Not The Cisco of John Chambers Anymore

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.


Tom’s Take

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.

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Thoughts on Cisco Live 2015

Cisco Live 2015 Twitter Pic

We’ve secretly replaced Tom with Mike Rowe. Let’s see if anyone notices…

Cisco Live 2015 is in the books. A great return to San Diego. A farewell from John Chambers. A greeting from Chuck Robbins (@ChuckRobbins). And a few other things.

The Community is Strong, But Concerned

The absolute best part of Cisco Live is the community that has grown from the social media attendees. More than once I heard during the week “I can’t believe this used to be 20-30 people!”. The social community continues to grow and change. Some people move on. Others return from absence. Still others are coming for the first time.

The Cisco Live social community is as inclusive as any I have seen. From the Sunday night Tweetup to the various interactions throughout the week, I’m proud to be a part of a community that strives to make everyone feel like they are part of a greater whole. I met so many new people this year and marveled at the way the Social Media Hub and Meetup Area were both packed at all hours of the day.

That being said, the community does have some concerns. Some of them are around institutionalized community. There was worry that bringing so many people into the Champions community threatened to marginalize the organic community that had grown up in the past six years. While some of that worry was quieted by the end of the show, I think the major concerns are still present and valid to a certain degree. I think a discussion about the direction of the Champion program and how it will interact with other organic communities is definitely in order sooner rather than later.

Gamification Continues, And I’m Not A Fan

Many of the activities at Cisco Live revovled around prizes and giveaways for interaction. As we’ve seen throughout the years, any time a prize is awarded for a game there is going to be some trying to work the system. I even mentioned it here:

I’m all for having fun. But the reward for a well-played game should be in the game itself. When things have to be modified and changed and curated to ensure no one is taking advantage, it stops being fun and starts being a competition. Competitions cause hurt feelings and bad blood. I think it’s time to look at what the result of this gamification is and whether it’s worth it.

Power Transitions And Telling The Story Right

As expected, John Chambers gave his farewell as CEO and introduced Chuck Robbins to the Cisco Live community. By all accounts, it was an orderly transfer of power and a great way to reassure the investors and press that things are going to proceed as usual. I was a bit interested in the talk from Chambers about how this transition plan has been in place for at least ten months. Given the discussion in the tech press (and more than a couple private comments), the succession wasn’t a smooth as John lets on. Maybe it’s better that the general Cisco public not know how crazy the behind-the-scenes politics really were.

Chuck finds himself in a very precarious position. He’s the person that follows the legend. Love him or hate him, Chambers has been the face of Cisco forever. He is the legend in the networking community. How do you step into his shoes? It’s better that John stepped down on his own terms instead of being forced out by the board. Chuck has also done a great job of rolling out his executive team and making some smart moves to solidify his position at the top.

The key is going to be how Chuck decides to solidify the businesses inside of Cisco. Things that were critical even two years ago are shrinking in the face of market movement. John’s speech was very pointed: there is another tranisition coming that can’t be missed. Chuck has a hard road ahead trying to stabilize Cisco’s position in the market. A cheeky example:

Cisco has missed transitions, SDN being the most recent. They need to concentrate on what’s important and remove the barriers to agile movement. A start would be cutting back on the crazy amounts of business units (BUs) competing for face time with the CEO. You could easily consolidate 50% of the organizations inside Cisco and still have more than anyone else in networking. A racecar that goes 200 mph is still unstable if it isn’t streamlined. Chuck needs to cut Cisco down to fighting weight to make the story sound right.

Cisco Finally Understands Social, But They Don’t Quite Get It (Yet)

I applaud the people inside of Cisco and Cisco Live that have fought tooth and nail for the past few years to highlight the importance of social. Turning a ship the size of Cisco can’t be easy, but it’s finally starting to sink in how powerful social media can be. I can promise you that Cisco understands it better than companies like IBM or Oracle. That’s not to say that Cisco embraces social like it should.

Cisco is still in the uncomfortable mode of using social as a broadcast platform rather than an interaction tool. There are some inside of Cisco that realize the need to focus on the audience rather than the message. But those are exceptions to the general rule of being “on message”.

Social media is a powerful tool to build visibility of personalities. The messenger is often more important than the message. Just ask Pheidippides. Allow your people the freedom to develop a voice and be themselves will win you more converts than having a force of robots parroting the same platitudes on a scheduled basis.

Cisco has some great people invovled in the community. Folks like J Metz (@DrJMetz), Rob Novak (@Gallifreyan), and Lauren Friedman (@Lauren) how how dedicated people can make a name for themselves separate from their employer. Cisco would do well to follow the example of these folks (and many others) and let the messengers make the audience they key.


Tom’s Take

Thanks to Tech Field Day, I go to a lot of industry events now. But Cisco Live is still my favorite. The people make it wonderful. The atmosphere is as electric as any I’ve been a part of. This was my tenth Cisco Live. I can’t imagine not being a part of the event.

Yes, I have concerns about some of the things going on, but it’s the kind of concern that you have for a loved one or dear friend. I want people to understand the challenges of keeping Cisco Live relevant and important to attendees and find a way to fix the issues before they become problems. What I don’t want to see is a conference devoid of personality and wonderful people going through the motions. That would not only destroy the event, but the communities that have sprung from it as well.

Cisco Live 2016 will be intensely personal for me. It’s the first return to Las Vegas since 2011. It’s also the fifth anniversary of Tom’s Corner. I want to make the next Cisco Live as important as Cisco Live 2011 was for me. I hope you will all join me there and be a part of the community that has changed my life for the better.