Cisco’s head of smart cities talks to Kurrant Talent about his global role at the company that is often called the "the best plumber in the industry" from an information and communications technology perspective.
KT: You are currently Head of Smart Cities for APAC at Cisco? What part of your title are you the most excited about: Head, Smart Cities, APAC or Cisco?
YH: It’s a very interesting question. In fact, each of those really has its share of excitement. As Head, I get the opportunity to lead our smart cities business strategy for the region as well as lead a great team of talented individuals across this region. Smart cities are obviously a very exciting space at the intersection of technology and people lives in cities. As for APAC, there is no other geography that offers so much diversity anywhere in the world with countries and regions like India, China, Japan, South-East Asia, Australia and New-Zealand. And from a business perspective, the APAC region represent approximately 50% of the global spending for smart cities. Last and definitely not least, I am obviously very excited to be at Cisco for 14 years now. It’s a great company to work for. It really empowers me and everybody that works there and it gives back just as much. If I were to choose one, it would probably be Cisco because it really gave me the opportunity to do the other three.
KT: What does it take to get to such a role at Cisco?
YH: A lot of hard work, obviously, that should go without saying. But beyond that, I think it’s really about establishing or creating a personal brand and knowing how you come across to other people both internally and externally. Once you’ve established that you are a trustworthy person and you add value, it becomes your personal branding and you could take on interesting roles anywhere in the world. I was for instance hired by Cisco in Dubai, then moved with Cisco to Munich, and then to Singapore. And all of these roles were not in any way dictated or forced on me. I have myself asked my management at some point that I wanted to move to Europe and it happened. And then after a while, I asked to move to Asia. The main reason I could achieve that is because I had established a certain level of trust with my management. This is how you move your career in large corporations.
Cisco has gone through a software and platform transformation to provide more visibility to the network data and have put a lot of effort in building a smart city applications ecosystem. How strategic is it for Cisco to engage Cities with global smart city solutions vs network infrastructure only? Are the results in line with the company’s ambitions in this field?
Up until a few years ago, Cisco was known as the best plumber in the industry from an ICT perspective. We were in the background providing the network. There’s absolutely no shame in being plumbers. We are still the market leaders in that space and it has made us a very profitable company. But moving forward software and platform transformation has allowed us to be a lot closer to our customers’ business outcomes and to understand how to deliver the service to their end customers. In the case of cities, for example, the end customers are the citizens and it’s all about how we work together with cities to deliver a better quality of life for their citizens.
"While Jaipur is for us a great reference, it is the human stories that benefit from our technology and solutions in their every day’s lives that make us proud of our work and our company".
The results are definitely in line with our ambitions in this area and the impact for Cisco goes beyond the sales and financial figures. A recent interesting example is the City of Jaipur in India where we created an operation center to manage multiple services such as video surveillance and traffic monitoring. When an accident happened between a truck and an influent person’s car, the truck driver, even though he was not at fault, found himself in a situation where he could have been sued and eventually be jailed and lose his job. Fortunately, the control center operator could pull some of the footage from that accident videos and proved beyond doubt that he was completely not at fault. All the charges against him were then dropped. He was so happy that he literally hugged the operation center manager. While Jaipur is for us a great reference, it is the human stories that benefit from our technology and solutions in their every day’s lives that make us proud of our work and our company.
In this specific Jaipur City scenario, you have deployed a network infrastructure together with the operation center. If Cisco had no operation center offering, could you have sold your network infrastructure alone? Or would you say that the deal would not have happened without Cisco being also able to provide the operation center?
As I was saying earlier, a large portion of our business is still networking and infrastructure. Having said that, we do have deals where it’s purely software and some other deals are purely network infrastructure and then the best deals are the ones where we have both. To me, it is a lot more important and strategic to be at the software and platform level even though, from a revenue perspective, it might not be as large as the network infrastructure. But selling software allows us to have an impact on our customers’ services and outcomes. Being part of the operation of the City, you become very difficult to replace versus being part of the plumbing. You need to think about it from a consumer perspective. If you use something like Netflix or Spotify that delivers content to a consumer, it then doesn’t really matter which telco or what equipment that telco is using.
"Cities should make sure they build a platform for multiple verticals"
If you had to bet on one smart city vertical application to focus all your effort on for the next two years, which one would it be?
At Cisco we always advocate the fact that instead of investing in a smart infrastructure for just one vertical, Cities should make sure they build a platform for multiple verticals. This will improve significantly the business case and return on investment compare to a mono-vertical approach. On the long term it will also cost a lower opex than having a siloed approach.
