Monday, April 19, 2010

Standing on the Event Horizon

Today I stand on the Event Horizon of Video Conferencing as we've known it.

Today is the closing date for Cisco's acquisition of TANDBERG. The date of no turning back. From this date forward - we are now Cisco. Sure the technical integration points (a badge, paycheck, etc) will take another month or so, but today Cisco puts their money on the table. 3.5 BILLION worth. Does that number seem insignificant? How many of you have heard of TANDBERG before if you don't use our products? Have you heard of WebEx? Cisco paid more for TANDBERG then WebEx. This is Cisco's second largest acquisition since the DotCom boom behind only their buy-out of Scientific-Atlanta and 6th largest ever. It's the 3rd largest in the tech world of 2009 -

As I stand on the event horizon, you can not help but look back. Next month represents my 14th anniversary of starting in this industry and company. 14 years ago I was still at University of Maryland and struggling with things in my personal life. Through the co-op office at school I sent out a bunch of resumes for co-op opportunities to alternating semesters working and going to school. Only one company replied. I found myself in what (today's terms) was a small company. It was a company with multiple locations, and people spread all around US and Canada. Yet, it was small enough that everyone knew everyone. You knew everyone's families. Someone walked around every Friday collecting money to fund the beer for the night. We'd hang out on the loading dock.. and just shoot the shit. The biggest decision was if and who was heading to the bars afterwards.

My planned semester on, semester off plan didn't really quite go as planned, and I stayed on part time. Eventually too this got messy, and I left to go back to school full time with less distractions, with the plan to return after school. When I had started, the company had just gone through a touch realignment due to the partnership that originated the company between BT and MCI being sold to the Canadian interest in the deal. This lead to a huge disruption in things like production, project management, etc. But being the new little guy, it all fly right over my head. Then in 1997 while I was back at school, TANDBERG bought the company outright. This transition was quite severe for the Canadian interest... but my outfit in Virginia was all gain. Socially, the Norweigans were something like you've never seen before. Proper, polite, sometimes overly direct, but good lord they went insane when partying.

As I returned to the company in May of 1998, the company's size and products had changed, but the core was essentially the same, but energized by TANDBERG. It quickly became our own. We grew in size, but the core remained as focused as ever. It was a 'task driven' environment. There was no such thing as 'dead weight'. No one told you what to do each day - each person was expected to find what needed to be done and do it. If you couldn't or wouldn't.. you didn't last the first few months. Working 8-8 was common. Working weekends was common. But this was because you were pushing so hard to make YOUR WORK happen. YOUR work, not the company.. yours. There was a passion for the goal. You worked your tail off and everyone around you did. When I was hiring people, I'd walk around introducing people and say 'If you are still here after 6months, you'll never leave'. And that was the truth. The process vetted people and those that were truly passionate and capable excelled. It was the type of company I was only 2 people away from the CEO. But the CEO wasn't just some owner who held every title in the book.. the company was virtually flat, and everyone was empowered to drive results.

Then there was the period where they wanted to take the company to the next level. A new CEO came in. A CEO scared to death of the culture the company had. A CEO who brought all his cronies with him to make the company into his company. He put on the company on the fast track for growth. The old leadership stepped back and gave him the reigns. He took a company that was really a group of people doing something together and made it into a 'corporation'.

Our growth was fueled not by new ideas, but simply brute force.The opportunity we had was so under developed simply due to manpower. So they hired.. and hired and hired. The purse strings were opened and people fell from the sky. You no longer knew everyone. We had 'dead weight'. We had people that were just here for a job. The company was no longer held on the backs of a view... but held up by the constant bubbling action of activity underneath of it. People that knew they didn't need this started to leave. Many of the best simply picked up and walked away.

