Inside Cisco R&D: Networking with the next-gen architects

From 'nerd lunch' sessions to 'SecCon', Computerworld takes a look at how Cisco R&D keeps its employees motivated and on the fast track to innovation.

lightbulb tree - new ideas - emerging technology
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The writing is on the wall – Morgan McKinley’s survey, as well as Monster’s findings, reveals that the top motivator for employees is the opportunity to do meaningful and challenging work. And Cisco, it appears, has gotten this right.

The fact is corroborated by Inc’s ‘Average Tenure for Tech Workers’ report that lists Cisco’s average employee tenure at 7.8 years. The old-timer surpassed new age giants like Facebook and Tesla by at least 5.5 years.

Cisco’s R&D centre in Bangalore is a testament to how an employee provided with the opportunity to innovate is likely to stick on – the centre sees, on an average, a patent filed every two days. The prospect of creating new-age tech solutions for real-world business problems combined with the opportunity to learn new skills turns out to be the key factor that keeps ‘Ciscoites’ ticking.

Computerworld visited the centre to get a read on what’s it like to work at Cisco R&D and what fuels its employees' drive to innovate. By interacting with employees across different tenures – right from newbies who’ve just completed a year, to technical leaders with 18 years of experience under their belts, we try to understand what makes the R&D unit a great place to work.

A new joiner who's just completed a year in the organization, Saumya Agarwal was recruited through campus placement; she picked Cisco as she had a keen interest in cybersecurity and the company offered her a chance to do just that.

I've learnt a lot from interacting with people all over the globe in the cybersecurity. You can attend virtual conferences conducted by domain experts and reach out to them at any time. -- Saumya Agarwal, software engineer, Cisco R&D Centre

cisco wideshot Cisco R&D Centre/IDG India

Betting big on clean, sustainable energy

Smitha, a senior technical leader who has worked with Cisco for 15 years says: "We have these conferences within Cisco - we call them SecCon. It happens across geographies and you get to meet a lot of people working in your domain. It's open and everybody can participate."

Another old-timer at Cisco, Shobhit, technical leader-engineering, has been with the company for 18 years now; he shares that Cisco encourages people to move around so they can pick up different technology trends and not be confined to one domain alone.

Shobhit started working with Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) and then moved to infrastructure, OS, and then wireless technology. 

Cisco's practice to have its employees pick up new skills makes perfect sense in the present day -- the current wave of layoffs in the IT sector has been primarily attributed to employees not learning new skills.

Ashwin Kumar, a technical leader with nine years of Cisco experience under his belt, says that the company allows you to do something like supply chain management or product management -- areas that are in no way connected to the technology domain they worked in when they joined the company.

Explaining how the company makes it comfortable for employees to learn new skills, Smitha says: "They have these open projects -- basically stretch assignments, where you can shadow a domain expert or mentor and team up with other teams in the organizations. So if you're not sure and you want to experiment before you switch, this option comes in quite handy."

Code in pairs, code in isolation, code standing -- it's your code, your call Cisco R&D Centre/IDG India

Code in pairs, code in isolation, code while you stand -- it's your call

A mentorship program that works well for all

The fact that employees are given a chance to mentor somebody also adds to job satisfaction. 

A plush massage chair for those marathon coding sessions Cisco R&D/IDG India

A plush massage chair for those marathon coding sessions

Citing from experience, Karthik Bhat, a senior software engineer who has been with the company for nine years now, says that he regularly mentors new college hires and believes that the kind of exposure new joiners have is exceptional. "The reverse knowledge transfer is phenomenal. You tend to get a little too comfortable working in your domain for a period of time. For instance, they have great knowledge of source code management," he shares.

Throwing more light on this, Saumya explains that the mentorship program made her college-to-corporate transformation pretty smooth. "The mentors gave me an opportunity to develop POCs and this gave me in-depth experience at a very early stage in my career," she says.

[Related: Inside Campus: How Cisco R&D does what it does best – Innovate]

Cisco's internal portal enables its employees to share their ideas and suggestions. The portal assists employees in getting help from a sponsor or a technical architect. In addition, it also makes it possible for the idea to receive funding if it carries a good value proposition. 

Check, mate! Cisco R&D Centre/IDG

Cisco's mantra of being in the midst of things finds its way to the chessboard as well

It doesn't really matter if the idea takes off; if the management recognizes the effort put into the idea, employees receive 'connected recognition' -- recognition and incentives granted by not just immediate managers, but from peers as well.

