CRN Exclusive: Cisco Channel Chief Bahr On Faulty Component Issue, Software Vision And 'Extraordinary' Security Growth

'We Will Disrupt Ourselves'

Leading the channel charge for Cisco's more than 60,000 worldwide partners is Wendy Bahr, a 17-year channel veteran who says Cisco is moving faster than ever before, with partners leading the way.

"In some areas, we will disrupt ourselves because we know that's what's necessary to keep pace with this environment, to keep pace with innovation, to deliver to our customers and to deliver to our partners what they expect of us," said Bahr, senior vice president of Cisco's Global Partner Organization in an interview with CRN.

Bahr spoke with CRN about Cisco's replacement plan to fix networking products that contained a faulty clock component, its vision for software and security growth, Cisco ACI and the energy CEO Chuck Robbins is bringing to the company.

What can you say about Cisco's replacement plan to fix networking products that contained a faulty clock component?

Most importantly, we listen to the partners, and we listen to our customers, and we want to ensure that our customers – via our partners – are cared for. We were very transparent, and we've been very proactive in terms of that particular component failure, which of course was not specific to Cisco but was an industry-wide component failure. We've been working very closely with our partners and customers.

We have a very detailed process that we've set up inside the company to take in inquiries from customers and ensure that we are proactively, in advance of a failure, making sure that we're making that replacement product available.

What's your message to partners who are still working with customers to fix this issue?

We've had a tremendous, more than 20-plus year relationship with our partners and we are the gold standard. And I believe that the trust that we have between the partners and Cisco is built on that standard of us doing the right thing for our partners and customers. So far, the process has been working, and we continue to listen to the partners and take in their feedback so we can make adjustments if necessary.

Cisco is reportedly developing a standalone networking OS. Is that a path Cisco is possibly going down?

Our strategy is the tight integration of world-class software with world-class hardware, providing the best value for our customers and the best monetization opportunity for our partners. That is our position.

Cisco has touted itself as one of the biggest global software companies. Is there any evidence to support this?

In terms of our deferred revenue and recurring revenue, it is growing and we believe it will continue to grow with the help of our partners. Many of them have recurring revenue practices that helped their business in terms of profitability and stickiness. We're encouraged that so many of our partners are excited about the recurring revenue opportunity – not just of SaaS and cloud-native like Spark and the hardware associated with that like Spark Board – but that so many of them have been in the managed services business and have a recurring revenue business accruement. So we just see a really nice dovetail as we move more and more to a recurring revenue business model with much of our portfolio.

Can you give a specific data point on Cisco software momentum?

Our Cisco ONE Software business via our partners has grown to $1.2 billion of bookings … since we introduced Cisco ONE.

Can you talk product roadmap around Cisco ACI and SDN? How should partners be going to market with ACI?

What partners tell us that really resonates is all about automation, orchestration and management. Everything we've been talking about at [Partner Connection Week] is confirming the feedback they've been giving us and what the customers have been saying about how important it is in this fast-paced world of technology that they have that kind of capability.

ACI and CloudCenter and Tetration – all of that is building out a very robust set of solution capabilities that our partners can monetize and our customers need to manage.

Cisco is being more vocal around reiterating its position in cybersecurity. How bullish is Cisco around security in 2017?

Cisco is a security company. This is backed-up by third-party independent analysis … we couldn't be more bullish. We heard from partners that the breadth of the portfolio and the architectural approach really does resonate with customers who want to feel like they've done everything possible to protect their employees, their customers, and their environments.

We are extraordinarily proud of our results and are happy to show those against the competition. There's nothing wrong with good, healthy competition and we believe we'll continue to innovate in this portfolio as we continue to proclaim that we are the best in the industry when it comes to architectural, end-to-end security.

Cisco's made several security acquisitions in the past two years. Are there any security portfolio gaps left that you want to fill?

I don't believe that security is a static environment. If you're not constantly innovating, constantly acquiring, constantly managing your portfolio for the ever-changing environment, it will be hard to remain number one is security. My anticipation is, we've made a bet – a big bet – on security and we're going to continue to both internally organically innovate across our architectures as well as, where necessary, make those critical acquisitions.

Cisco just added a slew of new networking products targeting the SMB market. Why is Cisco now pushing more into the SMB space?

It's just more options. Our HCS (Hosted Collaboration Solution) has been a great collaboration vehicle for us, but what's Rowan [Trollope, senior vice president and general manager, IoT and Applications] is doing with Spark – Spark Message, Spark Meetings, Spark Call – it's again the broadening of our portfolio. It's more options for customers. It's more options for partners and for partners who may want to play on the lower-end of the market and specialize in that Spark platform.

Do you think Cisco's SMB push will help partners win more deals?

What's really unique about Cisco is that we really understand customer choice and we understand monetization of our portfolio so that partners can win. What Rowan is doing with the Spark portfolio is super exciting. We hear a lot of great energy around Spark Board and Spark, and again, that's the natural synergy of world-class hardware coupled with world-class software -- that's the sweet spot of where Cisco and our partners win together.

Would you advise partners to hire non-IT personnel in specific verticals, such as doctors and school administrators?

Well, we have done that as Cisco as a part of our Digital Transformation Group. We have hired people out of the industry to work on [Global Vice President of Cisco's Digital Transformation Group] Sandy Hogan's team for that very reason – to get an appreciation and understanding of that industry from the lens of a non-technical, non-technology person.

I think it's a partner's own strategic decision. If they're going to go deep in a vertical, then it might make sense for them to invest in an industry person or someone who's involved in that particular vertical business strategy. Because we're linking the technology to the business strategy and it's that kind of individual to bridge a gap.

What exact type of non-IT personnel has Cisco hired?

People out of health care – health care administrators as an example. We have a woman that worked with us on Epic [software], one of our ecosystem partners, and we were embedding Cisco technology with Epic electronics medical records, and she really helped us understand the context there.

Should partners in general start looking to hire a few non-IT personnel?

I wouldn't recommend it for every partner, but if the partner has a deep vertical practice, we've certainly have had some partners who have done that in the IoT space for example, or oil and gas. It’s about the partner's business strategy and what kind of investments they want to make and how they want to link the technology into the business outcome.

What has it been like working with CEO Chuck Robbins, who himself was a former channel leader?

It's great to have your CEO be a former channel chief, but it's also great to work for someone who is pushing Cisco to ensure that we continue to evolve and change and accelerate our pace of change. In some areas, we will disrupt ourselves because we know that's what's necessary to keep pace with this environment, to keep pace with innovation, to deliver to our customers and to deliver to our partners what they expect of us.

What type of energy is Robbins bringing to Cisco as the leader?

He is moving fast. He's pushing us hard. He's full of energy and excitement and enthusiasm. We just had a leadership offsite two weeks ago where about 400 of our top leaders across Cisco attended. In the 17 years, I've been in this leadership conference, I've never left more energized and more optimistic than in my previous 16 years attending that session. We're fired up.

If I'm a partner in 2017, why should I be bullish about Cisco?

Our continued commitment to our partners is our most competitive, strategic asset – we don’t win without our partners. We get up every day – and not just the partner organization – but our business entity leaders know that without our partners, we can't get to where we need to be for our customers. So we'll continue to ensure that we drive simplicity, alignment and value exchange and we'll continue to listen to customers and take our partners feedback.