cisco live

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Getting a session at Cisco Live is not a given, even for a Principal TME.  I started at Cisco in October 2015, and I certainly didn’t expect to present at, or even go to, Cisco Live Berlin in January 2016.  Normally, there are three ways to secure a session at CL:

  1. Submit an idea during the “Call for papers” process about six months before a given event.  The Session Group Managers (SGMs) who manage individual tracks (e.g., security, data center) then must approve it.  It can be hard to get that approval.  SGMs need to have faith in your ability as a presenter, as well as believe your topic is relevant and unique.
  2. Carry over a session from the previous CL.  If you’ve presented a session, you can check a box in the Cisco Live management tool to ask for it to be carried over to the next CL.  Again, this is dependent on the SGMs approving it.
  3. Be handed a session by somebody who had it approved, but is not going to present it.  Perhaps they are leaving, taking a new job, or just don’t want to do it any more.  Usually the SGMs need to approve any re-assignments as well.  (You can see the SGMs are rather powerful for CL.  It helps to know them well, and it hurts when they turn over!)

When I joined Cisco, I was assigned to a wonderful and humble team working on programmability.  We met and discussed the various assignments and approvals we had for Cisco Live, and they kindly offered my two:  booth duty for an Ansible with Nexus demo, and a session at DevNet called “Automation with NXOS:  Let’s get started!”

A Principal TME is a director-level position, and normally a PTME would not be expected to spend all day at a booth.  However, since I was new to the company, position, and team, I decided it would be a good idea to do some of the grunt work a normal TME does, and experience booth duty.

My 2016 Berlin CL Booth before opening

As for the DevNet session:  DevNet, Cisco’s developer enablement team, runs a large section of the Cisco Live show floor.  DevNet has theaters which are open-seating and divided from the rest of the show floor.  A typical CL breakout takes place in a room, whereas DevNet sessions are out in the open.  In 2016, it was pretty easy to get DevNet sessions, and nobody cared when the team re-assigned it to me.  I had a free trip to Europe and plenty to do when I got there.

What you see at Cisco Live is the fruit of months of preparation.  I had to develop the entire booth demo from scratch–I was supposed to have help from another TME from a different team, but he was totally worthless.  I set up the lab and wrote the demo script myself.  For the DevNet session, I pulled together slides from my colleagues and did my best to master them.  Keep in mind, I came to Cisco after six years at Juniper.  I didn’t know a thing about Nexus, and programmability was new to me.

Every new speaker at CL is required to undergo speaker training, so I signed up for mine.  In 1 hour the non-technical trainer gave me a few pointers.  I’ve been through enough speaker training in the past that it wasn’t terribly helpful, but the box was checked.

Arriving in Berlin, I registered at CL and as a speaker and staffer was given an “all-access” pass.  I could go anywhere at the show.  Personally, I’ve always loved having backstage access to anything, and so I headed to the World of Solutions (WoS, the show floor) and spent a long time trying to find my booth.  WoS before it opens is a genuine mess–people running cherry-pickers and forklifts, laying down carpet, and well-dressed booth people all contending for space.  There are usually challenges getting the demo computers up and running, connected to demos back home, etc.

WoS is a mess when we arrive

Working a booth can be frenetic or boring.  The positioning of my booth and the content of the demo (Ansible automation of NXOS) did not generate a lot of traffic.  I spent hours standing at the booth with nothing to do.  For the occasional customer who would show an interest, I’d run the demo, and possibly do a little white boarding.  Then, reset the demo and wait for the next guy. It wasn’t a lot of fun.

Eventually, the time came for the DevNet session.  I was really nervous for my first time in front of a CL audience. Would I mess up?  Would I choke up due to nerves?  Would my audience ask questions I couldn’t answer?

Seeing your own name on the board is exciting and nerve-wracking

As I said, the DevNet sessions are presented out on the show floor, and it’s a terrible speaking environment.  It’s noisy, you cannot hear yourself, and the participants were given headphones so they could hear.  It was like speaking into a void.  I remember one gentleman bouncing between sleep and wakefulness, his head nodding down and then coming alive again.  The presentation was not one of my best, but I got the job done acceptably and the participants filled out their paper score sheets at the end.  I mostly had 5’s, and a few 4’s.  At that point DevNet sessions did not receive an official score, so my numbers didn’t “count”, but I could show them to my boss and get some credit, at least.

