Cisco Live 2015: Fear and Loathing in San Diego

Peter Jarich
Peter Jarich

Summary Bullets:

  • At a product level, the 2015 edition of Cisco Live included plenty of clear themes: end-to-end solutions, security, co-innovation with customers, openness, network automation.
  • At the CEO level, there was one key message: the need for businesses to disrupt themselves or face hard times ahead.

While Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas provides a nice framework for a blog post title, there wasn’t actually that much loathing at Cisco Live 2015, the vendor’s annual user conference here in the U.S. Following a rather forthright and brutally honest keynote from CEO John Chambers, however, there should have been no shortage of fear.

If there was any appreciable loathing at Cisco Live this year, it was directed at Chambers’ departure. Over the course of his 20 years at the helm of Cisco, the man has amassed a legion of fans – both inside and outside the company. He did that, in part, by leading the company to success, but also by establishing himself as a tireless visionary. While he’s not leaving the company (he will remain as Chairman of the Board and spend part of his time driving specific areas, like security), he will not likely be as visible as he has been. He will be missed.

Taking to the stage for his final Cisco Live keynote, he seized on this dynamic and the opportunity it presented to send a clear message: innovate or die. This is where the concept of ‘fear’ comes in.

Product evangelizing and demonstrations aside, a handful of statements succinctly sum up the key message of Chambers’ keynote: the entire world – health, education, business models – is going digital; 40% of the businesses in the room would not exist in a meaningful way in 10 years; 70% of companies would attempt to go digital but only 30% would succeed; no company can afford to miss a market transition or underestimate future competitors. It was about this time that Chambers said, “If I’m not making you sweat, I should be.” For anyone who has followed Cisco over the past few years, this wasn’t an entirely new message. The risk facing companies that fail to innovate is well-tread ground for the company. The tone this year, however, was more forceful, somehow threatening and upbeat at the same time. To be sure, it’s also self-serving Whether it’s IoT or security or analytics or cloud business models, the solutions needed to help companies transform themselves are all those that Cisco’s eager to sell them. Even for a well-loved, departing CEO, this is a potentially dangerous strategy. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being pressured into buying something out of fear. Nobody.

Yet, to suggest that Cisco was simply trying to sell via ‘fear’ is to overlook two compelling parts of the story.

The first is a focus on solutions. If businesses are going to truly disrupt themselves, they’ll likely need more than just Cisco products. And where Cisco’s been accused of being insular in the past, there was no missing its focus on complete, end-to-solutions this year – solutions inclusive of partners like F5, Microsoft and Radware as well as open source software. The second part is a focus on services, including business and consulting services. After all, before any business can figure out what sort of solutions it needs, it’s likely to need some help. For a company known more for its channels than its in-house services capabilities, commitment to delivering this support is a big deal.

Whether Chambers’ impassioned pleas – an attempt to inject a healthy dose of fear into the market – will resonate with customers remains to be seen. That Cisco has done its homework in preparing to address those fears, however, is clear. Come Cisco Live 2016 in Las Vegas, we should all know if the strategy panned out. Otherwise, we’ll be in the right place for a solid dose of loathing.

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