Cisco’s new President for India and SAARC, Daisy Chittilapilly, is a company veteran who has spent close to 17 years donning multiple caps, before taking the top job in July 2021.
A 1995 graduate from the College of Engineering, Trivandrum, Chittilapilly started her professional journey at Wipro, before the technology boom in the country, when the engineering syllabus was even more outdated than today’s for industry standards. This continues even today, she points out.
Now, with close to 25 years of experience, 17 of them in Cisco, Chittilapilly will be spearheading the company’s strategy and sales, operations, and investments to drive long-term growth in the region.
In this interaction with Moneycontrol, she recaps her journey, from a graduate to heading the Cisco India operations, and talks about women in tech, semiconductor shortage, Cisco’s Webex plans and more.
As an engineering graduate from Thiruvananthapuram, what were your motivations to move to tech? How has the journey been for you -- from an engineering student, back in 1995, to Cisco’s President of India and SAARC?
When I graduated out of college, the technology boom had not started in India. In the mid to late 90s, that changed, and almost the entire engineering college batch used to be in Bengaluru or Hyderabad. That's not a conversation any more.
Has it been a massive shift for me over the last 25-plus years? Yes, and it started as soon as I came out of college. This thing about outdated syllabuses is not a new theme. It used to be even more outdated when we graduated.
My first job was with Wipro. In terms of what I had studied and what I had to sell, when I came into the market, there was no connection between the industry, the real world and the syllabus. I think that gap is getting bridged more and more, but it's still massive enough in India. Otherwise, it has been a fun ride.
I joined an industry which was very much on the sunrise. I joined the domestic IT industry. It was still coming into its own. You have to explain to people what you did for a living. Those were the days when banking unions were going on strike because of computerisation, and so on.
I remember in my first year (of my career), I had to go into a manufacturing plant. I started in Pune with Wipro and they had just started to put together what they were calling the MI systems in those days. And there were people in the room who thought their jobs were going to be taken over by computers. So we came and I was a face of the evil industry. So, we have certainly come a long way from then to now. It's been a fun ride, you go with the flow.
While growing up, what were your interests? Many women sort of fall off the ladder the moment they enter middle management. So can you take us through your growing up, your family, and what really prepared you to take on the position where you are today?
One of the things is that my parents never wanted me to be anything. They did not have specific ideas about what I should do. Not every parent would say, go off to a city where we know nobody, which is Pune, and go stay there and live your career there.
It was not very common at that time. If they had concerns, they never let me knew. So they promptly agreed when I got through the campus interview for Wipro.
When I was in my final year, it was very clear I would work. To a lot of young women, I say the first choice you make is a choice to have a career. It should be as compulsory as brushing your teeth in the morning, and that should be the way to think about it. For me, when I was coming out of college, at 21, it was never a choice about whether I will work or not.
I was going to work, and which would be the first job and where was it going to be were the only questions. And that's been my mindset through the years. For me, not being financially independent was never a part of the equation.
People do make life choices and to the question of drop-off that you mentioned, I have never had that choice to make. It typically happens during two life events for women. It happens during marriage, and then children. I didn't get married, and I didn't have children.
So I didn't have to make the choice but I am still a primary caregiver for my parents. If I look at (successful career women in) Cisco, the thing that separates them from everybody else is this one clear North Star -- to keep your career even if it means stepping laterally, stepping out, or stepping down before you can come back. Some people can do it on their own strength and some people need support.
As women, one of the best things we can do for other women is that if they need a little bit of support to get back to work or to keep their careers alive, it is to extend that support in whatever form and fashion. That is what organisations can do, to be mindful that priorities will change at certain life stages for women.
What is the technology revolution that Cisco is gearing up for now? Is it 5G, quantum computing or something else?
We tend to look at four capabilities that all of our customers will need, and then look at what technologies will best serve them.
First is the app. We live in an application economy. For all businesses that are setting up to serve things digitally, the truth is that app is the brand. So, for any company -- whether traditional or born in the cloud world -- the number one thing it is doing is reimagining applications.
If you look at statistics, there will be over 500M new apps by 2023. It's a big emerging market. In countries like India also, it will be particularly important. We do build apps, not just for India, but for the rest of the world as well.
