15 March 2018 05:20:47 IST

Business opportunities abound here: Cisco CEO

Start-ups around smart cities, Internet of Things will flourish, says Chuck Robbins

Over the last decade Cisco has bet big on India. From declaring India as its global hub in 2006 to committing billions of dollars in investments, the US technology giant has been at the forefront of believing in India’s growth story. This comes even as the company is facing huge challenges globally from smaller yet agile entities as technology changes rapidly.

Cisco has embarked on a transformational process aimed at staying relevant, which includes a shift from selling just hardware to also include software and security solutions in its portfolio.

BusinessLine met with Chuck Robbins, who took over as CEO last year, to find out how he is facing challenges and where India fits into his scheme of things. Excerpts:

How important is India for Cisco?

We’ve been here 21 years, all the way back from 1995 and then when we made the big bet to make it our second global headquarters almost a decade ago, that was a very big move and it has paid off very well for us. We’ve had virtually every element of our business represented here and it’s a source of tremendous innovation on the development side.

A year and a half ago we had our initial meeting with the Prime Minister and then we launched our digital efforts in alignment with the priorities of the government here. I think of this as a 360-degree country for us because its a great business opportunity for us.

It is a tremendous source of talented employees across our business functions. It is a country that has a leader who believes in the power of what technology can do for the future. And now we are going to start manufacturing here. But over time we would love to use it as a hub to deliver products in other countries as well.

Are you looking at investing in Indian start-ups?

There’s a lot of reasons (to invest in Indian start-ups) and it makes sense for us. And if one turns out to be a company that we’d like to acquire then that’s great as well. We expect start-ups in the areas of Internet of Things and smart cities to really flourish in India.

There have been a lot of MoUs signed in the smart city area but do you see that translating into big wins for you in terms of large contracts?

It is amazing when we think about the smart city initiatives because we have been a champion of this capability for almost a decade and it’s rewarding for us to get to a point where the reality of the capabilities ... come to life and to have so many opportunities in India. We have more of these projects going on here than I think in any country in the world right now.

How do you respond to critics who say that a huge entity like Cisco will take time to compete with smaller, nimbler and more agile new-age companies born in the digital era?

We are going to continue to move faster than we ever have. One of the big differentiators that we have is the ability to scale. A lot of companies have very interesting technology, but the ability to scale on a global basis in a magnitude of what we build for our customers is a very difficult thing to consume. The other critical aspect is the global ecosystem that we have established with our traditional partner community. We will move pretty quickly over the next 15 months.

You’re using M&A as a great tool to fill up the technology gaps that you had. All of these investments have been small ones. Will Cisco look at larger acquisitions at some point?

When we look at our ability to innovate, depending on how you define large, we’ll generally stay more towards smaller size (acquisitions).

With the speed with which we need to move, trying to digest and and bring two very large organisations together, I don’t see that as something that would benefit us and the pace that we need to go forward.

Since you’ve taken over as CEO, you’ve done many acquisitions and a reorganisation. Can you link all of what you’ve been doing to what you want Cisco to be in future?

All of this is around how technology will be consumed and how we help our customers get to business benefits faster. So, if you look at the acquisitions that we’ve made, most are around cloud and software, in key areas our customers would like to see us move into. So, you’ll see us continue to deliver our technology as a service where it makes sense.

The other dynamic that we see is that there is tremendous value to be created for our customers if we can build deep partnerships with a few strategic market leaders.

This transformation has also meant that Cisco has had to undertake layoffs. Its happened earlier, in 2014 and 2012. Why does transformation have to be painful and why can’t you re-skill?

This most recent move that we had to make — fundamentally — was there are so many areas that are going to be critical to our success in the future that we just had to make a significant reallocation of investments. And unfortunately that was the only way we saw to get there in the time frame we needed to.

At the same time, we’ve put a lot of effort into how we continue to give our teams more opportunity to educate themselves and become aligned with some of these new growth areas.

You succeeded John Chambers and there will be a lot of comparison between your leadership style and his. How much of what you’re doing would be different from what John would’ve done?

When you talk to John, he will tell you there are a significant number of things that I did that he would’ve done but he wanted to make sure the next CEO had the opportunity to do it the way that person wants to do it.

He will also tell you that there are some things that he probably wouldn’t have done. When he talks about things that I have done that he wouldn’t have done, he says he thinks some of them are brilliant, he’s still not sure about some of the others. He’s a tremendous advisor. He’s been very active here in India and it’s great that John is still there and it’s helping us from a strategy perspective. He’s doing strategic customer engagements and he’s working very deeply in some of the countries around the world, including in India and France.

There have been many top-level exits at Cisco in the last few months and even at the time when you took over. Has that left the company with a leadership void?

Most of the changes were made at the beginning of my tenure. There were several folks who had aspirations to be the CEO. What I asked of them was ‘if you want to stay, I need a three-year commitment because we have a journey we need to go on together’.

Several of them said ‘I want to do something else’. So, we said that’s great. We are all friends now and that’s how it worked out.

Now, we have a great team and a tremendous leadership. Cisco has a reputation of high-quality leaders and high-quality teams. I am very comfortable with where we are.