Brett Shockley
From unicycles to the Internet, the head of Cisco's Customer Contact Business Unit pushes the entrepreneurial envelope.
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Anyone observing Brett Shockley's early entrepreneurial efforts in the late '70s would have immediately recognized a boy destined for greatness. As a Minnesota high school student, Shockley designed and manufactured custom unicycles. In 1977, he built what was then the world's tallest unicycle, which stood 51 feet high. The young entrepreneur rode and marketed his creations on television, and became a local celebrity.

"One of the things I've always known is that I was an entrepreneur," he says. "But I knew that to make my unicycle business succeed, I would need some help, so I found a local shopping mall to underwrite it." He adds, "It was a lot like the custom software industry."

Two decades later Shockley has a new underwriter, networking giant Cisco Systems, which last year bought 44 percent of call center software developer Spanlink Communications, one of Shockley's post-unicycle entrepreneurial endeavors. As vice president and general manager of Cisco's Customer Contact Business Unit, Shockley steers the development of technologies that make it faster and easier to deploy contact and CRM systems.

"If you look at the CRM and telecommunications spaces right now," he says, "it is really hard to create successful solutions. With a typical CRM implementation, you get 20 people in a room and embark on a year-long science project. For most people this is too hard."

The reason for all the difficulty, says Shockley, is that customer-centric solutions developed over the past decade are designed to glue end-user applications with telecommunications applications. Attempts to connect the two become difficult, because the existing systems often run from different platforms, requiring users to write custom software, which is no easy task. "Our idea is to create a standard space platform that will enable the developers of CRM software to use a common platform," he says.

It's interesting to think that a man who began his career as a designer and promoter of single-wheel cycles should now, years later, focus his energies on designing and promoting single platform technologies. But while unicycles never evolved beyond novelty status, uniplatform technologies inevitably will. In a business climate where globalism informs all business decisions, the seamless interface of all markets--and the technologies that facilitate them--are already essential to success.

"In the old world, you had to have big, centralized call centers," explains Shockley. "But if you look at Internet technology, it doesn't really matter from a technical point of view where people are hooked into these systems. Centralization is no longer necessary. Now you can have a contact center organization that has groups in India, Arizona and Belgium. It's all much easier now."

This new common platform that is Shockley's current project, draws upon the strengths of both Spanlink and Cisco. Spanlink created the original product that connects a Web site to a call center. Shockley was instrumental in taking the company and its call center solutions from an initial $3,000 capital investment to an IPO, and then, last year, taking the company private again, and selling it to Cisco Systems.

According to Shockley, in Cisco, he and Spanlink found an ideal partner, one that embraces his own entrepreneurial spirit. "Cisco is a very entrepreneurial environment," he says. "On one hand you see a lot of things you expect with large companies in terms of process and the number of people you must talk to. On the other hand, there is a real predisposition here to take action."

The action Shockley and his team are taking is the culmination of a decade of effort in the telecommunications arena. "In the past 10 years there has been a lot of work around customer development to glue end user apps to telecommunications applications," he says. "We are building a software platform with the goal of making it much easier to tie these applications to infrastructure."

Shockley says that his main goal for the next five years is to completely rebuild telecommunications infrastructures around software and see it becomes an industry standard. "It is a change that customers around the world want to see, so that's what we are going to do."

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