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Executive interview: Jeetu Patel, general manager of collaboration and security, Cisco

Anyone with an idea can help solve a problem if geography and distance don’t matter when bringing in talent, says Cisco’s collaboration and security chief

Job and development opportunities for people globally are unevenly distributed, but human potential is not. If we want to solve the problems that plague human beings and businesses, we should leverage technology to make opportunities follow human potential, not the other way round.

That is the vision of Jeetu Patel, executive vice-president and general manager of collaboration and security at Cisco, who, in an interview with Computer Weekly, shared his thoughts on the future of collaboration and the hybrid work model.

Patel, passionate about the possibilities that technology brings for inclusion, reviewed the main challenges that need to be solved today with respect to technological tools, and spoke of the need for proper change management as well as to promote a mindset and cultural preparation aligned with the advantages of the hybrid model, to be able to move towards a future in which immersive virtual meetings are the rule, and geography and distance do not matter when working as a team.

Patel also discussed the importance of never losing sight of security and privacy in the evolution of collaborative technology.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Computer Weekly: What do you think are the main challenges of the hybrid work model right now, considering both technological and cultural aspects?

Jeetu Patel: If you look at what the future is going to be – and we definitely think it’s going to be hybrid – people will sometimes choose to work from home, sometimes they’ll work in the office, sometimes somewhere in between. But while everyone wants to work in a hybrid model, this model has a lot of challenges and it doesn’t work as fluidly yet. That is why it is harder to work in a hybrid model than it was when everybody was in the office or everybody was at home, for that matter.

I’ll give you a couple of quick examples of where these challenges lie with hybrid. Imagine that you’re in a hybrid mode, which means four people are in a conference room and three are at home or somewhere else, remotely. One of the challenges you have, with people sitting together, is that a very natural thing for them to do is to get up and start drawing on the whiteboard, right? And the people who are at a distance have no idea what’s going on. It’s very hard to follow the conversation if they’re pointing at something, but you don’t know what they’re actually pointing at.

Another challenge is if people are sitting at a long table and there are a couple sitting at the back of that table. When you have that long table and someone sitting at the back of the table, you may not be able to see that person’s facial expressions or body language, so you don’t feel like you’re connecting with them. So the people in the room feel left out and the people who are remote feel left out.

Another problem you might have is audio. If someone is sitting in the back of the room, you can’t hear them as well as someone sitting closer to the microphone. And the reality is that without good audio, you can’t have a good meeting.

These are all examples of practical challenges that people face in hybrid [models] all the time. If you don’t solve these problems, one of two things will happen – either you have someone who feels like a second-class participant, who doesn’t feel like they’re in on the action, or the only way people succeed is when they’re all together.

Both of those things are bad outcomes for society, because what you want is to have an inclusive world, where people are able to participate in a global economy regardless of where they are, regardless of what language they speak, regardless of what socio-economic status they have. What you want to have is: “Hey, it doesn’t matter if I’m at home or at work – work is not where I am, work is what I do.”

These kinds of challenge have to get solved because the implications of not solving them tend to be far greater than we might think. What happens is people start to go back to saying: “Hey, look, we need to all be together, otherwise we can’t be productive.” And one thing we’ve learned in the past two years is that that is not true for most jobs, where you can be anywhere in the world and participate. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if you happen to be in a village in Bangladesh and have the same access to opportunities as someone in Silicon Valley?

That future, in my mind, is something that we, as humans, owe it to ourselves to create. And hybrid is the first step in creating that future, but you can’t make it happen if you don’t overcome the challenges. Our job, as technology provider companies, is to solve those problems.

So that if it turns out you want to get up and start drawing on a whiteboard, you can do it on a digital whiteboard and everybody can draw with you. And if you can’t see somebody in the back of the room, the camera automatically knows to create an individual video stream with you so we can zoom into you. If it turns out that you’re not able to hear someone well because they are away from the microphone, the system should be smart enough to equalise voices. Those kinds of technology are hard computer science problems that we have actually solved at Cisco, so we’re really excited about what this can do for us.

Do you think companies that aren’t taking these steps towards that goal don’t feel they need to invest as much in that kind of technology to create these kinds of environments? Do you think they lack a culture or have a different mindset?

Patel: Well, for any technology to go mainstream, there are a few things that have to happen. One is that the technology has to work. It can’t be too difficult to use that technology, that’s the first thing. Number two, it has to be affordable. It cannot break the bank as you are doing it, so the cost and the return on investment have to be very obvious. And, most importantly, the change management and the cultural readiness have to actually be developed within the company.