My wife had traveled with me and we took a few sightseeing trips.  We saw the amazing museums on Berlin’s “museum island” and also hired a driver to give us a tour.  We had several team events around the city–Cisco Live is famous for parties–and ate some very good German food.  One of my colleagues was well known for arranging parties that went until four or five AM, and many TMEs would show up to their 8am session with only a couple hours of sleep.  In fact, one of the other Hall of Fame Distinguished Speakers claims this was his secret to success!  I myself, avoid parties like that and spend hours in my room practicing my presentation before giving it.  To each his own, I suppose.

Ah, the perks of Cisco Live!

Network engineers are a breed unto ourselves, and I think we have a distinct feeling of community.  Our field is highly specialized, and because we often have to defend our domain from those who do not understand it (“it’s not the network, ok?!”), we have a camaraderie that’s hard to match.  I left Berlin on a real high, feeling more a part of that community than ever having been there in a Cisco uniform, and having gotten up in front of an audience.  I didn’t know what my future held at Cisco, but it was the first of many such experiences to come.

The last Cisco Live I attended was in Barcelona in January 2020.  As I was in the airport heading home, I was reading news of a new virus emerging from China.  I looked with bemusement at a troop of high-school-age girls who all had surgical masks on.  Various authorities told us not to wear masks, saying they don’t do much to prevent viral spread at a large scale.  The girls kept pulling the masks on and off.  I thought back on my performance at Cisco Live, and looked forward to Cisco Live in Las Vegas in the summer.  Who knew that, a few months hence, everyone would be wearing masks and Cisco Live,  physically, would be indefinitely postponed.

For Technical Marketing Engineers (TMEs), Cisco Live (technically Cisco Live!) measures the seasons of our year like the crop cycle measures the seasons of a farmer’s year.  Four times annually a large portion of our team would hop on an airplane and depart for Europe, Cancun, Melbourne, or a US city.  Cancun and Melbourne were constant, but the European and US cities would change every couple of years.  In my time with Cisco, I have traveled to Cancun and Melbourne, Berlin, Barcelona, Las Vegas, Orlando, and San Diego to present and staff Cisco Live.

A trade show may just be a corporate event, but for those of us who devoted our career to that corporation’s products, it’s far more than a chance for a company to hawk its products.  The breakout sessions and labs are critical for staying up-to-date on a fast-moving industry, the keynotes are always too high-level but with entertaining productions, and the parties are a great chance to connect with other network engineers.  CL was fun for participants, exhausting for those of us staffing it, but still my favorite part of the job.

Cisco Live was originally called Networkers, and started in 1990.  For many years I badly wanted to go to this temporary Mecca of networking technology, but I worked for companies that would not pay the cost of a badge and the travel fees, a total of thousands of dollars.  Even when I first worked at Cisco, from 2005-2007, as a lowly TAC engineer I never had the opportunity to attend.  My first trip to CL came in 2007, when I was working for a Gold partner.  They sent several of us to the Anaheim show, and I remember well the thrill of walking into a CL for the first time.  I walked the show floor, talked to the booth staffers, and attended a lot of breakout sessions of varying quality.  I was quite excited to go to the CCIE party, but I’m not sure why I thought a party full of CCIEs would really be all that exciting.  I remember hanging out by myself for an hour or so before I gave up because I didn’t know anyone there.

The same partner sent me to Orlando in 2008 as well, just barely.  The recession was starting and we were short on cash.  My boss wanted me to share a badge with a colleague, and I didn’t like the idea of having to juggle time slots nor or trying to explain to security how my name could be “Nguyen”.  Thankfully, they ponied up the cash for a second badge.  I’m not a fan of loud music, so I generally don’t go to the CL party, but for Orlando they opened up Universal Studios for us and the aforementioned Nguyen and I, along with a couple others, had a great time on the rides and attending the Blue Man Group.  (OK, some loud music there, but it is an entertaining show.)

I attended CL once more before I came back to Cisco–in 2014, ironically, as an employee of Juniper.  Somehow I convinced my boss to give me a pass on the grounds of researching what Cisco IT was doing.  (They do present at Cisco Live.)  I remember sitting in just a few rows back at the keynote as John Chambers presented, amused I’d be bringing a report back to Juniper about what I’d heard.

