On October 18, 2016 the iconic former CEO, now executive president, of Cisco Systems, John Chambers, came to visit Ecole Polytechnique.
John came to Ecole Polytechnique late afternoon accompanied by Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French minister of defence, and Robert Vassoyan, director-general of Cisco France – and had a hectic agenda, of course.
Our excellent photographer, Jeremy Barande, recorded key moments of John’s passing by Campus. My colleague, Mark Townsley, took a few pictures as well (notably the “featured image”).
Despite the dense agenda, John and Jean-Yves Le Drian made a point of giving the bulk of their time on campus to a seminar with a “fireside talk” before our students at Polytechnique.
The talks by both Jean-Yves Le Drian and John Chambers were passionate, as were their responses to the questions from our students.
First, of course, it didn’t took long until a student asked a question starting “Mr. Chambers, how …” – which, (as expected) was interrupted with “Please, just call me John”. French being fairly formal, and Polytechnique students having been especially drilled to exhibit respect (probably, a consequence of their military training) remaining questions asked generally started…
“M. le Ministre <nervous pause>, dear John <giggles from the crowd> … “
John and Jean-Yves Le Drian did strike home some very good points during their joint intervention – and, it was clear that the two gentlemen both got along, and were in phase on the topics that were discussed. It was a dense seminar, with many messages – among the key that I retained were:
- France has an incredible potential. According to John, Ecole Polytechnique is among the top-3 universities with an engineering department in the world, the first start-up that he invested in had 40% of their engineering staff be Ecole Polytechnique graduates (and, while John didn’t mention that in his talk, the first engineer that Cisco hired to their Paris Innovation and Research Laboratory, Pierre Pfister, is also a Polytechnique graduate. Ad they have since picked up a handful more to the same laboratory)
- We live in a period of “disrupt or be disrupted” – where, according to John, 40% of all companies would disappear within a decade — and those remaining were those who would be able digitise and disrupt themselves (& their competition). Thus, for a country such as France, the challenge is to create, train, engineers able to digitise and disrupt.
- While we (Ecole Polytechnique) are incredibly good at training incredibly competent engineers and scientists, we need to emphasise also training incredibly courageous entrepreneurs: taking risks, failing fast, picking up the pieces, and trying again are traits that we’re need to cultivate, encourage.
Alright, John. In the immortal words of Barney Stinson from “How I met your mother”:
Come back next year, and let us know how we’re doing …