Cisco Greece

Exclusive Interview with Cisco’s M. Ganser and A. Tsiboukis


*Η συνέντευξη πραγματοποιήθηκε από τη δημοσιογράφο Βανέσσα Αλεξάκη και δημοσιεύθηκε στο περιοδικό Business File των εκδόσεων Economia.

In true Silicon Valley style one early July morning, the interview with two senior Cisco executives was through a picture-perfect video call out of Cisco’s impressive Athens office. On one end, at the Athens office, Antonis Tsiboukis, Greece General Manager, sat with Business File’s Vanessa Alexakis. Facing them, across the video wall was Cisco’s Michael Ganser, Senior VP Central Europe, who was talking out of Zurich. They discussed Cisco’s plans for Greece, what more needs to be done to get Greece into full tech gear, trends and game-changers around the world – specifically those slated to change the business world and improve quality of life for all.

Can you tell us about your experience in Greece during the company’s presence here? How have things changed in Greece in terms of tech advancements? Have you seen leaps and bounds in tech advancements and how has Cisco contributed?

Michael Ganser: Cisco has been here in Greece for almost 20 years and we have been involved in all major markets for a long time and accompanied business transformation and market transitions. These twenty years can be called the Information Age, or the Internet Age, when all these things started to happen and fundamentally change. We had a tremendous ride in Greece as in many other countries. I think we’ve been instrumental in building it [the Information Age], as we’ve been creating a huge partner network in Greece, with more than 250 key partners, which drive job creation and give great service to our customers. We’ve invested a lot in education for the society with the Cisco Networking Academy. Over the years, we’ve built 45 local academies, where 6,000 students have gone through and are skilled now with critical skills for the future. I think we’ve had a fascinating time with real highlights, but obviously more challenging times since the economic crisis hit Greece so badly.

Antonis Tsiboukis: In 1998, I joined Cisco, so I have been here from the very start. During the first five to ten years, we experienced the consumption of European Union funding on technology –if you remember the Second and Third European Structural Frameworks–and through that we saw mainly the academic sector initially taking advantage of it; they provided infrastructure for the whole education and research organisations, of schools and universities, with fast internet access, LAN in universities, and so forth, so students started feeling the Internet Era and the capabilities surrounding it. We also had investments in the finance sector (through the compliance structure they [finance companies] had to go through, through Basel I and II, although it was many years before that they had invested in technology), we saw in the first five to eight years all of them going through major restructuring of their organisations and to a stage where today, I must say, they are closing the gap compared to financial institutions abroad. And, when we talk of digitisation –the catchword these days– I believe that the three or four major Greek banks are preparing to become more aligned with world developments. We also experienced the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, where not only the infrastructure of the Games and the need for connectivity was a reality, but also the entire community and country had to be organised and structured around connectivity and internet access, and we saw a boom in investments in technology.

Aside from these three or four banks that are up to date, and some other companies, as well as educational institutions taking advantage of your technology, how fast is Greece developing tech-wise compared to the rest of the world would you say? Is there a lot of catching up to do?

Antonis Tsiboukis: There is a lot of catching up to do. Especially since the crisis hit in 2008-2009, there has been a slowdown, but, fortunately enough, the healthy businesses –mainly in the mid market– sustained the growth of the investment and we see them today; they are the ones that are promising to survive in the future as well. They have become more competitive, more digital, and so forth. We have a lot of way to go before the country catches up, however.

Michael Ganser: Compared to other countries, when you look at the overall picture in Greece and its use of technology, there is the World Economic Forum –we partner with them– and every year it publishes a report [many reports, also on competitiveness] saying how ready a country is for the digital age, how prepared its networks are, and how much technology is an enabler for growth [The Global Technology Report] in a country. In this Greece ranked at number 70, in the report released in early July. By all comparisons, this is not a good position, as it went down from the previous year from 66, so it lost some relative position.

Because of the crisis?

Michael Ganser: Maybe it’s an impact of the crisis. But in order to be successful in the future, one needs to stay ahead, with leveraging technology for customer service, for business outcome, and so forth, to do all of that. If not, one is just going to fall behind. I think this is a critical condition. Overall, some of the companies move well, in shipping and hospitality especially, but overall it is a more challenging position. We are there to help the customers manage during difficult times, to help them deploy technology to save more money, to be more productive, to serve customers, that is actually the discussion as we go through.

What is in the pipeline for Cisco Greece? Any future plans you can unveil – on a regional scale perhaps, that involve Greece as well?

Michael Ganser: Overall, the key trends are not massively different to Greece than overall. The market is changing quicker than at any other time. What it comes down to is what technology… and most importantly how will technology change business models. The key big trend is digitisation that the world is talking about. Pretty much every single thing that can be digitised will be digitised. Every process, every business model… will be digitised. How do you bring a physical asset with a virtual asset together? How do you do that? It’s the big, massive change. We see digitisation coming to all the countries, and we see it coming with full speed to Greece as well.

