Cisco CIO Fletcher Previn on the Hybrid Workplace & Exploring AI

Six months after moving from IBM to Cisco, Previn talks about solving for the needs of the hybrid workplace that can include leveraging AI.

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Editor

April 6, 2023

11 Min Read
Fletcher Previn, Cisco's CIOCisco

Last September, Fletcher Previn took over as CIO for Cisco after 14 years with IBM, including four years as CIO there. He joined Cisco while industry still coped with lingering issues of the pandemic, which he says informed a lot of how the company approached its roadmap. This includes driving a hybrid work experience that does not disadvantage people who are not in the office, he says, and meets the needs of the workforce wherever they are.

He shared his insights with InformationWeek on making hybrid work more equitable through technology such as artificial intelligence, its role in software development, and how the CIO role is transforming.

It’s been about six months with you as CIO of Cisco. How has that time gone relative to your initial goals, expectations, and what you want to make happen this time as a CIO versus your prior roles?

I’ve been really energized and pleased with the progress the team is making. We’ve established an ambitious goal for ourselves of getting double the throughput in half the time and the reason we’ve done that is it’s an ambitious enough goal that you can’t achieve it by just making minor adjustments at the margins.

You have to fundamentally do some things differently. And so, for us, that’s really been two main drivers of how we expect to achieve that. One is embracing agility and I'll talk about that in a second. The other is one of the first changes I made: creating a design and experience organization so that we lead with the experience in everything that we do.

At a high level, the strategy has been sort of broken up into three hills around talent and culture, ways of working, and technology.

Talent and culture is all about building technical expertise. Ways of working is all about how we interpret and deploy agile at Cisco in terms of creating well-formed productive teams, groups of six to 10 people that are cross-functional and have all of the skills that they need to put something into production with as few dependencies on other people as possible. Having stable teams where you’re not constantly forming and unforming teams, and being able to flow work to the teams instead of moving teams onto projects, right? So, it’s sort of doing the right work, the right way. A big part of this has been about talking about prioritization and capacity and not about people or dollars.

If the business is asking us to do 300 things and we have capacity to do 150, which 150 are most important and in what order, and then let’s form ourselves correctly so that we can flow that work to the teams in an efficient way. And then technology is about delivering with this kind of loosely coupled, tightly aligned, cloud-enabled technology and shifting left in our whole development cycle for security.

One of the gaps in the agile manifesto is it doesn’t really address experience or design in any specific way. It’s just sort of a skill that someone has to have. Our interpretation of agile is that anything that a lot of people are going to experience -- whether it’s an enterprise application, or a mobile app, or an email that’s going to go out, or a sign that’s going to be hung up in the office -- we want to make sure that it goes through the design team so that it comes out the other end looking like something from your consumer life and not necessarily something that you’d expect from a large enterprise.

When I say design, I mean the full stack of skills that are required for that. So, research analytics, content design, UI/UX, and then, of course, visual design. But running things through that gearbox so that the words we’re choosing, and the flow of the work, and do we understand the voice of the customer and are we really solving the right problem, investing a little bit of time up front so that we can go fast later.

There has been a drive on your part to establish Cisco as a model for hybrid work. How has that come together? How has the experience establishing that hybrid work model at Cisco compared with your time with hybrid work at IBM?

When everybody was remote, that was kind of a simpler IT problem to solve than hybrid work. With hybrid, you’ve got to solve for the fact that you don’t want to have two dramatically different meeting experiences of people who are in a conference room together, huddled around and whispering and sharing an inside joke, and then people who are joining remotely that are struggling to hear and see what is going on.

If you think about all of the things that you have to actually solve for hybrid work, it’s a much broader challenge than just what meeting tool are you using. You have to be able to understand what’s happening on the public Internet across networks that you don’t own or manage, which is increasingly where your employees are going to be working and have the observability to understand the performance of the Internet backbone, the SaaS service providers, the large applications that people are using on the Internet. You need to solve for transport, remote access, security.

It’s a large, fairly complex set of things that need to come together, and the neat thing for me about being the CIO of Cisco is Cisco’s really the only company that has the breadth and depth of portfolio to solve the networking pieces, the security pieces, the collaboration pieces, the services pieces to sort of bring it all together to say, we have the hardware, software, and services to deliver an end-to-end solution to people that if we can integrate those things together into a highly designed experience, we can send our employees a Cisco secure branch office in a box that contains everything you need to have a rich, remote hybrid work experience.

That might be the Wi-Fi. That might be the home router. That might be the collaboration software. That might be the noise canceling headphones. That might be the Webex device that they’re using, but it’s also the ThousandEyes observability, the zero-trust solutions that we have in place. It might be the security overlay so that we can have our people be distributed wherever they are in the world. And so, we have put together a -- we call it the hybrid worker bundle. I’ve had the luxury of being able to walk through the Cisco portfolio and pick the things that work well together and solve this problem in a great way for employees and then create this highly designed experience around it and put it in a box and ship it out to employees and the response to that has just been really, really positive.

