Insights from Michelle Munson, Winner of The HPA 2016 Charles S. Swartz Award
By Debra Kaufman
On November 17, at the HPA Awards, Michelle Munson, co-inventor and CEO of Aspera, will receive the Charles S. Swartz Award, for significant impact across diverse aspects of the industry. Also that evening, the company’s Aspera FASP Stream will receive a 2016 Engineering Excellence Award for its “turnkey application software enabling live streaming of broadcast-quality video globally over commodity Internet networks.”
Munson, who holds dual B.Sc. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Physics, was a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge University where she received a postgraduate diploma in computer science. She is also the youngest recipient named a KSU College of Engineering Alumni Fellow, which she was granted in 2006, and has received national recognition and numerous achievement awards for her work.
HPA NewsLine spoke with Munson about her career, her thoughts on the media and entertainment industry, and what she sees for the future. She credits her mentors, both technology entrepreneurs and academics, who nurtured her career in the early days as she joined several startups and worked at the IBM Almaden Research Center. Munson says that several factors came together that precipitated the founding of Aspera in 2004. “The Internet becoming a mature infrastructure that businesses had access to and was available globally,” she says. “There was also an emerging interest in content, not just data, over the Internet.”
On the technology front, she adds, there had been attempts at multicasting for scalable distribution with a network routing layer and “point solutions,” or WAN gateways to improve performance at a hardware level. “There seemed to be an opening for an application layer approach to data movement or transport,” she says. “There was a need for a new layer in the logical stack that would sit on top of the network infrastructure and provide those abilities.” In her earlier work at startups, Munson had also spent a lot of time with customers, where she became closely acquainted with emerging problems in the media and entertainment industry. “They had an interest and need to conveniently move data,” she says. That sparked her own intellectual curiosity to move forward and, with co-founder/vice president of engineering Serban Simu, she started Aspera.
Munson has her own perspective on where the industry is going. “Here we are, over a decade later, and a couple of big trends have emerged from the Internet maturing,” she says. “The first is the interoperability of live data with what we think of as store-forward or file-based transport. The appetite for pumping live video anywhere and everywhere is driving the need for a highly predictable experience and, at Aspera, we’re deeply involved with that, as evidenced by Aspera FASP Stream.” She’s also excited about “the development of new architectures for data distribution.” “When I was starting my career, content delivery networks were in their infancies,” she says. “The cloud has consolidated bandwidth and compute resources. Without that, you’d have to have data centers and hardware and your own bandwidth.”
Coming up in the industry when she did – she was the only female physics student and one of two in engineering in her undergraduate studies has given her a unique perspective. “I do feel like the doors are open now in so many ways,” she says. “There’s an appetite to cultivate female talent – and other under-represented folks as well. The effort is huge and sincere.” She notes that some of the skew towards men in sciences such as physics seems to be cultural. “Thanks to Serban, I’m knowledgeable about Eastern Europe where many of the computer scientists and engineers are women,” she says. “ I think it’s changing here. I see more and more women in computer science – and we hire them.”
For her, one of the “great misnomers” about this field of technology is that it “isn’t sufficiently exciting, impactful or glamorous.” “And it’s all those things,” she says. “I think that’s not well understood and people branch off [into other fields] before they see those benefits. I think it’s improving but culturally there’s a lot of work to do.”
With regard to the Charles S. Swartz Award, Munson declares herself “grateful and humble.” “It’s a stunning award,” she says. “I’m hugely grateful and very surprised.” She credits the media and entertainment industry for its embrace of new technology. “HPA and SMPTE have had a massive impact on what we’ve chosen to do at Aspera,” she says. “Without those organizations, we wouldn’t be who we are. I don’t know any other industry that has that appetite for technology and innovation. Because it’s creatively based, the industry will try new things all the time – and that’s how you get new technology off the ground.”