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Q&A: John Chambers

The executive chairman of Cisco has become a Silicon Valley statesman, whether he’s promoting the expansion of digital networks or calling for limits on government surveillance.
June 14, 2016

Cisco Systems designs, makes, and sells the routers, switches, and other networking equipment with which businesses connect their computers, manage data centers, and access the Internet. Since its founding in 1983 as a maker of multiprotocol routers, it has survived every market change through aggressive acquisition, sometimes of competing technologies. John Chambers, who led much of Cisco’s growth, retired as CEO in 2015, after 20 years, but continues to serve as executive chairman. Jason Pontin, MIT Technology Review’s editor in chief, spoke to Chambers in India, where he was conferring with Narendra Modi about the prime minister’s campaign to bring Internet access and services to the country’s vast population.

What are the challenges in giving online access to nearly everyone in the world?

The number one objective is that people who make the investment in digitization, whether they are governments or service providers, get a reasonable return. Some programs have not moved as aggressively as I would like, like in the United States. Others are very aggressive, like India’s. The numbers in Andhra Pradesh are just amazing. They think they can bring 10 to 15 megabytes to the home for $2.50 per month. That’s a magical number in terms of local family income, because anything below 2 percent per capita income is when you really get broad penetration. If it’s successful, India will be a model for other countries to follow.

How important is the industrial Internetthe Internet of thingsto Cisco’s future?

Extremely important. It’s connectivity that really makes the industrial Internet work: it’s giving the right information at the right time to the right person or right machine to make the right decision. That decision can be on the manufacturing shop floor. It can be in a supply chain. It can be in the retail store to your customer. It can be in how you service that product remotely, either in a home or a mining site.

Aren’t you a little concerned about the security of these devices?

Organized crime and rogue nation states and terrorists are very much focused on the Internet of things. The challenge that goes with connectivity is always security. The bad guys go wherever the return is, and now it’s more lucrative for bad guys to focus on cybercrime than traditional crime. Japan had 54 billion cyberattacks and issues last year, up 100 percent over the prior year.

Edward Snowden showed that the NSA intercepted Cisco equipment and installed backdoors. You complained that the NSA had undermined trust in U.S. tech companies. Do you see evidence that any standards of conduct on government surveillance will be approved?

It’s taking longer than all of us, including government leaders, would like. But I think the discussion between the president of China and the president of the U.S. was constructive. They are making reasonable progress on corporate espionage by coming together with what we call rules of the road. Governments will always spy on each other; that’s been going on from the very beginning of time. For that, you want rules for acceptable, legal intercept, which has to be done by court order. But in terms of corporate espionage, we need conduct that people can count on.

Was Apple right to refuse the FBI’s demand to unlock the San Bernardino gunman’s iPhone?

Once you put in backdoors, once you allow a government to intercept anything they want, you have to give it to other governments around the world. Once you do that, there is no privacy, there is no security, there is no protection for democracy. So be very careful what you wish for: you might get it. And that’s why I think Tim Cook was courageous to say “There’s got to be a better way,” because doing carte blanche was not going to be acceptable.

You’re still an active chairman, but when you look back on your tenure as CEO, what was your biggest success?

The people and the culture we built at Cisco. At Cisco we are able reinvent ourselves every three to five years. We can do innovation at a speed that our peers over time have not kept up with, and that’s why we have no competitors from 15 years ago. We encourage a healthy paranoia.

How much risk is acceptable in managing market transitions?

The penalty for missing them is much more than the risk of going after them aggressively.

Between Trump and Clinton, who has the better technology policies?

If you’re asking, “How do you give middle-class America a pay raise? How do you create opportunities? How do you make the country more competitive on a global basis in a way that allows everybody to benefit? How do you change health care and education?”—well, those questions are all about a digital agenda, and yet I’ve not heard a single candidate articulate a vision on that.

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