Joel Barbier (H.93)
San Francisco. Joel welcomed us in Cisco’s headquarters in San Jose, San Francisco Bay area. More than 20,000 persons work for Cisco in San Jose. Not so surprising when you know that Cisco is one of the few companies that built the Internet, providing for instance the machines and software that sort out every bit of information blazing through the cyberspace.
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HU: Hello Joel, let’s start with a Proust portrait. If you were a color?
JB: I would pick red because for me it is the color of blood, the color of life, of energy.
HU: An animal?
JB: I would want to be a dolphin because I don’t think I would want to give up langage, communication, interaction as a group and intelligence (laughs).
HU: A meal?
JB: A dinner at Atelier Crenn. Dominique Crenn is a chef from French Britany. She uses very simple ingredients to make incredibly innovative dishes. She was just crowned world’s best female chef in 2016 by World’s 50 Best Award.
HU: A song?
HU: A movie?
JB: I was fascinated by Wim Wender’s Der Hummel Uber Berlin, Wings of Desire. I really love it. I have worked in Berlin and I speak English and French so the film is a perfect match for me and I really enjoyed it.
HU: A sin?
JB: Greed. Because I always over subscribe myself. I always try to accomplish more than I can, so greed is definitely my weakness.
HU: An object?
JB: I think I would want to pick a symbolic object. Maybe a compass, to symbolize the nuance and the precision of our judgment.
HU: A sport or a game?
JB: I don’t know… Sailing or scuba diving. The San Francisco bay is one of the best places in the world to sail. So sailing would be the sport I would pick.
HU: A book?
JB: I really loved Martin Eden by Jack London. It takes place in the American west before Sillicon Valley existed. I also liked L’écriture ou la vie by Jorge Semprùn. What struck me is that the author was able to maintain his moral integrity at a time when there was a lot of temptation to give up moral values.
HU: A hero or a super hero?
JB: As a typical finance major, I would say Jacques Coeur. He was the master of the mint for Charles VII in France in the 15th century. Right at the time when the commerce between France and what was called the “Levant”, the middle east, was opening. This inflow of trade and liquidity was the foundation for the Renaissance in France and in Europe. Jacques Coeur was a banker and a very influential industrious entrepreneur. He is a great symbole for me.
HU: Something you do every day and you would like to get rid of?
JB: Driving. When I worked in Paris I could use public transportation to go from my apartment in Clichy to l’Oreal’s headquarters. As a result I could read about a book per week. Now that I drive to work everyday I don’t have time to read. If I could use the time I drive to resume reading books it would be perfect. Hopefully, 5 years and we’ll have self driving cars.
HU: End of the Chinese portrait. Now, could you sum your professional background up in just 30 seconds?
JB: Finance has been the common thread in my career. I started in mergers and acquisitions in Gaz de France in Berlin during the privatization of the east German industry. Then I was a financial controller for l’Oréal. Then I was in financial planning at Oracle and then I joined Cisco where I have been the international IT controller in operations. After that I worked on processes and systems and in Cisco’s think tank, and now I am doing digital transformation. I have done all of this using finance as a core skill.
“if you go on line and you are playing, there is pipes that send the information and we build the machines that connect the pipes. It is like very large mail sorter, except it is not mail, it is electronic information.”
HU: Have you copped with a difficult choice in your career? What have you leant from it?
JB: Just a few weeks ago I was given the choice to either go back into a more traditional finance function and do financial planning or stay in “thought leadership”. What we call “thought leadership” is about building a narrative around how technology can transform business. My immediate reaction was to go back to a traditional finance career. And then I thought about it over the week end and I realized that the part of my job that I really enjoy is the interaction with customers, understanding hands-on how technology is transforming business! So I chose “thought leadership”. My job has a foot in academia: I spend a week teaching every quarter – and I love it. That was a tough decision though.
HU: How would you explain Cisco’s business to a 5-year-old kid?
JB: We interconnect people, machines, companies. We build the infrastructure for the internet. So if you go on line and you are playing, there is pipes that send the information and we build the machines that connect the pipes. It is like very large mail sorter, except it is not mail, it is electronic information.Cisco’s headquarters’ main building
HU: What are the trends in technology that interest you most and that you find most promising?
