Ex-Cisco CEO reflects, looks ahead on 25 years of Networkers

Chairman Emeritus John Morgridge knew company would be big, says evolution is key

John MOrgridge

John Morgridge

John Morgridge was Cisco's first CEO. He took the company public and presided over its growth until John Chambers took over as CEO in 1995. On the 25th anniversary of the Networker’s user conference this week, Morgridge, 80, reflects on the past and looks ahead to the future as Cisco's Chairman Emeritus.

+More on Network World: Celebrating 25 years of Cisco Networkers +

Did you ever imagine Cisco would become what it is today?

I was convinced it was going to be big. The reason I was convinced was a little different then than it is today. Today there are a lot of new devices that are going to be part of it. Back then there were just a huge number of proprietary, small, application oriented networks. And I was convinced that those would ultimately become a web on a global basis. This was a job I actually searched out. This is not a job I just kind of fell into. I was convinced someone was going to do this – build this huge global network and connect all these disparate protocols into a single unified structure.

As you look back, what’s been the most intriguing reflection on 25 years of Networkers?

The most interesting thing from a business standpoint is the long list of competitors we’ve had. If you look back, they come kind of in series. And there are probably at least five series that have occurred, and many of those are the dear departed: everything from DEC to Wellfleet. But it’s also a case that the company has been able to maintain its focus and its business model of developing and delivering value to the customer that I think has really sustained it. And I think that’s a wonderful business story over a 25-year period. Many companies don’t exist after 25 years. It’s a rarity. Or if they do exist they’re like IBM, with a totally changing personality.

What were the company’s most precarious moments? What made you and John Chambers and the board most question the company’s strategy, direction and potential for growth?

Certainly, there were various periods where different protocols took on relevance. Fortunately for Cisco, they didn’t survive. ATM was one. It actually came up at one of the networking conferences as I recall. And our stock tailed off as a result of it because we did not have a position in that, and there was a lot of push to acquire a company. We never did, and it subsequently fell into disuse. Although I guess there is still some around.

There are some people, no matter what they do it turns out badly. They have a problem either, what they do is wrong or things that happen were wrong. I was president of a company like that, it was called Grid Computer. Everyday I’d come home and my wife would ask, ‘Well, what happened today?’ Invariably, something happened, almost every week. Cisco is the reverse of that. Most things we did either were correct or turned out to be correct. As a result, it never had a precipitous stumble. There’s never been what I would call a catastrophic kind of occurrence. It was a great company to be president of, it probably still is.  

What are Cisco’s most pressing challenges today?

I think the most pressing challenge is – and it’s really not a question I should answer, you should ask MR. Chambers – but the environment is in transition. How and what Cisco’s role is going to be relative to the cloud and how that’ll play out, I think that’s an issue. But as I say, that’s probably a Chambers question, not a Morgridge question.

You’ve been big on culture and how it helps to drive a company. How has that changed over 25 years, or has it?

It’s changed for two reasons: one, the company is much bigger. And number two, the company is much more international. Both of those are factors in trying to maintain and continuing to evolve a positive culture. I noticed this week – I can’t remember the publication – (an article) on the importance of culture in the long term success and profitability of the company. Certainly, the culture has evolved but has it remained strong to the degree that it, as it created the company to remain a very competitive entity, even as the foundational structure underneath in the industry has changed.

Did you foresee the Internet becoming what it is today? Or the application of it in things like social networking and the role it’s played to date in things such as political upheaval?

I can’t say that I did. I spent my whole career in the technology business and I was convinced of the importance, at a grand scale, of the development of global connectivity. I probably never thought of it in terms of the myriad devices that have become part of it. And the evolution and importance of things like videoconferencing, and the whole iPhone, tablet phenomenon. I knew very early on that we were going to be a big company because there was so much latent demand in building out the infrastructure. And I also believed in the later part of the company history that devices of all types, and the development of specialized devices and applications, would be a big part of what the environment looked like. I had no idea that social networking would be a prominent as it is today. And it’s important to understand what that phenomenon is. If you text someone you get an immediate response; if you e-mail them, you probably never hear from them.

We’re going to see a lot more use of video kind of capabilities. And there are a lot of lagging pursuits, or a lot of lagging industries that are just starting to embrace it. Healthcare being one. And the other is education. I think that’ll play out over the next three to five years.  

What do you think are the most disruptive technologies today?

Some would say that the cloud is disruptive. Exactly how it ultimately plays out is… I noticed that the pickup of it has a little bit been slower than anticipated. But there are a lot of advantages to it. We have a program of technology in K-12 in Wisconsin and one of the major shortages are people at the district level that can handle those applications. And to some degree the cloud would appear to provide a solution to that. Someone else worries about it and all you have to worry about is robust and continuous connectivity.

What do you expect to unfold in IP and Internet networking in the next 25 years? What additional skill sets will Networkers have to attain and how will their current roles change?

Irrespective of how the solutions are delivered, I think Cisco customers will nonetheless have to maintain a proficiency that is current. They just can’t turn it over in totality, they’ll still have a major responsibility in what the structure is and how it looks.

I think it already has (changed). In the 1990s, security was talked about but it was not really an issue. That’s not the case anymore. In the last decade it has come front and center. All you have to  do is pick up the paper and you find that out. We’ve had disastrous consequences. They’re going to have to continue to evolve what they’re capable of.

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 28 years, 23 at Network World. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy.

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