The second conversation is on security. That is a pivotal conversation that we are having with customers and governments alike. So that's one space that we think needs a lot more attention than where we are today, given the number of devices that are connecting to the internet on a daily basis.
The other 50 percent of the conversation is cloud connectivity. The whole context of connectivity has to be rethought for the cloud world and that is where technologies like 5G and Wi-Fi 6 and all of that will come in as well.
The last thing is hybrid work, where companies like Cisco are saying people should be allowed to work from anywhere, anytime, any device. That's where our overall conversation around collaboration comes in. We have acquired Slido, which is an engagement engine. We have acquired Socio Labs, which helps WebEx to become an events platform. We were just bringing in all these kinds of capabilities, which ultimately make it easier for people to get their work done more efficiently.
I wanted to understand the India potential for you, and will SMEs be a big opportunity for Cisco, going forward?
Yes, there is opportunity because 1/3rd of the economy in India is SMBs, and yes, there is some debate about how quickly they will bounce back, post COVID.
Depending on which report you look at, there are anywhere from 60 million to 75 million SMBs in India. Digital or technology adoption for the bulk of them can mean the difference between survival and failure. The government is aiming to create a $1 trillion digital economy by 2025. So that is the amount they can add to themselves and to India's GDP, even if 50 percent of them adopt technology in any meaningful fashion.
The relation to Cisco is that, perhaps, at this point, with all of the portfolio offerings we have, we are in the best position now, than, perhaps, ever in our history to serve smaller customers. There are two things that are important for SMBs: affordability and bite-sized subscriptions.
Cracking these two things is important to addressing the SMB opportunity in India, and we are making good progress on both sides. Our shift towards subscription as a service and SaaS is also helping us serve SMBs much more meaningfully in the country.
We have seen acceleration in tech adoption in India, not just by private companies, but the government is also banking big on Digital India. So, if you can take us through the opportunity that you see here?
The government of India is a very big proponent of digital, and, under Digital India, multiple missions exist and multiple initiatives are coming out of various ministries. But there are three or four, which we have stayed very close to and which are very important. One is the whole concept of BharatNet and connectivity issues.
About 50 percent of India's population is still deprived of high-speed broadband or connectivity. I think BharatNet and digital village initiative is where 5G and WiFi 6 will have a very big role to play, aiming to bridge that digital divide between haves and have-nots. Democratic access to the resource (internet) is one big programme at the government level. Cisco is already associated with it. Others include manufacturing, logistics, precision agriculture, utilities and also healthcare and ed-tech.
Recently, Wipro Chairman Rishad Premji tweeted about how Wipro’s leaders are going to return to office. So I just want to ask you, what is Cisco’s own plan here in Bengaluru or its other India offices? How is it planning to go about this?
If you look at Cisco, even before COVID-19, we were 85 percent-enabled to work from anywhere. Culturally, in countries like India, we would still largely come to office. That said, Cisco has gone back to the drawing table to look at a hybrid work model for the future.
There are many pieces to hybrid work. One is, of course, the technology element. But there are three other pieces which are important to consider as well. Reimagination of spaces and real estate is definitely one element of a permanent hybrid work design.
The other is compensation and benefits. If I'm working from home permanently, instead of coming to office, what does it do for the compensation and benefit structure of companies? And the last is what it does to the HR policies that we have to adopt as well as what it means for brand identity and company culture.
These are all the things Cisco is thinking about. I certainly think other companies, which are looking at hybrid work as a long-term strategy, have to go back to the drawing table. We are very fortunate on the technology corner. Some folks have to rethink that element as well. Differently abled, demographics, women, and any disenfranchised group, for that matter, I would say, that is the way to hire. There is a possibility to make that happen now, with hybrid work.
Do you believe remote working will help in increasing the number of people you hire from smaller cities?
At Cisco, we recognise that bias is a very strong element of human beings. So we have adopted a blind hiring system. This means we don't look at names on a resume. You don't know whether the person is a man or a woman, their age and religion. But definitely yes, it gives us access to a talent pool which is far more interesting than ever before.
Now, the flip side is that people can take jobs in other countries and they can hire our people. So when the world flattens, it will truly flatten. But it is always good to have choices as employees and as employers. It does open up the talent landscape considerably, and provides opportunities for disenfranchised groups.
