Cisco 2.0: What does Cisco look like in a post-Chambers world?

OPINION: This is the first Partner Summit with Chuck Robbins at the helm of Cisco. Sean McGrath explores the major themes coming out the event in San Diego

Approximately four days after Cisco Partner Summit 2015 in Montreal, the industry’s longest serving CEO stood down. Nobody realised it at the time, but it was to be the last partner conference with John Chambers at the helm. It was always going to be interesting to see how Chuck Robbins stepped into such a revered pair of shoes.

Cisco has always been very good at blue-sky thinking. Looking at the big themes and crafting buzzwords for the media outlets to rally around (Internet of Everything and Intercloud are great examples). Last year, you couldn’t speak to an executive for more than a few moments without them mentioning the ‘IoE’ or reminding you that there would be 7 zillion angry IP-enabled fridges all vying for connectivity before the end of the week.

In terms of spotting market transitions, thought leadership can be a useful skill; but try to convey this blue-sky thinking to 2,000+ partners, hungry to grow their businesses through pragmatic and tangible means, and you run the risk of coming across as… a bit… wishy-washy. Last year’s key theme was ‘be bold’ and the rhetoric coming from Chambers was borderline scaremongering. Disrupt or die. Eat or be eaten. The sky is falling. After a few days, it became tiresome.

A Cisco with Chuck Robbins at the helm was always going to be a different beast to that of the Chambers machine. With a degree in Mathematical Sciences, experience as a developer and 13 years heading up various channel operations at Cisco, Robbins seems well suited to his new role. On the one hand, he has a deep understanding and appreciation of the technology; on the other, an understanding of the underlying business value and how it translates into opportunity for channel partners.

It was probably not a coincidence then, that the 2016 Summit struck a decidedly different tone than that of Montreal. The key message for the conference – “Powered by Partnerships” was not some histrionic slogan dreamt up by a marketing expert – it was an acknowledgment that 80% of Cisco’s business flowed through the partners in the room. It was a humble thank you. It was refreshing.

When Robbins took to the stage to deliver his keynote, there was no mention at all of the 'Internet of Everything', or ‘Intercloud Fabric'. The blue-sky messaging was all but gone, replaced with a down-to-earth presentation focussed on the software-defined data centre and a new hyperconverged solution. He spent time assuring partners that the firm was successfully navigating the economic turbulence facing most global organisations. Even the customary musical introduction was a bit more… grown up.

The CEO used his keynote to announce Cisco’s intent to acquire CliQr, a privately held cloud orchestration solution provider. The acquisition is an attractive proposition for partners, as it allows customers with hybrid environments granular control when it comes to migrating applications to the cloud.

That was followed by news today that Cisco also intends to buy Leaba Semiconductor, an Israeli networking chipmaker and comes just weeks after the Jasper announcement. The acquisition announcements were expertly timed reminders that Cisco is aggressively seeking out organisations that match its overarching strategy.  It was exactly the kind of news that partners wanted to hear.

While the tone and messaging may have changed, Robbins promised that the overarching strategy has not.

“While you haven’t heard me say Intercloud, Intercloud, Intercloud and you haven’t heard me say IoE, IoE, IoE, the underlying strategies, in my view, haven’t fundamentally changed,” he said at the conference.

“Most of what we’ve done has been an evolution of the strategy that we’ve built over time. I am trying to get us to move faster than we have in the past. My focus is how do we accelerate? How do get more balls in the air and how do we focus on execution.”

And for all intents and purposes, Robbins seems to be making magic happen. Last year, Cisco’s claim that it was riding the wave of technological transition was somewhat questionable. It felt like an old school hardware company was talking a good software game, but it was difficult to believe. This year, under the leadership of Robbins, it seems as though the company has moved quickly and – for the first time in 15 years – has genuinely got out in front of major changes on the not-too-distant horizon.

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