The scoop on Cisco’s resurgence in collaboration and its long range plans for IoT

A conversation with Rowan Trollope

collaboration
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Rowan Trollope was hired four years ago to breathe new life into Cisco’s collaboration group, the results of which are partially on display with new capabilities coming out in Apple’s release of iOS 10. In fact, he did so well with collaboration he was also given responsibility for Cisco’s Internet of Things efforts. Network World Editor in Chief John Dix recently caught up with Trollope, who is senior vice president and general manager, IoT and Applications, to see how he managed the collaboration turnaround and what he has planned for IoT.

Rowan Trollope, Cisco Senior Vice President and General Manager, IoT and Applications

Rowan Trollope, Cisco Senior Vice President and General Manager, IoT and Applications

What made you a good fit to head up Cisco’s collaboration group?

When I joined I was like, “Guys, I don’t know anything about voice-over-IP or any of this technology stack and I don’t know that I’m the right guy.” What I was known for at the time was being a design oriented tech leader who understands user experience and design.  If you go back in my history, I was a software developer who built the frontends and made them beautiful and easy to use and simple. When I lived in Hollywood I owned an art gallery and I was really involved in things outside of tech, not just tech, tech, tech all the time. I come from a family of artists and so bringing that sensibility to technology has been what I’ve always been about.

Roughly 75% of my background was building consumer technology, about 25% on the enterprise side. What I had been doing for most of my career was bringing that consumer sensibility into the enterprise technology stack and moving it from ugly, nasty stuff to beautiful, smooth, exciting technologies that users in business really want to use. My thesis for coming to Cisco was, “You guys are the market leaders in this technology, but almost no one has access to it. Let’s reinvigorate the technology and bring it to a whole new level and put business communication technology at the forefront of the technology evolution.”

You joined Cisco in mid-2012 when, as I understand it, the company’s collaboration business had suffered 10 consecutive quarters of flat or declining revenue.  Describe what you found when you arrived.

Nothing was going well. I think in the second week on the job a news story came out saying Cisco was going to sell the business. That was the environment I came into and there had been a revolving door of leaders – four that had been blown out successively.

I spent the first few weeks digging into the technology and quickly realized there were some real gems, like our telepresence business, that had been mishandled, and that we were thinking wrong about things like the voice and telephony business. I jumped in and started figuring that out and I set the expectation with the executives that this was going to be a multi-year effort. 

One thing I realized pretty quickly was we would need a cloud infrastructure to power everything we were going to do. In fact, I could even tell you the moment I realized it. I had called my executive assistant and said I needed to have meetings with my direct reports and asked her to schedule the flights and block out my calendar because I figured it would be two weeks flying around the world. She says, “Everybody here does videoconferencing.” I said, “Well, I’ve tried that before, the quality is no good and I don’t think that’s a good idea for the first meetings.” She said, “No, trust me, you should do it this way.” 

So I said OK. They shipped a Cisco videoconferencing device to my house and an IT guy to set it up. I sent him away and said I’ll figure this out on my own, and pretty quickly discovered the stuff was really hard to set up. But once I did the experience was mind-blowing. The contrast between the setup and the experience couldn’t have been more stark.

The entire day I had these amazing quality calls using a device Cisco had dropped on my desk that looked like a monitor, and this was on my home Comcast Internet link, not some special underground private Cisco network. I sat back at the end of the day and said, “Holy crap, I could make a huge dent in the world if I could bring the experience I just had to every other knowledge worker in the world. That’s all I have to do.”

Funnily, just then, while I’m reflecting almost in awe, my neighbor comes into my converted garage and says, “What is that thing?” I told him and I made a test call and he was totally blown away and asks how much it cost. I said that’s a good question, so I went online and found out the price was $14,400. I thought it was a mistake at first, but I told him, “They’re not really designed for your company,” because he runs a small business with 24 people. 

But that was the beginning of the strategy. 

I thought, OK, you don’t have to be a genius to figure this out. You just had an incredible experience using the products in your new portfolio. How do you make it more accessible and easier to set up and more affordable?

What if, instead of being $14,400, it was $1,400, and what if instead of having an IT guy come set it up it was an out-of-the-box setup with three steps that anyone could do, including a totally nontechnical person? What if there was no infrastructure required to host it, it was just all in the cloud just like Skype? So that was the first vision.

The direction was set right away. We’re going to refresh all of our video endpoints and we’re going to drive the price down by 10 times. That wasn’t in the DNA of Cisco at the time. The DNA at Cisco was gold-plated hardware with great margins. That’s good, but I would rather make the same dollars and have 10 times the units out there and one-tenth the margin.

So that’s what we did. The next version of that same desktop device was priced at $1,400 and we started blowing them out into the marketplace, and we built a cloud service to power it. The cloud service took two years to get to scale, and just this year it’s actually getting fully globally deployed. 

Couldn’t you just piggyback on an existing cloud service?

It turns out there was no SaaS service in the cloud for real-time communications. It just didn’t exist. When we built it, we decided we we’re going to make it open because other companies had built global video networks but they were closed. You couldn’t go to Skype and go, “Can I build this thing and have it connect to your network?” No one had a network we could connect to, so we built our own.

