Making the Cisco Connection: The Story Behind the Real Internet Superpower
Author: David Bunnell
Publisher: New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000
Review Published: September 2000
David Bunnell, editor and CEO of Upside Media, gives us "the story behind the real internet superpower" in his new book Making the Cisco Connection. Through numerous interviews with executives from Cisco, Bunnell charts the course of the company from the perspective of upper management. CEOs John Morgridge and John Chambers are featured prominently in the book, each receiving their own chapter in Bunnell's story of the business decisions that made Cisco an Internet superpower.
Indeed, the business history of Cisco is an interesting one and Bunnell keeps the book moving along at a rapid pace. He successfully maintains suspense and excitement by highlighting "characters" and their accomplishments at Cisco, giving the business history a more humanized feel. Beginning with the famous relationship of the founding couple, Bunnell tracks key figures in Cisco as they confront the constant challenges of the rapidly changing technology sector. (Warning: Readers interested in the technology associated with Cisco may be disappointed to find the discussion limited to a brief mention that Cisco began making routers and later expanded into switches and software.)
Original Cisco founders Sandy Lerner and Len Bosack are presented by Bunnell as incredibly motivated grad students who weren't taken seriously by a Stanford administration which had just come through the Sun Microsystems fiasco. With Lerner's business experience and Len's technical abilities, they took some friends and created Cisco in their house on credit card debt and equipment "borrowed" from Stanford. Bunnell tells how the company started small but was remarkably driven, some employees putting in one hundred hour work weeks. Fortunately for Cisco, their product was in high demand, and they soon began dealing with venture capitalists in order to expand their company to become a major player in the networking industry.
From this point on, all excitement and suspense is closely tied with dollar figures and stock prices, rather than the technological breakthroughs occurring within the company. Bunnell makes it fairly clear that the Cisco story is all about money. He notes: "An average engineer granted a signing bonus of 5,000 shares of stock options in 1992 would have had nearly $3 million in stock by 1999" (170). Astounding facts like these are all over the place, making one wonder if being an Internet superpower has more to do with stock price and less with whatever the company actually does.
After the familiar story of techies in garages building future billion-dollar companies, Bunnell switches his focus to upper management. Now the story becomes one of charismatic CEOs who have learned from previous mistakes and failures and are ready to succeed. John Morgridge, the first CEO brought in by venture capitalist Don Valentine, was ready to leave the failing company Grid Systems. Bunnell moves straight into telling how the executives managed to push out the founders fairly easily, noting how Morgridge decided to side with Valentine (and quite clearly Bunnell sides with them as well in his account). Lerner is presented as a powder keg of passion and emotion who couldn't conform to the discipline and methods of business management. Morgridge couldn't make her fit in, so she was asked to leave and Bosack soon quit thereafter. With clear bias, Bunnell recounts how Sandy and Bosack sold their shares of Cisco for $170 million and inserts a quote from Valentine who remarked that they could have been made much more wealthy by keeping the shares longer. The founders are presented as nerds without business acumen who let themselves be controlled by emotions and failed to make an even more absurd amount of money. From this point on Bunnell catalogs the successful business practices that Morgridge introduces as he makes Cisco his own.
Each chapter has numerous subtitles and subsections with their own special bullet symbol. At times this makes the book read more like a business textbook than a story about intriguing people. But Bunnell does temper this business-heavy approach with good discussion about the people behind the huge business deals. Cisco is well known for spending outrageous amounts of money to acquire companies that have new or important technology. Bunnell deconstructs this practice by showing how Morgridge and later CEO John Chambers may have come to certain decisions and what their guiding interests are. In acquiring companies, they never fire employees without receiving permission from that company's CEO and apparently work quite hard at integrating all employees and new products. From this standpoint, it seems clear that Morgridge and Chambers pay so much for companies because they are working very hard to integrate everyone smoothly. If the new employees know they will be worth a bazillion dollars soon, they probably work extremely well with Cisco's existing people to take the company forward.
