My work life has been closely tied to Cisco’s success over the last 15 years. After first working on 3Com, Fore Systems, Digital Computers, Bay Networks, Nortel and many other products, my manager thrust me into Cisco vertical sometime around 2000 in spite of my protests. You see, all of my colleagues complained endlessly about the problems of Cisco software, hardware reliability and the challenge of working with Cisco sales people. The good part was how awesome the Cisco TAC was for support.
Right then, I didn’t want their pain to become mine.
Of course, this was the best career move ever. Cisco went on to dominate networking with 70% or more market share and became the defacto standard for most companies. I was very well paid, in demand and executing in a growing market of almost limitless complexity. No wonder I often refer to Chambers as my rich Uncle John who looks after me.
But this article is about lessons learned I learned from watching John Chambers.
Charge a Lot for Everything.
Don’t be shy about charging a lot for your products. In Cisco-land, you and your products are totally worth it and you should charge high prices for them. More than you think. No, MUCH more than that.
Customers really will pay those prices. And once they have it the “endowment effect” will take care of the rest.
Life Tip: This is an invaluable skill when you become an independent consultant. The more you charge, the more customers value your opinion and perspective. Discounting your services means that you are likely to perceived as less valuable by those who hire you. In short, cheap services aren’t worth having. (Don’t shoot me, I am just the messenger).
As a consultant, high hourly rates means enough income so that you can seriously invest time and spend on resources to deliver a better solution to the client. Happy client, justifiable rates and enough revenue to keep you alive? Perfect.
Tell Everyone How Awesome You Are
Chambers made a point of telling everyone how awesome Cisco was. Repeatedly. Over and over. On any public stage. And his employees paid him back by telling everyone how awesome Chambers was and how awesome it was to work at Cisco.
The lesson is that telling people how awesome you are actually works. People want to believe that you are awesome and can do awesome things. Now, you may have to deliver at a high level to meet those expectations but the secret here is that awesome is optional. Its human nature to be happy with what you get and if you think its awesome then it will be awesome.
Note: In different cultures, you need to be careful about what is “awesome”. Many cultures see American-style awesome as brash, bragging or egotistical.
Every John Chambers keynote and presentation I heard from from 2002 through 2014 was functionally the same speech. Cisco is awesome, Cisco sold a lot of stuff, spend lots of time listening and talking with customers, and data networking is about improving productivity.
I never really understood the concept of productivity until Chambers made me think about it. In some ways, it generated a renaissance in my career in the early 2000’s by encouraging me to think past the technology to the impact that is has on the wider business environment. At a time when I was still grappling with learning enough technology to be competent as an engineer, I started to consider the impact I wanted to create on the business.
And then, well something interesting happens. When you start thinking about the “business impact” you start to “make money” for your clients/customers/employers by considering the applied value of technology.
Enhance the Negative
Cisco has had plenty of problems over the years as you might expect of any big company. I have had more than my share of bitter experiences as a Cisco partner and customer. Poor quality products, premature EOL, late delivery against committed ship dates, poor stock management, reseller politics …. the list is rather long.
Chambers has always turned these problems into “ways we can improve”. Instead of acknowledging these problems and promising to fix them, Chambers has always indicated that Cisco can always improve and it will find ways to improve customer satisfaction.
From this I learned to admit that I could improve but to never admit that something is wrong.
Get Out of Your Bubble
Sometime in the late 2000’s, it seemed to me that Chambers got bored of being at Cisco but investors and shareholders didn’t want him to leave. To fill the gap he became involved in global politics, meeting with US presidents, Chinese chairman, attending G8 meetings …. this list was endless. Nothing actually related to networking or Cisco, but promoting his personal brand as much as Cisco.
I learned two things from this phase. One, promote yourself. Its not only about your skills and your job, its about how people perceive you on a wider stage. I’m not sure if this led to starting a blog and being more public but it might have been an influence.
Second, get out of your bubble. Its not enough to be a technical expert, I needed to be sociable ( not a natural state for me) and able to communicate at a higher level. If John Chambers can speak at the G8 conference, then I can speak to CIOs and CEOs.
To do this, I needed to understand a world outside of technology. Easy enough, I am an engineer so I figured I can work out what was needed to learn about this world. 
The EtherealMind View
Today, my view of Cisco is less rosy than it was ten years ago but I’m still dedicated to the partnership. Is this because a decade of bitter customer experiences have outweighed the positive values of products ? Or is it because I’m older and wiser ? Perhaps the lessons I’ve learned from John Chambers have made me a better business person, one who sees different values and judges on real and actual delivery. I’ve learned many things about perception, reality and the sales process.
Thanks to John Chambers for creating a market that I could participate in and extract large amounts of personal revenue while meeting customer needs. That is the secret of business that I learned from being a Cisco partner and customer.
- The endowment effect refers to our tendency to value an item more once we own it. The mere fact of ownership makes you less willing to part with an object. Example: think of how a book on your shelf that you haven’t used in years seems to increase in value the moment you think about giving it away. The cure is to never look back at what something cost to acquire but how much it would cost to replace it with something newer. ↩
- Believe me, the world of business is way less complicated than Applied Mathematics 205 during my (incomplete) Electronics Engineering degree. Just listen, think carefully and you too can learn “business” to a level that a technology-focussed network engineers needs. ↩