Talking IT, infrastructure and internships with John Manville

John Manville is Senior Vice President of the IT Global Infrastructure Services team at Cisco and an alumnus of UCL Electronic & Electrical Engineering. He kindly visited the department again to give a lecture on the future of services in the cloud and promote opportunities with Cisco to our current student body. Kate Oliver, Communications Manager for UCL Engineering, caught up with him to talk about upcoming challenges in his industry, his advice to future students, and how awesome it is to live in California.

John Manville, Shaw-Jen Chang, and Francisco Espana from Cisco, with Professor Polina Bayvel of UCL Electronic & Electrical Engineering

John Manville, Shaw-Jen Chang, and Francisco Espana from Cisco, with Professor Polina Bayvel of UCL Electronic & Electrical Engineering

Thanks for joining us John. To start off, could you explain your current role?

I work for Cisco, a Global company headquartered in the U.S. making several types of products, mostly in the infrastructure and networking space and also in IT. I work in the IT team inside Cisco and my responsibility is for infrastructure aspects – things like data centres, networks, servers, storage, and middleware.

It’s great to see you back with us again. Could you tell me about your time at UCL?

I had a great time in the engineering department. I had some great professors, including Professor Eric Ash who was a pretty amazing guy. (read more about Sir Eric Ash’s teaching and research here)

Any particularly fond memories?

I used to play hockey for UCL, and most of the great times I had outside the department were playing hockey and spending time with the team.

Did you win any great victories for us?

Oh, we beat Kings’ a few times…

And after leaving UCL, what route did you take to where you are now?

Right after UCL, I worked for Cable and Wireless in London.  After that I decided I wanted a bit more excitement, so I got a job in Manhattan working for a communications company for a couple of years before joining a financial services company because they have money to do fun things. At that time they paid a lot of money as well!

I worked for a couple of financial services companies, and I joined Cisco five or six years ago. In financial services, I was responsible for networking, various aspects of telecoms and again in IT. Then I joined Cisco and became responsible for parts of infrastructure, and now, the whole of infrastructure.

I also earned an executive MBA from the University of Pennsylvania and that broadened my skillbase and gave me a different view of the world beyond just engineering. I’d like to suggest that if engineers aren’t going to stay very technical, that’s a great idea, I think it’s good to have a business view as well.

Thank you for that useful advice. Are there any other things you would recommend to current students? I know we have an internship programme with Cisco; what would you say to them about this opportunity?

On one level it’s a year’s paid vacation in California, but hopefully they see it on several other levels too. I live in California myself, and apart from the South of France, it’s the best place in the world to live for the climate and surroundings. But Silicon Valley, where Cisco is located, is  a pretty demanding place. There’s a lot of innovation happening; it’s a very dynamic and fast paced environment.

Cisco’s culture is a great culture; however, it is demanding. We are in a really competitive industry, which is going to become even more competitive. So it’s not just a vacation – interns are involved in some fun projects with the technology and do get training.

My overall encouragement to intern students when they come is to have fun in California, but take advantage of this great opportunity to work for what I believe is a great company and sign up for extra things to do. Look for opportunities where you can really add additional value to what Cisco is trying to do.

You’ll grow professionally, it will be a richer experience for you, and I just encourage you to take full advantage of all the opportunities available. Don’t just stick to the specific area assigned to you; look for cross-functional projects you can sign up for; work with other people as a team; collaborate more; and learn other aspects of what a company like Cisco has to offer.

What would make UCL Engineering students useful employees to this sort of organization?

I totally believe in the spirit of the faculty. We want people who want to change the world. We don’t want students to come in from 9 to 5, do their job, and then leave. We want people who are excited and inspired enough to think about doing things differently.

Is an intern going to be able to change the world in general? Probably not. But in the world they are responsible for, they can make incremental and sometimes more than incremental change, and that’s what we want people to think about. We need people to innovate in whatever sphere of influence they have and change the world in that.

And what qualities are you looking for in your interns?

The attitude of the student is really important. How they interact with other people, what kind of relationships they build, how they respond to people, and what they expect. Good things will happen to you at Cisco if you have a great attitude and work hard.

It’s not necessarily the students with the very highest marks academically you are after?

Exactly, you can be first class but that doesn’t guarantee you’re going to have an internship. The best thing is that you show ability to learn and cultural fit; those are the two key things. Of course marks are useful, but the total candidate is important.

John’s colleagues added: The manager provides quite a lot of mentorship in the beginning, because we want them to be contributing very proactively, very driven, and working very hard.

We have the sense that students expect us to want them to know things already, which is a normal feeling to have in an internship or a job, but it’s the opposite! We are very aware that they have limited knowledge. All of them have the same sort of basic knowledge, and they go into different teams. We know that our role is to help them build themselves. We can provide them with enough training and information to build their careers, so that they can give back to Cisco in their day-to-day job.    

What kind of upcoming challenges are on their way for Cisco as a company and your team there?

I really believe right now that Cisco as a company is in a wonderful position at the crossroads of a lot of technology change and industry change. There are a lot of big industries trying to get into the space Cisco is already in. Cisco is (partially) trying to get into their spaces, and there’s going to be a pretty major upheaval, I believe, in the general industry.

Normally, if you join some company’s IT department, it’s not their core business. But IT (and infrastructure in particular) is Cisco’s core business, so being part of the infrastructure team in IT is, I think, a wonderful opportunity. We get to interact with and use all the new products and services that are coming out from Cisco’s engineering team. We give robust feedback about what works for enterprises, what doesn’t work, and we also use the products early ourselves and talk about them to customers.

Part of what is very important for people in the Infrastructure team at Cisco is to understand and believe that they have the real capability and opportunity to talk to customers, use the new technology, and really help Cisco  improve our product offerings.  We are on the front lines, talking to analysts, talking to many customers, and because we’re not directly in sales we come from a position of credibility to the customers.  We implement and operate Cisco hardware and software every day and face the same challenges our enterprise customers do.

I am trying to inspire people inside the infrastructure team to realize what an opportunity this is over the next couple of years and how people in IT can have a really solid impact on where Cisco goes, where the products go, and what customers think about us. It’s a great opportunity.

And can you say anything at the moment about where Cisco is going?

Cisco has branched out into many different areas. Historically, it has been a networking company with a quite healthy market share, but Cisco has aspirations and is a long way down the path to become an IT company, not just a networking company. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a networking company, it’s what the Internet and a whole lot of different things are based off, and without that we’re be a whole different society – but Cisco has to expand into other areas.

We’re very glad this is part of a series, that you took the time to come, and hope to see you and your colleagues more in future. Any final words?

All: Let’s change the world!

Check out the blog of the UCL-Cisco interns for 2012 to read more about their experiences.