 

My view of Chambers at CL 2014

It was actually at Cisco Live when I first got the idea to be a technical marketing engineer.  It’s a bit embarrassing, but I sat in a presentation given by a TME and thought, “I could do better than this guy.”  It took a few years, but I finally managed to get into tech marketing.

I became a Principal TME at Cisco in late 2015 and was told I’d be presenting at Cisco Live in Berlin in January, 2016!  Needless to say, I was thrilled to be given the opportunity, humbled, and more than a little nervous about standing up in front of an audience at the fabled event.

It’s been a sad year in so many ways.  After I came home from Barcelona in January 2020, I received another Distinguished Speaker award and knew I would be inducted into the Hall of Fame.  This was a dream of mine for years, but instead of standing up in front of my peers at Cisco Live Vegas to receive the award, it was mailed to me.  There would be no show floor, no breakouts, no CCIE parties.  The event would go virtual.  I must say, I am impressed with the CL team’s ability to pivot to a virtual format in so short a time.  Still, it was a sad year for those of us who organize the event, and those who were hoping to attend.

In the next couple posts, I thought I would offer a little behind-the-scenes look at how we put on CL, and look at a few events from the past.

I think it’s fair to say that all technical marketing engineers are excited for Cisco Live, and happy when it’s over.  Cisco Live is always a lot of fun–I heard one person say “it’s like a family reunion except I like everyone!”  It’s a great chance to see a lot of folks you don’t get to see very often, to discuss technology that you’re passionate about with other like minded people, to see and learn new things, and, for us TMEs, an opportunity to get up in front of a room full of hundreds of people and teach them something.  We all now wait anxiously for our scores, which are used to judge how well we did, and even whether we get invited back.

It always amazes me that it comes together at all.  In my last post, I mentioned all the work we do to pull together our sessions.  A lot of my TMEs did not do sessions, instead spending their Cisco Live on their feet at demo booths.  I’m also always amazed that World of Solutions comes together at all.  Here is a shot of what it looked like at 5:30 PM the night before it opened (at 10 AM.)  How the staff managed to clear out the garbage and get the booths together in that time I can’t imagine, but they did.

The WoS mess…

My boss, Carl Solder, got to do a demo in the main keynote.  There were something like 20,000 people in the room and the CEO was sitting there.  I think I would have been nervous, but Carl is ever-smooth and managed it without looking the least bit uncomfortable.

My boss (left) on the big stage!

The CCIE party was at the air and space museum, a great location for aviation lovers such as myself.  A highlight was seeing an actual Apollo capsule.  It seemed a lot smaller than I would have imagined.  I don’t think I would ever have gotten in that thing to go to the moon.  The party was also a great chance to see some of the legends of the CCIE program, such as Bruce Caslow, who wrote the fist major book on passing the CCIE exam, and Terry Slattery, the first person to actually pass it.

CCIE Party

I delivered two breakouts this year:  The CCIE in an SDN World, and Scripting the Catalyst.  The first one was a lot of fun because it was on Monday and the crowd was rowdy, but also because the changes to the program were just announced and folks were interested in knowing what was going on.  The second session was a bit more focused and deeper, but the audience was attentive and seemed to like it.  If you want to know what it feels like to be a Cisco Live presenter, see the photo below.

My view from the stage

I closed out my week with another interview with David Bombal, as well as the famous Network Chuck.  This was my first time meeting Chuck, who is a bit of a celebrity around Cisco Live and stands out because of his beard.  David and I had already done a two-part interview (part 1, part 2) when he was in San Jose visiting Cisco a couple months back.  We had a good chat about what is going on with the CCIE, and it should be out soon.

As I said, we love CL but we’re happy when it’s over.  This will be the first weekend in a long time I haven’t worked on CL slides.  I can relax, and then…Cisco Live Barcelona!

