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Chuck Robbins takes on the Cisco CEO juggling act

IT legend John Chambers passed the Cisco CEO torch to sales exec Chuck Robbins. What does it mean for CIOs? Also in Searchlight: The tech world mourns the loss of SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg; Snapchat gets political.

When Chuck Robbins was chosen to succeed Cisco CEO John Chambers this week, the industry press dutifully reported on how the transition might affect customers: What happens to the product line? What type of relationship will Robbins have with Cisco's extensive partner ecosystem?

But, as noted by The New York Times' Quentin Hardy and others, the transition at Cisco from Chambers, 65, to Robbins reflects a broader change in the technology zeitgeist. Technology's old guard at Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and Intel has vacated the premises. "He is the last of the lions, presiding over years of incredible growth," George Colony, chief executive at Forrester Research, told the NYT, referring to the legendary Chambers and his 20-year run at the helm of Cisco.

"A lot of the big businesses and companies and vendors have been in transition," said Timothy Zimmerman, vice president at Gartner.

In Cisco's case, the generational change at the top is not solely about the relative youth of the 49-year-old Robbins, although that certainly played into the board's decision of who will fill Chambers' large shoes, said Zimmerman, who added that there was no shortage of talented candidates.

"The board had a tough choice. I think that based on the tenure that John [Chambers] has had in the industry, there is a thought here of bringing in someone talented, but also somebody younger that can maintain and guide the company in the same kind of tenure that John had," he said.

Robbins' big challenge is keeping up with the culture change in a technology world now dominated by Amazon, Facebook, Google and others, whose focus is on software and the cloud, not hardware, which was Cisco's forte for much of the Chambers' era. Does he have the vision to make good in a Silicon Valley paved in software, not networking gear?

Cisco has been making strides in this direction, writes NetworkWorld's Jim Duffy, expanding beyond its core of networking products and venturing into servers, security software, video conferencing and sensors. Cisco's successful expansion into some of these new areas -- the company is the No. 1 or No. 2 player in 16 vertical markets, said Duffy -- is because of the many acquisitions and "spin-ins" Cisco has made over the years to bring innovation into the organization, Zimmerman said.

Which is why Robbins is facing a tricky balancing act.

"Chuck [Robbins] has to keep an eye on Cisco's innovation and product strategy -- and those can tend to be separated in organizations. Chuck has his hands full [with making sure] they remain integrated and synergistic," Zimmerman said. He pointed to migration issues with network management and security technology from Meraki, which Cisco acquired in 2012, as an example.

Robbins himself acknowledged these bumps on the road to updating Cisco's product strategy, telling reporters at a recent teleconference that there are "areas within the strategy that we can actually accelerate." 

Still, Zimmerman is optimistic that Robbins' tenure at Cisco and his sales expertise will help the company gain momentum in a tough market. "Chuck is uniquely positioned to see what works and what doesn't because he sees it in the field from a customer standpoint," he said.

Moreover, Chambers has left Robbins with a solid roadmap for making the transition to a software-based company -- which should be reassuring to CIOs, said Zimmerman.

"The focus [Chambers] has given to cloud, the move to a more software-oriented company as they've done with Cisco ONE … trying to shore up where they've been working on the security side -- these are issues that are very important to CIOs, and one that Cisco needs to continue to focus on," he said.

One thing that remains the same, as Robbins steps to the plate? CIOs must continue to do their homework when buying from Cisco -- and push the company on the business value its products will generate.

"There are competitive offerings that can provide business and/or cost benefits that CIOs need to be aware of," Zimmerman said.

CIO news roundup for week of May 4

Take a look at more tech news from this week:

  • The technology world mourned the loss of SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who died last week from head trauma while vacationing in Mexico. Sandberg expressed her feelings in a Facebook post. This week also marked the passing of Joseph Lechleider, one of the fathers of DSL with a spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He was 82.
  • Can Snapchat be to the 2016 election what Twitter and BuzzFeed were to the past two presidential races? The company known for its disappearing-messages app seems to think so: It hired CNN political reporter Peter Hamby to lead its budding news division.
  • Bummed that you shelled out $100 to watch the (underwhelming) "fight of the century" between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao last week? Thousands of other people who watched unauthorized broadcasts via various mobile apps probably didn't feel so gypped.
  • Google's search engine has reached a milestone. It announced at a conference Tuesday that, for the first time ever, more search requests are now being made on mobile devices than on PCs. The news comes a month after Google revamped its search recommendation system to favor mobile devices, aka "Mobilegeddon."

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on highlights from Microsoft Build 2015, and how the Lilly for Target hubbub was a call for industrialized IT.

Next Steps

See sister site SearchNetworking's analysis on how the choice of Robbins for Cisco CEO signals a strategic shift for the company and what it means for Cisco's product development strategy. Then, head over to ComputerWeekly for more on the transition.

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It's interesting because Cisco's earnings come out this week. I don't think Chambers would step until the company was in good shape financially. I think the challenge for Robbins will be to take Cisco to that next level. 
thanks for your take, Michael. Do you think Robbins has what it takes based on his prior experience? What specifically do you think he needs to do to take Cisco to the "next level"?
I think so...especially when it comes to making more acquisitions (he has great sales experience). In regards to the next level, IoT is an area where Cisco can make some moves.