Cisco C-Scape - More Takeaways, Photos, Deaf Culture, the Human Network and The Godfather 2

I've got some not-so-random thoughts to share from the last 2 days of Cisco C-Scape 2011. I'm not your typical industry analyst, so my take here is a bit different, and I just might get you to see collaboration a bit differently. If you want straight up analyst coverage, just mine the Twitter feeds that have been going non-stop.

Overall, the event has been as advertised - huge, splashy, very well run, and plenty of access/exposure to executives across all lines of business. Definitely worthwhile, and Cisco keeps the bar very high for giving analysts what they need.

Cisco Live is the big piece of this event, and they had over 15,000 partners in attendance - with another 40,000+ following via the Web - that's pretty impressive. If you weren't with us, here are a few photos from the keynotes. I've got another one later in this post, so keep reading.

Opening number - no, this isn't an audition for Hair or Godspell - but a great warm up for John Chambers. This was a faux flash mob that started out in the aisles and then took over the stage. It was about as unscripted as a reality TV show - totally not, of course! - but very fun and very Vegas.

Jim Grubb walks John Chambers through a vertical market demo of various collaboration applications. This was for the oil and gas sector - very compelling and more plausible than last year's demo for collaboration in the school classroom.

Padmasree Warrior's keynote

So, collaboration remains the main story for Cisco, but they made it clear that routers and switches are still the core of their business. Cloud is a big part of their roadmap, but they remain married to the mantra of the network being the driver for collaboration.

To deliver on this, we heard a lot about their commitment to innovation and architecting networks that help businesses achieve their goals. John Chambers talked about how we're shifting from an information economy to a networked economy, where value comes not from moving information around, but in finding experts who can help businesses solve problems right now. The demo cited above was a great example of this, where they used Quad to source an expert to help solve a remote pipeline maintenance issue.

Moving on, much of our time was spent in small scale briefings, and that was a great way to get interactive updates on various areas of interest. There were a lot of these going on, and it didn't take long to realize there was a small army of analysts there, many of whom are way outside the realm of colleagues I work with. Cisco has become that big and expansive that you need this many people to understand the full picture. Of course, that's also part of the problem, and we heard a lot about how Cisco has had to re-trench and focus on a more manageable customer set.

Ok, so let's move on the cryptic references in the title of this post. Let's start with The Godfather. If your mind works like mine, you'll have figured this out by now. Anyone who has seen John Chambers speak knows that he's absolutely the best - nobody commmunicates as smoothly as he does. He's got that perfect blend of business focus, folksy Southern charm, an Atticus Finch sense of lawyerly measured conviction, and the cadence and gleam of a preacher. The audience is always in the palm of his hand, and with 15,000 in the room, that's pretty impressive.

This was a very happy audience at a very upbeat event - the Pimp My Router routine was hilarious! - but while all this was going down, all I could think of was the fantastic climax of The Godfather, Part 2 (has there ever been a better sequel film?). C'mon, you remember - how calmly Michael Corleone goes about his business while his grand plan to consolidate power unfolds with a series of brutal, fast-cut executions and takeouts. Coppola - and Pacino - at their best.

As we all know, there has been lots of coverage about Cisco layoffs as part of the aforementioned retrenching. On Monday, the talk was 5,000, then on Tuesday it was 10,000. Whatever the number ends up being, it will be a lot of people out of work or taking early retirement. I'm not saying this is a heartless move - in fact, during the analyst Q&A, John Chambers was very candid about the care they take with employees. However, everyone knew this cloud would be hanging over the event, but you'd never know it from listening to the keynotes. :-)

Now, let's talk about two other Cisco mantras from the event. First is a tag line they've been using for a while - The Human Network. Hold that thought. The other one is listening. John Chambers had a customer-centric theme in his keynote - "you ask, we deliver". I like that - short and to the point. All successful companies do this very well - they listen and learn, and I've always had the sense this was a hallmark of Cisco.

However, I didn't realize how true this really was - figuratively and literally - until I noticed something that I highly doubt ANYONE in that arena of 15,000 people picked up on. The photo below isn't great, but I'll explain. Her name is Angie Beachley, and behind her, Padmasree Warrior is giving her keynote. So, why is Angie facing the audience, and why is she so animated?

Simple. She's a signer. Sitting across from her in the front row (not pictured) is Bryan Dixon. He's with SAIC (and NASA), and a NetVet as well. Bryan is also deaf, and Cisco provided a signer so he could follow along. I noticed the same thing on Tuesday, where a different interpreter - Rod Voris - was used.

I wouldn't expect you to connect these dots, but I've grown up with Deaf Culture, as my youngest brother is deaf. As I chatted up Bryan through the interpreter (I don't know sign language), I learned that he went to the same university as my brother - NTID - National Technical Institute for the Deaf. A number of things struck me about this that add some color to the world Cisco lives in.

First, we take it for granted that all the powerful tools we have for collaboration and Unified Communications work for everybody. Try telling that to those who are visually or hearing-impaired. It's really tough when you can't see, but deaf people can at least pick up the visual cues. I have known for years that the deaf community is actually a tailor-made market for many of the tools we rely on. My brother and his friends don't talk on the phone of course, but they text and chat like crazy, and video is perfect for them. If you've ever been around a group of deaf people conversing, you'll notice right away that sign language is incredibly rich and nuanced in ways that speech doesn't have.

I'm not saying for a minute that Cisco should view the deaf community as another vertical market. However, I have no doubt that people like Bryan Dixon can help Cisco make these tools more engaging and inclusive for everyone. It's really hard for deaf people to get regular jobs, but in the world IT, I think they can do incredibly well, and teach others how to make sharper use of all their senses. If this isn't The Human Network at work, I don't know what is.

I wanted to add a coda to this from yet another unlikely source - football. American football is without a doubt the most complex and collaborative of all team sports. I'll bet you didn't know there's a deaf college football team. Gaullaudet University is in Washington D.C. - it's the only all-deaf university in the world, and they've had football as long as any Ivy League school. Until recently, do you know how they sent play calls in from the sidelines? They bang a drum, and the QB picks up the vibrations, which come in code. Pretty neat. They also invented the huddle way back when as a way to prevent their opponent from seeing the play calls which were signalled using sign language. Here's an article if you want to check this out further.

So, what's my point? Well, look at how ingenious all this is - no matter what faculties you have, it's in our nature to find ways to communicate and collaborate. The deaf community has learned this in spades, and believe me, a lot of deaf people think we're the ones with the handicap - and they wouldn't want it any other way. This is a different and long-winded take on collaboration, and I'm just trying to say it's a very human process, whether one-to-one or one-to-many. In my view, this little sidebar validates for me that Cisco is on the right path with collaboration - perhaps more than they realize.

The world needs more people like Bryan Dixon to make us aware of the full potential for how we communicate and share ideas. However, we'll only get there if the focus is on human communication - the technology is a means, not an end. So, kids, stop walking and texting with your head down, and look at what's in front of you in real time - then you just might bump into Bryan one of these days.