So, John Chambers is now a half-time “wing man”. As Josh Brown tweeted, “Fun Fact: $CSCO’s been a 22 dollar stock since Justin Bieber was born.” but it hasn’t always been that way. I joined Cisco when it was small, very small, and had quite a few direct encounters with Chambers. I stay with the company until around the time it became the most valuable company on the planet – that was clearly a palpably insane valuation moment. John Chambers was always incredible with customers, and steered Cisco out of some early hiccups, now long since lost to history, as well as leading it through the mid-cap stage where many successful startups often get stuck.
Even as a young engineer, I found Cisco’s culture fascinating, and it probably switched me on to how important company culture is. Cisco wasn’t command and control, it was execute and kill. There was plenty of room to run with great ideas, but a zero-tolerance policy towards failure, where failure included almost anything other than coming first. That meant, in the latter days, that the innovation all happened outside of the company. You don’t get innovation without taking risks, and people don’t take risks when much is on the line, and there is little upside. In the earlier days, when the stock valuation seemed to double every few months, the rewards were huge, and that attracted and motivated some incredible individuals. Those individuals, in turn, hired some amazingly talented folks, and created a smart place to work and learn.
I was never interviewed for a job at Cisco (they acquired the start up I’d joined a little while before), but I interviewed many people, and the Cisco hiring process was the model for every startup I have worked for since: Hire exceptional people, with a great cultural fit, that will grow with the company. That meant potential new hires went through lots of rounds of interviews, and usually met with surprisingly senior folks. Yes, that was time consuming, but no where near as time-consuming as hiring the wrong people.
There are many good lessons from Cisco, both in terms of what it has done well, and what it didn’t do so well. However, to me Cisco’s lasting legacy is that it seeded much of the tech start up industry, by creating a ready acquisition market for successful tech start ups, and a venture capital environment that funded them, and built the foundations for today’s tech businesses.
They were heady days, running around “building the Internet” – I remember being involved in the network designs for some of the first on-line banks, many early Internet service providers, and the global networks of many many Fortune/FTSE companies, as well as taking a number of products from concept to market leadership, as Cisco expanded its portfolio of Internet technologies. Cisco, almost single handedly (>80% market share), laid the foundations for today’s Internet, the Internet of e commerce, social platforms and the growing “Internet of Things”. They created an ecosystem that allowed people to create, innovate and build whole new industries. Which of today’s tech giants is doing that?