Prior to their acquisition by Oracle, Sun Microsystems operated under a memorable tagline – “The network is the computer”. Their slogan illustrated the maxim that tapping into the combined computational power of an entire network would yield far more impressive results than what a lone desktop could deliver on its own. That principle is center stage again today, thanks to the promise of intent-based networking (IBN), which leverages AI & machine learning to automate many network processes now managed manually. The pandemic accelerated demand for IBN-driven network automation when organizations were forced to accommodate the work from home mandate with an agile infrastructure. Consequently, network automation has emerged as one of the most important areas of focus for enterprise digital transformation, and Cisco is one of its leading providers.
As Cisco’s Sr. VP & CTO of DevNet Ecosystem Success, Susie Wee is the executive entrusted with growing the community of developers & IT professionals whose skills will deliver the promise of network automation worldwide. We talk with Susie to learn her motivation in founding DevNet, the skills necessary to succeed in network automation, and what IT leaders can do to create an innovation mindset that enables their teams to solve complex network automation challenges.
Guy Nadivi: Welcome everyone. My name is Guy Nadivi and I’m the host of Intelligent Automation Radio. Our guest on today’s episode is Susie Wee, Senior Vice President and CTO of DevNet Ecosystem Success at Cisco. Everyone of course is familiar with Cisco, a Fortune 100 company, and one of the industry standard setters in networking technology. DevNet, which Susie founded in 2014, is Cisco’s developer program and partner ecosystem. It’s now grown to a global community of over half a million dedicated to accelerating digital transformation via network automation and intent-based networking. These are unexplored topics for us on this podcast, and there may be no one better than Susie to speak with and get up to speed on the impact this emerging space will have on enterprise computing. So we are thrilled to have Susie joining us today, no easy feat, given her understandably busy schedule. Susie, welcome to Intelligent Automation Radio.
Susie Wee: Hi there, Guy. It’s really great to be here. So thanks for having me and thanks for inviting me to talk to your community.
Guy Nadivi: Susie, can you please share with us a bit about what path you took that led you to network automation and becoming a CTO at Cisco?
Susie Wee: Sure. Yeah, so where to start? So I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, so it’s actually western New York. Batavia, New York, and I love math, science, and technology, and especially computers. But then I was fortunate to go to MIT. And when I was at MIT, I met all different kinds of people who love technology. And then I also started to participate in team sports and I love team sports, specifically ice hockey. And then I stayed for my PhD and I did research in what is now HDTV, but back when we were doing it, HDTV wasn’t everywhere yet. But it was really fun to think about problems that nobody else had solved before and to really spearhead and invent, like what would a world of HDTV look like? And that was back in the early nineties. So if you go back to that time, it was VCR tapes and things like that. So it was not yet possible to send video over IP networks. So it was really fun to work on those types of really hard problems. And people said things like “HDTV, why are you working on that? Nobody can see the difference between TV and HDTV”. Of course, now everybody knows that they can. But after being at MIT, I moved and I, I got a job at HP Labs. I was a researcher at HP Labs in the video space and multimedia. And there what we were working on was once again, shifting the world from analog to digital and trying to send video over IP networks, so using things like video compression, video streaming, and then we worked on problems like making video available on a mobile phone. So there was actually a time when that wasn’t possible yet. And what happened was that really required networks to evolve and networks to have higher bandwidth so that they could actually carry video signals at higher rates. And so I think that that combination of being able to send video over networks was a real passion of mine so that we could find new ways for people to interact and see video and have different types of experiences. As I was at HP, I moved from research into the business and then I moved over to Cisco as the CTO of Collaboration. And it was great to work both at HP, as well as at Cisco. Lifesize video collaboration, video conferencing, all of these areas, but then I said, “Hey, I’m at Cisco, a networking company. I want to work on the network too”. And so it was really interesting to be able to think, well, how can we improve networks to be able to carry new experiences like video and multimedia and way more. So there was actually an opportunity because the network was starting to become programmable and that ship hadn’t quite happened yet. There was talk about SDN in the industry about seven or eight years ago. And Cisco’s networking products were really just starting to become programmable as well. And what we said was if the network’s going to become programmable, you need a community of people who can actually use that programmability. And we need to take these networking professionals, teach them how to use the network itself in the best way possible. So I shifted from innovating myself to creating a developer program, which was now DevNet, in which we could allow the world to innovate. So using the programmable network as a platform, allowing the world to innovate on that. And this whole thing of combining technology with business, with an ecosystem of people, that’s actually what being a CTO is about. You know, a chief technology officer where you’re looking at the technology, what can it do, finding business opportunities and then trying to help people in their lives.
Guy Nadivi: So there are many different flavors of automation. For our audience members who may not be completely sure, can you please define network automation from Cisco’s perspective?