Of course, we’re Cisco so we could get all the gear at cost and spend tons of CapEx to get it done and globally deployed. And we actually finally got that done. We launched it as Spark and that’s the infrastructure we’re having this phone call on, as a matter of fact. All the audio is going through our servers, which are also supporting video. And it’s open so people can develop software and build their own communications apps.

I was inspired by Jeff Bezos on this one. When they built AWS, he said every API that you consume has to be publicly available. It has to be done in a way that can be publicly consumed. We did the same thing with Spark. 

The phone I’m using right now is using RESTful cloud APIs that any software developer can use. In fact, just last night I saw a team of six people who built this incredible new communications device that’s entirely on our cloud infrastructure using these new APIs. That’s totally changed the game versus the legacy of telephony, which is a closed system.

Once I realized we were going to need this radical cloud infrastructure, I asked, “How do I get it?” My very first hire was the CTO from Skype, Jonathon Rosenberg. He’s awesome. Jonathan and I have been partners in crime for the last three years building this whole thing out. This year is pivotal as we transition the business completely to this cloud infrastructure and it’s just going to open up all kinds of new opportunities for us.

Meanwhile, we had to run the business as it existed. But we were pretty shrewd. We had to reallocate a bunch of money to go build the cloud infrastructure. We had a billion-dollar budget and we reallocated $300 million and started building the cloud, and then I hired new leaders and got fresh thinking on the existing products.

Another thing I did to get the businesses to grow was decided we didn’t need as many products. We had 65 hardware video systems. We reduced the portfolio of endpoints to 15 SKUs, and that let us do those things a lot better. We’ve won all kinds of awards for hardware designs. 

So you started with video and then turned your attention to the other pieces of the Cisco collaboration portfolio?

Video is where I saw the most immediate opportunity, then we turned our attention to voice.  If you look at the collaboration business, it breaks down into four buckets:  There’s voice, which is roughly $2 billion, then you’ve got web conferencing which is a billion, and videoconferencing which is a billion. 

And really, the strategy I described for videoconferencing applies to all of it -- more resources on fewer things, do them better, pay attention to the user experience, and drive the price down.  When we did that for video the business took off.  It was up 67% the first year after the new products were released.

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But it was also about inspiring the teams about what was possible. I’m not an expert in any of this stuff. But I know that it is inevitable that every room is going to have technology and every person is going to expect these modern tools every time they have a conversation. So this is actually a really big business. It’s not something we’re just trying to manage for margins.

So with this voice business, we need to stop thinking about how we sell another billion dollars’ worth of phones this year. We need to actually come to grips with the fact that the mobile phone might replace the desk phone and, if that happens, where are we going to be? 

I spent weeks in the first year asking the question, “What is the future of the desk phone?” I even ran a thought experiment with the leaders. I said, “If you took the executive leadership team at Apple and plopped them in to run the Cisco Collaboration business, what would they do?” They would say, “Well, we just made personal communications awesome. Now we’ll do the same thing for business.” 

What does that mean? Mobile phones are obviously the future, why are we still doing desk phones? Maybe we should do something different there. That was actually the impetus behind the Apple partnership.

We went to Apple and said, “Hey, we want to make the iPhone an incredible desk phone, which it isn’t today. It doesn’t do all the things your desk phone can do. There are things we could do to make it better for businesses, and there are things that are preventing businesses from using their mobile phones for a whole host of reasons.”

So boom, we started off on that process and that’s what led to a host of integrations in iOS 10. We co-developed iOS with Apple to be able to be a native business communications client. That was one way of thinking about that business differently.

And when we started telling customers, low and behold, they started going, “Yes, that’s what we want. We want our iPhones to work awesome when we come into our offices. If you could do that, we’re on board.” 

Have you focused some of that design effort on the traditional VoIP deskset as well?

On the phone side we did the same thing. We dramatically reduced the number of products and redesigned them. I took it to the best designers we have in Scandinavia and had them redesign the hardware. And we redesigned the operating system to be cloud native. They upgrade their operating system just like iOS does. 

I viewed the desk phone to be just another mobile phone. Why is it different? Why can’t you run apps on it? Why can’t it do all those things? Why can’t it just seamlessly be part of your experience? That’s what you see with our new phones, a totally different experience.

For example, this voice over IP phone sitting at my desk here at home is connected via Wi-Fi and linked to my calendar through our cloud. It knew I was supposed to be in this meeting and it knew what the number was and it knew how to connect the audio. I hit one button and boom, I was connected to the audio. For most people, a conference call like this is a 10-digit number plus an eight-digit PIN plus a password and you get that wrong four times, etc.

People hate joining meetings because of all that rigmarole. We dove deep on that. We said, “What if we eliminated the pain of joining meetings? What if we made a product that totally transformed that?” That’s what we’ve been doing. You work from the experience you want back to the technologies you need to deliver that experience.  We can’t wake you up on time, but we can solve the technology problem so you won’t ever be late to a meeting because of the tech. 

I always presumed the need for that experience would drive this business into Microsoft’s lap given people live in their office applications. 

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