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Squaring Things Up with Cisco's Rowan Trollope

At Cisco's Collaboration Summit 2014 taking place this week in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to sit down with Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of the company's Collaboration Technology Group, and get an insider's view on the company's new Project Squared platform. We talked about how the project started, where it's going, and what other big moves Cisco has in store in the collaboration space. Read on for an edited version of our interview:

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Project Squared is the big news of the day. What move are you most excited about at Cisco?

The next-generation of collaboration is the thing I get most excited about. And not to minimize anything else we [announced this week], but clearly what's next is the thing that's getting the attention. I love the idea that we can bring a technology that allows anyone to connect. We took a long time to get this out. Actually, we've been working on this for two years. And there's always a balance between how quickly do you put it in people's hands, because no matter when you get it out, it's always going to need to have more stuff.

For example, some of the stuff you saw on stage – the integration with the hardware rooms and the integration with WebEx -- that's not available right now. You can't get that today, but you can get Project Squared today. You can't buy Project Squared today; you'll be able to buy it later next year after we flesh out the remaining enterprise features and as we complete the management consoles and security features.

Now this is kind of reflective about how you think about enterprise and how you think about software these days. We really wanted to get it into people's hands so you can see how they use it and figure out what do they want from it. We don't pretend to have all the answers... there's a great Napoleon quote, "Engagez voit" -- his strategy was engage with the enemy, and then we'll see. In other words, it takes time to see how people are going to use and adopt a brand-new technology. You only can know once you can start to see them use it.

You said you went out and talked to customers to solve their frustrations and your own frustrations with collaboration. Can you tell us a bit more about how this process went?

Yeah, in fact, the first thing I did is I spent a bunch of time talking to customers. What I asked them was, "What outcome are you are trying to drive for here with collaboration technology?" Because to me, if you're going to think about reinventing something, you have to understand why people buy that stuff in the first place. What's the goal?

I'll give you a simple analogy: When you go to Home Depot to buy a drill with a quarter-inch drill bit, do you want a drill bit or do you want a hole? And the answer is what you actually want is a hole. Well there's a lot of ways I can give you a hole. I can give you a drill bit that lets you make holes, or I could come over with my own drill and make a hole for you, or I could sell a completely different technology for making holes.

So we actually started with an outcomes-based approach, asking people what outcome they want from collaboration. And here's what's interesting: What big customers said is, "We're a really big company. We want all our people to feel like they're in the same room together." Because when you're small, you're all in the same room and everything works really well. Communication doesn't get dropped because you're right here.

There aren't a lot of barriers when you're in real time to connecting and collaborating. So what customers told us is that they want that experience, but they want to scale it. You can't bring, unfortunately in today's world, everyone together in real time. It just doesn't work that way. And so that was a key moment. When a [big customer] basically said, "Make it feel like we're all in the same room together." Hence, Project Squared -- that was one of the inspirations for thinking about "rooms."

What companies are you competing against with Project Squared?

I don't think there are a lot of competitors, to be honest. Everybody seems to be going in one direction and I'm going in completely the other direction. Everybody seems to think it's a really good idea to do mobile messaging. As far as I'm concerned, there are plenty of mobile messaging apps out there. And when you look at it on the surface, you might see that in my application, but actually the direction I'm going is the opposite. I believe that the real value exists when you can solve the hard problem of bringing people together live to connect with the things they need to work on. That's what Project Squared is about. Nobody in the world is doing that. I suppose maybe you could say Google is making an attempt at that. But other than that, there aren't really any others.

What about Unify's Circuit? What differentiates Project Squared?

Well, connecting to the hardware rooms is something no one else is doing. Not Unify -- no one. That I think is the key, because the truth is that we still like to work together in person. When you're in the same room as someone or in the same place as someone, you want the virtual and the physical to work in tandem -- the software, the cloud to work with the hardware. We're the market leader in rooms and meetings, and we sort of own these pieces already. We own the software that makes a meeting, we own the hardware that is actually creating the room itself. Now we have the thing that was missing -- which is the virtualization of the room itself. So think about what VMware did for your computer, we'll do for your conference room.

Next page: Rowan discussed marketing an app, the attention to detail given in developing, presence technology, and a younger generation of workers.

Project Squared is new ground for Cisco. Does Cisco know how to market an app?

The reality is that we're innovating not just in product, but in business model and go-to-market strategy as well. We have 20,000 salespeople, and they are all really incredibly excited about this. And what they are telling us is the fact that it makes all the existing stuff they've already sold to customers better [allows them to go] into the places we are already market leaders and sell this technology to them.

[WebEx], the second or third largest enterprise SaaS service in the world, has exactly the same model. So we have a lot of those skills already. We need to have more, but we already have a billion dollar business built on SaaS-based enterprise software.

