Friday Interview: Cisco global chief executive Chuck Robbins

Robbins speaks on Trump, cybersecurity, gender balance, robots and why Cisco is not in Ireland for the low tax rate

Chuck Robbins in Croke Park this week. He  got to swing a hurley on the hallowed turf.

Chuck Robbins in Croke Park this week. He got to swing a hurley on the hallowed turf.

 

Cisco chief Chuck Robbins breezes into the bar of the Shelbourne hotel and offers a warm handshake. “Nice to meet you...what fantastic weather,” he says.

Wearing jeans, a crisp white shirt, and a light blue blazer, Robbins seems appropriately dressed for the Irish heatwave. Earlier in the day he had paid a visit to Croke Park and even got to swing a hurley on the hallowed turf.

“He didn’t do too badly,” remarks one of his colleagues.

Robbins was making his first visit to Ireland since taking over as global chief executive of the Nasdaq-listed technology networking giant three years ago, and he came bearing good news. Cisco plans to add 100 new jobs at its operation in Ireland, including 30 software development roles in Galway to boost its capabilities in artificial intelligence (AI), machine-learning and the internet of things (IoT) .

Cisco has been in Ireland since 1999, and already employs 300 staff at its operations in Galway and Dublin. “We have made a commitment for another 100 employees here, which is a substantial increase,” he says, while sipping on iced tea.

According to Robbins, Ireland’s 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate has “zero impact” on its decision to invest here. So what are the key factors?

“English-speaking is helpful, and talent, those would be the top two. The location is nice, but it’s not a decision factor for us because we operate globally and we have development activities going on all around the world. So we tend to operate where the talent is, and, let’s face it, the world is facing a talent crisis right now.”

Robbins describes it as an “employees market” at the minute as it searches for specialists in cybersecurity and machine-learning, vital roles for the company going forward. “It’s a market where you have to sell yourself to talent. The culture that you create, the mission of the organisation, increasingly how committed are you as a company to actively solving some of the biggest challenges in the world.

Homelessness

“Sometimes these problems are in your own back yard, so Cisco recently launched a $50 million commitment to trying to eradicate homelessness, because in Santa Clara county [in California] we have a high rate of chronic homelessness.

“We have 1.3 million students who are currently being educated in Cisco Network Academies around the world, he says in reference to a programme that was established in 1997 and has provided education, technical training, and career mentorship to about eight million people in 180 countries.

“The wage issue is important but increasingly our employees want to understand what’s the heart of this organisation all about.

“Our customers now care, our investors are beginning to care, at least if they are investing in funds that are ESG-oriented [environmental, social and governance] as an example, our partners care and our employees and future employees.”

Robbins cites the “pace of change” as the biggest challenge facing Cisco, which is based in San José in Silicon Valley, “being willing to embrace the amount of change that you have to drive in an organisation as a result of what’s going on around us, and being willing to disrupt your own product portfolio in order to ensure that you are better positioned for the long term”.

Over the past three years Robbins has instituted significant strategic change, having taken over from John Chambers, who had a legendary status within the industry. He has trimmed its global headcount and intensified its focus on cloud computing.

Threats

Robbins describes Cisco as the the “number one enterprise cybersecurity player in the world”, and provides some eye-popping data to back this up. “We now see 20 billion threats a day, that’s six times more than what Google does searches.”

These manifest themselves in the forms of “malware sent by email, phishing attacks, direct sabotage coming into organisations, and they can be enabled by customers not taking the appropriate measures, like password management and insiders’ threats”.

Does Cisco manage to repel them all?

“Every organisation, and this is the good news on where we are on this issue today compared with a decade ago, realises that someone is going to get in. That’s just the reality of it. Now, we have a strategy of how do we defend first of all, but then what’s our strategy once we find something inside to mitigate, and what’s our strategy to prevent in the future.”

Is Cisco itself targeted? “When your tagline is ‘we securely connect everything to make anything possible’ you can assume that people want to prove that wrong. Every company has it. Depending on the information you have or the brand you have, you’re going to attract attackers.

Has anyone managed to breach Cisco’s defences?

“I would say every company in the world has had someone breach their first line of defence. It’s virtually impossible to keep everything out. You just have to understand when they’re in, where they are, and mitigate quickly.”

‘Chaos and wonder’

References to AI and machine-learning are sprinkled throughout the interview. Debate about the likely future use of robots and machines on the world of work is gathering momentum. Robbins describes it as an “amazing time... full of both chaos and wonder”.

“I think they’re going to allow us to take in massive sets of data and actually process that data and come to conclusions and act on that data in ways that we’ve never been able to do before. I believe that will be done in very positive ways.”

One of the major benefits of this, he believes , could be the ability to solve and cure diseases much quicker than today. “That’s what is exciting for us.”