If you think about the way I’m experiencing this meeting on a Cisco device with high-speed, reliable, survivable Internet connectivity with remote monitoring in place where Cisco will know if my home office is having a problem likely before I would know and the quality of the meeting is good enough that I can read body language and nonverbal cues and see when I'm losing the focus of the person I’m talking to. And if I compare that with the experience of unreliable Internet on consumer grade equipment, packets dropped, frames dropped, audio cutting in and out, and the stress that that causes an employee and potentially the disadvantage that puts them at in the meeting.

I think that this is a really important problem to solve well and the companies that figure this out will be the winners.

Are there underutilized or underappreciated aspects to hybrid work that could be further explored, further expanded?

Well, I think it's clear that this is a way of working that employees want and that there’s a lot of benefit to doing it well.

I think it’s also clear that what has sustained us through the past three plus years is not going to be sufficient to propel us forward over the next three years. We’ve had a lot of years of experience of what working in an office looks and feels like. So, this is a bit of a level set. Everybody gets a do over. What does hybrid work mean for your company and what does that look like?

All of these kind of decision points that CIOs are making in the moment they might feel sort of tactical. But if you take the aggregate of those decisions, they collectively form the answer of what is it like to work in this organization? So, to a very significant degree, I think CIOs are designing the future of work. The sum total of all these decision points has an outsized impact on what the experience of working at a company or an organization is like.

AI as a whole right now is getting of a lot of attention for a variety of different reasons. Sometimes vilified in some instances. What can you say about how you’re exploring AI?

On the Cisco product side of the house, if you think about one of the most challenging problems, people who are managing large networks have, it’s overload of information and telemetry at any given time. Can you find the needle in the haystack in a timely fashion to be able to take action and defend against it? And AI holds a lot of really exciting potential to be able to help with that problem. So, there’s a lot of work underway on the product side of the house in Cisco to bring AI to bear. And a lot of products are already doing that.

For example, Webex is using AI to figure out what camera angle is the best angle for you to have in a meeting at this moment. If you sort of compare the experience of going to a movie for two hours and the experience of sitting in a work meeting for two hours, it’s much more exhausting to have a work meeting than to go to a movie. And why is that? Part of the reason is it’s a static thing. So, Webex is doing this thing where it is taking the frame and dividing it up in different ways.

If a conference room has multiple cameras leveraging that as well, to provide a more dynamic meaning experience. Or using AI to do language translation and subtitles and all kinds of things like that. On the security products, being able to weave together how a threat entered the environment, what it’s trying to do, sorting through logs to look for anomalous behavior and all kinds of things like that. You can imagine where AI would be hugely beneficial.

On the IT employees’ side of the house, or on the IT side of the house, in terms of how we empower employees to do their best work, to a large degree where in the business of meeting unmet demands. If you think about all of the things that people need to do just as part of working at a large organization. I need to find the policy for this. How do I do an expense report? How do I book travel? I've got to go through these emails in my inbox. I need to quickly know which messages are important in this other messaging platform and need an immediate response. Those are the kinds of things that I think from a just general user productivity standpoint, AI and these large language learning models are going to be really exciting and helpful.

If you even just take the software developer persona you know, the most recent estimate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 45% of the code projects being put into GitHub are being written by CoPilot for commenting and otherwise. So that’s a 55% improvement in the amount of time that it takes to develop software. And traditionally, the conventional wisdom is you really cannot compress the time it takes to develop something. You can really compress the time it takes to test and deploy it, which is why there's so much focus on test automation and CI/CD pipelines. But the time it takes for human beings to actually write code is not something that you can just magically make go faster. So, if technologies like CoPilot can take some of the more mundane tasks of software development off the plate of the developer and put really good comments in there as well while it’s doing it, that's a huge benefit to how long it takes us to develop software and code.

Is the CIO role changing substantially or has it been more of a subtle evolution?

I do think the role of the CIO is becoming a more technical, more hands-on role. Everybody’s digital estate is getting more complicated. Personally, I think the days of being a kind of generalist are likely over. Every company to some degree is a tech company these days. And they might be a tech company masquerading as a different kind of company, but the role that it plays in everybody’s digital transformation is critical. That’s the engine through which all these things get enabled.

And I think to do that well, is a more and more technical kind of role that is going to be more and more require deeper technical expertise and being closer to the work.

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About the Author(s)

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

Senior Editor

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth covers tech policy, including ethics, privacy, legislation, and risk; fintech; code strategy; and cloud & edge computing for InformationWeek. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years, reporting on business and technology first in New Jersey, then covering the New York tech startup community, and later as a freelancer for such outlets as TheStreet, Investopedia, and Street Fight. Follow him on Twitter: @jpruth.

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