Editor’s Notebook: Random tidbits from the Cisco braintrust

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins

DALLAS — Events like Cisco Partner Summit present the attending reporter some unique opportunities, not the least of which is a group audience with CEO Chuck Robbins and his top lieutenants. In a tradition that dates back to John Chambers’ leadership, the CEO holds court with press and analysts at company events for an hour, taking any and all questions.

Sometimes these sessions result in something that can be easily packaged into a news article, or used to round out a news article. But often, there are little details that may not lend themselves to 400 words to themselves, but nonetheless present interesting insights, indications where Cisco and its partners are heading, and how the leadership is thinking about the industry.

Here, then, are six random tidbits from that session with Robbins, sales chief Chris Dedicoat, networking and security boss David Goeckeler, and applications leader Rowan Trollope that should be interesting to the channel community.

  1. Robbins as CEO: Nine quarters and a lot of change

Robbins took a moment to discuss some of the changes he’s seen over his now two-years-and-a-quarter as Cisco’s leader, and said he had been pleasantly surprised by the readiness and willingness of both Cisco itself and its partners to go through the changes he charted early in his tenure and continues to execute on today.

Among the highlights he cited: shifting the collaboration business from entirely on-prem to entirely cloud-based, rewriting the IOS operating system that underpins almost all of its networking hardware, a “pretty complex operating system that runs some of the most complex networks in the world” in a way that exposes more access to APIs, more and more software leading the charge, and transforming from a company that “sold on the net-30 model forever” into one where growth of recurring revenue and subscriptions is both expected and feted.

The forecast for the near future? More of the same.

“We have to continue executing on the things we’re doing now, we have to learn every day, we have to continue to stay focused to what’s happening along the way, and we have to shift gears quickly when need be,” Robbins said.

2. A growing focus on SMB

There has been a distinctly SMB-friendly message at this year’s Partner Summit, highlighted by the announcements of a partnership with ConnectWise and an expansion of EasyPay. but not too long ago, Robbins confided “partners felt there was a greater opportunity for us in SMB.” Translation: No, Cisco wasn’t really doing a great job in the SMB space in the past. But the company’s executives stressed that was changing as the company itself changed. The push towards cloud and software has resulted in more Cisco products that are attractive to, and consumable by, SMBs.

Robbins said moving its Meraki cloud-managed WiFi further into SMB has been responsible for much fo the growth the company has seen there, and that business has scaled 10x since joining Cisco. Robbins also said the company is planning and delivering “more purpose-built products” for SMBs, particularly in geographic markets that are particularly SMB-heavy. Hmmmm… Canada is particularly SMB-heavy, no?

Trollope stressed that the recently-announced planned acquisition of Broadsoft “shows we’re serious about SMB” a a majority of the company’s customers are organizations of fewer than 50 seats.

“Partners were right to be frustrated” with Cisco’s performance in SMB, Robbins said. “And I’m glad they’re seeing a resurgence now.”

3. Meet the new partner, same as a old partner

There’s a tendency in the press (your humble scribe included) to put a lot of focus on what’s next — especially as Cisco transforms itself, and ideas like IOT introduce new partnering models, what’s the profile of the next Cisco partner?

But Robbins pumped the brakes o that a little bit, offering the cautionary tale of Cisco’s pursuit of voice/network convergence nearly two decades ago. At the time, he recalled, the assumption was that they had to go out and recruit an army of traditional voice-centric partners to go-to-market. So they did.  But did that work out? Not so much.

So what did work out?

“We realized it was our current partner base that was picking up the technology and really running with it,” he said.

While he and Dedicoat agreed that industry-changing moves like IOT will result in new partnerships, those partnerships will not replace the current partner base. Although, like Cisco itself, the names of those partners may be the same five years from now, but the organizations themselves may look entirely different.

“Even with our current transition around APIs and programmability, I believe most of our partners will add those capabilities through organic or inorganic ways, and we’ll continue to help educate and train them as this all plays out,” Robbins said.

In other words, partners who align with and evolve with Cisco will likely still be on the invite list for Partner Summit 2022.

4. The channel gets a seat at Cisco’s M&A table

There’s no doubt that Cisco is about the most acquisitive company in the industry, so much so that at this year’s Cisco Live conference, the vendor felt compelled to run a roundtable for press around the theme of “Hey, we actually do innovation in-house too, y’know!” And if you’ve ever wondered if Robbins is thinking about you when he pulls the trigger on a new deal, the answer, from the executive himself, is yes.

Robbins said that the channel “fits prominently” in deciding who gets an acquisition offer from Cisco, and how many zeros are in that offer.

Dedicoat elaborated that the company evaluates potential acquisitions for partner-readiness based not only on their current partner activities, but on their channel potential. Here, the company’s recently-announced purchase of Broadsoft, already mentioned above, scored high.

“One of the reasons the proposed acquisition is attractive to us is that we can scale the partner community to really expand the scale of our purchase,” he said.

The company has a track record in such acquisitions, he said, holding up Meraki as an acquisition that didn’t do much business in the partner base pre-merger, but is now a channel favourite and conducts a majority of its business through partners.

5. Mutlicloud is a long-long-term bet

Cisco’s cloud strategy has evolved over recent years from its Intercloud approach, which at one point included a Cisco-hosted public cloud on its roadmap, to its current multicloud strategy, which stresses providing ways to make it easier for customers to consume a variety of clouds, both public and private. As it as inked deals with most of the hyper-scale cloud vendors — most recently Google — Robbins said the strategy isn’t to promote any one cloud, but rather “to help our customers navigate whatever cloud strategy they may choose to follow.”

In other words, it’s pretty much cloud agnosticism, and it’s one that Goeckeler said will be around for a very long time.

“We’re still in the early days of cloud, and it’s gotten a huge amount of publicity, as it should. The hybrid cloud age will last for decades,” he said.

6. How much does Cisco invest in channel transformation?

Thanks to the legal formalities of quiet periods and the like, the answer to this question was unusually short. “It starts with a B,” Robbins said.

Dedicoat offered a significantly more in-depth response. “It’s several billions of dollars” of investment over the last three years, he said.