I just got back from Cisco Live 2017 last night and I had a blast at the show. There was a lot of discussion about new architectures, new licensing models, and of course, Tech Field Day Extra. However, one of the most interesting topics went largely under the radar. I think we’re fully in the transition of Cisco away from being the Company of John Chambers.
Steering A Tall Ship
John Chambers wasn’t the first CEO of Cisco. But he’s the one that most people would recognize. He transformed the company into the juggernaut that it is today. He watched Cisco ascend to the leader in the networking space and helped it transform into a company that embraced voice, security, and even servers and compute as new business models.
John’s Cisco is a very unique animal. It’s not a single company. It’s a collection of many independent companies with their own structures and goals all competing with each other for resources. If John decided that UCS was more important to his goals this quarter, he shifted some of the support assets to focus on that business unit. It was a featured product, complete with healthy discounts to encourage user adoption.
Product lines that didn’t perform as well were usually shown the door or swept under the rug. Even larger, well-publicized acquisitions tended to disappear under the spotlight of harsh criticism. Flip Video, Cius, and even Umi are not only lackluster products, but I bet you even forgot about one or two of them. John didn’t like highlighting failures any more than any of us, but the failures were often highlighted in spite of their stellar up-front marketing and sudden disappearance.
You can’t run the ship forever, though. Eventually, John knew he would need to step down. He had courted many, many heirs apparent in his time at Cisco. There were literally a dozen or more people inside the organization that saw themselves as the next CEO of the company. And when the time came to name his successor, Chuck Robbins was not the first name on a lot of lists. But his ascension to the throne of the networking powerhouse is turning heads.
Turning The Tall Ship
By all accounts, Cisco is a company in transition. Beset on all sides by cheaper merchant silicon, an industry shift to software-focused architecture, and several upstart companies featuring the best and brightest Cisco talent from years past. Cisco is facing multiple challenges that would have been singularly laughable a decade ago.
Part of this challenge comes from the reliance on the hardware model that John Chambers so proudly touted. John loves hardware. There’s margin in hardware. Hardware occupies space. It reminds people of the importance of things. And hardware eventually needs to be replaced. These all speak to the model of a company like the old IBM run by Tom Watson.
But Chuck Robbins sees Cisco differently. His push toward software is turning the ship away from dwindling hardware margins. The Intuitive Network architecture is setting Cisco up to rely more on software innovation than ever before. These are the kinds of organizational shifts that we’ve seen IBM go through as they focused on becoming more aligned with the direction of the industry. But these massive changes aren’t the only things that show how Cisco has transformed.
John Chambers loved the idea of having many, many business units. They were like sworn vassals pledging their loyalty to a distant king. The more voices showing the allegiance, the better. And those vassals could be courted as the possible successor to the throne should the prove worthy. So, when Chuck ascended to the head of the table, he showed his distaste for the vassal approach. He quietly allowed his competitors for the top job to exit gracefully on their terms. That’s not uncommon in situations where the throne is hotly contested.
Chuck also started collapsing those dozens of business units into organizational structure that makes sense. Not marketing wrappers, but real changes. Where before Networking and Security were two ships passing the night, they now run under the control of one person, David Goeckeler. The old Cisco system would have had two or more people reporting back to Chambers. Now, Robbins has one person to talk to about the direction of both of these key pillars of Cisco’s product lines.
A curious appearance of the shift in organizational focus was visible at Cisco Live 2017. In years past, a vice president has served as “host” for the event. They introduce the keynotes and give statistics about the attendance and other key facts. They also did the “interview” of the celebrity keynote speaker on Thursday. This year, there was no host. Chuck came on stage for his keynote without introduction. He did his speech and closed the session without anyone else on stage aside from his guests. On Thursday, he was the one interviewing the celebrity speaker, Brian Cranston.
It may not sound like much, but all of these little things add up to a very interesting change in Cisco’s organization. Chuck Robbins is going to take a much different role than Chambers. He’s going to be closer to the products. He’s going to be more involved in decisions. He’s going to be the one driving the ship rather than waiting for someone to execute decisions he’s suggested. Will that be enough to help Cisco keep their position in the networking space? Only time will tell.
I’ve said before that in the sports world, you never want to be the coach that follows the legend. Everything you do will be scrutinized through their lens and compared negatively. Some very good people can emerge from the shadow of their predecessor, but most are doomed to spend very good years being compared unfairly to the myth of the past.
At first, it looked like Chuck Robbins was headed down the same path. But with the major internal changes, the focus on software instead of hardware, and his more hands-on approach to management, I think we’re quickly going to find ourselves speaking of Cisco in the same way we refer to IBM today as “Not Tom Watson’s IBM”. I hope that the Cisco of Chuck Robbins succeeds and thrives so that in the future people will refer not to Chuck Robbins as the successor of John Chambers but instead refer to John Chambers as the guy who came before the Great Chuck Robbins.