Cisco’s Bernadette Wightman on what’s next for the Internet of Things

The president of Cisco Canada talks about building a team in a literal war zone, investing in Canadian startups, and why she wants to network everything.

Cisco Canada President Bernadette Wightman

Cisco Canada President Bernadette Wightman. (Portrait by Daniel Ehrenworth)

Born in Manchester, U.K., Bernadette Wightman was appointed president of Cisco Canada in October 2014. In 15 years at Cisco, Wightman has served as general manager for Russia, Ukraine and the other Commonwealth of Independent State countries, and has held top sales positions in the Middle East and her native U.K. In January, she opened the $100-million Cisco Innovation Centre in Toronto, the only such space in North America and one of nine worldwide. In 2013, Cisco announced it would invest up to $4 billion and create up to 1,700 jobs in Ontario; the provincial government chipped in with $220 million in grants.

You have said that Cisco estimates Canada has only about 1,200 companies with more than 500 employees, making us a “mid-market” country. How does a company like Cisco grow under those conditions?

The more you understand a country, the more you can sell to that country. The fact that there are fewer large companies here than in some other countries I’ve worked in is irrelevant; those companies still want to make sure they can use technology in the best way to grow profits. It’s normally the mid-size customers who want to innovate most. That’s what makes Canada so interesting—we usually get the early adopters, the first movers. Our team has done an awful lot of firsts in the market. We’ve got some brilliant examples of using the Internet of Things [IoT] in mining, for instance, which was a first in the whole of the world.

Like what?

One of the things about mining is you want to keep your people safe, and part of doing that is having great communications regardless of where people are. So being able to bring Wi-Fi to the mine is hugely important, as is being able to have those trucks and a lot of that equipment be autonomous, as opposed to having humans do it—that is actually where IoT is going in mining. The case study we have, we call it “taking the lid off the mine.” It makes no difference how far workers are underground—it operates as though they were above ground, and we can see all the telemetry. It makes everyone very safe.

A lot of the Canadian outposts of big American IT or software companies are essentially sales and marketing arms. But you just opened a $100-million Innovation Centre in Toronto. Why invest in Canada?

The truth is, it’s great being an outpost of a big American company, because I can pull resources. I love spending [Cisco CEO] Chuck Robbins’ money, and we’ve got quite a lot of it, which is great. But actually being embedded here in the DNA of the country is what is not only requested of me, it’s expected of me. My team and I have got to really understand the economics of the country. What my team is most proud of is the innovation we do here. We’re proud of the Cisco university chairs—we have more chairs in Canada than in the rest of the world put together, and that investment will continue.

In 2014, your predecessor announced Cisco Canada would invest up to $150 million in startups, incubators and venture capital funds. Why put money into the startup ecosystem here?

No single company can bring a total solution to what customers actually need. So we have to work with ecosystems to bring the value back to our customers. We’ve invested in third-party funds, but we’ve also invested in things like Bit Stew and Aislelabs. I don’t believe there’s any company now that can give the whole solution. If you’re just selling to an IT department, you can build a network, and the network has value. But my team goes and sells to the lines of business. My vice-president of HR, David Heather, does as many customer appointments as I do, because he speaks the language of the HR leader in any company—he has the same challenges, and he goes and talks about what we do as a company. And it’s the same with my finance leader. I think everyone should be interacting with the customer, not just sales.

Cisco recently made some big U.S. acquisitions, including Jasper for US$1.4 billion and CliQr for US$260 million. Cisco hasn’t bought a Canadian startup since 1997—are we going to see some of that here?

I think we’re up to 14 acquisitions since Chuck took over in July 2015. You can imagine how that feels for us, the energy that’s bringing to the party. Our philosophy is that we build it if we can. Then we’ll partner. And then we become acquisitive if we can’t do those two things or we can’t do them quickly enough. There is absolutely no reason we wouldn’t buy Canadian companies in the future.

The consumer Internet of Things hasn’t really taken off

“It depends,” she says, wearing her Fitbit….

…but Cisco has said it sees IoT as a US$19-trillion opportunity in the next decade, with $500 billion of that in Canada. So what’s the opportunity?

Take the the connected fire hydrant. It takes three years to check every fire hydrant in the city—three years! By IoT-ing it, we know instantly if those things are working. That becomes important when your building is on fire, and the nearest hydrant—Is it frozen? Is it working? Was it checked last week, or was it checked two years and 360 days ago? That’s a very tangible example. I think people are trying to grasp it: “Give me something tangible I can actually work with and make sense of.” And we’re getting much better now at packaging those solutions and bringing them to market.

Cisco’s top ranks are filled with people who have been with the company a long time. You’ve been here 15 years. What is it about Cisco that keeps people here, in an industry where that is not the norm?

I can tell you from personal experience why I’m here: because of the opportunities I’ve had to travel across the world, and the fact the company assesses things through a lens that says, “What is the attitude and aptitude of this person?” So I don’t have to have done everything—I don’t need to know everything about Canada to come and work in Canada, but I do have some experience I can bring to Canada. We recruit the best in the industry and the best outside the industry, so I know I’m going to be working with good people and I’m constantly going to have the opportunity to learn. I think it’s a really important quality to have a mix of experience. If your team is only experienced, I think you lose things, because you get into that mentality of, “We tried that before and it didn’t work.”

When you took over, there was one woman on Cisco Canada’s senior leadership team. Now you’re at 40%. How did you achieve that?

By being very purposeful. I have never hired anybody, whether it’s a person of colour or a different ethnic background or age or gender, unless they’re the very best person I can find. What it has meant, though, is I’ve had to look harder and more broadly. I do think it has to come from the top. So with our recruiters, if they’re sending me a slate that’s got five guys on it, one age and one level of experience, I’m not even going to do those interviews. Go look again. Go and cast the net wider. Go and find a more diverse slate. We’re making sure we reflect the society we live in. And I will always take attitude over experience.

Before this, you were general manager of Cisco for Russia, Ukraine and the other Commonwealth of Independent States. During that time, two of those countries were embroiled in a geo-political crisis. How did you handle that?

People are inherently good—I truly believe that. We brought those teams together over TelePresence and we talked about how it felt. So it was very personal. They may have views, but these are still people they’ve worked with all the time—they didn’t become completely different overnight. During the crisis, we actually ran a Cisco Connect event in Ukraine. At one point we thought, Should we pull the plug on this? But I felt I needed to show my team we could still do this. So we actually flew in 20 people from Russia to be part of our team. Without publicizing anything, we just did that. It actually kept them together as a whole—they were more concerned about doing a good job for their customers. It’s a really weird thing, isn’t it? It’s just the beauty of and the value of human nature: They got closer as a team, not further apart.