The bigger picture

The bigger picture

Cisco ANZ managing director, Les Williamson, chats to ARN

Tell us about your background. Have you always worked in IT?

Les Williamson, Cisco (LW): I have. It's coming up to 18 years now after leaving university with a degree in electronic engineering. I went into a graduate program with Ericsson and was with them for 13 years including four overseas. I was in Sweden working on global design in the late '80s when mobile was just taking off. I can still remember the day I held my first mobile phone because it was the size of a car battery but it was easy to see that this had some applications. I left Ericsson about eight years ago, because I thought they were losing their way a little bit and didn't really stand for anything technically, and joined Cisco as an account manager. I've been here ever since so I have a limited company history but in multifaceted roles. I started on alternative telco accounts with Cisco in the late '90s when the dotcom boom was happening and had quite a wild ride working with tier-two and tier-three telcos and ISPs. I then went into the Telstra team in a sales management capacity and became the client director for that account, which is our largest line of business. I did that for about three years and took over the mantle on August 1 as part of Ross Fowler's succession plan. I didn't have any interviews for the [local managing director] role but I say every day in Cisco is an interview so I've probably had about 10,000. The profile of Telstra meant I'd had a lot of contact with US corporate from John Chambers [global CEO] and his direct team. You are constantly under scrutiny.

So what's been your key focus so far?

LW: We believe Cisco can have a broader voice in the market and I'm attempting to lead that. There's quite a few social agenda that are top of mind for business and social communities around things like the environment and broadband. This is the first time broadband has been a top election issue for both major political parties. Cisco also can and needs to play a broader role in tackling the ICT skills shortage because supply is not as strong as demand. Then there's corporate social responsibility. We have always played in these areas but I'm bringing them to the fore. As an operational concern, Cisco Australia and New Zealand is in great shape and I expect my team to continue delivering results.

You touched on broadband as a major election issue this year. How confident are you that we will see a national high-speed network anytime soon?

LW: That's an interesting debate that is still yet to be played out. If Stephen Conroy [Australian Labor Party] does get that ministry [Communications and Information Technology] he's said there'll be a public process of tender and debate. We think Cisco can play a positive role in that but my focus is more on the applications. In the areas of health and education is particular, the applications broadband infrastructure can deliver is where we get excited.

Sure, but we need the infrastructure before those applications can be made widely available.

LW: We do but I think that can manifest itself in a number of ways. It will be a political and commercial construct but the exciting thing for the industry is that it is on the agenda and will happen. We already have some quite solid broadband infrastructure in spots around Australia and New Zealand but it's really when that becomes holistic that our health and education applications can really be leveraged.

You have also mentioned skills. Cisco's key partner message last year was a revamp of its channel program encouraging partners to build greater breadth and depth of skills. What progress has been made?

LW: Locally we have a partner retreat every year where we take gold partner CEOs away for a mixture of business and pleasure. I asked how many resource requirements there were in the room during the next 12 months and the numbers were extremely large just for Cisco skills let alone other vendors they represent. What's changed is that we are taking an industry-wide view rather than trying to solve it individually. We run the Network Academy program globally and have had great success locally. I think it's time we link in with other partners and leverage the programs they've got to pool our resources. I still think we have some work to do and associations like the AIIA [Australian Information Industry Association] have a role to play. Cisco has been shy of involvement historically but we are looking to increase that. We have to change our own course and skills are recognised as critical to success. We need skills in the channel to execute and we will be best measured on the influx of new talent in the next 12-18 months.

Why do you think there is such a skills shortage in the industry as a whole?

LW: Personally I think we've lost a little bit of our mojo over the last 4-5 years. Some of the easier ways of getting into the workforce have been taken by students if you compare today to 10 years ago. I was in Perth recently talking to some of our Network Academy owners over there. If a 19-year-old can go the mines and earn $200,000 for driving a truck, is he or she really going to go through an extensive training program? There's a lack of brand clarity around exactly what ICT can do for business and society as well as what it means to be involved in that. Cisco's always been pretty good around brand and that's the value we'll bring to that wider conversation. There's probably also an age issue and we need to get younger leadership throughout the industry. We still have a fairly high level of tradition and we have to do a better job of accelerating talent into leadership positions.

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