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Cisco's Rowan Trollope Makes 'Spark' Fly

Three years ago Cisco appointed Rowan Trollope as the new leader of its Collaboration Business. The unit had been experiencing two years of declining revenue. Trollope was new to the collaboration industry, and began his education with a critical eye on the user's experience. Soon after, he started making significant changes.

Under Rowan's leadership, the team took a "less is more" approach. After three years the results include an award-winning product lineup which has garnered eight Red Dot design awards, a streamlined portfolio with a 73% decrease in orderable parts, a significant drop in average price, and a dramatic return to revenue growth -- for four consecutive quarters. Six months ago Cisco Collaboration reported 14% increase in revenue, and just this last quarter (Q1-FY16) reported 17% growth year-over-year. When Cisco recently consolidated its IoT businesses, Rowan was asked to expand his responsibility to take on the company's business unit driving the IoT as well as the analytics group and Cisco's DevNet development platform.

Prior to joining Cisco, Rowan held various executive and engineering roles at Symantec where he both transformed Norton's core security products and conceived a dramatic rebranding. He holds seven patents in security and operating systems. He continues to code to this day and requires the same of his engineering leads. He is currently writing an iOS application in Swift.

Rowan, who is a father of three and a San Francisco denizen, balances his technical side with a passion for the arts, believing that good aesthetics lead to good products. He also paints and enjoys high altitude alpine mountaineering. He intends to summit Mount Denali in 2016.

I contacted Rowan directly through Cisco Spark to see if he'd agree to an interview. That was the easy (nearly instant) part. Finding time on the calendar took a few more weeks. We covered a variety of topics, from his unique vision for the company and its Collaboration Business, to his thoughts on mobility, developers, and industry evolutions:

Enterprise communications have gone through several transitions. Most recently the voice-only PBX was replaced with broader unified communications. Do you think we are on the cusp of another big transition, and if so, what?
Yes, I do. I believe we are on the cusp of another big transition to the cloud. We recognized the need to reinvent collaboration for the modern age, and to do that we decided it should be hosted in the cloud and delivered as a service. Next, we are on the cusp of a transition to a next generation of communications -- email is being replaced by business messaging (Spark), and this is being integrated with the rest of the communications stack. Finally, we see developers as the biggest source of innovation as we are opening our platform for anyone to build applications on top of.

Cisco Spark was introduced as Project Squared about a year ago. Was this a product already under development at Cisco, or something initiated after your arrival?
No, it was not under development; it was initiated after my arrival. I felt the future was in messaging with integrated voice and video. We assembled a small group of the world's best engineers, defined the product, and then set to work building it.

On a Cisco webpage, I read that your mission is to make collaboration simple. Is that accurate?
Yep. Collaboration technology has been too fragmented and too complex. The consumer today demands simple and elegant solutions. I intend to bring them delightful and magical experiences in the workplace.

You often speak about the need to change and evolve -- or risk being "blockbustered." Tell me how you think Cisco Collaboration will change over the next few years?
First, I believe many customers will shift toward buying collaboration services in the cloud. Second, I believe advanced video and collaboration hardware will be adopted into 50% of the rooms and spaces (currently only in 5%) in the next five years. I intend for that hardware and the cloud which powers it to be delivered by my team. Finally, I believe that MOST innovation in the collaboration space will come from developers. We are intending to open a robust API platform for developers to build on top of our cloud.

Your role at Cisco recently expanded to include the Internet of Things Group. Is that viewed as a separate functional area or are Internet of Everything and collaboration merging? Are IP phones the primary "Everything" in Cisco's portfolio?
The IoT Group is a separate functional area. My job is to define and build Cisco's future IoT platform to help our customers make it easy to connect their products and to transform themselves into digital businesses.

Do you see these two roles to be synergistic?
These are separate businesses. The goal was not to find synergies. IoT will be the next massive growth area for Cisco.

It's very likely that the next generation of UC will tightly interoperate with wireless mobile services. While some vendors are working toward IMS integration. I suspect you see APIs as the best route. Can you share your vision on how UC and 4G will interact?
We will probably interact with IMS, but provide restful APIs to the outside world. Our Tropo acquisition was a reflection of that intent. [Tropo] already integrates into the SP network and provides simple restful APIs to allow for programmatic communications.

