Q&A: Cisco CIO Fletcher Previn on the challenges of a hybrid workplace

Securing Cisco's networks, creating and maintaining company culture, and dealing with a dearth of IT talent are among the difficult issues with which Cisco CIO Fletcher Previn says he's grappling.

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In April, 2021, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins announced he would let all 75,000 employees work remotely indefinitely, even after the COVID-19 pandemic ended. The company had seen no drop in productivity by allowing employees to work from home and expected to save money by not fully staffing offices. When and how often employees should come into the office would be up to their managers, who abide by a flexible hybrid policy.

But that shift brought technology challenges most companies are by now familiar with: how do you secure networks when the employee’s home is essentially a branch office? How do you create company culture from afar? And, how do you retain employees at a time when IT talent is in historically high demand.

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Cisco CIO Fletcher Previn

Fletcher Previn took over as Cisco’s CIO in April 2022. Since then, his focus has primarily been on all of thoe issues. Prior to arriving at Cisco, Previn worked at IBM for 15 years, the last four as its CIO. 

Previn wasn’t necessarily fated for work in IT. His parents — composer and conductor André Previn and actress Mia Farrow — initially pulled him toward entertainment. But Previn realized technology was his passion.

He spoke to Computerworld about the challenges he faces and the lessons he’s learned. The following are excerpts from that interview.

What are your main goals for the future of Cisco? “What was exciting about the opportunity at Cisco [were] two things: One, is I believe in the mission. If you were to remove all Cisco technology from the world it would be a very different planet. Cisco basically built the public internet and created the global village we live in — connecting everything and everyone. That’s a mission I feel passionately about, and empowering an equal future for all is part of our mission statement.

“A lot of my focus at IBM had been to to lead with experience and create these highly designed, simplified experiences both for employees and customers – if you want people to build best-in-class experiences, you need to deliver best-in-class experiences because today’s best experience is tomorrow’s minimal expectation.

“I love the focus on that and really getting after the complexity in things and simplifying it.... I’m hoping to enable people to do the best work of their lives.”

What got you into IT? What do you love about it? “I’ve always been interested in technology. I got a Commodore 64 when I was like six, and then I headed down the PC route and built my own x86 clone because the IBM PC was too expensive. In 1984, my parents bought the original Mac — the 128K Mac — for the whole family when it came out. I had a lot of brothers and sisters and there was a sign-up sheet, and I’d get up 4:30 in morning to reserve time on the Mac. It was like the old mainframe days when you had to schedule your time.

“It just always captivated me that to some degree you can do anything you can imagine on this thing. You’re not limited by anything but your own imagination.... And then when you interconnect these things..., you get orders of magnitude more value.

“I remember I got a modem shortly thereafter; it was probably around 1985, and I remember hooking up to CompuServe and later AOL. I found the interconnectedness of things really interesting. There was a while when I thought I’d like to go into entertainment; that was more the family business. My dad was a musician and my mom’s an actress. I spent time on movie sets and I was an intern at the Letterman show and the Conan O’Brien show, but it was telling me something when I was working at Universal Studios on a movie that to some degree I was more interested in exploring the phone system than in the story telling they were doing. When I was in college, I decided I should really stop fighting this. What I’m really drawn to is the technology.

“My parents are baffled by what I do.... They’re very proud of my career, but it’s a little mysterious to them nonetheless.”

How is Cisco approaching the dearth in available IT talent? Are you removing some college degree requirements and focusing more on skills-based hiring? “I can tell you that in my own organization, I’m hiring on experience, but also just curiosity and passion, more than degrees. I’m looking more for people who are kind, passionate about what they do for a living, and believe in our mission. I’ll almost always hire for curiosity and interest over experience and degree any day of the week. If you enjoy what you do and you’re interested in it, you’re going to be successful at it.”

In 2021, Cisco announced it would not require any of its 75,000 employees to return to the office. For IT in particular, that’s a tricky policy — what is your policy regarding hybrid work? “Our policy around hybrid work is that we want the office to be a magnet and not a mandate. In all likelihood, the role of the office is for most people not going to be a place where you go eight hours a day to do work. It’s going to be a place where we occasionally gather for some purpose. And, so as a result, we’re not mandating any particular prescriptive for how many days people should be in the office. It’s totally based on the type of work teams do, how collaborative that works needs to be, does it really benefit from people being together, or is it really individual work. And that’s really best determined at the individual team level than any sort of an arbitrary formula.

“The value of being in the office is proportionate to the number of other people who are also in the office at the same time you’re there. So, these things tend to be more about gathering for a team meeting, a client briefing, a white boarding session and the like.

“When everybody was remote, it was a great equalizer because everyone was on a similar footing. Hybrid is a somewhat more complicated thing to solve in that you’ve got this total employee wellbeing to consider, including physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, financial health, and being able to productive in your job. I mostly live and operate in the productivity quadrant of that formula. But as soon as you’re in a hybrid world, you’re bringing in the complexity of bringing some into the office and some not. So, how do you create an environment where people are not disadvantaged by that — that you don’t have a system of haves and have-nots where there’s a group of people in a conference room together speaking softly and laughing at inside jokes and people who are remote struggling to see or hear what’s going on in the office.