What is the impact of the chip shortage going to be for Cisco? Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, during an earnings call, said there are going to be supply-side challenges. What kind of impact are you seeing due to the chip shortage and how is it going to impact business in India?
We were one of the early companies which started putting out warnings, as early as the beginning of the year, saying that the semiconductor issue is very real and it will be a while before we come out of it. So, again, like COVID-19, I never thought we would see a situation where we would see a demand problem. Demand surge and supply are two sides of the same coin.
There's a demand surge, probably, far more than what people expected. And there’s a supply shortage, right. So it's a good problem to have. We started putting out early warnings with our clients and our partners. We tell our partners and customers very transparently that we are heading into trouble. So the industry is in trouble because of this issue.
I am connecting with many of our large clients as they start thinking about coming back to the office after a gap. If you're coming back to the office in a hybrid fashion, there will be a rethink required, overall. Clients are very open and transparent about what they want, how they are thinking about their capabilities, and we are working with them to make sure we prioritise what's important to them.
There’s a lot of clampdown on Chinese companies like Huawei, which is also your competitor. So is that going to be advantageous to Cisco?
We are respectful of all our competitors, and sometimes one or two will get played up, over and above the others. I think some of this is geopolitical, which plays into it as well. I’ve never personally believed in comparing ourselves to other companies and following what they do. It's not something that comes naturally to us.
We prefer to play our own markets, and lead from the front and allow other people to follow us into markets. And they do it beautifully. I have no complaints about it. At the end of the day, I am of the firm belief that a vibrant ecosystem actually widens the market, builds a much larger market, and we all have our strengths. And we all play to our strengths and we take our fair share of what we want from that market.
So personally, I've never been too concerned about what one party does versus the other party. We watch them very closely but our North Star is always how we create value with our customers and our partner, because we think if we stay relevant to that ecosystem, we will always differentiate ourselves from everybody else.
Cisco’s revenues got impacted and that continued till early this year, and the fourth quarter, which is July, saw your growth improve. Do you still see the decline in revenues continue for Cisco?
Every downturn is followed by a very sharp recovery. The semiconductor problem is also because of the sharp recovery that started from February this year. So, clearly, the rebound is here in India also. There is no doubt about the fact that we will be rebounding. It will always be a steep incline to recovery.
Of course, there is this unfortunate threat of wave three. We don’t know about wave four, because with this illness, we still are unable to predict. But anytime there's an economic recession, we have also seen a rebound. Cisco has always been a beneficiary. The good news, if there is good news about COVID, is that it has accelerated everybody's digital plans, unlike the economic downturn of 2008.
What COVID-19 has proven is that all companies that were set up with digital initiatives, which had digital agility, dealt with the pandemic and its aftermath much better. The ones which are sceptics and waiting and watching have also turned believers now. So technology is in a much better space. That is what we see in the numbers as well. The IT market in India is also expected to grow 8 percent. In that, the software piece is expected to grow 17 percent.
Software is important to us because you've seen we are now the sixth-largest software company in the world. But the semiconductor shortage is a bummer. The order book will not be a concern. There is no dearth of demand in India, for sure. We track that very closely.
I think Cisco’s Webex was one of the gainers of enterprises across the world. What plans do you have for WebEx? Do you expect WebEx to go more B2C, like Zoom and other platforms that consumers use?
India is the second-largest user by minutes of WebEx after the US. So yes, we have plans for India. We already have webex.com, which has gone live. To your point, webex.com is a place where you can go and buy WebEx as an individual, not as a company.
We have always focused on enterprise businesses. So we built webex.com as a path to the smaller businesses and to individual buyers. Our people are in 300 cities, WebEx buyers are coming from many more locations in India. A majority of them are individuals and small businesses.
We haven't marketed much on webex.com. But yes, our intent with opening that marketplace is to do B2C. And that’s how the numbers are showing up as well. Obviously, it's relatively new. It was born during the pandemic and it is about less than six months old now at this point. We're still watching it.
Any numbers you can share as to how many users you have?
In 2021, to date, on average, we have had over 10 million meetings and almost 70 million participants per month in India.