Sheela Kosaraju

Senior Vice President, General Counsel, Ciena

Sheela is Senior Vice President, General Counsel, of Ciena, having previously served as their Head of Legal for EMEA and VP of International General Counsel.

Motivated by social justice and fairness, Kosaraju moved from engineering into law and started her career as a patent lawyer, but quickly transitioned into legal work based around the intersection of technology and business strategy. Before joining Ciena, she served as legal counsel for PHH Arval, Closedloop Solutions, and HomeCom Communications.

In leadership, Kosaraju finds the most fulfillment in helping others look at a problem from a different perspective and engaging in conversations around strategy and risk in helping businesses grow. Both in and out of the workplace, she is an advocate for mental health and ensuring everyone has a safe space to open up and be their authentic selves.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in both mechanical engineering and engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University as well as a law degree from Wake Forest University.

You joined Ciena’s executive leadership team at the start of this year. What do you see as your top priorities in this role, and how do you plan to address them?

I had the luxury of joining an existing high-functioning, well-respected executive leadership team, so I could take the time to understand the dynamics already at play and explore where I could contribute. Gary Smith, our CEO, sees each of us as a business leader, and though he expects excellence in our core functions, he also rightly expects us to be opinionated on strategic business issues and bring dynamic new perspectives to the table. Given that I had previously been the International General Counsel for Ciena, I felt I was able to use that unique lens and experience to ensure we continue to invest, scale, and operationalize our business to meet our global ambitions in a responsible, value-added way. In addition to continuing to strengthen my trust and influence with members of the senior executive team, I am making it a priority to ensure that I continue to invest in what I believe to be a best-in-class global legal team—in both the expertise and ideas they contribute. It’s important to both me and the company that we include and engage with many different perspectives, as that diversity in approach, thinking style, and points of reference will help us not only better understand our potential avenues toward achieving certain ambitions, but also better execute successful strategies in actualizing them effectively and efficiently.

At an early stage in your career, you made the move from engineering to law. What prompted you to make the change, and how has your engineering background left you in good stead to serve as general counsel in a tech company?

I was born and raised in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, with parents who immigrated from India at great personal sacrifice in pursuit of opportunities for their children. There are obviously a number of factors that built toward my decision to make a career change, but because of my parent’s sacrifice, I felt a strong responsibility to make the most of the opportunities available to me. As many immigrant parents do, my parents had wished for me to become an engineer or a doctor, so despite a lifelong interest in advocacy and the law, I originally pursued and received a bachelor’s degree both in mechanical engineering and engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

After spending my summers interning as an engineer, I realized my true passion was still in the law. To reduce it to the simplest terms, I felt a law career would give me an opportunity to have a voice when either myself or others didn’t, which was always a really important driving factor in my passion for the law in the first place. While I knew I could use my engineering degree to become a patent lawyer— which was a typical path for an engineer-turned-lawyer—it was only after I started law school and began interning at a general law firm and a patent law firm that I realized the most interesting areas of legal work (to me, anyway!) were those where technology intersected with business strategy. I eventually hit the ground running as Vice President and General Counsel at several different technology start-ups in Atlanta and Silicon Valley—all of which had a team of one: me!—and after some stops in between, I finally came to Ciena in 2010.

Society has become more and more reliant on being online, and creating a more equitable, accessible, and widespread Internet is one of the most important tasks for the industry. Tell us about how Ciena is helping to facilitate digitalization, diversification, and Internet connectivity for all.

Since the pandemic, consumers have been working, learning, and playing from home, which has caused a substantial rise in the need for Internet connectivity. Many children and young people across the globe had not been able to participate in online schooling or digital education initiatives, as they had limited, inconsistent, or unreliable access to broadband connectivity and technological resources at home.

When Ciena caught onto this trend, we decided we wanted to do more to help these young people not only succeed in their education, but also participate in the digital world at large. In 2020, we made a 10 million USD commitment over five years to help expand opportunities for young people—and learners of any age—through access to digital tools, resources, and educational opportunities. Since we launched Ciena’s Digital Inclusion program, we have worked with more than twenty charitable organizations globally to bring digital opportunities to students—whether that’s through funding computer labs in schools, enabling  access to affordable broadband, or developing digital curriculum programs that can be adapted to different learning levels. We often work directly with our customers to have an even greater impact on charitable initiatives, and we also get our employees involved in a mentorship and volunteering experience. Everyone here is very motivated and hands-on when it comes to enabling equal connectivity and educational opportunities.

We are proud of our current progress, but we recognize there’s always more that can be done when it comes to bridging digital divides. We will continue to work to close the digital gaps among students—and people in general—around the world and inspire the next generation of changemakers.

From chatbots to robots, AI, as both a service and a product, is changing digital infrastructure. How do you see AI impacting the data center industry, and what do you think should be top of mind for us as we move into this new era of innovation?

The arrival of artificial intelligence tools, such as ChatGPT or Bard, is a transformative moment for the industry. Generative AI often relies on real-time interactions to deliver immersive user experiences, so it is crucial that the network can both ensure smooth, low-latency interactions and possess the ample capacity necessary for capable, efficient handling of data processing and transmission demands.

To address the power, bandwidth, and latency pressures that AI puts on networks, there is a growing trend toward deploying AI models at the network edge, closer to the end users, where content is both created and consumed. Edge computing reduces the reliance on centralized data centers, which in turn spreads power consumption across the network and helps to reduce bottlenecks.

However, deploying and managing edge computing infrastructure alongside processing in data centers requires robust connectivity to ensure efficient communication between edge and centralized computing. Service providers, therefore, need to scale out their data center and edge interconnect infrastructure and processes—which of course creates an additional chain of investments, construction requirements, and sustainability considerations.

AI is also having a profound impact on the optical networking industry. In today’s on-demand world, networks need to be continuously and reliably flexible and customizable in order to thrive under ever-evolving conditions. Through our Adaptive Network™ solution—using Ciena’s WaveLogic technology to create an intelligent, programmable, and adaptable optical network—we enable customers to automate networks using real-time performance metrics so they can adapt their network performance and connectivity to shifting service requirements and drive new levels of both efficiency and demand-meeting. In this way, AI might be useful in working to close connectivity gaps and improve network reliability and redundancy.

What advice do you wish you had been given at the start of your career in law and the digital infrastructure industry?

My biggest piece of advice—for both career development and life in general—would be to appreciate the opportunity you have in every moment to learn. Every moment is a moment for discovery…you don’t always appreciate that perspective when you’re young. Especially in our society that seems to operate more and more at hyper speed, we can spend so much time and energy worrying about what we might miss out on that we can sometimes forget each individual moment in the present offers its own benefits and possibilities. Maximize the opportunity you have every day either to learn, grow, or show what you’re capable of. I’d also recommend being proactive about seeking out leaders you admire as mentors. Even if someone doesn’t currently have the capacity for a formal mentorship, it’s always flattering to be approached, and there’s so much to be gained for both parties in terms of knowledge and experience sharing.