This is pretty much where we’ve been before. Some of the innovative companies are moving, but the majority is not moving. What is needed to make countries move are typically two things. One is lead from the top – so you need to have the political leaders agreeing that there is a need for a strategy to have a digital Greece. And while there are good things happening, as there is now a department in the Government, then again I had the opportunity to attend a digital economy forum in Athens where the political parties came, but it was more about them fi ghting each other rather than “OK, what do we really need to do?”

I think there’s more that needs to happen as the market is coming quickly. And, then there’s us trying to lean in more to help countries on digital innovation.

So, Cisco has signed in the last couple of months some agreements with France, with Italy, with Germany, and now with Israel. We really work with the countries, typically with the prime ministers and then the cabinets, on developing the digital strategies. We’re not on that level yet in Greece, but we’re working towards really helping deploy a digital strategy, and that is probably the key number one strategic direction and it will have the biggest impact.

Do you approach the government or do they approach you? Is it a two-way street? How might it work in Greece for example?

Michael Ganser: You cannot talk to a country or to a government if there is no base understanding, or if there is no desire. We are in a world where no one can do it alone. Not one of our competitors or players in the market can do it alone. We can only do it together. So, it only works if there is an understanding and an appetite for partnership.

Antonis Tsiboukis: We have been trying for many years through SEPE (the Federation of Hellenic Information Technology & Communications Enterprises), where I am a member in the Board of Directors, to convince the government to have a central structure in order to develop and apply a strategy for digitisation, a digital country plan. I think now, with the formation of the Secretariat of Digital Development, we have a better chance of moving forward and we are here to help and support the country. It’s what we believe from our experience with working with other countries, where we’ve signed agreements, on providing know-how of what needs to be done for a proper digital plan to be in place. And, it’s not going to happen with one company going to the government and discussing it, but as an ICT association, we’re willing to contribute and help to prioritise on the digital acceleration. This is the aim.

What do you see as the single biggest technological game-changer worldwide?

Michael Ganser: There are a few. One is the bigger concept of digitisation, but if you look at a layer down, it’s the internet of things. When we started in Greece 20 years ago, by that time there were a few thousand devices connected to the internet. Now, there are globally more than 15 billion connected devices.

In ten years, there will be 500 billion devices, which means pretty much everything will be connected. That will lead to a massive change in business models, it will lead to tremendous opportunities pretty much everywhere, and that is a fundamental game-changer. It’s a game-changer for the public sector, as we just discussed, or how can you change government services, how can you change healthcare? How can you change education? It will fundamentally change business. For example, a company that has perhaps the greatest products – that will not be enough. It will need to change to a platform business in a platform economy.

The second game-changer is security, because everything needs to be secure, because if everything is connected, security is an even bigger topic. We need to protect and looking at it differently, from the lens of the network. Those are the two top game-changers for me personally, and will impact everything we do, every job, how we raise people, how we educate them, and all the business models.

Antonis Tsiboukis: Additionally, through the digital acceleration that the private sector is going through, which is faster and more flexible, technology is an enabler; it’s not a solution. If you don’t have an innovative business plan that will take you to the future, technology will not do anything; it is just an investment not been taken fully into advantage. But, now with the capabilities of technology and inter-connectivity and also the advances that we make, particularly in our company, with investments in security, we can provide this enablement seamlessly – actually enhancing the business plan that somebody has, initially even based on technology. We can provide even more insights of how they can go through.

How will society look in ten years from now? I was reading somewhere today that retail banks are going to be obsolete, for example. Already, you can have an app and you can pay for things through Facebook… How do you see things changing? What are those advancements you see changing the world, and what will the world look like?

Michael Ganser: We partner with IMD, which is one of the world-leading management schools in Lausanne, in Switzerland, and together we created a global centre for digital business transformation.

The centre does some scenarios on how the world will look like in ten years, in 2025, and they have four scenarios… One is called Global Bazaar, which is like a really globalised, digitised world, where independent of where you live, you can participate, you can create business, build collaborative platforms, etc. Then, on the other extreme, there is Territorial Dominance, where people are much closer to a territorial world, where they are trying to plot global “I think we’ve been instrumental in building it [the Information Age], as we’ve been creating a huge partner network in Greece, with more than 250 key partners” November-December 2016 bf 27 trends and things or regional marketplaces, and we really see the world being confused right now. I personally believe we are going to live in a globalised world. Because, to me, that’s the only thing that makes sense, where people can participate, or can access knowledge and can create global teams through technology. But that is something to be seen.

