Q&A: New Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins heads into "hyper-connected" mode

Robbins takes over at Cisco for John Chambers this Monday, promoting a hyper-connected architecture in the face of competition from white box makers and SDN proponents

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Look at what we’ve done already with our collaboration portfolio. We made the acquisition of Tropo, which is a key asset that helps us expose our collaboration portfolio through APIs. We have a very active ecosystem that is writing applications that call the collaboration processes in the application. We announced our IoT platform, IOx, that gives applications the ability to write to the infrastructure. As we build out our programmability capability with ACI and our enterprise networking capabilities, we’ll expose those to application developers as well.

You’ve made a number of acquisitions in security and there’s been a lot of internal development. What’s missing? Where o you still need to go in security?

It’s a very large market and depending on whose numbers you look at, we have probably between 7-10% [market share] and we’re number one. There’s a lot of opportunity to expand our footprint. The biggest issue today is that customers, on average, have 45-50 security vendors, so it’s logical that you’re only as safe as your weakest point. We believe customers are going to begin to look at this much more architecturally. We already see it happening. Think about what I just described with the architecture we can build. And, by the way, it will not be a closed Cisco architecture. We’re not that naïve. We’ll build it and we believe that we’ll do it better than anybody else, but – and we’ve shown this with ACI - we will open up and apply policy against a set of standards as well, which is what our customers want us to do.

I wanted to go back to the comment you made about the Flip business. When you look back at things that Cisco has done wrong, is there a common theme? Is there something that led you astray, whether it’s the Cius tablet or Flip cameras or whatever you consider to be missteps in the past.

If you step back to the notion that, fundamentally, our company has been built off this notion of convergence and then value on top of that convergence, you could say some of those we either didn’t converge quickly enough or they weren’t closely enough aligned to our core capabilities. Where we identify opportunities that are tight adjacencies that truly derive value from becoming part of the IP infrastructure, that’s our sweet spot. That’s what ACI is, bringing the application in. That’s what IoT -- IoE digitization are. That’s why I believe those are tremendous opportunities for us in the future.

Let’s talk a little bit more about the IoE opportunity. How do you accelerate that for Cisco? It’s a very diverse market with lots and lots of players, lots of untouched applications that people haven’t even thought of yet. It seems to me to be one of the biggest hurdles in that market. How do you accelerate this and really ensure that you capture the leader’s share of this market?

There’s a natural connectivity and convergence value that’s associated with just connecting, going from 14 billion devices to 50 billion and then maybe a decade later to 500 billion. That’s inherently good for us. But we’ve always been really successful when we’ve delivered more value by virtue of that connectivity. We have a tagline that I really like. Amazing things happen when you connect the unconnected. It’s true. Once they’re connected, we can apply, first of all, security. Secondly, analytics. We can apply IT assets out at the edge to get that data, derive more value for the enterprise faster through programmability and those sorts of things. It’s a huge opportunity, not only for the connectivity to convergence, but also adding value on top of that.

So two big things out of that. One is security and the other is storage. But let’s start with security. IoT, as we’re all hearing a lot about, opens up a Pandora’s Box of new security problems. How are you going to help companies deal with those?

The architecture we’re going to build is going to help – [through] the combination of OpenDNS assets, the network assets, some assets we may not even have today. We’ve got some unique capabilities, frankly, that came through NDS [Group] that we can pull together. We believe that it has to be solved architecturally and the network is the one place where that can occur. We continue to work on that and to deliver the architecture for IoE security. We know that is a key enabler to accelerate that market that we have to deliver on.

How does that work in an environment where there are so many devices and products from other companies that you can’t control? For example, two really prominent attacks recently came through medical equipment. Can the infrastructure prevent that sort of thing?

I think once they become part of the IP infrastructure, then we can. Yes. Absolutely.

The second one is storage. IoT is about lots of storage and managing storage better. Does this mean a bigger play for Cisco in storage? Would you acquire a storage company?

