In this episode of Network AF, your podcast host Avi Freedman chats with networking investor, advisor and VC partner, Alan Cohen. Alan brings a hilarious, witty and nonconformist attitude to the talk, exploring Silicon Valley in the 90s, the joy of moving from large enterprises to small disruptors, and generously sharing secrets of the trade with Avi and podcast listeners.
An operational expert in product development, go-to-market strategies and growth, Alan cut his teeth in the 90s at IBM, then was VP and head of marketing for Cisco’s $25 billion enterprise business, managing over 400 people and 25 product lines.
A self-described “technology-Benjamin Button,” Alan has selectively moved from larger organizations to smaller, disruptor startups, most notably serving as Nicira’s VP of marketing, which was acquired by VMware for $1.3 billion in 2012. After Nicira, Alan pursued his interest in mastering massive problems through computing, by joining Illumio as chief commercial officer and board member.
Currently, he mentors the new generation of deep-tech ideas and industry upstarts by serving as partner at venture capital firm DCVC.
In the episode, Avi and Alan cover:
Alan refers to himself as an “accidental tourist” in technology. He admits he’s a trained economist and not an engineer, having started his career as a consultant for US West’s cellular and broadband networks division.
He traverses his journey in, out and around networking, from Cisco to startups, retelling anecdotes of how McKinsey scoffed at cell phones and computers, how “interactive TV” was the calling card of the future, and recounts various missteps and big wins along the way to cloud computing. Then, in his own words, he talks of “doing what every washed-up technologist does,” by making his way into venture capital.
At DCVC today, Alan nurtures the next generation of ideas and people, by “holding their beer, giving them money and not getting in their way.”
Avi and Alan discuss the seminal heyday of networking when Cisco co-founders Sandy Lerner and Len Bosack were just starting out running the Stanford computer labs, trying to connect all the machines and printers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. This project would later seed the building blocks of Cisco IOS, kicking off an avalanche of growth and innovation.
Recounting the energy of the times, Alan shares a story when he was still a newbie exec at IBM. He was asked to speak at the lofty Vortex conference put on by famed entrepreneur and engineer Bob Metcalfe. He was slated to speak after John Chambers, Cisco’s CEO at the time, and before economist and well known author George Gilder. Alan likens it to going on after the Stones and before the Beatles. But luckily, he was able to negotiate being on a panel of his industry peers instead.
This panel conversation incited so much attention that John Chambers ended up watching it, helping Alan get acquired not long after.
As a technologist, Avi says he often finds himself needing to decloak the marketing on a website to fully understand what something does. He confides that all the wonderful marketing messages about values, benefits and positioning are nice, but he adds, “I can’t reason about something unless I know what it does.” Alan, who was previously responsible for delivering marketing messages across $24 billion of Cisco’s revenue, jokes that together they could have been the Brundlefly of supreme power in networking.
Avi laments spending eight years trying to sell the cloud vision before its time when, he says in hindsight, what was needed was a strong focus on concrete product marketing. Alan countered that the beauty of Nicira at its time was that it shifted the locus of control away from enterprises and into the hands of network administrators, creating a virtualized infrastructure — an actual product that solved the problem of having to run and monitor the new cloud phenomenon.
As the world moves well beyond virtualized infrastructure into “multi-cloud, multi-everything,” in Alan’s words, it’s actually not as simple to make things work — and work well. Automation doesn’t mean simplicity, as someone still needs to make it go. That’s why Alan notes that networkers are very important right now. In the new post-Covid world, “if you don’t have connectivity, you can’t learn, work or participate in society.”
With the recent news about network outages at Facebook and AWS, Avi and Alan both marvel at the multiplication effect of how everything is connected nowadays and how, once again, it all comes back to the importance of networking folks working tirelessly to make the whole world go through global communication networks and applications.
Acknowledging just how complex these systems are, Avi laughingly admits, “The thing that’s amazing about the internet is not that it does break sometimes, but that it works in the first place.”
Tune in to the full episode to find out Alan’s tried-and-true rule of a successful go-to-market strategy, and get Avi’s foolproof way of knowing if you’ll win someone’s business.