“Working remotely removed a certain number of stressors, but it introduced other ones. So, you don’t have a long commute and perhaps you can get away with wearing sweatpants for work, and that’s all good. But is your internet reliable? Do you have a quiet place to work? Do you have a remote work setup that is high quality enough that you can read body language, detect non-verbal cues, understand when you’re losing the attention of the person you’re speaking with, and all those things you’d benefit from if you were in a conference room together. So, I’ve experienced the hybrid work journey, which I guess we’ll eventually just call work because all work will eventually become hybrid, in these three phases of technology, security, and culture.”

What about technological issues? How did the pandemic affect that? “I had to ask what does it mean from a security perspective if I have people doing remote school, and playing video games, and smart thermostats potentially on the same networks as people doing critical work? What do we need to do from a security perspective to shore up our boundaries where we feel we have the right level of visibility, observability, and manageability that we can manage the environment? You’re never really done with that, but at some point you feel you’re on top of that.

“Then you enter the… phase, which we’re in now; the much more complex, nuanced, cultural aspects of work. This is not a temporary arrangement. What are the long-term consequences of working this way?

"We’ve had a lot of experience as to what it’s like to be in an office, but it’s a big reset and everybody gets a do-over for doing hybrid work. That’s the exciting part. The organizations that figure this out will win. If you’re in IT, we get to be the designers for what the future of work feels like.

“Your culture is the only unique thing you have and your culture is the result of how work gets done. So, in the moment it may feel like you’re making tactical decisions about your network, or VPN, or zero trust or collaboration, but in totality IT is a very prominent participant in designing the future of work. Collectively, these decisions add up to what it feels like to work somewhere.

“So, we spend a lot of time thinking about...IT as a driver of culture change, how we fulfill our calling of creating an equal future for all and an equitable remote hybrid work experience. Some of that is technical. There are things in our products that can take a conference room and chop it up [virtually], and make it so each person gets their own ‘Brady Bunch’ square, so you’re on an equal footing with those who are working remotely. [There are] things like noise cancellation and virtual backgrounds. But there’s also a lot of exciting innovation around the collaboration space to address that problem.

“As an IT department, you have to solve remote access, network connectivity, software-defined WAN, how you’re doing private peering and zero trust so you don’t have to back-haul all that traffic over the VPN to be able to inspect all that traffic and know what’s going on. How do you secure endpoints and how do you really know what the experience your employees are having in a hybrid world across networks you don’t own or manage?

“That requires an understanding of the global internet backbone, the SaaS providers you’re using. In my case, ThousandEyes is a great tool that helps me with that. But you can see the set of things you need to solve for as an IT department is much more complicated and broader than just what tool you have to be using for a meeting.”

How do you create or sustain company culture in this environment? “I do think it is a more challenging problem to solve in terms of how to create a sense of togetherness, purpose,[and]  mission alignment when everyone is not together, [without] the same serendipitous interactions with each other that they’d have if they were in person.

“Sometimes I talk about this in terms of a ‘relationship bank.' If you and I see each other in the office and I ask, ‘How are your children doing? Do you want to grab a bite in the cafeteria?’ Those are deposits into our relationship bank. And then when we’re asking things of each other in a work setting, we’re making withdrawals.

“If all you have is withdrawals and no deposits, you end up in a relationship deficit and work becomes transactional, which is not good. All of us are going to spend more time working than doing anything else, and so this has to have some deeper meaning; it can’t just be a transactional relationship.

“We’ve been experimenting with things to address this. As a company, I think there’s a level of informativity that came with hybrid work that’s going to remain, which I think is a good thing. ...In times past, you may not have asked somebody about their stress levels or their fatigue levels or how their personal life is going. And now I think that is a part of a wholesome, totally employee view of their wellbeing. 

“Transparency has increased, and I think it’s something Cisco works very hard at. All of the senior leadership team, including the CEO, have these quarterly townhall meetings where the whole company is invited to participate and the leadership team shares what’s going on, what’s top of mind, what questions they’re hearing from the workforce. The workforce is encouraged to engage in a dialogue, and they do. Those questions are answered very candidly.

“My own management system for my team is trying to do some deliberate things to re-create some of what would happen in the office if we were all together. So, for example, every morning I have a check-in with my team for 30 minutes, and that’s just 30 minutes top of mind. It’s not a meeting for my benefit to ask status of projects. It’s for my team to be able to say here’s what’s top of mind for them and these are the things other people should be aware of, here are blockers I need help with. Then I have a weekly staff meeting. Then we have a monthly operating review with each of my directs, which is a one-hour, one-on-one going through their OKRs [objectives and key results].

“Then, once a month we come together in person as a team and once a quarter we spend two days together doing calibration of our OKRs and any adjustment we think is necessary, either for our OKRs or our strategy. That at least gets a cadence of talking to each other every day, and we’re coming together in person at least once a month.

“...I think there is a lot of interesting analysis being done on what does a productive hybrid workday look like? Being busy is not the same thing as being productive. If I’m not actively managing this, it’s not uncommon for days where I don’t have time to go to the bathroom, and I’m at home. That would be very odd in the office — to have 16, 30-minute meetings back-to-back with no break. Your calendar doesn’t lie. Your calendar is a reflection of your priorities.

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