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You mentioned a number of times about this attention to detail that you believe is driving a superb user experience. Can you give us some examples of that attention to detail?

Absolutely! One ... example is if you look at all of the hardware products, we put a lot of attention onto seams. Seams break things up, obviously, and they eliminate sort of this continuous and flowing idea in industrial design. So when you look at the face of any brand-new Cisco room system, there are no seams on the front. Now that's a subtle detail point, but that really makes a difference. Sometimes even if you can't see it, it makes a difference.

And part of the reason that details matter even if you can't see them is because you can't only pay attention to detail some of the time. The brain doesn't really work that way. If you're detail oriented, you're going to be detail oriented even when no one is looking. You don't do it because people can see it; you do it because that's how you are. Well that's what we do. So that means the inside of it is just as important as the outside, because that's who we are.

If you look at Project Squared as another example, it's in really subtle things. First of all, it doesn't appear to have a lot on the main screen, although a bunch of functionality is buried down within here. So one, maybe not so subtle, attention to detail is when you add someone to your room who is not at your company, you see a little yellow bar show up and that's a subtle signal to the user saying, "Hey, if you thought you were just talking to people within your organization, actually, there are other people in here now." And so it's a security feature.

Another thing we found is that we were creating lots of duplicated rooms. So we built this capability where if I type [someone's] name and there's already a room with [that person], it automatically selects that room. So you don't wind up with multiple rooms with the same person.

Another example of detail orientation is this [ability to tap on one of the members in a room] and jump right into a sidebar conversation. So if you think about how dynamics work in a real room, where we'll all be chitchatting but someone wants to go have a quick chat, he would just kind of pull [that person] off to the side and whisper to her. How do you represent that virtually? We call that the sidebar. You just tap right there and boom. So it's a real fast way to work.

Another example of simple, but powerful, is the video chat heads. ... Most apps launch video in a full screen. But we see that the way people actually work is they start out by saying first, "Are you there?" You ask the question and you wait for the person to answer. So this attention to detail shows itself where you have the ability to have the video head [minimized] and to still be chatting in the room. And I can actually go out to another room and interact with others. We can be reviewing content together, and it's all very seamless the way that it works.

Why doesn't Project Squared include presence technology?

We do [but in a different way then people have come to expect]. We've been rethinking presence. I've had many, many, many long-hour debates about presence, so it's a really hotly discussed conversation. The way that I think about presence is there is implicit and explicit presence. There are many signals of availability.

The way that most people think about presence is that availability flag -- it's like that sign on your door that says, "the doctor's in" or "the doctor's not in." I think that's a very poor and sort of outdated indicator of presence. It's used in all the products today, but nobody really actually uses it. My sort of investigations of this is that most people don't set their presence indication mode or status. So whenever you can automatically set presence information, you should.

That's my view, because I don't want to have to do anything to tell the computer something, number one. Number two, there's a concept that people are always available. In the world where IM was dreamed up, you were only available when you were sitting at your desk. When you left your desk, it was like, hey, he's not available. Why? You can't reach him. He's walking around. But now you're always here. The idea of presence in this world is you always have your phone, so are they really not available? So that's how we thought about it.

We're going to keep innovating on this idea of presence. We want to have more signals of presence. We have physical location as another indication of presence. So when I post a message into a room, it'll actually say where I physically am. That feature is actually not turned on in the public version, but that's just another idea of how we're building more advanced forms of presence. The future of this is to add all kinds of interesting presence -- knowing where someone is, knowing what they are doing. For example, we know today that smartphones have all kinds of technology to tell us are you walking? Are you running? Are you jumping? Are you exercising? Are you driving? We want to integrate those kinds of automated presence indicators into the app to make it a much more rich experience.

Another Cisco executive mentioned to me earlier that you have a lot of young engineers at Cisco, because they have a mobile mindset and understand this technology. Did you specifically develop Project Squared to cater to a younger generation of workers?

We did a great report on that, the Cisco Connected World Technology Report, and we do look at different generations and the variances between them. It's very important when you're doing collaboration technology to understand the biases that generations have. So we do think a lot about millennials, who are the biggest generation entering the workforce right now, and what's unique and different. They've grown up in an all-digital world; they've only known technology. So that drives different behaviors and different preferences and different ways of looking at the world. So absolutely -- we're not just targeting millennials, but we're thinking about how they want to work.

We have built this to work really, really well with today's worker, and today's worker is different than yesterday's worker. In other words, if you're working in the new work style, it doesn't matter how old you are. If you're an agile worker, you could be a millennial, you could be an Xer or you could be a Boomer -- whatever it is, you're working this way. So I think there are differences, but I think this app and this approach is going to do really well for multiple generations.

Trollope will be a keynote speaker at Enterprise Connect Orlando 2015, coming up March 16 to 19. He's hinted at another exciting keynote, so be sure to register and join us so you don't miss out.

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