The first two are obvious: the technology has to work and it has to be affordable. The third is a little more nuanced. And what I mean by that is you have to get people to overcome the mental model that says: “Geography does not determine someone’s contribution level, but output determines someone’s contribution level.”

Ideally, geography should not be a limiter for output. In fact, it should be an accelerator to output, so that wherever you are and wherever you feel most comfortable, you should be able to provide the right level of contribution. That requires that you get companies to think that way, that managers think that way, that people who are participating from other locations don’t feel guilty about not being in the same place. And it takes a while to make sure those things happen.

“You fundamentally do not create an inclusive world if you mandate and require that people have to be in a certain location to get the job done”

Jeetu Patel, Cisco

You fundamentally do not create an inclusive world if you mandate and require that people have to be in a certain location to get the job done. I could be a single parent and be trying to take care of my child and I want to still make sure that I can contribute to society and work. I should be allowed to do that today, but today that creates a lot of constraints for people, and they have to choose between taking care of their child or working, and those should not be mutually exclusive choices. They should be things that you should be able to do, both.

We have to make sure that the culture is ready and that the cultural shift is happening. All of us have to fight for it, but you can’t fight for that unless the technology is working flawlessly and it is affordable, and so those are the pieces. The good news is that people have tasted the honey now. It has been proved that there is no debate on that front any more.

So now, some people like to work together, some people like to work from home, and giving that flexibility will really allow you to get the best kind of people. And eventually, business is just a direct reflection of one factor: do you have the best people working for you? You will attract and be able to get the best talent in the world when you give them all the flexibility to work from anywhere for your company.

Following this idea, how do you see the future of collaboration in this hybrid work model with all the advances in tools, such as using the cloud, having natural speech recognition, speech-to-text conversion, noise reduction technologies and artificial intelligence?

Patel: If you think about the last two years, we have made a tremendous amount of progress. In fact, it’s night and day. Imagine if the pandemic had happened 25 years ago. Life would have been painful. It was painful right now, but life would have been much worse 25 years ago, because it’s not just about the productivity of people being able to get stuff done, it is that people have an intrinsic need to feel connected and video makes people feel connected because I can see you, I can talk to you, I can see your expressions. I can see and feel the emotion and that actually has a lot to do with it, but we’re just getting started.

If you fast-forward 10 years, I don’t think people will collaborate just by looking at two-by-two boxes on a two-dimensional screen. That’s not going to be the idea of the eventuality of how people engage to each other. I think there’s going to be much more sophistication around that. The human brain won’t be able to tell the difference between whether you’re sitting in front of someone in real life or you’re sitting in front of someone in virtual form. The brain will start to forget and the technology will disappear. And that makes the future very, very exciting.

The basics are going to be there – people will trust the system, so that no one is going to feel their security will be compromised or their privacy will be compromised. That’s something that all of us have a responsibility to do because privacy is a basic human right. The need to feel secure with your intellectual property, with your identity, with all those pieces, is really needed for people to be able to experience a non-oppressive world. So security and privacy will be pretty important.

But the immersiveness of the experience will also be very important. And you won’t feel restricted. Right now, I don’t feel as free in the virtual world as I do in the real world, and that freedom should not only be as good as the real world, but we should actually make it 10 times better than the real world. We can make sure that people not only feel free to walk around and the cameras follow them, but all of a sudden, they can think of an object and pull the object virtually, and both of you can start to manipulate that object. That is an immersive experience.

So even though we’re 10,000 miles away from each other, we’re designing a car together and the model of the car is something that both of us can edit in 3D space, and move it around, and that’s happening together. And that’s pretty magical.

Also, sometimes I don’t want to talk to you in synchronous mode. In some cases, in business, I just want to go out and give someone an update, and that can happen asynchronously. So collaboration will not only be synchronous, but also asynchronous.

Artificial intelligence will be embedded into everything you do, so language will not be a barrier. I’m speaking in English, but you want to hear me and you want to see what I’m seeing in Spanish – that should be something the system does automatically. Guess what? We do that today, so you can see the subtext right now on speech-to-text conversion and real-time translation in 108 languages.