Susie Wee: Yeah, it’s great because there’s a lot that you do with intelligent automation on your podcast, and it’s pretty fun to think … Something that people may not think about, but for me, it’s really fun to think about what automation means for the network itself. So first of all, when we talk about automation, there’s many different levels to understand it. There’s this foundational level, where you kind of get in your mindset and you want to automate everything you can. Anything that you do manually, automate it. Anything that you have to do multiple times, automate it. And then you think about what does that mean for the network? Well, networks provide connectivity and it’s really exciting that the world has transitioned to IP networks. They connect you to the cloud. There’s all sorts of things that you do. But it’s interesting to think about how have those networks grown. So if you started a company and you started using an IP network within your company, you started to grow out some network equipment, and then you started to grow and grow your business. You started to make your network bigger and bigger. And under there is a whole bunch of network devices and network elements that you have to manage. And as your network has grown, what you want to do is, in order to manage it, you want to be able to automate how you manage that. So that’s kind of one version of automation, but then what you can do is think about the network is connecting all sorts of things, right? So the network is connecting people. It’s connecting devices, printers, streetlights, everything. And what you can do is automate and really do more than the connectivity, but you can use network automation to say, how do I securely put these things onto the devices? How do I configure, manage, test, deploy, and operate all of these things, but do it securely. And so that’s a whole ‘nother level of automation. And then the next step is where you’re thinking about cloud. So private cloud, public cloud, data centers, all of this being able to secure your applications across there, again another level of automation to automate that network, to handle those cloud workloads and really bring value to them. And then what’s cool is after you’ve done all of that network automation and it gets easier and easier, you start to think that once your network is digitized, you can start to solve problems like digital transformation. So just an example, a brewery, so a famous beer brewery that you know about. They have breweries around the world. And if you take a look at those breweries, they want consistent flavor in their beer. Well, there’s a lot of connectivity. How do you sense things? How do you sense the temperature so that you get the same tasting beer wherever you are? Well, there’s actually a lot of things that you need to connect up. Sense, compare, add intelligence. You know, that’s a big part of automation leading to digital transformation. Another example, New South Wales, great place in Australia. And in this region, there’s the Transportation of New South Wales that’s presented this new roadmap of how they want to add intelligence and automation and make smart transportation, smart cities, autonomous vehicles available to everybody. Again, a place where you want to automate the network and then enable these great applications and services to be done for people.
Guy Nadivi: You mentioned digital transformation, which the pandemic accelerated for a lot of organizations last year. How has the ongoing pandemic affected adoption of network automation?
Susie Wee: It’s really interesting because many people in the networking world and the IT world, they knew automation was important and people knew and started to have a feeling that yes, network automation is really important. But the thing is, it was on their roadmaps and people would say, I’m going to do my automation. I have an architecture. I’m going to build towards it, but I’ll do it later, next year. So it was kind of out on the roadmap. But 74% of CIOs reported that during this pandemic, some digital projects that took over a year to be approved are now just approved in a matter of weeks. And so this was an interesting study from AppDynamics. What they found is that once again, these digital transformation projects were accelerated. These automation projects were accelerated. So once again, before the pandemic, everyone knew they had to do it, but it was a three to five-year goal, but overnight people were really trying to automate their networks. If you remember, when the pandemic first hit to the level where we wanted to send people home, all of a sudden everyone had to work from home. CEOs had to take a look at, how do I get all my employees to work from home. People had to figure out how to get VPNs enough access and capacity so that people could work from home. And then all of a sudden the networking and the IT guys became the heroes because they had to figure out how to enable everyone to work from home, how to automate that connectivity, how to provide enough connectivity securely to get VPN, get applications working and everything there. One example is actually contact centers. A lot of people were calling in for help to different businesses, but your contact center workers, a lot of people would use, for instance, contact center workers in India. There was actually a government regulation that said the contact center workers had to work in the office, so they could be in a clean room environment to work on that business’ problems. But they had to immediately get people to be able to work from home and change those government policies, and then really enable secure connectivity and application access for those people to work from home. So once again, it was really overnight that everyone had to automate for the pandemic and do it really quickly. And it became a CEO problem. How good businesses did just depended on how quickly they were able to get people to work from home.
Guy Nadivi: That’s a good segue into my next question about use cases. Can you talk about some of the more interesting network automation use cases you’ve heard about being put into production?