 

While I’m thinking about another TAC Tale, I’m quite busy working on slides for Cisco Live.  I figured this makes for another interesting “inside Cisco” post, since most people who have been to the show don’t know much about how it comes together.  A couple years back I asked a customer if I could schedule a meeting with him after Cisco Live, since I was working on slides.  “I thought the Cisco Live people made the slides and you just showed up and presented them!” he said.  Wow, I wish that was the case.  With hundreds of sessions I’m not sure how the CL team could accomplish that, but it would sure be nice for me.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

If you haven’t been, Cisco Live is a large trade show for network engineers which happens four times globally: in Europe, Australia, the US, and Mexico.  The US event is the largest, but Europe is rather large as well.  Australia and Mexico are smaller but still draw a good crowd.  The Europe and US shows move around.  The last two years Europe was in Barcelona, as it will be next year, but it was in Berlin two years before that.  The US show is in San Diego this year, was in Orlando last year, and was in Las Vegas for two years before that.  Australia is always in Melbourne, and Mexico is always in Cancun.  I went to Cisco Live US twice when I worked for a partner, and I’ve been to every event at least once since I’ve worked at Cisco as a TME.

The show has an number of attractions.  There is a large show floor with booths from Cisco and partners.  There are executive and celebrity keynotes.  The deepest content is delivered in sessions–labs, techtorials, and breakout sessions which can have between 20 and several hundred attendees.  The sessions are divided into different tracks:  collaboration, security, certification, routing and switching, etc., so attendees can focus on one or more areas.

Most CL sessions are delivered by technical marketing engineers like myself, who work in a business unit, day in and day out, with their given product.  As far as I know anyone in Cisco can submit a session, so some are delivered by people in sales, IT, CX (TAC or AS), and other organizations.  Some are even delivered by partners and customers.

Six months before a given event, a “call for papers” goes out.  I’m always amused that they pulled this term from academia, as the “papers” are mostly powerpoints and not exactly academic.  If you want to do a session, you need to figure out what you want to present and then write up an abstract, which contains not only the description, but also explains why the session is relevant to attendees, what they can hope to get out of it, and what the prerequisites are.  Each track has a group of technical experts who manage it, called “Session Group Managers”, or SGMs.  They come from anywhere in the business, but have the technical expertise to review the abstracts and sessions to ensure they are relevant and well-delivered.  For about a year, the SGM for the track I usually presented actually reported to me.  They have a tough job, because they receive a large number of applications for sessions, far more than the slots they have.  They look at the topic, quality of the abstract, quality of the speaker, available slots, and other factors in figuring out which sessions get the green light.

Once you have an approved session, you can start making slides.  Other than a standard template, there is not much guidance on how to build a deck for Cisco Live.  My old SGM liked to review each new presentation live, although some SGMs don’t.  Most of us end up making our slides quite close to the event, partly because we are busy, but also because we want to have the latest and most current info in our decks.  It’s actually hard to write up a session abstract six months before the event.  Things change rapidly in our industry, and often your original plan for a session gets derailed by changes in the product or organization.  More than once I’ve had a TME on my team presenting on a topic he is no longer working on!  One of my TMEs was presenting on Nexus switches several months after our team switched to Catalyst only.

At Cisco Live you may run into the “speaker ready room.”  It’s a space for speakers to work on slides, supplied by coffee and food, but there is also a small army of graphic design experts in there who will review the speakers’ slides one last time before they are presented. They won’t comment on your design choices, but simply review them to ensure they are consistent with the template formatting.  We’re required to submit our final deck 24 hours before our session, which gives the CL staff time to post the slides for the attendees.

Standing up in front  of a room full of engineers is never easy, especially when they are grading you.  If you rate in the top 10% of speakers, you win a “Distinguished Speaker” award.  If you score below 4.2 you need to take remedial speaker training.  If your score is low more than a couple times, the SGMs might ask you not to come back.  Customers pay a lot of money to come to CL and we don’t want them disappointed.  For a presenter, being scored, and the high stakes associated with the number you receive, makes a CL presentation even more stressful.  One thing I’ve had to accept is that some people just won’t like me.  I’ve won distinguished speaker before, but I’ve had some sessions with less-than-stellar comments too.

The stress aside, CL is one of the most rewarding things we do.  Most of the audience is friendly and wants to learn.It’s a fun event, and we make great contacts with others who are passionate about their field.  For my readers who are not Cisco TMEs (most I suspect), I hope you have a chance to experience Cisco Live at least once in your career.  Now you know the amount of work that goes into it.

Cisco Live Orlando has wrapped up, at least for me, and I can relax until Cisco Live Europe in January.  I never realized how much work goes into Cisco Live until I became a TME.  Building labs, working on slides, preparing demos, and arranging customer meetings is a months-long process and always a scramble at the end.  It’s a great show, and I can say that having attended as a customer.  It’s more fun and less work to be an attendee, but for technical marketing engineers, it’s still a blast and the highlight of the year.

