Chuck Robbins was born in Grayson, Georgia in the mid-1960s. He’d spend his early childhood in this small town that geographically sits about 26 miles from Atlanta. His father was a planning and zoning commissioner for Grayson and a neighboring municipality while his mother was a secretary at the county courthouse.
“My grandfather was right next door, and he had a farm. He was a preacher, and the farm was primarily just for sustenance, just to feed everyone. They grew everything, from corn to vegetables. We had chickens, pigs, cows,” says Robbins in a New York Times interview. “Preachers didn’t make money back then, so this was how he fed his family.”
He remembers the whole family would help out on his grandfather’s farm – they’d gather eggs in the morning, repair fences, and do whatever needed to be done. Experiencing some moving around as a child, Chuck found himself attending middle school in North Carolina. He’d eventually make his way to Rocky Mount High School in Rocky Mount, NC.
Rocky Mount High School
Fast times at Rocky Mount High, Chuck worked his way into a very successful school basketball program. Having won a state title as recent as 1978, his varsity squad brought the state championship trophy back to Rocky Mount in 1982.
It’s wasn’t all guts and glory on the basketball court for Chuck, he had to get a job too. “I worked in a lawn mower repair shop. And I suspect that the man who hired me probably had to work harder because I was there, as opposed to me making it easier on him,” he jokes. “But I was always going around the neighborhood asking people if they had odd jobs for me to do, mowing lawns and things like that. I ended up working in restaurants as a busboy. I bagged groceries in a grocery store.”
Between exercising the athletic stamina to win a state championship and working minimum wage jobs, he also managed to keep up with his academic performance and earned his way into the University of North Carolina.
Early on, he attempted to make it onto the basketball team at UNC but got delegated to the junior varsity squad. We forgive him though, the varsity team at that time featured this guy named Michael Jordan that turned out to be pretty good. At the very least, Chuck can say he got to scrimmage the G.O.A.T. during practice!
He turned his attention to the computer science degree he was pursuing. Robbins describes how he got into tech in the first place, “It was right about the time the IBM PC and the early Macs were coming on the scene, and I just loved them. I loved them. I taught myself how to code. Every time I got paid, I went and bought more memory for my computer so that I could increase the capacity.”
Inspired by the early days of bulletin boards and dial-up modems, Chuck Robbins earned his UNC bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a computer science concentration in 1987.
The Career of Chuck Robbins
North Carolina National Bank
Following college, Chuck Robbins found his first job as a programmer for North Carolina National Bank. “I would get up in the morning, put on a suit, go to the bank and sit in a cube with your suit on, and program. It’s so different than today. But it was a bank, so you wore a suit,” he says.
One of his first interactions with network computing came a couple of years into the job when a manager told him, “We have these things called local area networks popping up, and we’re not really sure what they are. But we’ve hired three people who apparently know about this stuff, and we’d like for you to potentially go manage that group.”
On his way home that day, Chuck stopped at a store to purchase a copy of LAN magazine – apparently, he didn’t know much about the technology either. After a five year stint, he moved on from the bank to take on a position at Wellfleet Communications.
North Carolina National Bank would later become Bank of America.
Robbins began his sales job at Wellfleet in the early 90s. At one point early on, he was considered for a senior management position but lost the job to another candidate. Describing this as a defining moment for him, he says the head of U.S. sales for the company came up to him and said, “People are going to learn more about your character in the next 24 hours than they would’ve ever known about your character if you had gotten this job.”
Chuck took that as, “Show up and be positive and support this thing, and you’re going to be fine.” A year later, another opportunity came up and he moved into it.
Wellfleet Communications, a rival of Cisco, merged with SynOptics in a $2.7 billion deal to form Bay Networks in 1994. Together, the companies believed they could take on Cisco in the router industry. Chuck eventually left Bay Networks and spent a brief period of time in management roles at Ascend Communications before making the move to Cisco in 1997.
Joining Cisco as an account manager, Chuck Robbins began a swift ascent up the companies ranks. Reflecting on when the dotcom bubble burst, “It was a crisis the company had never dealt with,” he says. “We actually had to do a layoff for the first time. And most of us had no idea how to do a layoff. I had to go through training on how to talk to these people and tell them. It was awful. I knew that it wasn’t necessarily brought on by our own execution. But it still didn’t make it any easier for these folks. It was a really dark time.”
Yahoo Finance cites him as a major proponent in the brokering of a $2.1 billion acquisition deal between Cisco and Meraki. Purchasing the company gave Cisco the means to control Wi-Fi networks through the cloud. Robbins was also involved with the acquisition of Sourcefire a year later – a $2.7 billion affair that would strengthen Cisco’s standing in the network security market.
According to the Wall Street Journal, He also worked closely with resellers who account for more than 80% of Cisco’s sales, staffed by technicians who are trained in the arcane commands needed to configure and service the company’s routing and switching devices.
In totality, Robbins has served in the following capacities at Cisco, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Field Operations, where he led the Worldwide Sales and Partner Organizations, and helped drive and execute many of the company’s investment areas and strategy shifts; Senior Vice President of The Americas, Cisco’s largest geographic region; Senior Vice President of U.S. Enterprise, Commercial and Canada; Senior Vice President of U.S. Commercial Sales; and Segment Vice President, U.S. and Canada channel organization, where he was instrumental in helping build the industry’s most powerful partner program.
Tips For Moving Up The Ladder
For those looking to scale the ranks of corporate America, Chuck Robbins provides the following advice:
Every time you get promoted, you have to think deeply about what is it that made you successful in that job and ask yourself, “What do I need to let go of, what do I need to keep, and then what do I need to do differently now?”