Susie Wee: Oh, there’s really interesting use cases and just our partners around the world, our customers have been doing really interesting things. So one example I’ll even tie to the pandemic. So Presidio is one of our definite specialized partners. So these are Cisco partners who’ve been building up automation capabilities and really offer this to their customers. One of their customers was actually a pharmaceutical company. In the pharmaceutical company there’s equipment that you have in the lab, experiments that you’re doing and everything, but all of a sudden people had to work from home and yet still find a way to access what was going on in the lab. And of course, because they were a pharmaceutical company, they really had to get going with the pandemic because there was just immediate work that they needed to do. So by using network automation, they were able to set up the right policies and the right security to be able to get workers at home to be able to access the right equipment in the right ways and just continue working. So that was really key. Another example is there’s a company called Altus, which is a Cisco and a DevNet specialized partner based in Costa Rica. And they were helping the Ministry of Health. Obviously the Ministry of Health had to work with all of the community and the citizens in a different way. People were calling in and trying to get help. Well, as they were coming in and Altus figured out how to help them engage with their customers by bringing in calls through messaging, calls through voice, get them into contact centers. Do some analysis and intelligence to figure out how to route those calls to the right experts, figure out which of those calls actually needed to be sent to a medical professional. So they were able to add intelligence into there and then really enable the right people to connect to the right professionals and get the help that they needed.
Guy Nadivi: Susie, please tell us a bit more about DevNet and your motivation in founding it.
Susie Wee: As you said earlier, DevNet is Cisco’s developer program and developer community. And what happened was again, at that time we were at this shift where we said the network is becoming programmable and it can be automated. It can be used in many different ways. But it takes people to do that work and it takes a type of expertise for the people who are running networks to be able to use all of the powers that were going to come with a programmable network. So what we said is the network, there’s a shift in the industry. The network is going to become programmable, but you need people to unlock that power of the programmable network. And so what we wanted to do was make sure that there were people who have the right expertise in networking, infrastructure, who had that operational excellence to really keep these mission critical infrastructures going, but bring together the world of software, automation, DevOps, programmability, APIs, and make sure that people knew that as well. And then these people, either a networker could build up software skills or a software person could build up some network skills or infrastructure skills, and then together bring forward the promise of the programmable network and what it could mean for applications and experiences around the world. So we founded DevNet to really create that set of people with the right infrastructure and software skills, to be able to make the most of the programmable network and what could be done with network automation and intelligence. And the other interesting thing about it is that something my professor had actually taught me when we were working on HDTV. As he said, HDTV is not about TV, it’s about jobs. And the thing is, when you’re creating these new industries, you’re also creating a whole new set of jobs. And when we take a look at DevNet and the shift to programmable infrastructure and network automation and cloud applications and how those work together, it’s actually a whole new set of jobs, and people need a set of skills for those jobs to really make all that innovation possible.
Guy Nadivi: Susie, given your DevNet initiative, I think much of our audience will be curious to hear what specific skills people interested in network automation should focus on acquiring to accelerate their careers in the field.
Susie Wee: There’s a whole set of skills that are really interesting for people to have. And really what it’s about is combining some base level of network knowledge. so there’s just a base level of how do you connect, how do you do things securely. So there’s a level of basic networking that’s involved. And then you add to that a set of really sound software principles. And with DevNet, we’ve actually created a new Cisco certification. So we have Cisco CCIE’s, which are the engineering excellence of networkers and infrastructure professionals around the world. But we created a DevNet certifications, which add to that these software principles. And some of the skills that are there understanding and using APIs. But when you use APIs, you need to definitely understand how to use them securely, how to rate limits, so you can use them at scale. Also there’s a set of skills around using REST APIs, using tools like GitHub, CI/CD pipelines, doing things like cloud computing, virtualization, containers, Kubernetes, and then applying even automation tools, using things like Ansible, Terraform. Cisco has a number of orchestration tools as well. And then how do you manage distributed applications to go ahead and use those baseline software capabilities? So these are the types of skills that are really needed to make network automation happen, but that might’ve sounded like a lot or it might have sounded easy. It depends on who you are. But what’s interesting to think about is you don’t need one person who has all of that knowledge. You can actually build up teams of people, where you start to have a networker, and a software developer, or an architect come together and be able to work together to solve these problems, using those different skills.
Guy Nadivi: These skills are needed to innovate, but I’m curious what you think IT leaders can do to create an innovation mindset on their teams.
