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Cisco Global Channel Chief: The First 90 Days

Wendy Bahr has been Cisco Systems Inc.'s global channel chief for roughly 90 days. So far, Bahr likes what she sees and hears -- within Cisco and across the company's partner base. But she knows there are multiple areas for improvement -- especially as Cisco promotes key services, security and software opportunities to its partner ecosystem.

Bahr, now senior VP of Cisco's Global Partner Organization, has worked in and around the networking giant since 2000. Her tours of duty have included U.S., Americas and global roles that pushed far beyond traditional reseller models. She's also worked closely in multiple roles with new Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins -- himself a well-known channel veteran.

When Cisco's CEO title shifted to Robbins from John Chambers in July 2015, Bahr also moved into her new role running the global partner organization. Her first 90 days in the position featured plenty of travel worldwide -- and conversations with partners across the globe.

Cisco Channel Partner Engagements... Simplified

Bahr sounds upbeat following her recent world tour. But she also realizes that Cisco needs to evolve for partners -- especially as cloud, mobile, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) potentially open the door for new types of ISVs to work with Cisco's established partner base.

Bahr points to three areas of immediate focus. They include (1) a commitment to simplicity; (2) aligning with partners for greater agility and speed; and (3) creating an even stronger value exchange.

1. Simplicity: For instance, Cisco's product and services sales experts now report to a single sales leadership organization. Cisco's cloud and managed services program also gained a simplified approach earlier this year. And the Cisco One software licensing model, she asserts, also simplifies life for partners and customers. "We have a broad portfolio and that can be both a blessing and also a bit of a challenge," she concedes. "We want to make sure we don't overwhelm our partners with too many options that reduce agility and speed."

2. Align for Greater Agility and Speed: Watch for Cisco to take more steps that align field sales teams and partners. At the same time, Cisco doesn't want to deliver the exact same cookie cutter approach in every region, since each country or region may have slightly different cultural approaches to sales and customer engagements.

3. Value Exchange: As new partner types come into the picture -- businesses focused on the Internet of Things; ISVs; consulting partners and more -- Cisco will carefully evaluate partner incentives and other ways to drive value to partners.

Cisco's Top Three Channel Partner Opportunities

And while Cisco has plenty of solutions to promote, Bahr thinks security, software and services are three major areas of opportunities. Here's why.

Security: Bahr points to Cisco's SourceFire acquisition from 2013. In Cisco's most recent Q4, the company added SourceFire customers 15 times faster than at the point SourceFire was acquired. Bahr believes Cisco is now the largest provider of security -- with about 5,000 people dedicated to the push.


Software: Half of Cisco's security portfolio involves software.  The other software efforts involve collaboration and the Cisco One software licensing mode.

I gotta concede: When I first heard about Cisco One, I was a bit wary -- wondering if the company was trying to boost revenues by somehow charging for software in a new way. But frankly, I need to take some more time to study Cisco's approach, potential partner benefits and customer outcomes.

Services: Bahr says the pull-through for services revenue continues to expand rapidly, especially as customers seek help with their big data, analytics and digitization efforts.

To help partners stay ahead of the curve, Bahr says Cisco will continue to introduce more on-line and on-demand training.

Data-Driven Insights

Although Cisco has its roots in hardware, the company isn't a stranger to software. And more recently, Cisco has been working closely with Hadoop-centric ISVs and other big data specialists.

As a result, conversations across the partner ecosystem and customer base are "starting to feel a little different," Bahr says. Partners are bridging the gap between traditional IT buyers (like CIOs) and line of business leaders who need to transform structured and unstructured data into business insights.

That conversation leads directly to Cisco's Internet of Things specialization, which can help partners to link networks, sensors and Hadoop storage grids into an overall big data system. For instance, a Cisco partner recently helped a beer distributor to overhaul its network -- activating data-gathering sensors across refrigerators and  more. The real-time data insights allowed the beer distributor to more effectively manage its supply chain, Bahr said.

The Changing IT Landscape

Amid all of those efforts, Cisco must also deal with an ever-shifting IT landscape. While Cisco remains profitable and strategic to many partners and enterprise businesses, some skeptics think the glory days will never return.

In a particularly scathing article, Wired this week suggested that big IT hardware vendors were like the walking dead -- unable to recapture past glory, and forced to pursue challenging M&A deals (example: Dell-EMC). Wired wasn't suggesting that Cisco and others will go out of business. Instead, the thesis suggested that there's no stopping the accelerating shift toward Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure.

I do think server vendors, in particular, will feel the squeeze. And Cisco competes in that market. But I also think the value of networks -- and secure connectivity -- continues to increase. Plus, the threat of software-defined networking to Cisco's traditional business seems overblown to me. I've heard from a range of Cisco partners that have built Cisco-centric hybrid clouds -- winning plenty of customer business along the way.

Bottom line? Somewhere between Bahr's incredible optimism and Wired's incredible pessimism, partners will find a balancing act between third-party public clouds and Cisco's blend of hardware, software, services and more.

Bahr is betting that simplicity; alignment for greater agility and speed; and an improved value exchange will win the day for Cisco -- and its partners.


Joe Panettieri

Joe Panettieri is co-founder & editorial director of MSSP Alert and ChannelE2E, the two leading news & analysis sites for managed service providers in the cybersecurity market.