JB: I think there is a big trend of programmable infrastructure enabled by software. Cisco is currently selling hardware, combined with software and services. But I think the value is going to gradually move from hardware to software, because software is very agile, so we will see an acceleration in that space. Interestingly, security is becoming an increasingly burning topic.
Doing security right is becoming more and more complex because the hackers are always a step ahead from the industry so it is a game of catching up. We are actually going to apply machine learning and artificial intelligence to how we do security.
I also think there is great opportunity with cognitive compute. Very recently the IBM computer Watson won several games of go in a row. It is going to be very interesting to see how even knowledge work is going to be gradually assisted by machines, and the nature of work is going to change.
Finally, one of the topics that we have been looking at is the internet of things. More and more things are getting connected. So companies can become increasingly aware of their operations, what their customers are doing, what employees think etc. There is a huge opportunity to sense and become more aware, to drive better decisions applying analytics, and ultimately to drive faster and better execution for companies. Internet of things and the digital transformation is a very large opportunity that is going to change entire industries.
HU: Digital transformation is already taking place right?
JB: Sure! The American space program created the foundation of electronics miniaturization etc. But the fact that software is becoming so powerful in transforming industry dates back from no later than the last five years.
“I don’t think the governance of many nation states is very well equipped to understand what technology can do”
HU: You have been working in the Silicon Valley for almost 20 years, what is the most astounding change you have witnessed?
JB: New business models. I am thinking about Uber or AirBnb of course, but there are many more examples in every industry. These companies have completely redesigned their processes and integrated them into an infrastructure software platform that gives them incredible agility. 5 years ago taking a taxi was a series of very unconnected motions. All of this is now just one button on Uber. By the way, having this very integrated platform – for Uber – gives them the ability to do new business. When you go to Google maps and it tells you you have a 20 minutes walk to your destination it also tells you how long it would take you using a Uber, and you just have to click to take this option. These new models that create huge value and quickly become global plateforms benefit from a very striking “winner takes all” effect. From a financial point of view, value is changing hands so quickly in this digital disruption!
HU: It is funny, working in the technology sector for 20 years, the main disruption you have witnessed is … business model!
JB: Exactly, technology for technology’s sake doesn’t matter. It is what we call a science project. Technology applied to an interesting economic model and well executed is where the money is basically.
HU: On the contrary, have you witnessed a technology that could change the world but haven’t found a suitable business model, or was very disappointing?
JB: There are huge opportunities in healthcare. With shared electronic medical records for instance. But there is very large resistance, partly cultural, partly regulatory, partly because of privacy concerns – that are very justified. So the promises of improving health care are very slow to emerge. There is also a huge opportunity in e-government. Government institutions could optimize their data collection and processes thanks to digital tools but they are changing very slowly.
HU: In your opinion, why do government struggle to follow digital transformation?
JB: I think there is a lack of imagination. I don’t think the governance of many nation states is very well equipped to understand what technology can do. There is also a lot of resistance. Change is hard. People don’t like to change and they are very uncomfortable when it impacts them. Because there is no profits, people who work in the public sector have an obligation of means. They have to be in their workplace from 9 to 5. That is not conducive to change. If they had obligations of results – not means – things would be different. Maybe fundamental reforms need to happen before technology can bring its value to governments.
HU: What makes you happy to go to work every morning?
JB: The intellectual stimulation. I don’t have many repetitive tasks and I have to think critically everyday, that’s very stimulating. The interaction with customers, essentially the reality check that I get working with customers who want to understand what can technology do for them, is also a major excitement. I buy into the vision that technology can accomplish great things so feeling that my work actually makes a difference is very satisfying.
HU: You describe yourself as a technology evangelist. Who are your customers / target audience?
JB: Mostly large enterprise and large public sector organizations. Organizations that have enough scale to invest large amounts in changing technology. Typically industry leaders that are interested in innovating to change their business. The idea is to help them understand where the opportunities are. They understand that technology can change their business. They also see the competitive pressure. But they don’t necessarily know where to start. What I bring is a picture of what is economically feasible. It is the art of the possible from a financial perspective.
