I got to see John Chambers give a keynote address at Salesforce.com's Dreamforce convention and it brought back memories. I hadn't seen John in person for about 20 years. Back in those dark ages we both worked at Wang Laboratories: John was Senior VP of Sales for Wang's Central Region and I was a product manager of operating systems and utilities. (For those without long enough memories, Wang was a minicomputer company that was a 1980's version of Google, in the sense that it grew as fast as Google and was known for making easy-to-use systems.)
John was a wunderkind even at Wang: his territories consistently outperformed all others and he got results without being a tyrant. I dealt with him from time to time on product questions, but I especially remember an entire day when I was locked up in a room with him and a major customer hashing out a new sales contract. This Chicago-based customer was looking for major product improvements--John was there to make the sale and I was there to make sure we didn't commit to anything developmentally impossible. (Difficult was OK; impossible was not). He started out with, "So tell us what we need to do to make you happy"--and it was a negotiation roller coaster from there. We'd take a break every couple of hours, and I remember saying to him at one point, "Geez, John, you've got us right up to the edge. I was about to cry 'foul' on that supported users demand but you pulled back just at the right moment." John smiled and said in his West Virginia accent, "Don't worry Guy, I'm a lawyer--I know how far I can go." I also remember him telling me, "We don't need to get them to sign today--that will be too far a leap that they may regret later. We just need to get them to the next stage." In short, I knew I was in the presence of a master 20 years ago, and it was a pleasure to watch him work the crowd yesterday.
He came out on stage to great applause, and then began to tell his (and Cisco's vision) of the future: command and control is out--collaboration and communication is in. It was not all 50,000 foot stuff, either. He had concrete examples of how Cisco was using web conferencing to make decisions faster. But the best part was when he went into preacher mode. After about three minutes at the podium, he walked down the steps and into the audience. Given the shaky images on the video monitors, you could tell the camera people were thinking, "What the...?" He then spent the next hour walking back and forth within the audience, making eye contact with individual audience members and making his points forcefully with no script. A bravura performance that attendees were still marveling over hours later. John Chambers was great 20 years ago, and he's even better today.