On the flip side, a lot of roles currently filled by humans will be displaced. A report last year by Cisco and Oxford Economics found that by 2027 4.3 million workers in the US would be displaced – about 3 per cent of the workforce – and 2.2 million workers would be disrupted.

How does society cope with that phenomenon?

“Clearly some of that will occur. The business community needs to play a role in how we educate or re-educate the workforce for the jobs of the future,” he says, citing a collaboration launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos with 10 other leading technology-related companies called SkillsSET.

“We have created a portal where an individual could go in and take an assessment of where they are and it will guide them through different curricula to gain the skill sets they need.

“It’s important for us to provide those people with educational opportunities. You can make an assumption that, because someone was a truck driver they don’t have the capability to do other things, but who knows what led them to choose that profession. There are plenty of people who drive trucks who could work in the tech industry, I have no doubt about that.”

Trade wars

At a macro level, the imposition of various tariffs by President Donald Trump on goods coming in from the European Union, China, Canada and Mexico has created the threat of damaging trade wars.

“The biggest concern that we would have right now would be around the overall global economic impact of business spending beginning to slow because of the implications of tariffs on certain industries,” he says.

“I’m eternally optimistic and, once we get through some of this negotiating, we’re going to land in a [good] place and hopefully we’ll get that done before there’s a major economic impact.”

Is Trump doing a good job as president?

“Many of the things that he’s been trying to execute on have been needed for sure. Obviously, getting tax reform done in the United States was a very favourable outcome for business, and the citizens of the country to be honest.”

Robbins’s visit to Ireland coincided with the Cabinet considering legislation that would require businesses in Ireland to publish data on the gender pay gap in their organisations. On his watch Cisco has been active in promoting diversity and gender equality throughout the organisation.

“When you get diverse people in a room, looking at an opportunity or trying to solve a problem, you get better outcomes,” he said. “That’s just the reality of it. The challenge over the past 10 to 15 years is how do you get to that point.

“There are a few things we found that have worked. One of them is that you have to start at the top because if you bring in a diverse leadership team by definition you will see that flow through the organisation.

“At this point 60 per cent of my leadership team is diverse, and 55 per cent is female. In Silicon Valley that is not the norm.

‘Equal slate’

“The other thing is that when you’re hiring the best way to ensure the best outcome you have to have an equal slate. So if I have a slate of 10 candidates I want five men and five women. And then you need to have an interview team that is diverse, and if you do that that increases your likelihood [of achieving balance].”

According to Robbins, Cisco introduced pay parity a few years ago. “We spent $5 million building a deep analytics capability that we now run on a regular basis. In fact, the initial gap wasn’t huge, but obviously to the individuals it mattered. We repeat it every two quarters now.”

Another initiative that he introduced was a once-a-month communication with staff called “Cisco Beat”.

“It’s literally 20 to 25 minutes update on the company… and then we open it up and we do 30 to 35 minutes of free-for-all Q&A. We average 20,000 or 30,000 people coming in on these.”

Raised on a farm near a small town in Georgia, Robbins’s parents were apparently convinced he would grow up to be a southern baptist preacher like his grandfather. He initially studied mathematical sciences at the University of North Carolina, later specialising in computer science. He joined Cisco in 1997 as an account manager.

What has driven him to succeed?

“I’m incredibly competitive and I want to win, so I want this company to be unbelievably successful. But I also believe that, through that success, something that’s incredibly important to me can be provided through this platform and that is doing great things for people.

“We have 1.3 million students [in its network academies] right now. We’re going to take it to two million students by 2020. We’re taking network academies into prisons, into libraries, taking it anywhere we can take it.

Refugees

“We’re training refugees in Germany to try and give them skills. I was in Puerto Rico after the tragedy there, walking through villages and seeing in their eyes just the impact of getting wireless connectivity back up so they can communicate with their families. To me that is what’s possible when you have a successful business and the brand and platform that we have. That energises me no end.”

We close with Robbins pondering what the world might look like in 10 years’ time.

“It’s almost impossible to predict where we are going to be. But I do believe that you’ll see the automation play come through. I think you’ll see tremendous new job creation from technology that we don’t understand yet.

“We have a global gap in skills for tech today, so I hope we’ll have a very robust education system that’s generating more tech capabilities.

“Some of the problems that we see in the world today, hopefully technology will have helped solve. One of the big things that you’re going to see is that it’s no longer a nice thing to have CSR [corporate social responsibility] programmes. You’ll see a business world that has a very defined responsibility for the moral stances that need to be taken, as well as actively participating in the problems of the world that may not be directly associated with business.”

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Name: Chuck Robbins

Age: 52

Job: Chairman and chief executive of Cisco

Why is he in the news? Robbins was in Ireland this week to meet staff and customers, and to announce 100 new jobs in Dublin and Galway

Leadership style: “Just creating a culture of trust, of open communication of authenticity, that’s just how I think of things.”