Just as this book was released in mid-February 2000, Cisco Systems announced it was paying $355 million in stock for Growth Networks, which employs 53 and has no revenues. What Growth Networks does have, Cisco said, is an inside track on the development of Internet switching fabrics, an emerging area of networking silicon. That deal, in a nutshell, illustrates the modus operandi Cisco has used to become an Internet industry giant. David Bunnell's book offers a lively, in-depth assessment of how the company has used its innovation-by-acquisition strategy to help earn the label "computing's next superpower." But this book is much more than a look back. As influential tech writer Karen Southwick notes in the book's foreword, Cisco "deserves to be studied as an example of how a leading-edge company embraces and leads change. If you want to understand how the successful 21st century business model might evolve, Cisco is a good place to start."
- Recounts the company's creation and early years under two "polar opposites" who met and fell in love at Stanford University in the 1970s. Len Bosack was an electrical engineer "known as the philosophical one," and Sandy Lerner was an economics major who was "notoriously extravagant and aggressive."
- Examines the rise of current CEO John Chambers, who experienced wrenching failures at IBM and Wang Computers before taking over as the principal architect of Cisco's growth strategy in the mid 1990s.
- Probes Cisco's quirky corporate culture, which one of its human resource managers describes as having "a solid core and fuzzy edges."
- Explains the company'sacquisition strategy, or "mad shopping spree." At the heart of this buying binge is Chambers' willingness "to pay almost any price to get something he deems critical" to the company's future.
- Examines Chambers' strategy of "coopetition," or working together with competitors.
- Bunnell works to paint a balanced portrait of Cisco. For example, here's his assessment of how the company takes advantage of the huge run-up in its stock valuation: "This gives Chambers incredible wealth to play with. He can afford to buy overvalued companies, because he is paying for them with his own overvalued stock."
Bunnell's book includes an account of the central and controversial role that legendary venture capitalist Don Valentine played in Cisco's early years. For more on Valentine and his belief in "conceptualizing and executing gigantic change," see Champions of Silicon Valley: Visionary Thinking from Today's Technology Pioneers. Southwick profiles Cisco and two dozen other companies as emblems of a new way of doing business in Silicon Gold Rush: The Next Generation of High-Tech Stars Rewrite the Rules of Business. She gives book-length treatment to another Silicon Valley icon in High Noon: The Inside Story of Scott McNealy and the Rise of Sun Microsystems.
Reviewed by MH - February 22, 2000