But, I firmly believe that in ten years technology will have a significantly bigger impact on everything we do. It’s going to save more lives, and we have this wonderful example in Greece, where there is a telemedicine example…

Or if you think of elderly people… We can do more to give them the opportunity to live at home and in a better environment, by leveraging technology, like robots in the future.

I think in ten years we will have actually made major advancements. The payments and those things are probably a simple thing, but we need to change healthcare, the quality of life, to change education. It won’t depend on where you are born. Today a lot of wealth depends on where you are born. Today we have 50-60 million people refugees trying to move to better places because of war or terrorism, or simply because they want to participate in a better life. In ten years they will have infrastructure, access to the global economy, access to an independent way of growing. You see it even today, you can start a business in the most remote, rural area in Africa and you can attract investors through kickstarter or something else and create a business. I think in ten years we are going to see much more of this thing. While we did a lot in 20 years in Greece providing infrastructure, I think in ten years from now the impact to a hopefully better and safer world through technology is going to be significantly more than anything we can imagine today. Is it easy? Probably not. There are pitfalls and challenges, sure… but I envision a world where we can do so much more.

And it doesn’t depend on your financial circumstances to have these sort of health benefits through technology, because they will be inexpensive, they will be on a mass scale, and these will be easy apps. Everyone can use them to diagnose somebody’s condition in Africa, for example, through their thumb, through some sort of technical device. And I think that, combined with the payment, these will make universal coverage a reality, and will be an added benefit.

Michael Ganser: We did some research two years ago. We repeated it again a year ago, where we tried to estimate the impact that we think the connected world can have. And, I think we talked about billions and billions of dollars in diff erent sectors and countries, especially healthcare. Obviously, it’s one of the fundamental big things where you can actually save a lot of money because things are so inefficient, so you can make them more efficient. Eventually, you can make them a lot cheaper and you can increase the quality of service. We can go segment by segment by segment, or vertical by vertical by vertical. It’s all the same. But still a lot of inefficiency in it, which I think we can change to make things better. But it requires all of us to move on.

Antonis Tsiboukis: And, particularly for the growth areas of Greece, namely tourism, shipping, hospitality and other areas, technology and the implementation of it in business, especially for Greece, will bring a huge impact. We see it starting, fortunately, and also taking into consideration what Michael said earlier in areas such as healthcare. This is a major thing for us here in Greece. Because, if you imagine that more than half of the population lives in Athens, so everybody else is forgotten, so to speak. But, now this is changing through this infrastructure, through this solution that the Ministry of Health invested in on 30 islands, installing this telemedicine network…

What we are trying to bring is… not wealth, but increase the quality of life in very remote islands, serve its citizens, visitors and tourists. It’s a great example of all this.

Yes, absolutely. What are some of the dangers/pitfalls we have to watch out for in the future, i.e. some sort of cyber terrorism, tech security breaches? Are you concerned?

Michael Ganser: Well, yes, concerned… I mean, everything is an opportunity and a consequence, depending on how you look at it. I guess the way I look at it, for me the number one is intelligent education, because it goes both ways. With people in a job today, if there is not enough focus on making them better and making it easier for them to participate in that digital world, we would be making a fundamental mistake. So, we are working on educating people of the existing workforce, like electricians, nurses, and so forth, because they will need to work with technology much more than before, but also for the generations to come.

It’s a big discussion in many countries, such as what second language should people learn? More and more people say it should be software, it should be programing. And then obviously, you have the others, right? But I think people need to actually go out and have some discussion. If you are in the workforce in a couple of years, and you know how to do things, you will be ten times better off than if not. Countries, and we are all part of it, need to
invest in digital education.

The second thing is the need to invest and focus on cyber security, because it’s a multi-billion-dollar business. For example, people will try and hack you, there is ransomware; one email that you click on and they’re in your computer, they eventually hi-jack your data, and then you have to pay them. Otherwise, you can’t access your data. It’s billions and billions of dollars of business.

So, cyber security in a world which will be much more connected is obviously one of the key challenges, but also for a company like Cisco, it can be one of our biggest opportunities, because we connect those things, and we can make it safer; and its one of the biggest values we can give to our customers. This is the biggest part of our research and development and where we spend our money, on our purchasing portfolio, as this is clearly a key focus area of the company.

Antonis Tsiboukis: This is where investment has gone in the past three or four years, on securing the data from your device right back to the data centre or to the user. We have made a series of acquisitions of companies for this chain, which address the whole path of information, as this is the most critical issue we are facing at the moment.

Michael Ganser: I will add another potential danger or pitfall. It’s important not to miss the age of digitisation, as a company, as a city or as a country. Quite frankly, I think we are at that crossroads, where those who are stepping up will fundamentally lead and grow the economy, and increase quality of life, and those who won’t, will fall behind. The reality in Greece, which is in 70th position from 66th last year, it is the wrong direction. There needs to be a reaction. There needs to be activity in a changed environment to make sure you move as a society and as a country. But missing it will create a more challenging environment.

