Driving Digital Innovation: How Cisco Pioneers Customer Connectivity

Interview with Liz Centoni, Cisco

Liz Centoni, EVP, Chief Strategy Officer & GM, Applications, Cisco

How helpful do you find the notion of category when you think about a brand’s evolving competitive environment? What’s most helpful when considering how to stay ahead of competition?

We’re at a point in time where traditional brand value is not enough – consumers and businesses are increasingly seeking out brands that provide a sense of purpose, connection, belonging, and ownership.

We pay close attention to customers’ top needs with a continuous feedback loop. Digital transformation has become a common thread that almost every company is focused on, and as customers proceed on their transformation journeys, they have accelerated their move to cloud to expedite the process and to gain competitive advantages including speed, agility, and performance. There’s a set of customer imperatives we’ve observed and are focused on answering with thoughtful solutions that help customers achieve their technology and business goals as shown below:

  • Deliver a cloud experience across a hybrid, multi cloud world, simplify and automate operations in a way that is less complex, and have it delivered as a service and managed as a subscription.
  • Power the hybrid workforce with secure and robust access, a safe and trusted workplace and the best, inclusive collaboration experiences so employees can work anywhere, anytime and with everyone.
  • Mitigate risk across an ever-expanding attack surface.
  • Optimize for the best application experience – it is the planet of the apps, and customers are looking to achieve application development velocity and scale all the while also gaining observability across the full stack and breaking down silos across their teams.
  • Meet the traffic requirements for this new world. Internet traffic spiked around the globe as businesses, classrooms and even gyms went virtual overnight and continues to grow. With the explosion in data intensive applications, including streaming video, and with 5G and Wifi6, our customers are rethinking the economics of operating a cloud scale network, as they plan for their high bandwidth and low latency use-cases.
  • As corporate social responsibility has become a greater C-Suite priority, our customers are turning to technology for these initiatives, for example they are looking to improve inclusivity in the hybrid workplace, ethical AI in their algorithms, achieve carbon neutrality in their supply chain, embrace responsible consumption across their operations – Technology is becoming an enabler for their Environmental, Social and Governance goals. Staying close to those customer needs and helps us build and sustain a strong brand and build trust, which are critically important as we identify and expand into new markets and opportunities.

At Cisco, we are doubling down on specific market trends we are uniquely positioned to deliver on and own, as well as exploring new, untapped market opportunities that emerge from customer imperatives and what we call market transitions. That coupled with the need for ‘connection’ as a primary driver has helped us shape some of our biggest moves to stay ahead of the competition and build out our technology.

We are trailblazers and pathfinders, charged with discovering new opportunities and developing solutions that meet customers’ needs many times before they even know they have them.

Cisco meets the needs of today’s pace of business.

What moves have you made, (or planned or observed) that have enabled Cisco to transcend its original category and drive relevance and growth in new spaces? What’s the secret sauce to success here?

Today, Cisco’s entire focus as a company is to help our customers connect, secure, and automate in a cloud-first world to accelerate our customers’ digital agility.

Everything we build uses a cloud-first and app-centric approach; every product in our portfolio, if it can be, is cloud-managed, cloud-delivered, offered as-a-service, delivering unparalleled experiences at scale, with simplicity and speed. In that journey, I would say that the biggest enabler of Cisco’s move to expand from our original category into new spaces is what we call key market transitions, which are significant tailwinds for Cisco’s business. While there are several key areas, I’d like to call out Hybrid work, where our customers are accelerating their efforts to transition tools and technology to enable employees to work from anyplace, anytime, and with anyone and have a collaborative, inclusive, always-on, secure experience.

Embracing Hybrid Work requires delivering solutions for a distributed workforce to access distributed applications across public clouds, SaaS clouds, private clouds. From trusted workspaces with hotdesking solutions and devices, proximity alerts and density monitoring, to every home becoming a branch office overnight, with the need to be equipped as such, Cisco’s solutions are designed to optimize cloud infrastructure and enable employees to work remotely and access all their applications and data securely – for example, our Umbrella cloud security solutions including Secure Cloud for AWS and Azure, our remote access solutions working seamlessly with Duo, and WebEx suite with our networking solutions all in service of making the best collaboration experiences happen everywhere and with everyone.

We are now a sizeable software company. Our subscription business continues to grow and hence so does our predictable revenue. And every part of our portfolio, beyond software, is available as a service if our customers want to consume it that way.

And customers are looking to do all this with a flexible consumption model and have solutions delivered as a service and through subscriptions, which is precisely Cisco’s top priority today.