Having said that based on an IDC report we know that 75% of smart cities spending are focused on three verticals: video surveillance, outdoor public lighting and intelligent traffic systems to which you add the smart city platform. The exact ranking of these top three verticals vary whether you are considering US, Europe or APAC. Every city will have its own priorities but it is most often one or more of those top four. These verticals are basically the drivers of the smart city investments.
You have previously led business development and sales for IoT and Smart Cities for Cisco in EMEA? How do you compare EMEA and APAC when it comes to smart cities? Where do you see more potential in the next 5 years?
Western Europe has many legacy systems and, quite frankly, a very established bureaucracy. The execution is hence more complex in Western Europe than it is in other parts of the world and this is why although Western Europe is probably at the forefront in terms of POCs and pilots we’re not seeing a lot being built at a large scale. In the Middle East and North-Africa where there isn’t such a legacy, we’re seeing, at Cisco at least, more activity in terms of large-scale deployments.
In Asia Pacific, India is the largest market for Cisco by far in terms of number of new projects under development or in implementation stage. The Prime Minister of India, who has been recently re-elected, strongly supports Smart City initiatives. India is also a recipient of our CDA Initiative (Country Digitalization Acceleration) which is basically an investment in people’s education and training and in R&D jointly with the Indian government. Infrastructure is really the right entry point into India, versus devices or applications that the Indians, who are very tech savvy can locally develop very well themselves. Also, as a foreign company, we just can’t go in on our own and expect to move mountains. Therefore, we have selected local Indian partners who work on infrastructure projects, like Larson and Toubro or Shapoorji to whom we provide the ICT & technology part. We are also engaging with other big Indian players such as Wipro, Infosys or Tech Mahindra who are active in smart city projects.
Finally, we are also still bullish on China. They are building huge greenfield cities to accommodate millions of people. We are involved in some of these projects and we believe there are lot of opportunities there although it’s a longer sales process than elsewhere. The go-to-market is extremely different when it comes to local presence and the way you deliver your solutions. For example, all cloud solutions should be delivered using local Chinese servers.
In the Middle-East, Israel has a strong ecosystem of IoT and Smart City companies who have entered successfully the European and US markets. Do you see any promising potential in other Middle-Eastern, North African or Gulf Countries?
Besides Israel, which is definitely part of our ecosystem as well, we are engaging with the Egyptian government around a lot of the smart city initiatives within the new Capital City and the Suez Canal area renovation. In the gulf countries whether it’s Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates, a lot of activity is going on and funding is also available. There may be, however, except in the UAE, a lack of marketing and communication about these projects. Having said that, I haven’t personally encountered a lot of smart city or IoT companies in this region.
"Dealing with different cultures is sort of instilled in my DNA"
You are an Egyptian-born German and you worked for multi-national companies in Cairo, Munich, Dubai and Singapore. What are the challenges you encounter as a manager when dealing with such a cultural diversity?
It even goes beyond that. I grew up partly in Egypt and partly in France, the UK, and the United States. My entire life has been moving around and exposed to different people, different languages, different cultures. It’s really part of who I am. In fact, I think one of the reason my company’s management has been responsive to my requests to move around the world is the fact that dealing with different cultures is sort of instilled in my DNA. At the end of the day, you’re dealing with individuals and culture definitely plays a role in the makeup of that individual: how they like to be treated, how they like to be spoken to etc. Sometime, as a manager, you are in situations where you need hard conversations with your team. How will you have that hard conversation? In a German or Dutch context, for example, it is accepted that you are direct and straight to the point. This is the way it is, and, culturally, people accept that. In an Asian context you cannot be so direct. So, you have to frame the conversation in a way that will be well-accepted by the individual you’re dealing with.
What are your main challenges recruiting and on-boarding your new talents in Asia?
One of the challenge I find in Asia is even when the candidate has the required subject matter he or she will often lack the soft skills that enables me to make sure the candidate will have enough breath to go the extra mile in a large and very customer focused organization like Cisco.
What is your favorite interview question when you are hiring a new team member?
I like to ask candidate to tell me during 7 min about a topic they are passionate about outside technology (ex: motorcycles, guitar, sport or fishing). It enables me to see if the person has a largest view than the subject matter. We want passionate people at Cisco and hobbies or extra-professional interests set the bar. After that I take few minutes to ask questions about that topic. It’s usually even more interesting when I know nothing about it. Finally, I will follow with a work-related question. This will enable me to see if the person is also passionate about work and his or her potential new role. It enables me to compare the level of passion for work versus other topic/hobbies. I am not expecting the same level of passion for work than for hobbies but there should be a minimum of passion for work.