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Here's What Chuck Robbins, the Next CEO of Cisco, Needs to Do

A to-do list for the new CEO.

Cisco Systems

Finding out Cisco’s board of directors had selected Chuck Robbins to be the networking giant’s next CEO on Friday, capped a three-year process, during which Robbins outran numerous internal and external candidates. To get there, he sat through no fewer than nine one-on-one interviews with each of Cisco’s independent board members and was largely overlooked by the rest of the world. Now, the real scrutiny begins.

Following in the footsteps of John Chambers, who controlled the company as its imperial leader for two decades or more than pretty much any other CEO in Silicon Valley, will be tough. Restoring the glory of Cisco, the one-time darling of the technology world and one of the original Four Horsemen of tech, a moniker bestowed by CNBC’s Jim Cramer, will be even tougher.

Even as Cisco spins the transition as Chambers leaving on a high note, the reality doesn’t quite jibe with the corporate narrative. Competitors are circling and determined to roll back Cisco’s dominant market position in several segments of the networking equipment market, while at the same time Cisco is determined to grow its presence in new networking technologies and to boost its share of what large companies spend on IT. After speaking with longtime industry Cisco watchers, Re/code has narrowed Robbins’s immediate tasks to four things that will demand his attention:

1. Dismantle the silos. Years of acquisitions have left it with a messy structure that has hurt corporate efficiencies and has made it difficult for its customers to migrate from one product to another within the family. For example, says Ted Zimmerman, an analyst with the research firm Gartner, one problem concerns a new line of networking products Cisco sells under the brand name Insieme, which is devoted to the relatively new concept of software-defined networking and which Cisco describes as its “next-generation product.” But for customers of Cisco’s traditional products like its Nexus line of switches, “there’s no upgrade path between one and the other. Cisco is working on it, but right now it’s very difficult to do,” Zimmerman explained. “The result is that Cisco is leaving the door open to the competition.”

2. Invest in software. Cisco under Chambers vowed to transform itself into the world’s largest IT company. For now it is merely the world’s largest company selling networking gear. Patrick Moorhead, head of the research firm Moor Insights and Strategy, said a key asset missing from Cisco’s portfolio is software for making networks smarter. “If Cisco wants to provide a fuller spectrum of products and services, it’s going to need analytics software, and machine-learning capabilities which are right now strengths at companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard and at Oracle. They are not strengths at Cisco.”

3. Invest in security. Robbins was a primary sponsor of Cisco’s $2.7 billion acquisition of SourceFire, a security company, in 2012. On a conference call with reporters following his appointment on Monday, he said he sees a “significant architectural opportunity” for Cisco to invest more in security technology. There are numerous companies Cisco could acquire — it had $53 billion in cash on the balance sheet as of January — that could make it a stronger player in securing networks its customers build. It has also been building up its own capabilities internally. Last month it launched threat intelligence and incident response business units built in part on the acquisition of ThreatGrid. In a world where corporate networks are being attacked by hackers every day, Cisco’s brand is not well known in this segment.

4. Simplify Cisco. It is a sprawling company with several divisions. In a video conversation with Robbins, Chambers said a few times that the company has 18 different product categories, some of which overlap and even arguably compete against each other. Its products range from its core business of routers and switches to desktop phones, video surveillance cameras and the WebEx online Web meeting software. Robbins stressed “operational rigor” and a mathematician’s “focus on the numbers” which may hint at slimming the company down and combining divisions where it makes sense.

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