There are many new innovations which allowed us to evolve and grow with the times, and I am proud to lead a team at Cisco that focuses on the incubation and growth of emerging technologies. We also have a number of projects that we work on in partnership with universities, focused on software and software development. This area has grown exponentially in the last few years.

To call out a couple of examples of innovations that have happened organically at Cisco in recent years, we introduced new breakthrough networking innovations including Catalyst 9000X switches built on Silicon One. This innovation was the industry’s first high-end Wi-Fi 6E access points and then as a service private 5G offering for the enterprise enabling communication service providers to deliver cloud-based services to their customers. We have also been a pioneer in new areas such as Full-Stack Observability, with multiple use-cases across performance, optimization, and security.

We also take an inorganic approach to ensure growth and drive our vision by constantly evaluating potential opportunities for acquisition. We base our decisions on strategic fit, cultural fit, financial and evaluation fit. Our recent acquisition of Epsagon, replex, and Opsani are the prime examples of our vision to build out Cisco’s strategy around Full-Stack Observability.

In terms of the secret sauce, it’s a combination of passion, grit, agility, and speed. We stay focused, competitive and entrepreneurial, and future-driven and relevant. We identify and invest in new technologies and develop and nurture innovation, all while continuing to listen to our customers as a part of our process. We also focus on community impact and sustainability for an inclusive future. Having a commitment to global community impact, sustainable product designs, and customer-centric solutions all add up to building a strong sustainable brand.

Another example is how we are shaping the future of work. Hybrid work is one of the most visible technology trends that has been shaping the world in the past two years.

We have gotten more and more sophisticated to connect to others and connect the world around us (e.g. our homes). What makes a rewarding/meaningful connection? And what do brands need to know about us as people as they think about how to connect us? How can connect brands avoid the pitfalls of becoming utilities – only noticed when going wrong.

For Cisco, a rewarding and meaningful connection requires us to stand up for and consistently deliver on our purpose of powering an inclusive future for all through technology. This has never been more relevant or more important. We know we have an immense opportunity and responsibility to bridge the widening gap of inequality, intolerance, and injustice we witness in the world today. We do this through the technology we build, our scale and extended ecosystem, our commitment to social impact and social justice, our teams, and the support we bring to our communities.

Since the pandemic started, we quickly recognized how crucial the internet had become in our daily activities with everything going virtual almost overnight including 1.2 billion children shifting to online school, work and meetings becoming completely virtual and even social events being held remotely and online.

Digital inclusion is more integral than ever to our lives. It’s not only where we browse, shop, and play—but, increasingly, also where we socialize, work, and learn. The early days of the pandemic saw spikes in internet traffic of as much as 45 percent in different parts of the world. And at Cisco, we predict this is only a glimpse of the traffic volume we will see in the 5G era, with 29.3 billion connected devices expected in 2023. While the internet now serves as a critical lifeline and utility for many, much of the world remains unconnected.

The digital divide continues to grow in the US, with 20 million Americans lacking access to high-speed broadband in 2019. Globally, over three billion people remain unconnected or underserved. At Cisco, we believe in a world with equal access to opportunity. Working with our biggest networking customers, we are focused on connecting more people to more places and more things – to be the bridge that can close the digital divide.

Last year, we opened Cisco Rural Broadband Innovation Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, as a place for broadband customers to learn about Cisco innovations for making Internet more affordable.

As the manufacturer of networking hardware and software on which the Internet runs, Cisco understands the importance of transforming network infrastructure and software development so that we can change the economics of the Internet. We’re doing this by partnering with top service providers and web-scale companies to redesign their networks and offering solutions such as our mass-scale routing portfolio that help providers offer Internet access at a lower cost.

Another example is how we are shaping the future of work. Hybrid work is one of the most visible technology trends that has been shaping the world in the past two years.

In recent months, we released our first Global Hybrid Work Index (HWI), based on millions of datapoints, which provides global insights on people’s preferences, habits, and technology usage in the era of hybrid work which I’d love for everyone to read. Some of the key findings include:

  • Data shows that work has changed forever.
  • Hybrid work is powered by the convergence of people, technology, and places.
  • AI is not coming for everyone’s job; AI is at the center of the future of work.
  • Leaders need to learn and practice new craft of inclusion and engagement.
  • IT orgs take note: the perimeter is expanding to enable work from anywhere.
  • The war for talent has just begun; the battle weapons are flexibility and choice.

Hybrid work goes way beyond what we do and where we go. Enabling a hybrid workforce requires a mindset change that puts the culture of the organization first. It also requires secure access and collaboration from anywhere, anytime. At Cisco, we strive to ensure that we have the World’s best workplace through the world’s best hybrid workplace. What does that mean? We ensure that our employees have seamless work experience regardless of their locations. Together, we are redefining what it means to be a team and how we collaborate, for Cisco, and for our customers and partners.