Those are the things that I think make these experiences get infinitely better. There are going to be thousands of these small things that we will continue to keep doing and improving upon. But the end goal is that the human brain doesn’t feel a cognitive load as a result of being virtual. That’s the end goal.

And if you don’t feel the cognitive burden, then geography and distance won’t matter. And when geography and distance don’t matter, anyone from anywhere can participate in a global economy without any penalty. And that opens up the world to three billion digital workers.

Anyone with an idea will be able to solve a problem because opportunity right now is very unevenly distributed, but human potential is not. Human potential is very evenly distributed, so we should follow the human potential and its even distribution, and make the opportunity follow potential rather than the other way round.

Security is an important part for the hybrid and collaborative environment. What do you think are the main security issues that enterprises need to address, or at least be aware of in this environment? Are people still the weakest link in security?

Patel: This is a very important issue for society to handle because there are a few things that are happening in parallel that are compounding the problem. For one, people are working from anywhere. Number two, they are working with applications in the cloud. Number three, the threat actors are getting more sophisticated – it used to be hackers and now they are nation states.

And the consequences of those threats are far more dire than they used to be, because before, it was a virus that got into your computer and it was a little bit of a pain, but now you can not only lose trade secrets, but you can lose lives, hospitals can shut down, transportation networks can shut down, the financial system can shut down, the water supply can shut down or power grids can shut down.

When you start thinking about that, the implications are very high and the scary part is that the bad guys, the attackers, the adversaries, have to get it right once, but the good guys, the ones protecting the environment, have to get it right every single time. So, it’s extremely important at the time we live in. Apart from climate change, there are not too many problems in the world that are more important than how to make sure that the world is safe from cyber warfare and cyber security because even warfare starts with cyber before it gets to land, air and sea.

We know that the threat landscape is getting broader. Adversaries are becoming more sophisticated, and then there is another problem – four million jobs a year go unfilled in the security world. So there is a huge shortage of skilled labour.

What do you do in this scenario? Well, security has to become more of an automation and data problem, rather than a people problem. Yes, you need skilled people, but what you need is for security to be built in such a way that there is a network effect in security.

What do I mean by a network effect? It means that the more people I have, the more signals I can collect from people, and the more signals I collect, the better I can detect threats effectively. And the more I can detect threats, the better I can remediate them. And the more I remediate the threats that are out there, the more people will come to me for security. And that cycle starts all over again.

That’s a network effect – the more people who use a security solution, the more valuable it becomes to everyone who uses it. And in security, it’s a game of scale.

The more you can go out and protect the world through automation and machine learning and proactive detection and remediation and prevention, the better off you will be. I think there will be a tremendous amount of innovation in the next decade or two in security, on both fronts – there will be innovation in how you protect an organisation and there will be innovation in how to attack an enterprise.

We have to make sure we out-innovate the attackers, and that only happens with an extreme focus on building technology. This is a problem that can only be solved with technology. You have to build a lot of technology that actually helps prevent threats from occurring and, when they do occur, it detects them very quickly and responds and remediates them as quickly as possible.

That is the goal of security – prevent threats, but when you can’t prevent them, detect them immediately so you know something is wrong, and then respond, remediate and record in real time or near-real time. That’s what this industry will evolve into.

If you do that right, lives will be saved, and if you do it wrong, people will suffer. So every security provider has a tremendous responsibility and we need to make sure we do our part for the betterment of society.

Sometimes, small companies think they are not important enough to be attacked, but they are also suppliers or part of the supply chain of a larger company, or a public organisation and they are the gateway that allows attackers to access.

It’s the lowest common denominator approach. So, you can’t say there are going to be some companies that are simply not sophisticated enough, so they shouldn’t be protected. In fact, security has to be usable by every individual, and it can’t be intimidating. It can’t be scary. It has to be something that is comprehensible and understandable, so that everyone knows that the majority of the attacks that happen today and most of the breaches that occur are not due to malicious behaviour by an employee, but because of negligence.

No one comes into the office saying: “Today I’m going to be negligent.” But what ends up happening is that when the technology is too complicated, people don’t understand it and mistakes are made. So, the negligence is a byproduct of the complexity of the systems. What you have to do is simplify security in a way that negligent behaviour doesn’t compromise the company, the individual and the data.

Do you think security needs to be embedded into technology products by default?

Patel: Security has to be integrated, transparent and intuitive. It is none of those things today. It is complicated, it is opaque, and it is completely not intuitive. And that’s the problem we have to solve as an industry.

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