I’ve always believed that as leaders, you have to invert the org chart. When you look at the org chart, it’s easy to think that they all work for me. But you have to really believe that you work for the organization. Your job is to remove obstacles and help them achieve what you want them to achieve.
I had to learn how to be an executive. Some people overdo it on executive presence, as opposed to balancing executive presence with still being a human being. Some people are very rehearsed and very buttoned up, and there’s no human side coming out. It’s a very robotic kind of an approach to management.
Cisco Chief Executive
In May of 2015, it was announced that Chuck Robbins would take over for longtime Cisco Ceo, John Chambers. Over the course of a 20-year tenure as chief executive, Chambers guided the company through the tech bubble and facilitated a revenue hike from $1.2 billion annually to $47 billion – Inc. Magazine notes that 10,000 employees became millionaires under his watch.
“Chuck is clearly the leader for Cisco’s future, and he has the unanimous support of the Board of Directors,” said Roderick C. McGeary, Cisco Board Director, Chair of the Compensation and Management Development Committee, and the lead of the search committee. “With John Chambers taking the role of Executive Chairman and Chuck Robbins taking the role of CEO, the board is very confident Cisco has the leadership to drive its success for the next chapter.”
Transition to Subscription
The most ambitious goal that Chuck and his executive team are working towards is a successful transition to selling software through a subscription-based business model. They believe this will offer increased flexibility for customers while also creating an even more stable revenue stream.
Cisco’s 2019 Annual Report provides more detail on this endeavor:
We continued to make strides during fiscal 2019 to develop and sell more software and subscription-based offerings. Historically, our various networking technology products have aligned with their respective product categories. However, increasingly, our offerings are crossing multiple product categories. As our core networking evolves, we expect we will add more common software features across our core networking platforms.
We are increasing the amount of software offerings that we provide and the proportion of subscription software offerings. We have various types of software arrangements including system software, on premise software, hybrid software and SaaS offerings. In terms of monetization, our software offerings fall into the broad categories of subscription arrangements, including SaaS and term licenses, and perpetual licenses.
One of the first decisions Chuck made was, for the first time ever, refreshing the portfolio of campus switches, wireless access points, and enterprise routing products with software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) capabilities within their intent-based networking architecture.
“We have extended intent-based networking capabilities to the Internet of Things (IoT) edge to deliver unprecedented scale, flexibility, and security for increasingly connected environments,” he says in the companies annual report.
Internet of Things
Based on our understanding, the term “Internet of Things (IoT)” can be defined as the interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data. For example, imagine your TV, speaker system, vehicle, garage door, etc. were all connected on the same network and accessible via the internet from a single device such as your phone – you could consider this your personal “Internet of Things.”
Let’s imagine this scenario of connected devices on the scale of an entire city; light poles, cameras, drones, public transportation, etc. all accessible on a single network from a single device. With rapid advances in technology being achieved by companies like Cisco, soon we will be living in a world of “Smart Cities.” The pace at which we are approaching this outcome has gotten major corporations such as Ford to redefine themselves as “mobility” companies and ramp up research & development on self-driven electric vehicles.
Check out this YouTube video for an even better broken-down description of the Internet of Things:
Bringing Power to Data
Chuck Robbins describes what he believes to be the primary benefit of IoT in an interview with The Mercury News, saying, “If you think about what’s going to happen — when you connect these systems to the network, they’re going to generate massive amounts of data and the value to the customer is going to be derived through the insights from that data.”
He continues, “A simple example is where are the current parking places available to a driver. That’s going to be garnered from information that’s coming from sensors, but you need to process that within a timely fashion in order to provide a real-time opportunity for the driver of a car. So you have to push the capability to process that data closer to where that data is, or you’ve lost the opportunity. My view is, as an industry we have to bring the computing and the technology power to where the data is so that you can make the decisions while it has value.”
Virtually anything can be made “Smart;” a business, airport, city, utility services, a person’s personal collection of devices, etc. While maximizing efficiency in all areas of human life sounds exciting in theory, some are pushing back with concerns about who will have access to these networks. For example, if a city’s electrical grid, or even worse, the entire city gets hacked – what kind of malevolent mayhem could an individual inflict on society?
For more information on real-world IoT systems that are in place right now, visit the Cisco website here.
Chuck Robbins and Corporate Social Responsibility
Reporting $51.9 billion in revenue for 2019, Cisco identifies the product categories responsible for this figure as 58% infrastructure platforms, 25% services, 11% applications, 5% security, and 1% other. When Robbins took over as Chief Executive, the company was trading at $29.55 per share, as of July 2020, shares are valued at $46.40 each.
However impressive, it’s not all about the numbers for Chuck. He has led a profound Corporate Social Responsibility strategy that has positively touched the lives of over 469 million people, reduced the company’s greenhouse gas emissions by 48%, and brought computer programming education to millions.
A top priority for Cisco is to build local capacity in ways that help communities thrive. They focus on capacity-building in domains that are relevant and strategic, such as networking, cybersecurity, and software development. Their strategic investment in Cisco Networking Academy helps countries meet industry demand for a digitally skilled workforce by providing a comprehensive learning experience.
The annual report indicates, with 2.15 million students in 180 countries participating in Cisco Networking Academy in fiscal 2019, we exceeded our goal of reaching 2 million Cisco Networking Academy students per year by 2021. Since inception, the program has reached 10.9 million students worldwide.
“At a time when our industry is on the cusp of more disruption than we’ve ever encountered, I couldn’t be more confident in our ability to win, or more honored to lead this great company,” Robbins concludes.
If you enjoyed this story on Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, be sure to check out our biography of Intel CEO, Bob Swan.