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Inside View: Cisco Systems

Ram Parasuraman got an MBA from IE three years ago. Since then, he's leveraged his decade of software engineering experience to work as a product manager at Cisco.

Ram Parasuraman is Entrepreneurial Product Leader at Cisco. He studied software engineering at Madras and Purdue up to Masters level before working as an engineer for a decade. He then did an MBA at IE Business School.
 
You have a Masters degree in engineering, but also an MBA. Tell us a bit about your studies and how they were part of your career path.
Well, I would say in my current role I use about 75% of my business brain, and 25% of my technical brain (but of course they can't always be easily dileneated.) But you'll get different answers from different people. Even within the project management team, there are people with different backgrounds.
 
In my role it certainly helped that I had ten years of technical experience behind me. The function and the role demands business understanding, therefore the MBA was essential. Engineering was my foundation, and it prepared me well. If I hadn't been an engineer, I wouldn't understand which features support the technology, and so on. What the MBA did was shape my thinking. Before that, I only really looked at what code to use. Now it's about sourcing materials, costing and a broader approach to the whole business, naturally. But the engineering years were invaluable.
 
Do you need a background in engineering to work at Cisco?
There are people you do see who are successful, but they are generally just numbers-focused: they're managing the numbers rather than the products. Obviously at places like McKinsey and so on you can get by on analytical skills. Cisco is a little different: MBAs with some engineering background will have more chance of success here.
 
Having said that, though, my director doesn't have an engineering background, and he's superb. But obviously our whole company is about innovation and technology, so it helps if you've at least got a high level of understanding about that. 
 
Any tips for MBA students wanting to apply to Cisco?
Keep current with technologies. You need to know if technologies are becoming obsolete, what's new, what the trends are. Stay up-to-date with all that. The other thing that everybody who works here needs is an entrepreneurial mindset. So show that in your application, because you'll need it when working here. It's important to know how to get beyond organisational hurdles and get a job done.
 
What does your role at Cisco Systems involve on a day-to-day basis?
I'm a product manager, and what I do is become the CEO of the particular product I'm assigned. You take care of everything related to selling the product, pitching it to customers, creating general awareness - the full life cycle of the product. But it's not just one product, it's a series of products. It's a bit like a family: there are babies but also old ones. So you bring the babies into the world, spread awareness, see them through. But you also have to take care of existing products, and make sure they're still doing the job. Products coming to the end of their life span, which are nearly obsolete, obviously need to be managed differently and phased out.
 
So would you say marketing is a major part of your job?
We have a portfolio of products. Cisco is a huge business, with so many different price points. But yes, segmenting the market into different geographies and areas, and working out plans for selling it, is an important part of the task.
 
How would you describe the internal working culture of Cisco?
It's difficult to generalise, because it's a vast ocean; a huge company. But I can talk about my division. We don't look at people's titles or positions, there's a free flow of information from marketing to design to everything. People are assigned responsibilities but go beyond these.
 
Do you enjoy being at Cisco?
Cisco is a fascinating place to work, simply because of the way it brings so many things together. For example, we're doing a lot of work in terms of expanding wi-fi access and mobility, such as for buses and trains. This is using multiple software technologies. That brings in all sorts of people with every skill you can think of. That's what's unique about Cisco. We're also doing immersive telepresence. That experience is extraordinary; talking to someone on the other side of the globe as if you're right in front of them. As well as of course cutting carbon footprints and all that. 
 
Any final words of wisdom for MBAs thinking about their career options?
It's a cliche but it's true: find something you're passionate about and chase that dream. There are no limits to what you can achieve - so long as you know what you want to do.

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