Friday, 31 July 2020

Building Cisco's Japan Development Center

Definitely the most interesting thing I did in my time at Cisco was to start an engineering team in Japan. How that came about is a story in itself.

My job at Cisco had nothing to do with Japan. I ran the router software group, IOS, which was a seriously full time job. It comprised about 500 people, mostly at the corporate HQ in San Jose, California, but plenty spread around the world including the UK, where I was initially hired, India, France, and several locations in the US. My move to the US coincided with a total, absolute hiring freeze after the crash of 2000. Senior management understood that we needed to grow the group, though, so every time some remote acquisition turned out to be surplus to requirements, we would acquire bits of the team. I had people in Colorado, North Carolina, up north in Sonoma County, and sundry individual contributors working from wherever they happened to have been hired.

Senior management was expected take on various odd tasks that had nothing to do with the day job. One such assignment that came my way was giving the opening keynote speech at the company's customer conference (Cisco Live) in Japan, in 2003.

Back in the 1980s, international standards work had taken me to Japan several times. During the 1990s my wife went there often for the same reason, and I would sometimes tag along. But this was my first visit since before I'd joined Cisco, in 1999. There were things I'd forgotten since my previous visit, like when the airport bus arrived at a hotel and the staff ran to meet it, then stood and bowed as it pulled away. You get used to this, but after a five year interval it surprised me again.

I was greeted very courteously by the head of marketing in Japan, who has since become a very good friend. It's assumed in Japan that foreigners will need their hands held at all times. It takes a lot to convince them that you can safely use the metro and railway system without getting lost. I think it would be a serious loss of face to mislay a visiting Vice President, so even if they believe you they are reluctant to let you try it. Consequently, I had been met at my hotel - the New Otani - and accompanied to the conference location.

I had a carefully prepared presentation - it had never occurred to me to ask for help or any kind of corporate guidance. But it was only in the hour before I gave it that I learned it was "the" keynote for the conference. I made a few hasty changes and it seemed to work OK. I spoke in English but there was simultaneous translation to Japanese. I asked the head translator, a very distinguished Japanese guy in his 50s, how fast I should speak. "About a quarter as fast as your CEO" was his answer. In fact it was very easy to pace myself. Every single person in the audience of hundreds was listening to the translation on headphones. There was enough sound leakage that I could tell when the translator had stopped, and start the next sentence.

That trip led to a couple more to meet Japanese customers, and that in turn led to a fairly surreal activity. We were trying to convince one of the big Japanese operators to switch to Cisco for their core network. Part of this was a technical collaboration around mobile networking for which I was the corporate sponsor. Every three months we would have a meeting, mostly in or around Tokyo though sometimes in the US, with half a dozen people from each side. Their technical team would present what they wanted to do, and how, and our technical team would respond. The two teams totally disagreed, but it didn't matter. At the end the customer's VP and I would both give little speeches saying how impressed we were with the spirit of cooperation and the progress that had been made. And then three months later we would have exactly the same meeting, with exactly the same presentations, and exactly the same speeches. We got some truly excellent Japanese meals out of it.

It was all worth it though. After several years of this, and long after I had left Cisco, we won the business, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

You'll gather from this that I loved Japan - and still do - and was very happy to have good reasons to go there as often as possible. I got to know the country manager - now sadly no longer with us - quite well. Our only disagreement was over how I should address him. He wanted me to do it the American way, using his first name. In the Japanese culture first names are used only by childhood friends and immediate family, and even then not always. I just couldn't bring myself to do it, and always addressed him in the Japanese way as Kurosawa-san. If we had met in the US, it would have been different.

Over dinner on one trip he told me that it was his dream to have a corporate engineering activity in Japan. It was a constant ding against American suppliers that they did no R&D in the country, and he wanted to counter that. I thought it was a great idea, but when I presented it to my management back in California they practically laughed in my face. It would be expensive, we wouldn't be able to find or hire the right people, it made no sense, and so on. So that was that.

