Jayshree Ullal: Ever the entrepreneur

Twelve years since coming to Cisco through acquisition, top exec thrives thanks to her persistent start-up mentality.

Cisco executive Jayshree Ullal discusses her entrepreneurial career.

Holding five vice president titles in 12 years at Cisco, Jayshree Ullal is no stranger to change; she thrives on making switches.

 //VitalStats 
 Position: Senior vice president of data center, switching and security.

Age:44

Years at company:
 12  Years in Industry: 25 Major career accomplishment: Taking over Cisco's combined data center, switching and security product lines, which account for almost half of the company's revenue.
 
 ILLUSTRATOR: ANTONY HARE 

Born in London and raised in India, Ullal had a change in scenery, for example, when she came to the United States to study engineering. She earned a bachelor's degree in engineering from San Francisco State University and a master's degree in engineering from Santa Clara University. She then worked as a chip designer in the semiconductor industry for 11 years. Next a switch in jobs and roles led her to the top marketing position at Fast Ethernet start-up Crescendo Communications, which Cisco bought in 1993 as the foundation on which it built its now-dominant Ethernet switch business.

In her decade as a Cisco executive, Ullal has led the vendor's entry into optical, storage and security - all considered among Cisco's seven Advanced Technologies, or $1 billion revenue opportunities. In her current role as senior vice president of data center, switching and security, Ullal heads a combined business unit whose products represent on average almost half of Cisco's quarterly revenue.

Ullal's many job swaps at Cisco involved overseeing and assimilating dozens of acquisitions. A skill that has served her well, Ullal says, is the ability to relate to executives and engineering talent that comes with these buyouts.

"I have great empathy with the companies we acquire, because I know how difficult the transition can be," she says. "These are people on a mission and proud of their company, teams and products. I always tell people,'Don't give up. Hang in there; the first year is toughest. I myself shed many tears in that first year.'"

The key is keeping top talent from acquired companies focused on the technology goals from before the buyout. In other words, get them to think as a business unit of Cisco, but to handle tasks and problems with a start-up approach, she says, adding that she still tries to operate with a free-flowing start-up mentality.

"I'm not the world's greatest follower of processes and procedures," she says. "I love technology and I love to learn. I'm amazed at how little I know, and how much more there is to know. . . . I think of myself as having more entrepreneurial traits" than the habits of a typical corporate executive.

Although she holds two engineering degrees, Ullal never saw herself as the prototypical product designer. As an engineer, first designing chips and later switch architectures, Ullal describes herself as "good, but not great." But a friendly disposition helped her communicate with customers.

"If one of my chips had a problem, I would have to talk with the customers to fix it," she says."It was hugely fulfilling and satisfying. So in that sense, I probably was not the stereotypical engineer."

Ullal attributes her upbringing in India for her background in the sciences and her competitive attitude. Her physics professor father and her own mathematical talents steered her toward the sciences early, she says. (Physics and thermodynamics were part of her sixth-grade homework.)

"That, coupled by the fact that there are certain things I was not good at - such as the humanities and arts; not being able to do needlework greatly disappointed my mom," she quips.

The academic environment was very competitive growing up, she says. "If you got a 98 on a math test, Dad would say, where's the other 2%?" This competitive culture was necessary, however, as hundreds of thousands of students apply annually for a few thousand slots at India's most prestigious technical universities. (Statistically, getting into Harvard or Yale is almost twice as likely).

As Cisco expands into more product lines and technologies, it is becoming more global. Ullal says she particularly enjoys the expansion in India, where she has family and friends, although her husband and two daughters live in the United States.

While Cisco has had a presence in Asia and India for almost a decade, more recently the company has shifted its operations there to strategic R&D. In October, it earmarked $1 billion in investments in India. Cisco will further look abroad to strengthen its engineering talent pool, instead of as a cost-cutting measure. "By having a presence in [India and China], you can expand your development pool,"she says.

However, Ullal does not believe that this trend will lead to a complete off-shoring of talent for any high-tech company.

"I really believe some key innovations and creativity come from the talent cultivated in the United States," she says. "I've had education in India and here. I learned a lot of mathematics, chemistry and fundamentals in India, but I did not learn the creative side [of engineering] until I came here. The two education systems could learn a lot from each other."

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