Orlando had a special significance for me because it was at CL Orlando in 2007 that I decided I really wanted to be a TME.  I attended several breakouts and thought that I’d love to be up in front of the room, teaching folks how about technology.  The only problem:  I was terrified of public speaking.

It took years of trainings, including many as a Toastmaster, before I became comfortable in front of an audience.  That’s a story for another time.  It also took years before the right job opened up, and there were a couple near moves into technical marketing that didn’t work out.  I have to say, I’m glad I have this job and love (almost) every minute of it.

Still, getting up in front of a bunch of your (rather smart) peer network engineers and claiming some sort of expertise is nerve-wracking.  Wanting to do well in front of an audience can lead to frustration.  My main breakout session, BRKCRS-2451, Scripting Catalyst Switches, won me two distinguished speaker awards in a row.  This year, however, the scores are looking quite a bit lower.

It didn’t help that the start time was 8am.  I’m not a morning person, and 8am in Orlando was 5am for me.  The old neurons just weren’t firing for the first 30-45 minutes of the presentation, and in front of 400 people that just isn’t good.

A dose of humility is a good thing, though.  I know TMEs who would kill for my “disappointing” score, so it wasn’t that bad.  And the comments were quite helpful, in fact, and make clear what people are looking for and where they didn’t think I delivered.

I structured BRKCRS-2451 as a journey through developing a script on IOS XE.  The session begins with a demo of a fairly simple script, which pulls some data down from a switch and then formats it and sends it to a Webex Teams (formerly Spark) room.  Then, I break down the script starting with installing Python, and some of the tools needed, like Git and Virtual Environments.  Then I move on to YANG/NETCONF, talk about REST, and then wrap it up by showing how it all fits together to build the script I demoed.

It was a winning formula for a while, but I’m suspecting network engineers have up-leveled their programmability skills in the last year or so.  When I used to explain what GitHub was, network engineers usually were relieved to have it explained to them.  Now I think they all know.

I have a few ideas for making the session more relevant.  Still, it was a great experience talking to 400 people, meeting customers around the show floor and halls, and visiting some of my colleagues’ sessions.  Hopefully my attendees got something out of the session, and I look forward to the next Cisco Live.

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I’m somewhat recovered from an exhausting week.  I spent last week with a team of 10 others locked up in building 4 at Cisco writing a book using the book sprint methodology.

Several of the TMEs who report to me got together and wrote a book on Software-Defined Access earlier this year.  The PDF version of that book is available here.  Then, just over a month ago, some TMEs (including one member of my team) got together and wrote a book on the Catalyst 9000-series, available here.  Both of these were also produced with the book sprint methodology, and the quality is surprisingly good.

These books are written with the help of the Book Sprint company.  They send a facilitator who guides the team through writing a book from scratch in a week.  There is no preparation beforehand, and almost no work after the week is over.

The week begins with everyone writing their ideas on post-its, and then organizing them into the basic structure of the book.  By the second half of day one, we were assembled into to small teams to outline our sections.  After outlining the section, the sub-teams then break down and individuals start writing the book.

By the end of Tuesday, the book is written, but it doesn’t end there.  On Wednesday the entire book is reviewed by teams different from the ones that wrote it, and then on Thursday it is reviewed again.  Friday the entire book is reviewed by a sub-team to iron out the English and ensure the voice is consistent throughout.  While all this is going on, editors and illustrators are working on the book in the background.

As I mentioned, it’s exhausting.  We worked until midnight on Thursday and 10pm on Friday.  But we got it done and we’ll have some copies printed up for Cisco Live in Orlando in June.

I can’t say I agree with the approach of every part of the book, but that’s the idea.  It’s a team effort.  It’s not my book, nor the book of any other team member.  It’s our book.  I tend to write in a more conversational tone that works for blogs but is not as good for books.  I think that my occasionally excessive wordiness helps to draw the reader along, and gives them space to digest what I’m saying.  So, it was occasionally painful to see my prose hacked apart by other authors.  Still, at the end of the day, the process works and the result was good.

For any readers who might be attending CL Orlando, I’ll be happy to sign a copy for you.  For those who aren’t, when we have the PDF finalized I’ll link it on the blog.

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