HU: What are your usual tasks at work?
JB: I can tell you about today. Early this morning I was presenting one of our ROI analysis to another team at Cisco, showing them what our economic model logic was. Later on I had a customer briefing. So I had an American company that operates in manufacturing come in and I presented them Cisco’s vision around how IoT can transform their business and create value for them. Then, typically, this afternoon I am going to sit down with my team and guide their economic analysis. We are looking into the economic impact of improving customer experience, workforce or data optimization for instance. I am building financial analysis on these topics and we are essentially addressing the question: where is the value?
HU: Which data do you use to build your studies?
JB: It is a mix of publicly available data, our own benchmarks, our own experience working with customers and primary research – surveying thousands of executives. We also use experts opinions and experts judgements. We typically show what we found to experts who help us shape and understand the numbers.
HU: What is Cisco’s strategy today?
JB: Cisco is operating both in its traditional core markets which are switching and routing i.e networking technologies. But also in newer markets such as collaboration. We do immersive video telepresence, Webex is one of our brands. Security is increasingly important. As more and more machines, processes and people are connected, it is important to secure these connections and guarantee privacy. Finally, the Internet of things is a huge emerging opportunity for us, especially in the industry sector. I am forgetting cloud computing, embedding computing in the network is one of our relatively new markets.
“San Francisco bay is one of the best places to sail in the world”
HU: Thank you for your insights Joel! Now we are going to talk about San Francisco. Where do you hang out on Sunday afternoons?
JB: It is going to vary depending on the season. In the winter we use to rent a cabin in the Sierra so we will be skiing quite a few week-ends every year. I love to sail and the San Francisco bay is one of the best places to sail in the world. Sometimes we have other plans. There is a great modern dance company, the Alonzo King Lines ballet. They are at the Yerba Buena center for the arts in San Francisco, this is the type of event we would attend to. Or we would simply meet with friends and get together.
HU: Indeed, we have seen all the sailing boats from the golden gate bridge, it was quite impressive…
JB: And you have to know the place because you can have 6 or 7 nots of current in the bay. There is usually very little wind in the morning and then it picks up and it can be 25 nots in the afternoon. The wind variation can be challenging but you have the San Francisco skyline and the golden gate bridge in the background, it is really beautiful.
HU: Imagine you have only 24 hours left in San Francisco, what would you do?
JB: Sailing the bay one more time. Or maybe just walking on the embarcadero, looking at the waterfront. I would avoid the touristy places and experience the city on foot one last time.
HU: What are your favorite places in San Francisco?
JB: The embarcadero, the Yerba Buena center for the arts. Some of the really steep streets, like in the movies! I also really enjoy the Golden Gate. I like to be in San Francisco but I also love to see San Francisco from outside, being on the marine headlands on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge. In the middle of the bay bridge there is a little island, Yerba Buena island, seeing the waterfront from there is just incredible.
HU: What do you like most about people in San Francisco?
JB: San Francisco is an incredible mix of people who are very liberal, open, inclusive, tolerant and very talented. San Francisco is attracting the best people in science, technology, engineering, biotech and those are global talents! There is very little regard for the traditional social hierarchy. People don’t really care about how you are dressed – sometimes it is a little to much – they will judge you based on what you have to bring in the conversation and I really enjoy that. It is a bit different from Europe and it is quite refreshing.
HU: What is San Francisco’s main challenge today according to you?
JB: Like in many developed economies, there is a growing gap between people that are very skilled and make a lot of money and people who have very little skills. There is a growing divide and our society has a challenge to bring us together. And if it doesn’t, there is going to be a lot of very frustrated people. Another challenge of San Francisco is also growing. There is very little space and a lot of demand for actually adding people and jobs. Being able to orchestrate that growth is going to be a challenge.
HU: Let’s talk about HEC now. What was your favorite place on the campus?