Karthik recounts how his ideas around automating features, simplifying applications, and code visibility had earned him recognition from his colleagues and accolades on the forum.

In Shobhit's opinion, the monetary part of it is secondary, the recognition one receives is the thing that keeps people going. This also ensures that when an employee has to go beyond their assigned capabilities, he or she would feel encouraged to put in that extra effort.

What motivates employees at Cisco R&D

A prime motivator for people working in R&D is the opportunity to work on cutting edge, emerging technologies. Shobhit states how Cisco provides him with an opportunity to work on Wi-Fi 6.

"It's not just technologies around the corner, we are also looking way ahead. This week we had a 'nerd lunch' in which we brainstormed on the next wave of Wi-Fi technology. So it's not just cutting-edge technologies, in terms of next-gen technologies too, we're plugged in," says Shobhit. 

A breakaway from boxy meeting rooms Cisco R&D Centre/IDG

A breakaway from boxy meeting rooms

The next question, of course, is what's 'nerd lunch'? It's essentially a collaborative session that includes presentations and keynotes on upcoming trends in technology.

Elaborating on this, Smitha explains that there's a dedicated team that identifies employees skilled in emerging technologies and encourages them to present and share during 'nerd lunch' sessions. At Cisco, there's a dedicated L&D team that looks into these sessions. 

In addition to this, Cisco conducts 'Beyond Horizon', its own version of Ted Talk that invites speakers from all walks of life -- it could be a cricketing legend like Rahul Dravid or a visionary film-maker like Zoya Akhtar. 

Collaborating with startups

Cisco also provides its employees with the opportunity to mentor startups through its 'Launchpad' program. Engineers get to interact and mentor startups by giving them the know-how on scaling their business and solving tech challenges. 

'Ciscoites' brainstorming at a space-themed zone Cisco R&D Centre/IDG

'Ciscoites' brainstorming in a space-themed zone

Smitha explains that the program helps mentors to get a thorough understanding of what's transpiring in the emerging tech market and the startup economy.

Launchpad helps us in learn a totally different way of working by observing and collaborating with startups. In addition to helping startups with technology solutions, it gives us takeaways we can implement at Cisco. -- Smitha, senior technical leader, Cisco

She goes on to recount how she was involved in collaborating with a healthcare startup to devise a QAS solution and deal with redundancies. 

Setting up a conducive work atmosphere 

No stranger to workplace collaboration, Cisco offers flexible workspace options for its employees at the R&D Centre. As long as the job gets done, Ciscoites say that the company is perfectly okay with flexible work timings. 

A Bangalore-themed hangout at the Cisco R&D Centre Cisco R&D Centre/IDG

A Bangalore-themed hangout at the Cisco R&D Centre

The company provides a whole host of workstations and seating arrangements for developers -- if coding on a cosy beanbag is not your style, you can also choose to work on high-stools or even stand and code. And for those marathon coding sessions, you may sink into one of the plush 'lazy boys' with in-built massagers.

To facilitate work from home, Cisco employees can use the same Wi-Fi network and capabilities that they would otherwise use in the office.

Added to flexible work hours, employees at the R&D centre point out to facilities on the campus that make the centre a delightful place to work. Ashwin Kumar says that the daycare centre on the campus providing live camera feed to parents is a huge benefit for new dads like him.

Smitha, a yoga enthusiast, says that they have yoga instructors and fitness advisors available on campus, and it's not just physical health the company focuses on. Given the stress and workloads of techies in the fast-paced, ever-evolving realm of IT, there are on-campus consultants who help employees focus on mental health and wellbeing.

Ciscoites can brainstorm and work out of any of the available collaboration zones on the campus -- be it a quaint tropical rainforest setting or a futuristic space-themed zone complete with space pods that appear to be straight out of a sci-fi novel.

Additionally, Cisco R&D also has theatre and literature clubs, jam sessions at the cafeteria, and two Toastmasters clubs -- Vaani and Expressions. The campus also boasts of a Box Office that looks no different from a multiplex.

Interestingly, the company has found ways to combine business with recreation -- Shobhit recalls that when the 2019 Cricket World Cup was being live-streamed, the network development team encouraged a lot of employees to connect to a newly-developed Wi-Fi, and this served as a test run for the developers. 

Based on the tête-à-tête with the workforce at Cisco R&D, it's quite evident that it does pay to pamper your employees. Add to that the opportunity of being exposed to cutting-edge technologies and global collaboration and you have a winning formula to an innovation-driven centre that boasts of unparalleled employee loyalty.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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