Susie Wee: It’s been really fun to lead DevNet and watch the community grow and watch the people learn new skills. To watch a software developer learn more about the infrastructure, to watch an infrastructure professional, an IT professional or a networker to learn more about software and then to see them mix and really meet together. So what happens is, if you think about an IT leader, what they need to do is really take advantage of the shift in the industry by having people on their teams who can really master these skills and knowledge. But what we know is it’s much more than those skills. It’s also important that as people are doing these things, they’re building up the excitement. They’re saying, “Hey, I have a capability.” And what we found is that our developers, our DevNet developers. As they start to get more skills and get certified, they get motivated to innovate. And then if you take a look at, there’s some people who are building up these amazing skills and they’re like, “You know what? I think it’s really important that I learn these software skills so that I can solve these problems.” But back to what the IT leader needs to do is the IT leader really needs to cultivate a great environment for them. So they need to find those shining stars in their organization and rise them up. Chances are there’s someone in the corner of your organization who’s building up these things, but they don’t know how to change the world. You need to like lift them up and give them environment to help out. You need to give space to build out that DevOps practice for them, because even if a person wants to do automation and they say hey, you know what, I know how to automate this network. I know how to use infrastructure as code in DevOps to really make this next thing happen, but they can’t do it themselves unless there’s an entire architecture and process and even culture around being able to build that DevOps practice. So an IT leader can really do a lot to create that learning environment, to empower people coming up, and then really create the processes and practices to make all of that happen. And really, the best IT leaders are really stepping up and understanding that this is a combination of a tops down environment and kind of culture that the IT leader can do, as well as a bottoms up empowerment of really giving people the skills to learn and celebrating when they innovate and solve new problems in new ways. An interesting thing is that what we’ve also seen as we have a couple of partners like Logicalis and NTT, who have really motivated their teams because they want their teams to innovate. And as they’re building up software practices, they’re holding really interesting hackathons and innovation challenges. And they’re motivating their people by saying, let’s use these skills to solve business problems, but also to solve global world problems. And through that, they’re giving people a purpose, as well as creating these interdisciplinary teams of technologists, business people, project managers, and everything to create innovations and really celebrate these different types of innovations and find business opportunities for them.
Guy Nadivi: Susie, I’m going to ask you to peer deep into your crystal ball and tell us what you see will be the biggest innovations in network automation over the next one, three or five years.
Susie Wee: So, good question. Good question. I would view this in two ways, or for two different types of personas. So I get really excited about what are the biggest innovations and what it’ll mean for networkers. So a networker, someone who’s taking care of those infrastructures, they’ll be able to automate their manual tasks. They spend a lot of time doing repetitive tasks and it’ll really be able to save their time. Then they’ll be able to start to use these software practices and networking, like infrastructure as code and DevOps, and start to think about how do I create infrastructure? How do I deploy? How do I roll back? And really once again, use those types of software practices in networking. And then at the next level, it jumps up to where you’re really gathering intelligence and insights from the network. And then being able to control with policies and security and control applications into it. And what that allows a networker to do is to really elevate their contributions and provide insights and even solve business problems. So once again, super exciting about what it means for networkers in the next one, three, and five years. I also get excited about what it means for developers and innovators. And so if you think about … I think developers are innovating and changing the world with applications for people. And right now, an innovator or a developer, I think, there’s cloud developers who write cloud applications. There’s game developers who are writing gaming applications, mobile developers who are writing those types of things. And as you put them together, imagine a developer being able to work across all of them, where they can program the cloud, they can program mobile. They can actually program with physical infrastructure, like program streetlights, program transportation systems, program objects inside of buildings and things, and put that together with cloud applications. Then you start to be able to do autonomous vehicles, you start to do real smart people-sensing. The types of applications that developers will be able to provide when they start to blur the infrastructure becomes really, really exciting.
Guy Nadivi: Susie, for the CIOs, CTOs, and other IT executives listening in, what is the one big must have piece of advice you’d like them to take away from our discussion with regards to implementing network automation at their organization.
Susie Wee: Something that I would really like those IT executives, CIOs, CTOs to understand is that the network is about way more than connectivity. So you can use network automation and the power of a programmable network to really help your cloud applications, to help provide security, to help provide business insights. And then in addition to this, well, it’s really important is that it’s all about your teams and your people. And so as a leader, it’s how you encourage your people to grow their skills, to collaborate, to really see these new possibilities and how you give them the power to make automation real. And so once your teams are innovating, it’s really limitless. So then your teams, they don’t just do what you tell them to do. They start to invent and find creative solutions to problems that they identify and think are important. So it’s really about empowering your teams so that they can really create this new frontier that we have in front of us.
Guy Nadivi: Sage advice. All right, looks like that’s all the time we have for on this episode of Intelligent Automation Radio. Susie, talking with you, it’s clear that automation and AI are really going to be everywhere and pervasive. We don’t hear about network automation and intent-based networking as much as we should, perhaps, but there’s no doubt its impacts will be profound in the race towards digital transformation. Thank you so much for educating us today and coming onto the podcast.
Susie Wee: Thank you so much, Guy. I’m really looking forward to how we take your whole community of intelligent automators and also bring in the power of an automated network.
Guy Nadivi: Susie Wee, Senior Vice President and CTO of DevNet Ecosystem Success at Cisco. Thank you for listening everyone. And remember don’t hesitate, automate.