Advice from Cisco's top technologist

Advice from Cisco's top technologist

When Judith Estrin became a senior vice president and CTO at Cisco Systems last year, she added another chapter to a remarkable career. Following the completion of her graduate work at Stanford University, she chose entrepreneurship and, along with her husband, Bill Caricco, founded Bridge Communications, one of the first companies in the networking business. She went on to co-found two other firms: Network Computing Devices and Precept Software. When Cisco acquired Precept in February 1998, Estrin joined the Cisco management team. IDG's Charles T Clark caught up with herIDG: What attracted you to Cisco?

Estrin: My background is very much in networking. I was part of the group that did TCP/IP with Vint Cerf, and I helped to start the industry with the co-founding of Bridge Communications. So networking is really what I love. If you look around the technology industry today, there are few places making the same impact as the networking segment. And no-one in networking has the ability to make an impact more than Cisco. I've been an entrepreneur for 20 years and didn't decide to join a large company arbitrarily. What really drives me is making an impact - solving customer problems or applying technology in interesting ways to help customers do their jobs better. There are few places you can do that as broadly as at Cisco.

What's your vision of the integrator's role in Cisco's overall strategy?

I believe that solutions integrators play a very critical role in Cisco's overall success, in that networking technologies are increasingly mission-critical to the way people do business. Networks are also becoming bigger and more complex. People are doing more things with networks and are relying on them more. At the same time, corporations are looking more closely at how they spend their money. This includes where they hire expertise internally and where they rely on outside sources. So integrators play a central role in the networking industry for large enterprises, as well as for small and medium businesses that lack in-house technical expertise. A hallmark of Cisco's success has been that we take partnering very, very seriously. We've approached integrators in the same way - that is, they're not just another way of selling products; they are very strategic to our success and a crucial element of our partnering program.

With all the technologies and companies Cisco has purchased in the last few years, how do you accomplish the knowledge transfer needed for integrators to capitalise on these technologies?

Clearly it is an important issue - also in terms of how we internally get up to speed on our products. I can tell you that having come to this company as CTO, the sheer number of things going on is awesome. But we put a lot of emphasis on training and information transfer, and we try to be smart about it. We're looking at how we can leverage partners in training as well as in the systems integration market. We've thought a lot about how we exploit the latest technologies, such as Web-based video, to get the most current information into the hands of our partners. The other side of the question has to do with growth through acquisition. And we plan to continue this strategy. I think we're getting better at it. But as we acquire and move forward, we must also think about the technology and information overload problem in product design. We need the right management and software strategies to make our products easier to use and easier to operate.

In your opinion, which of your competitors has the most formidable technology, and why?

That's a difficult question, because we have two broad-based sets of competitors. We have our historic competitors in the data and IP networking market - 3Com and Cabletron Systems, for instance. Then we have what I'd call our new competitors in convergence, such as Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks. We're very confident of where we are and where we're going. But we can't become overconfident. So when I look at the market, I'm not willing to single out one competitor. We have sets of competitors, all with different technological weaknesses that we need to be aware of, as well as strengths we need to surpass.

What advice do you have for CTOs at integrator firms that are coping with frequent technology changes?

My advice is to stay immersed. You must be able to track the technology and be smart about how you do it, because some technology changes are hype and some are substance. For larger organisations especially, it's very important to have people whose job is to focus on tracking technology. I'd also advise CTOs to establish relationships with CIOs and vendors they can trust. And the most important thing is to learn what questions to ask - and make sure to ask those questions frequently.

Price is important, but making the right decisions as you move forward in technology planning is important, too. So I really do believe that finding the right balance between a vendor just selling you product versus being a trusted adviser and part of your strategic team is the best way to do things. You see, I don't view selling as a transaction; I view it as a relationship. And I believe that in an industry as complex as networking, you're better off if selling is a relationship.

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