New Nortel CTO Targets Cisco's Network Control

Last Wednesday, John Roese officially became chief technology officer at Nortel Networks Corp., which announced his hiring the previous week. Before joining Brampton, Ontario-based Nortel, the 35-year-old Roese (pronounced "rose") was CTO at Broadcom Corp. for three months, and he previously held the same title at Enterasys Networks Inc. and Cabletron Systems Inc. He spoke with Computerworld last week about what Nortel needs to do better in order to become a stronger rival to Cisco Systems Inc. Excerpts from the interview follow:

What do you bring to Nortel? A technology company without a dedicated focal point for the technology community is at risk of drifting. It's extremely important that there be a CTO at a company like this to keep people on target and provide a litmus test as to whether you are moving in the right direction. When I was CTO of Cabletron, I was a Nortel partner early on, and then a competitor when Nortel bought Bay Networks. I understand the enterprise and the metropolitan-area network spaces.

You left Broadcom after a short stint there. What changed? I was fairly happy at Broadcom. First, I said no to Nortel, and then, with more visibility, I saw that Nortel was a $10 billion enterprise, with 12,000 R&D folks and a [corporate] brand that was still in pretty good shape. There was a technology basis and engineering expertise here. Nortel is doing great things, and nobody seems to know that.

What are the biggest things Nortel needs to improve upon? Well, two things: One, we have to behave like the company we are -- like a broad company that builds communication systems. Each silo of products is a part, but you can't just build a product in a cell and hope it works in the enterprise.

Two, we have to tell our story. CTOs are mostly about technology and partly about marketing. The reality is that when I went out to talk to companies, I got a good response from Nortel customers, [but] when I stepped outside of Nortel customers, people didn't know how big Nortel was. Customers want choice. They need to have an alternative to the Cisco marketing machine that tells people they have no other options. We have to communicate that.

What will the company's leading technology area be in, say, five years? It's tough to predict five years in the future. But I'm going to spend a lot of my time to make sure it happens that we lead in the enterprise infrastructure business. The enterprise market is desperately looking for an alternative to Cisco. They really want someone to step up with scale, brand and technology solutions. And when I look around, the only candidate is Nortel. Nortel may be one-half [of] the $12 billion in enterprise revenue that Cisco is, but what I believe from talking to enterprise customers is that if anyone starts to behave like an alternative to Cisco, there will be a relative shift because the market is out of balance.

But what do you say to the IT manager I talked to recently who has thousands of users on Avaya phones and is looking at alternative vendors? He said he wouldn't touch Nortel because of the taint from your financial restatements. Well, shame on us for not engaging him appropriately. I wonder if he has the right information about our company. If the first time a person hears from a salesperson, that customer's only experience is a negative public impression, it's tough to sell him. The doors inside the Nortel installed base are definitely open [to us]. How we will generate growth is from competitive displacement. [But] to get pull in the market won't necessarily come from the creation of new products. It's from shifting Nortel from an inward focus toward creating noise about the good things going on. The negative press about financial restatements or executive replacements are countered by talking about who uses Nortel [equipment and services]. That has not been done.

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