JB: The student clubs. I was part of the Night of Advertising, “La nuit de la pub” association. We had a room where we spent hours and late nights planning the event. I have many memories in this place, with great friends. I was skeptical that we would accomplish anything and actually our work resulted in an incredible event. It was a lot of fun and very rewarding. There was a thing called “clip clap créa” that allowed students to shoot their own ads, and a debate on the subject “Cinema and advertising”. I was in charge of organizing the debate. Bringing cinema directors to HEC to talk about this was a lot of fun. When you organize this type of event the HEC name allows you to have great speakers.
HU: What would be your best memory from the campus?
JB: The 9th night of advertising would be one. The other one is more academic. I remember my first finance class, I remember the professor was Joel Klein. He started with simple principles of finance: you reward time, you reward risk. Getting that understanding of finance actually structured the way I think about it today.
HU: Would you advise someone to go to HEC today?
JB: Definitely, it is a great mix of academic, hands on experience and networking. It is a unique model and it is very prestigious. The access that you have thanks to the HEC network is just incredible. The academic curriculum is great but you also get to implement what you learn during internships throughout your studies. You get a chance to actually test what you are learning. The network is very strong, when you meet someone from HEC there is an immediate bond: similar approach, interest, training… It is also a very well respected name and I am very grateful to HEC because it has given me access to things that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
HU: That is surprising because we have often been told that the HEC brand was not well known in the United States?
JB: It is true. But still, it enabled me to build an impressive resume in France. I graduated in 1993 and came to the US in 1998. In those 5 years what I had on my resume was very impressive for American recruiters. Moreover, the school brand recognition is improving. Especially in places like in Sillicon Valley where there is people from all over the world. The Europeans that hired me at Cisco knew about HEC and my diploma was definitely an asset for me.
HU: HEC is trying to become a global brand but also to carry out its digital transformation. What advice would you give to HEC Paris regarding this topic?
JB: I don’t think MOOCs is a model for HEC or other premium management education. It can’t be done massively online. However, a lot of fact learning can be moved to video and done by the students separately. Actually there is a lot of very good videos about management that are available to the public. But then I think the case studies and applying what you are learning is something that you can do only in a classroom with other students. I don’t think the future is about massive online classes, it is about mixing digital and traditional education. And finding the right balance is quite difficult.
HU: What would be the digital tools that HEC could leverage?
JB: I haven’t been there for years so you could maybe tell better than me. I would say sharing, collaboration, recording classes. Is physical attendance that important? If I missed a class I should be able to see it on a video. Also bringing in content from TED talks and professors from other management institutions who have experts on a particular area could be interesting too. Essentially, using video to do a lot of the fact learning and then coming to the classroom to apply it in a very collaborative way. Using the classroom not as a top down teaching space but as a collaborative and critical thinking space.
There might also be an opportunity for HEC to offer digitalized education on focused topics for people who need to tune up or learn a very technical skill. We use this in internal training at cisco. Not all the classes in internal training are done in person. You have a mix of videos that you have to learn and online tests that you have to do. Those tests are difficult and dynamic. If you are doing something well then you increase the level of challenge. And if you are not doing well you are guided through what you need to study again. It is essentially studying at your own pace and it is increasingly feasible because the content that used to be static – paper content – can now be dynamic and adapt to the student’s level.
HU: For which reasons would you like to be contacted by an HEC alumnus?
JB: I would feel rewarded if I can provide any guidance or help. I have some experience on technology and I think knowledge on these subjects is not very well shared as it is in more mature industries such as consumer goods. So I would be happy to help anyone needing my help on this area.
HU: What advice would you give to a 20 year old HEC?
JB: Follow your heart. And that is very difficult. It took me years and a heart attack not to do what I was supposed to do but what I loved to do. Since I have started doing what is effortless it doesn’t feel like work and my career has accelerated tremendously. Follow your heart, follow your passion, know yourself and what you are good at and focus on those things!
HU: HEC’s motto is “the more you know, the more you dare”. What would be your own motto?
JB: Walk the talk. It is much better to judge people by what they do and actually accomplish than what they talk about. In the tech industry you have a lot of doers. Good execution is rewarded. There are many great business plans but there are very few good execution teams.
… or pick a category…
…or an Alumnus
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