This is a question we get quite often. We have had tremendous relationships with EMC, with NetApp, with Hitachi, even with IBM and, to date, what our customers need from us we’ve been able to satisfy through those partnerships. As we look at this architecture that I described for the future, then we will clearly step back and look at what we need to deliver and what parts we need to own, what parts we need to partner for, and that will drive our decisions in the future.

As we’re driving toward a hyper-converged data center, doesn’t that speak to the need to own storage more directly?

Oh, no. We actually invented converged infrastructure with EMC, VCE and Cisco and we didn’t have to own it, and it’s been wildly successful.

Okay. So I’m going to shift gears. Two things. What are you going to do on day one?

The first thing we’re going to do is have an all-hands meeting with everybody in the company with my new leadership team and we’re going to allow them to ask any question they’d like to ask. That’ll happen in the morning. Then we’re going to have a celebration with our teams in the afternoon, where we’re going to celebrate what John has accomplished here over the last 20 years, because he’s done amazing things for the Valley, for technology and, I think, for society and the world in general. He deserves to be celebrated.

On a more personal note, what’s one thing that people don’t generally know about you but would help them understand you better?

I have a mathematical sciences degree with a concentration in computer science. At my core, I’m a geek. I don’t know if you could tell, but I do get excited about the technology even though I’m not as deep in it as I used to be. And, to that end, around here, I’m known for the numbers. I always know the numbers and anybody that engages with me will know that they better know the numbers as well. But I think the thing that I’ve learned about myself recently is that all your experience and your ability to process data and consume all those numbers actually leads you to have an incredible instinct. My instinct is built off my experience, as well as my ability to process the data. But I think that the whole data and analysis piece is something that I really believe in and is core of what makes me who I am.

What drives you on a personal level? I do have a LinkedIn quote from you, “I absolutely love change. When things are dynamic and moving fast, I’m most energized.”

It’s the truth. I have four kids and a great family and we have a great time, and I love having watched my kids grow. They’re all different and they all look at things differently, and I’m energized by that. But I love leading teams. I love motivating and inspiring people. Every two months we do this simple thing called a “birthday chat.” Anybody who’s had a birthday in those two months, we do an hour of just open Q&A in the company. What is it that you want to ask? John and I have done the last two together and we did his last one with me this morning, and we had the greatest time. We laughed, everybody had a good time. The big thing for me is that it’s critically important, given the pressure, the pace, the complexity, that we all have fun. That is the core of who I am. I want my entire team around me to be committed to working really hard, but having a great time at it.

John, separate from his skill as CEO, has a big personality.

He does.

How do you -- I don’t want to say fill those shoes, because that’s not the right analogy. But how will Cisco be a different company with your personality?

You might want to ask people around here how big my personality is. John’s built an amazing culture - one of people who care deeply about what they do, they care deeply about the business, but they also care about giving back to their community, society and the world. We’ll maintain it. The difference between John and I is that I probably get into the details a little more today, but I’ve been told that three years from now I probably won’t be able to do that. Fundamentally the company will maintain all of our cultural values, all the things that make us great. We’ll have a lot of fun. And look, John’s going to be executive chairman, so he’s going to be sticking around for a few years, so his stamp will still be on it. He’ll still be around with his big personality and making us all laugh and having a great time.

Do you drink diet Coke?

Not nearly as much as John does.

Is there anything about the transition or what’s ahead that I didn’t ask about that you think our readers would need to know about?

This issue of data being everywhere and the need to take dynamic, secure infrastructure out to the data is going to be one of the most fundamental shifts we’ve seen in a while. We’re uniquely positioned because the network enables that through programmability, automation, security and all those things. If you look at that convergence of the applications into the infrastructure and the visibility that they now have, and then the convergence of this next wave of protocols and technologies that are right in the wheelhouse of what we’ve done, I think our future is incredibly bright.

MORE: Meet the Real Chuck Robbins

This story, "Q&A: New Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins heads into "hyper-connected" mode" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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