Cisco’s Webex Suite is the industry’s first and most comprehensive end-to-end work solution, built for hybrid work. And it continues to evolve. Last year, just in the 12-month time period, we added over 1000 new features that addressed the challenges of hybrid work. It was also intentionally designed to foster a highly supportive hybrid work environment that makes inclusivity and wellbeing through AI-powered audio intelligence an organic experience, to prevent meeting fatigue and drive team engagement.

The connection of future will not only evolve around seamless connections using technology. The emotional side of it plays a critical role where people embrace and look for opportunities to have that truly inclusive experience, every time.

Cisco helps power a hybrid workforce.

How are you creating and delivering distinctive brand experiences to fulfil the human need to connect?

As people adapted to the challenges of the pandemic, consumers turned to applications and digital services, enabling them to stay connected with loved ones, to work and learn, to access critical healthcare and public services, and to keep entertained and informed. Cisco has worked with many customers to support their efforts to innovate at speed, to launch new digital services which have offered convenience, comfort, and enjoyment to people in these difficult times, which has allowed them to provide a better, and more connected experience with their own customers.

Across all industries, digital transformation has never been more relevant, or strategically important to the business. Seventy four percent of CIOs reported that their digital projects that would have taken a year to be approved, are now being approved in a matter of weeks, which highlights the sense of urgency. As I called out earlier, for customers, their top priorities include reimagining their applications, powering hybrid work, transforming their infrastructure, and securing their enterprise.

For example, applications are becoming an important way for companies to sell their products and services and deliver access to critical work platforms and collaboration tools. We all are using more apps and digital services than we ever did before. In fact, the number of applications people are using on a daily basis has jumped by a staggering 30 percent compared with two years ago. In short, applications are now the business. When this reliance on apps exploded, so did the number of new applications in development. By 2023, IDC predicts that there will be more than 500 million new apps. We can expect our customers to focus a lot more on ‘application experience,’ and our customers expect their apps to be always-on, secure and provide exceptional user experiences, tailored for every person.

When apps or digital services fail, people firmly point fingers at the brand – 60 percent of users blame the application or brand when they encounter a problem with a digital service, regardless of where the issue originated. And 72 percent of people believe it’s the responsibility of the brand to ensure that the digital service or application works perfectly.

Today, there are so many choices. Users have become selective about the applications they use. Users are looking for the ‘total application experience’ – which means a high-performing, reliable, digital experience, which is simple to navigate, useful, secure, and personalized for them. This complete, end-to-end brand experience must satisfy the need to connect, and fulfill people’s sense of belonging, especially in challenging times like we’ve experienced over the past two years.

Now that applications are the business, customers need visibility, insights and actions across the full-stack correlated with business context to drive business outcomes including protecting the brand and driving revenue.

Full-Stack Observability starts by building on traditional monitoring bringing together visibility at each level, network, infrastructure, internet, cloud, databases, security, app services, user experience. Because there are so many alerts, customers want to know which ones they should address immediately to minimize the impact to their business. FSO uses correlated visibility across the full stack and ties it to business context, helps prioritize issues that have most impact to the business.

Users are looking for the ‘total application experience’ – which means a high-performing, reliable, digital experience, which is simple to navigate, useful, secure, and personalized for them.”

What are the Human Truths you’re seeing that are driving behaviour in this arena today?

Consumer expectations around digital experience – already at an all-time high before the pandemic – have risen even further since the start of 2020. More than three quarters (76 percent) of people say their expectations of digital services have increased, according to AppDynamics’ App Attention Index.

Today, consumers are more demanding both at a practical and emotional level. We expect apps to be easy to use, fast, and secure. We need them to just work. And if an app does not, we will just find another. Brands have one shot to deliver the ‘total application experience’. Sixty-one percent of people surveyed last year in AppDynamics’ App Attention Index said their expectation of digital services has changed forever and they won’t tolerate poor performance anymore. And when they have an issue, they will make their opinions known. We’ve reached a point where more than half of all users are not willing to give brands a second chance. Brands have only one opportunity to impress.

People are looking for experiences that provide connection, fulfillment, and meaning. They yearn for experiences that transcend the transactional, that are personal and memorable. The word empathy has been used many times and in many instances over the past two years, and people want to experience empathy and respect from companies and brands. Brands that understand and provide this deeper level of experience will engender loyalty and be best positioned to build a long-term, sustainable business.