There is no lack of talent in Greece. What else is needed to become technologically- advanced aside from persuading the government to act and create that environment? Do we go into the schools?

Antonis Tsiboukis: This is what we have been trying to do for many years, we have the Networking Academy Programme, like it happened in England in 1999, when our curriculum was fi rst included in university courses, then went to students in secondary and primary education. This is something with both the previous and the current government we have been working on; that is how this IT-oriented education can be introduced and be of benefi t, instead of it being another external lecture. So, we need to put this into education, it is vital. Not necessarily Cisco’s Networking Academy Programme, it’s the government and the Ministry of Education who need to decide how far and how much they can invest into this for education. It is essential.

Michael Ganser: I would add three things: It needs even more leadership from the top. I honestly believe that in order to get a country moving [technologically], leaders need to be on it, to lead it, to communicate it and be personally in it; I know there are so many other things to work on but this is for the future…

The second is stimulating more innovation. Because this is what it all comes down to. Defending the status quo is nice, but it is not enough. It is all about how to create more innovation culture, start-up culture, and this is maybe something private and public partnerships can do to spur more innovation. In the end, you probably need more startups in Greece to move forward, more companies finding their way in the global digital economy, but they can live in Athens or on one of the beautiful islands, but can still run a global business, because it’s software centric. There needs to be more encouragement and opportunity to do that. We have some ideas, like the Innovation Challenge, and other things.

Also, the third thing I would add is citizen participation, which needs to happen. Sometimes the citizens don’t care, we see this in many countries. Through technology there are multiple ways that we can get citizens to participate… and those countries that can close the gap between the political elite and the citizens enabling them to participate will be more and more critical for the future.

What does the future of education look like when it comes to harnessing technology to teach our kids, students, adults, or training personnel down the road?

Michael Ganser: We will need to teach a key element, that of software and programming. For example, no matter what course you will be taking, you will be able to automate your home. The key change will be that people will be independent from location, in contrast to now that depends on the quality of the teacher and the school. But in that world where you will be able to take MOOC courses, you will be much more independent, in a world where the local people will be coaching you, making sure you make progress, and inspiring you and supervising you, but you will have access to the knowledge of the world much more. It’s true for students and employee education as well.

Anything you would like to add about Cisco’s plans in Europe? How does BREXIT affect your plans?

Michael Ganser: In the last couple of years, we are used to a challenge occurring somewhere in the world… There is always a challenge. The good news is that the region is very balanced, so that wherever you have challenges, you have opportunities in the other places. As an organisation, we always needed to be agile and we are agile. The UK is clearly a key part of our company, and always will be as a lot of business innovation starts there.
They are driven there. We are committed to the market there. We need to balance some uncertainty there with opportunities in other places…

In the UK, we are committed to country digitisation; we have innovation tenders, programmes with the government there. It continues to be an important and signifi cant market for Cisco, both in EMEAR and globally. We remain focused on delivering and maintaining a stable environment for our employees, customers and partners. We just respect the decision and support of both people in the UK and in Europe.

Antonis Tsiboukis: Regarding startups in Greece, this period we are experiencing now, this instability you see is a good opportunity for startup companies to become more global, with a clever app that can be exported… through technology. That’s the beauty of technology… Greece is being given an opportunity to become more extrovert through technology.

We are working with startups here in the country and through the digital age, no one can do it on their own; you need partnerships, diff erent organisation and people. We are working with spinoff s from academic institutions with applications, the internet of things, or smart cities. We are trying to develop an ecosystem of partnerships to see what good we can do for the country.
There is no suffi cient funding for these startups, however. They need funding and support to create good business plans.

We are considering of running a Hackathon in Greece, where we will help companies by sponsoring and developing the business plan and the funding… but it’s still in the early stages.

Michael Ganser: I have huge respect for this country. I see it on our teams and its remarkable how people power through and we are clearly there to continue to support and innovate. We are counting on Greece to bounce back and drive up the indicators…

Antonis Tsiboukis: Regarding smart cities and technology, think of something simple, like smart lighting. It has the immediate effect of a 50 to 70 per cent reduction on costs… We see efforts here in Greece, we see actual developments taking place. If you look at Trikala, they have been traditionally very pioneering, because the local leadership believe it. There was the unmanned bus recently there, where we sponsored the infrastructure, the wireless, the telephones amongst others. Trikala was among five cities in Europe that operated this initiative and we will see many more in other municipalities. We will see other initiatives taking place, where we approach them and present our case together with our ecosystem partners. We need to continue with this momentum and if we leverage on the investments coming in either from European Union, the Junker fund and other sources and make sure they are utilised properly, we can and we will be successful…