Bunnell's prose does make the work read quickly -- all the small sections keep the pace up. In addition to this, Bunnell frequently includes catchy comparisons and puns. One interesting metaphor that Bunnell introduces is one of religion within the company. For example, he calls Cisco "technically agnostic" (75) from a quote by John Chambers. In order to be a company which thrives on acquisitions, no one can become "religiously" attached to certain technologies over others. Describing the StrataCom acquisition, Bunnell mentions the troubles Cisco had at staying with a "pantheistic IOS," rather than simply relying on their own IP technology and neglecting StrataCom's ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode). Cisco's salespeople were reluctant to sell StrataCom's switches since they would end up receiving a significantly lower commission. Worse than that, many of StrataCom's own sales force quit rather than change to meet Cisco's faster paced approach to sales. The idea of sticking zealously to a certain technology is an intriguing one, and the examples are abundant. One that works particularly well within Bunnell's religious framework is Microsoft. As the legend goes, Microsoft (and Bill Gates) was unwilling to venture far out onto the Web while the Internet was new. After a night surfing the Web, Gates underwent a religious conversion of biblical magnitude and put out a memo outlining the company's new focus on the Internet.
The summary nature of this work and its clear bias towards upper management does make one wonder which voices from inside of Cisco are not being heard. Since Morgridge highly values frugality and fairness, all executives are told to fly "virtual first class" in coach with stolen masks and slippers from first class. This vision of the company as an exact reflection of Morgridge's and Chambers' own selves seems extremely limited. Cisco is presented as having no loose ends or nagging difficulties. Bunnell does introduce some dissident voices (or at least mentions what was said; very few critics are named), but these critics always seem to become immediately appropriated by upper management. The biggest criticism of Morgridge's frugality comes with a recount of a plan to reduce the amount of free beverages given to employees. After a week of employee unrest, Morgridge gives all the free pop back and learns from the experience "never to offer employees anything they wouldn't relinquish without a fight" (26). Rather than analyzing the situation from the point of view of the workers involved to see if the pop was the only contributor to the employee unrest, Bunnell plays it off as another quality learning experience for the benevolent CEO. In a similar move, Bunnell treats the departure of Sandy Lerner solely from management's perspective. According to Bunnell, Lerner "would refuse to take no for an answer when a customer needed something, no matter how impossible the request" (19) and that this temperament made her too difficult to work with and Don Valentine, the venture capitalist, asked her to leave. Ironically, the first anecdote Bunnell includes about Chambers' first board meeting is that he was twenty minutes late because he stopped to deal personally with a customer request. When he arrived at the meeting they were all pleased with his attention to customer relations. For me, this seems like Lerner and Chambers are after the same thing; Chambers simply played by the rules a little better than Lerner.
By the time I reached the end of this book and the chapter on the current state of Cisco, I began to feel as if the book was nothing more than an advertisement. One subtitled section, "Boosting the Brand," describes Cisco's recent attempts to make itself a household name in the way that Intel marketed its processors. Bunnell consistently gushes over Chambers and other executives, saying such things like "[Chambers'] interest in his employees and customers is genuine" (162) and "everyone comments on [Chambers'] good cheer and genuine kindheartedness" (162). In the section on the office environment at Cisco, Bunnell gives away just enough information to make one think that Chambers probably should have just a little more interest in his employees. In between sentences of unabashed praise -- "engineers . . . spend their days in techie bliss" (94) and "[p]eople at Cisco are really happy" (100) -- are more troubling observations about the Cisco culture. According to Bunnell, normal work weeks are 60 hours long and employees receive no personal space -- all cubicles are unassigned. "Cisco employees happily toil away like robots on Prozac, cocooned by the all-consuming lifestyle, mothered by the beatific John Chambers," (99) Bunnell writes. Is Bunnell praising Chambers for lulling his employees into grueling work schedules and stripping them of their individuality? While he does ask if the "Cisco way" is dangerous, Bunnell immediately discredits the question by listing more "proof" that the employees are really happy with all the dry cleaning and oil change perks on the company's main campus.
Overall, this book provides a good summary of the company's business policies. I went from only knowing that Cisco sold me the modem on my desk to having a fairly good grasp on what Cisco seems to be about these days. As the Internet market moves towards full consolidation of services (TV, phone, web, etc.), Cisco hopes to be the end-to-end provider of the foundation that makes everything work. From the business standpoint, Cisco is an extremely important company competing now with giants like AT&T. Now that Cisco cannot actually buy its competition, the way they learn to compete will have consequences for almost all of us. Bunnell raises many ideas that need closer attention, but chooses not to address them in favor of providing a much more praising summary of Cisco. Hopefully this book will encourage more research on companies like Cisco including those that give greater voice to employees and others little heard from in this saga.
Derek Van Ittersum:
Derek Van Ittersum is pursuing his B.A. degree in English from Drake University. He is currently studying the way hypertext and other multimedia applications are changing the way people write and read. In the spring he will assist in a course on cyberculture and writing. Derek plans to attend graduate school to research the relations between media and culture. <email@example.com>
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