Continue to next page for more of Trollope's thoughts on Cisco Spark, the importance of developers, room systems, and the future of collaboration and video

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It seems that the UC industry is embracing the concept of workstream or messaging-centric collaboration, as there are several offers emerging. Yet, the model is still relatively unproven, and far from mainstream. Why are you confident that collaborative messaging solutions will take-off, and what will give Spark a competitive edge?
Because we have seen this transformation in the consumer space. People have recognized the power of the messaging platform. It's the biggest killer app on mobile phones BY FAR. Andreessen says software is eating the world. I could say right now messaging is eating the mobile world. Spark has the competitive edge because it is designed to deliver a seamless experience that blends messaging, voice and video, and conferencing. And it will integrate with our hardware seamlessly. We are intending to change the landscape of collaboration with this cloud platform.

You have remarked before that your usage of Spark reduces your email. Why does that matter? Isn't it just moving the message from one system to another?
No, it matters because messaging is more efficient so I can get more done and stay more tightly in touch with my coworkers. Also, messaging is more informal, and informality breeds trust. And trust is the basis of collaboration. So messaging leads to better and more collaboration. This is easily observable to anyone using it. Better decisions. Faster decisions. Less meetings. Less email. More collaboration. Sounds like heaven.

Among UC executives, you are one of the most active on Twitter. Clearly you value social networks. Tell me how you distinguish your usage of Twitter and Spark, and why wasn't WebEx Social successful?
Spark is for my team to work with me. Twitter is for me to engage with the broader world. Social apps for business never took off. There are many reasons. One is that it didn't remove anything else you had to do. It was another source of information. Another [reason] was that people started using Facebook less and messaging more (Facebook recognized this shift and broke out messenger to a separate app and acquired WhatsApp).

A final reason is that none of the social networks for business were done as well as Facebook itself. Code quality and user experience make a huge difference here. Consider that Myspace never took off, but Facebook came along and blew them away. It had a better experience. Myspace was messy. Facebook was clean.

A few months back Cisco acquired Tropo. After years of neglect, what caused APIs and the developer story to become important at Cisco?
Because I believe in developers. And I believe in the power of platforms and APIs. I believe in human ingenuity and that if we provide a powerful and robust platform, the creativity of developers will surprise us with how they will build the next generation of apps and experiences.

Cisco has a complex distribution strategy. It sells equipment through resellers, HCS solutions to providers, and some cloud services such as WebEx direct to end users. Is this the desired model, or is it a transition to something else?
We sell through partners. This isn't changing. Our primary route to market will be through our amazing partner network.

At Symantec you were responsible for Symantec Cloud, a software as a service business. With that experience and now WebEx and Spark, what do you know now about SaaS that you didn't fully appreciate earlier?
I have learned that to deliver a SaaS service for a real-time capability like voice and video requires a fundamentally new architectural design pattern. [Related post]

In a nutshell, we designed a SaaS architecture which supports us deploying micro-services at the edge of the network. This means parts of our infrastructure, like media handling (MCUs), can be deployed in a service provider network or within an enterprise campus, which allows for data to stay close to the edge of the network thus improving latency and reducing bit transit costs. Think about it like: What Akamai has done for static content, we are doing for real-time flows.

We invented this for Cisco Spark to allow for the quality of service and stringent security requirements that we strive to deliver. This has been a great lesson.

Does this fundamental new architecture include improved security and encryption?
Yes. In fact, the best security and encryption for a messaging platform in the world. Cloud security is hard. We hired the best security architects on the planet, and we invented a new cloud security architecture. It slowed down my development of Spark by 30%, but we now have the most secure messaging app and platform on the planet (by my estimations).

How do you think Cisco's view of UC is unique or different than most of your competitors?
I don't know their views. Most of what I hear sounds good on paper but it never gets delivered. We are unique because of the completeness of our vision and our understanding of the customer experience.

To deliver on the promise of UC, we reinvented the entire thing from scratch. Our competitors have the right idea, but the wrong execution. It's not the what, it's the how.

As we continue to value mobility and our smartphones, what becomes of your desk phone and room system businesses?
Room systems are a major growth area because people still assemble in groups and then mobile phones are not a good solution. Room systems are. They will get more robust and capable. I believe we will see a future where every room of every office and home will be connected and have compute everywhere. I call this ambient computing. Mobile phones were just the beginning. Compute is going everywhere! And I intend to make a mark here.

What excites you most about where we are headed in terms of collaboration and video?
Video will be in every space in every room and pervasive everywhere. Analytics will make it possible for the computer to augment your intellect. This is the area I'm most excited about. I'm taking a class in deep learning from Stanford online at the moment because this is the technology that will transform every facet of development as we know it today. It's what will make possible my dreams as the leader of the world's largest collaboration technology business.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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