But with this new found checkbook, the company was open to expand it's products too. All too long we had laser focused on one area, and relied on others for the rest of the solution. The single biggest decision of this era was to expand beyond our comfort zone and acquire talent. At this point in time, acquisitions were about talent, not product/customers. We acquired two software groups (IP Technologies, and Delente) that built our management suite. We acquired Ridgeway, a team that built our Call Control platform. We walked away from the traditional MCUs on the market and started building our own. We acquired teams in Holland, and New Zealand. We had become a truly global company with teams all around the world; All contributing to a new portfolio that in large was dead-on, addressing key customer needs, and had great focus on what we hoped to deliver. This was lead in the R&D world by key individuals whom as a 'brain trust' drove this engine, and found high gear.

But brewing at the top was an alternative motive. All along, the CEO had been setting out to take this company to a 'real company', make it grow up, and groom it. Groom it... to be acquired. Grooming it and courting the likes of Cisco (his former employer)... to position the company at all costs to be the fit for Cisco. The running joke was 'Im wearing a Cisco Polo to see if it will get me a promotion'. The company was being ran at full bore with the motivation to be acquired and drive financials. The culture was in turmoil. Key people were fleeing. And yet the acquisition goal just could not reach the top of the mountain. When I asked the CEO during a leadership retreat if he was concerned about the turnover... he blew it off as normal. A recurring almost 30%? The hired psychologist said we had to take the initiative ourselves. A notion completely blasted by those of us who had been doing just that and found no support. The fascade was falling... and insides were ill. That was the last leadership retreat the company had.

But then the CEO was ousted... Budweiser was sent on his way... 'Thank you for flying Lufthansa!'. A refocusing of the company on it's successful core started a refocusing on the company's core values. But we were big now, it wasn't quite the same as before.. but there were bright new horizons in the industry. We continued to invest, including the biggest acquisition of TANDBERG's history.. the acquisition of Codian. While smaller physically then TANDBERG, Codian represented a much larger overlap of people, roles, and technologies in R&D then previous efforts. While the walls are down from that move, the people, roles, and philosophies still has some long term settling to happen. TANDBERG has still not lost stride in any of this, and continues to blow through the market.

And then there was October 2009. In Oslo, the hints started to fall in line. Subtle changes in behavior, things that stood out -- we knew it might just finally be happening. Out at the bar well into the morning the bets were placed... not everyone thought it could be true.. we had nothing directly saying it.. but the old guard could feel it in the air. The next morning, the mails came out, the party tent was out.. and low and behold John Chambers himself had come to Oslo to make the announcement along side the old TANDBERG guard.

In fitting irony... the old CEO who had worked so long and hard to try to get Cisco to buy us.. had just been hired in July to 'save' our #1 competitor. The company struggling to reclaim the previous crown they had.. they thought they hire the guy who made TANDBERG what it was right? Oh, but the joke is on them. Andrew Miller didn't make TANDBERG what it was - he was just the first outsider who was given the space to spend where no one previously would. Polycom doesn't have that challenge ahead of them trying to grow from a tight small company, to a big grown up corporation. They can't 'fix' things by just growing. So now, after years of failing to achieve his goal at TANDBERG... just 3 months after being hired to take down the competition that had knocked Polycom out... the Cisco deal is announced. Oh what I would give up to hear/see the conversations that happened that day with Andrew Miller.

But here we stand just 7 months later... a process delayed by investors pushing Cisco for more value in TANDBERG... Regulators deciding what conditions to put in play.. Cisco raising their offer (something I've heard has never been done before)... and uncertainties coming into focused realities. Here, on April 19, 2010 , we have closing day. So now we stand on the Event Horizon.. no longer looking back at where we came from, but looking forward to where we are going. Beyond the point of no return, we look now to accelerate our movement forward. To find new opportunities, new powerful assets behind us, and lives within a new company. A new day, as part of company that has now grown by 4100% around us.

At least now I'll never have to spell my company name anymore.. making sure they don't miss the D in TANDBERG or explain what we do. It's a new day as Cisco.. hang on for the ride.

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