But Kurosawa-san was resourceful, and at some point, knowing that he had the practical support he needed from me, he managed to convince the CEO, John Chambers. That changed everything. Suddenly I was told to make it happen.

The biggest challenge was to find someone to run it. The key to any remote team like this is to find someone who understands the corporate thinking, and who also understands the local culture. Generally this is impossible, which is why so many remote teams fail miserably. I had a very lucky inspiration. One of the UK team which I'd inherited when I joined Cisco was bored and looking for something new. A Norwegian called Ole, he still had some Viking blood, one of life's adventurers looking for the next Big Thing. It helped a lot that he already knew some of the Cisco Japan team. He was signed up almost before I'd finished asking him.

The other big challenge was to assemble the nucleus of the team. But that turned out to be much easier than I'd expected. In 2004 Cisco's prestige was high and people were keen to be part of its product development team. There were people already working for Cisco Japan, who had taken jobs in support for want of anything better, who were happy to move into engineering. Through personal contacts we found engineers at Japanese companies who were happy to make the change. One of the new team was Japanese but working for Cisco in California. Quickly I had a nucleus who could be trusted to grow the team - although, in the end, it never did grow.

We had to put the team somewhere. Initially we borrowed some space from the country sales operation, in Shinjuku, but the hope was that eventually it would reach a hundred or more people. For that it made sense to think about a location outside Tokyo, which led to our "fact finding" trip to Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture, and our amazing lunch with the prefectural governor that I've written about before.

Everything came together in spring 2005. We had a team, we had an office, and we had someone to run it all. I went to Tokyo for three weeks to get it all started, and luckily my wife was able to come with me. Rather than stay in a hotel, we rented a very pleasant apartment in the Aoyama district of Tokyo. It's the closest I have ever come to living in Japan. We shopped for food in the local supermarkets, an interesting experience for my wife who neither speaks Japanese nor can read any of the characters. Most things can be identified from pictures on the labels, but she needed my help to distinguish salt from sugar and flour. We had a wonderful time there, one of the most memorable trips of my life.

For the next year or so, I visited Japan every three months. It led to some complicated itineraries, since I generally combined them with a visit to the team I still had in the UK. Cisco had rented an apartment in Tameike for Ole and his wife, absolutely vast by Japanese standards, a ten minute walk from the New Otani where I stayed on every trip. Each room was bigger than a typical Tokyo apartment. I spent many memorable evenings there, though the next mornings were sometimes a bit hazy. Apart from the team itself, he'd built a "support network" in Japan who helped him and all of us with every aspect of things.

Since I was in Japan so often, I got to know the country sales team well too. I visited several important Japanese customers as "the man from HQ". I would sit there in total incomprehension as the "fireside chat" meeting ran its course, but apparently just my presence made a big difference.

It was important for the team to know their colleagues in California, and we arranged for them all to visit at the same time. The trip happened to coincide with Halloween, and we arranged a fancy-dress party at home. One of the team's hobby was traditional Japanese kimono, and she had brought with her a complete outfit. She looked amazing, delicate and beautiful in the Japanese tradition, and definitely took first prize by popular acclaim.

I left Cisco about a year later, and Ole decided to return to Europe at the end of his two year contract. A local manager was hired. But by then Cisco had lurched into much more aggressive expense control, and the planned expansion never happened. The country manager retired, a victim of corporate politics - the destiny of all who reach the senior ranks of Cisco. With no sponsors left, the group lingered on for a surprisingly long time, but in the end a bean-counter somewhere spotted it and its destiny was sealed. Some of the engineers returned to non-engineering roles, some moved to the US, and some left the company.

The country manager, who I got to know well, once said to me "When you make a friend in Japan, you make a friend for life." And it's true. Even now, fifteen years later, I still have good friends there who I see whenever I get a chance to visit.

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