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Big Thinkers to Exit Cisco, Leaving Many ‘What’s Next’ Questions

Cisco

Craig GalbraithThe industry is reeling from Monday’s report that four of Cisco’s best-known executives are leaving the company.

An internal memo from Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, announced the resignations of Mario Mazzola, Prem Jain, Luca Cafiero and Soni Jiandani, effective June 17. The four formed a team that many referred to as MPLS — letters that represent the initials of their first names.

The memo said their resignations were based on “a disconnect regarding roles, responsibilities and charter that came to light immediately after the announcement.” That announcement was that three of the four, who were all senior vice presidents running the company’s Insieme Networks, would now serve as “advisers.”

Team “MPLS” is well known for Cisco’s hot-selling line of switching systems – the Nexus 9000 – a big part of the company’s “unified computing” approach. They’ve all been with Cisco since 1993, when it acquired Crescendo Communications.{ad}

We asked Russ White, former distinguished architect with Cisco, and a regular Channel Partners contributor, to share his thoughts on the ongoing shake-up at Cisco, which started a year ago when Robbins took over for John Chambers as CEO:

Russ White“Mario Mazzola, Prem Jain and Luca Cafiero have, over the years, spun several startups out of Cisco, and then spun them back into the company — often with great financial gain to themselves and those who worked through the process. The most recent, Insieme, resulted in Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastucture (ACI), which has been making strong inroads into the data-center market. This last week, the three veterans announced they would be leaving their roles managing ACI, and moving to an advisory role at Cisco.

The immediate reaction in most quarters was to ask, ‘How badly will this harm Cisco?’ There certainly will be some harm to Cisco, and Cisco’s sales in the data-center space, particularly if Cisco’s competitors can take advantage of the perceived lack of leadership in ACI to introduce or put forward some real alternatives.

Beyond this, of course, there is the question of innovation. Will losing these serial innovators cause a slowdown in the pipeline for Cisco products in the data-center space? The answer is, most likely, yes. While there are likely a lot of innovative ideas already in the pipeline, these will eventually “run out.” And this is where things get difficult.

Over years of relying on favored innovators, a company can come to rely on those innovators to an inordinate degree. As the focus narrows onto a small group of ‘favored innovators,’ other innovators either turn to …

{vpipagebreak}

… other pursuits, leave the company (as MPLS did), or simply shut down. Over some period of time, the bottom-up innovation pathways in the company can stagnate; they’re kept alive as ‘programs,’ but only operate at the edges of real product. The result can often be a company that appears very innovative, but is, in reality, a set of processes with no real meat, and no real appetite for risk, to back those processes up.

From an outsider’s perspective, this appears to be position Cisco is now in. The key point, right now, is to rebuild the innovation pipeline before the ideas already ‘on the table’ run out — to take the bottom-up innovators seriously, to put muscle into finding ideas from within. This is a difficult process, of course, but it’s also the only real way forward.

The good news, for Cisco, is the company has a lot of innovators already in place, so there’s a lot of hope for a bright future. The bad news is the spin-in rut is very long and deep, and well established in Cisco’s culture. How can you determine which path Cisco chooses? Big product announcements aren’t going to answer this question. Rather, you need to dig into each product to see what is bits and pieces reused from other places, and what is truly new. And you need to listen to engineers on the ground within Cisco itself, to see if they’re ideas are being taken seriously.

Which way will Cisco go? Only time will tell.”


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