalist,” Mulchandani says. “When it comes to the technology industry, we’re number one.”

You did much of your early schooling in Delhi, India. What kind of adjustments did that entail?

I was actually born in California, in Mountain View. My parents were immigrants. My dad was part of the early semiconductor industry. When I was eight years old, my parents decided to move to Delhi. My dad’s side of my family is all in India. My mom’s a Dutch citizen. Our family is very international. My dad wanted us to connect with our family and the culture there.

It turned out to be a really tough transition. We were accustomed to all the comforts of the United States. The Indian educational system is very different, very competitive, very focused on science and math and engineering. I did a lot of debate and drama, which I think ended up helping me later in life.

Was your focus always on technology?

For as long as I can remember, I had always thought that I was going to go back to Silicon Valley and do a startup. I graduated [from Cornell] in 1991, right into the middle of a recession. At that time, Sun Microsystems was the hot company. It was the Open AI or the Netscape of that day, and I was very lucky to get a job there. I worked on chip design and compiler optimization, which is now considered really old-school stuff. I love the tech industry; it’s my lifeblood, although I don’t like the over-glorification of it.

How did you get involved in startups?

Compared to today, doing startups in the ’90s was hard. You had a few big venture capital firms that somewhat controlled the market. I tried a few different projects, which did not work out, and it was all very discouraging. I thought, “I need to get a professional degree to learn how.” I applied to a bunch of business schools — didn’t get into Stanford, got into Harvard Business School. Then what happened — and this is the beauty of Silicon Valley — I was having lunch with a couple of buddies who had a startup, and ran into another group of folks. [Sandeep Johri, MBA ’90, now CEO of Checkmarx, an application security firm, said], “I’m thinking of doing a startup in the intranet space, can we have lunch?” I ended up deferring HBS.

What were the common threads in your four startups?

My focus has always been enterprise infrastructure software and cybersecurity companies. I just love the creation of new products, as well as the go-to-market side of it. One question I often get asked was, “How did you design your career?”, and the answer is “I didn’t.” I have a very large network of people that I know and am lucky to get a lot of ideas thrown at me. Usually, I get pulled into stuff that becomes really exciting and interesting.

And you just kept deferring Harvard?

I think three times, at which point the director of admissions called me, and said, “You have to make a decision here.” At the end [in 2000], I basically told them, “Thank you for the offer but I’m going to have to decline.” Once I got the taste of startups, it was hard to think of taking a break from it all.

“We have adversaries trying to hack us every day and trying to hunt our technology and people down every day.”

So how did you end up in the Stanford MSx program?

I don’t want to call it my mid-life crisis. I had a really fun and successful career, but I think I’d had my fill of startups and have seen the tech industry from almost every angle. The only unfulfilled career mark was that I hadn’t taken a company public, which of course has its own drama. I love school, I still had this itch to go to grad school. I liked the idea of going back to give myself time to understand why things worked the way they did. I wanted to learn more about the underlying structural aspects of business.

What were some highlights of your GSB experience?

I took a class with Tyra Banks called “Project You,” about brand management and managing your career through multiple transitions. She taught how to appear on TV, and how do you build your brand, how do you market it, how do you create and manage your career. It was a fun and fascinating class. On the other end, I took a class with professor Myron Scholes, who has the Nobel Prize [in economic sciences] for options pricing, and he was talking about the evolution of finance. I also took a class on Mozart’s operas, where one of the leading professors of music analyzed his operas in an Excel spreadsheet, as well as an acting class. It was an amazing year.

And then you went to Harvard?

This is where things get even more complicated. The other thing that I’d started thinking about was a potential run for public office. I took some classes at the GSB around politics and Congress and policymaking. The faculty said, if you really want to go do this, you don’t have any connections in Washington, [and] Harvard has this mid-career program at the Kennedy School. I was this very odd duck, being from the tech industry trying to pivot into government work. It also turned out to be a fascinating year. Unfortunately, the run for office didn’t work out because the seat that was going to come open didn’t.

That meant another big pivot.

Yes, coming out of graduate school I was now unemployed! But like in my previous life, I got lucky that chance meetings with people led to something new. I got connected through a Harvard Navy classmate to an Air Force General at the Pentagon, John “Jack” Shanahan. He said, “I’m creating this artificial intelligence center for the military and need to partner up with a technologist.” I said, “I’m not really doing anything else, so sign me up.” The funny part is, this was literally my first trip to the Pentagon, and I didn’t have any clearances or idea what I was getting into.

This was kind of another startup, albeit within a large organization.

It is, absolutely. General Shanahan and I teamed up and brought our own respective skills and relationships to the mission. My startup learnings and experience — applying that to this two-million-person organization — that was the trick. It was a huge case study in how you deal with organizational change.

How did you end up as the CIA’s first chief technology officer?

The CIA, recognizing the growing interaction between Silicon Valley and the USG, wanted to hire someone who knew both worlds. They boldly looked for someone we are starting to call a “dual-citizen” of Silicon Valley and the government, who has experience in both of these worlds. The idea with the creation of the CTO role was that the Agency was going to elevate this position to be part of the senior leadership team. It’s a very CIA thing to do, to think forward, be ahead of the curve.

What do you do as CTO?

First and foremost, we’re a 75-year-plus human intelligence agency. We have been doing technology here for a long, long time, and we do it at-scale — the scope of our technology work is extremely broad and wide. My joke is that we do everything from shoe phones to internet-scale software and everything in-between. These things have to work fail-safe, they have to be hacking-proof. One big aspect is managing a very broad portfolio of tech. Another dimension is to get the best of industry and bring it back into the Agency. There are all kinds of issues in terms of hardening those products. We have adversaries that are trying to hack us every day and trying to hunt our technology and people down every day — that’s the nature of our business. The other thing is the relationship with the Valley — learning and mastering six to ten emerging tech markets: the semiconductor industry, 5G, biotech, fintech, artificial intelligence, high-performance computing, space, fusion, next-generation batteries.

You need to understand the most cutting-edge developments in each field.

We employ some of the world’s leading experts in each one of these areas. Our analyst community is world-class. This is an adult candy store of incredibly smart people. We support Congress, the White House, the National Security Council, Commerce, Treasury, every part of government, through intelligence functions. The Presidential Daily Brief gets put together right next to our office. Technology is rapidly changing, incredibly deep, and very complex. It is incredibly important for us to be on the cutting edge.

What lessons from Stanford have stayed with you?

Everybody who goes there is looking for two things. One is you’re trying to get better and smarter in one dimension you may already have been good at. The other dimension that Stanford really focuses on is the pivot: It’s the idea that you as an individual have such potential to go do anything it is you want to do. I was a technologist for my entire career, had never stepped foot in the Pentagon or the agency here. But the ability to have the confidence or the training to make such a hard pivot… I’m a little bit of a poster child [for] the perfect pivot. We need a lot more people doing this pivot, going from technology into government.

Photos courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency

Nand Mulchandani
Nand Mulchandani
MS ’18
Chief Technology Officer, Central Intelligence Agency
Fairfax County, Virginia, USA
MPA, MC, Harvard Kennedy School
MS, Stanford Graduate School of Business
BA, Computer Science and Mathematics, Cornell University
Professional Experience
Chief Technology Officer, Central Intelligence Agency
Chief Technology Officer and Acting Director, Joint Artificial Intelligence Agency, U.S. Department of Defense
Vice President, Strategy and Market Development, Citrix
Current Profile