Feature Story

Cisco's heritage archive is where past meets future

by Stephanie Chan

Cisco's heritage archive is where past meets future

Go inside Cisco's heritage archives to see where the company first cultivated its startup spirit.

Somewhere within the depths of a Cisco building on the San Jose campus, after taking labyrinth-like twists and turns through hallways, you'll discover a secret room that quietly holds both the past and future of Cisco.

Like a Pandora's Box of technological treasure, the Cisco archive room is hosted by two passionate employees who can sit you down and share stories of Cisco throughout the years.

An archive is born

Paula Jabloner and Stephanie Waslohn carefully pull Cisco Live! hats from their shelves, point to an original AGS router, and uncover one-of-a-kind company t-shirts from the 1980's, keeping every product in tact while preserving their mythos.

In the Cisco archive space, you don't have to look too far back to see massive changes. As Jabloner explains, you can start a technology archive from scratch and still have an expanse in resources.

"Preserving the past helps keep a sharp focus on the future."Cisco is joining other Bay Area companies like Levi's and Gap to preserve its history. The archive, called The Center for Cisco Heritage, is managed by Computer History Museum employees Jabloner and Waslohn. This groundbreaking collaboration began with a casual conversation with retired Senior Vice President and now CEO of the Center Don Proctor. It is a first-of-it's-kind partnership between Cisco and the Computer History Museum.

"It's crucial to archive and keep Cisco's place in history," says Jabloner, "Preserving the past helps keep a sharp focus on the future."

From the archive springs an exhibit called "Our Story" that is housed in Cisco's San Jose Building 10. The exhibit launch brings together historied Cisco icons with products spanning the twentieth century to today. Visitors can come to this collection of Cisco history and reflect on the life of a true trailblazing company.

A startup spirit

Cisco maintains its soul as a startup, and the company has shaped the Internet as we know it today.

Cisco was founded by Stanford technologists Sandy Lerner and Leonard Bosack in 1984. The early company had to create a sense of itself—and this was accomplished through physical things. Company shirts, magazine ads, and celebratory goodies are just a few ways employees and customers were able to construct the world of Cisco through revolutionary technology transitions.

"They used to say, ‘It's not just a job, it's a wardrobe,'" says Waslohn, as she gingerly peels back a sheet to reveal a black t-shirt emblazoned with a hand-drawn cat. With "The gateway to the future" printed on the shirt, the archivists explain that this article was created by employees for the network switch Catalyst.

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Similarly, beer bottle labels were designed and printed by Cisco employees for the unveiling of the Cisco GSR 12000 (Gigabyte Switch Router), codename Cisco BFR (big something router). The beer was named "Intranet Ale" and was always served with cookies, because "beer and cookies was what the engineers liked".

A shelf of hats tells the story of when Cisco Live! was a small event called Networkers—a revolutionary gathering of networking engineers. Tradition formed as with each year of the event came a new version of the hat, somewhat of a collector's piece for the networkers. The first year was a "railroad engineers" hat, then came jesters hats, a Kiss hat, and even a hat resembling the one by the band Devo.  

The innovation of the newly formed company was apparent from the products coming from the employees. Creativity in design and quick execution made their very first shirts, hats, and advertising campaigns full of quirk and personality.

Past meets future

A look through every iteration of the Cisco logo gives a good taste of the company's journey.

The next time you take a look at a Cisco logo, take note of the tines. "You can date items by how many tines there are in the logo, or if there is a lowercase c in the name. There are still some employees who refer to themselves as being a part of ‘Small ‘c' Cisco,'" says Waslohn.

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Jabloner and Waslohn make sure that each product in the archive receives an acquisition number. From here, the products are authenticated with the year its from, the person who donated, and the historical perspective. Each product is housed in real archival materials.

"Archives are so important because institutional memory can get isolated," says Waslohn.

The two archivists play a crucial role in bringing together the past, present, and future of the company. They pull up a Cisco commercial from 1998 that features people from various cultures around the world.

"Cisco was revolutionary in that they were humanizing the Internet's backend," says Jabloner.

Technology in that stage was rarely seen as having a human aspect, but Cisco took that risk and made technological and network connections into human connections.

It's this 1998 campaign that was much of the inspiration for the company's efforts around "There's Never Been A Better Time". After almost twenty years later, Cisco continues to bring human moments to the forefront. In the end, it's still about people communicating and connecting.

Preservation of materials ensures that innovation at Cisco can continue to happen.

The "Our Story" exhibit, taking from Jabloner and Waslohn's archive, displays the progression of Cisco from its startup days to today. With the passing of time, products evolve, change, and improve. Tines on the logo adjust, advertising campaigns become sharper—but the core spirit of innovation stays the same.

The archivists open a heavy binder to unveil every version of Cisco's culture cards. Employees today wear badges with Cisco's goal, strategy, and value—a mainstay at the company since Chambers became CEO in1995. The collection of cards show the preservation of values—a history of the company's ethos that will carry on into the future.