How Cisco Is Preserving Its History And Why Other Tech Companies Should, Too

On the edge of Cisco Systems’ San Jose, California campus, inside a windowless, temperature-controlled room, an ambitious project aims to document the company’s three-decade ascent to global networking giant.

The project is the Cisco Archive, a collection of Cisco-related items that chronicles the company’s history. Peek inside the room that houses the Archive and you’ll see floor-to-ceiling shelves of neatly labeled artifacts, ranging from retired products to software reference manuals, employee handbooks and old advertisements.

“We realized we had a lot of stuff relating to Cisco history and we should take good care of it and respect it,” explains Mike Sanchez, a Cisco senior manager who develops employee-based brand experiences and is involved with the Cisco Archive. “We also think that collecting and categorizing this stuff will reveal significant things about Cisco’s culture, like good archaeology does.”

Cisco isn’t just establishing an on-campus archive facility. The company is so intent on preserving its past that it’s also conducting an oral history project and making a documentary film about its heritage.

Such initiatives are rare in Silicon Valley. Sure, Intel runs a popular museum in Santa Clara. HP has an archive at its Palo Alto headquarters and it bought and restored the famous HP Garage in the early 2000s. And Agilent Technologies — an HP spin-off — maintains a history center, also in Santa Clara.

But those initiatives are decades old [1] and local historians say few other tech companies are actively engaged in preservation efforts. (One notable exception is Keysight Technologies, a recent spinoff of Agilent Technologies, which is working to establish its own archive.) “We have short-term memories in the Valley,” says Sanchez. “We don’t tend to look backwards.”

That was true at Cisco, too, until a discussion at the nearby Computer History Museum (CHM) inspired a Cisco senior vice president named Don Proctor to act. About three years ago, Len Shustek, the chairman of the CHM’s board of trustees, asked Proctor, who is a CHM trustee, what Cisco was doing to preserve its history.

Cisco-ites had attempted to compile artifacts and install small exhibits in company buildings at various times over the years, but the endeavors were sporadic and short-lived. After asking around Cisco and talking to some engineers who had been at the company for decades, Proctor decided there was sufficient corporate and employee interest to initiate an extensive, organized history project.

In mid-2013, Cisco forged a three-year partnership with the CHM to create the Cisco Archive. Under the agreement, Cisco gives money to the museum and the museum dispenses the funds needed to operate the Archive.[2] In return, Cisco gets the expertise of Paula Jabloner, a longtime CHM archivist. Jabloner now spends about 80 percent of her time on the Cisco Archive and has hired another archivist named Stephanie Waslohn to work alongside her.

Cisco says the museum’s involvement lends “gravitas” to the project. Jabloner says the collaboration supports the CHM’s mission of protecting Silicon Valley artifacts even though the Archive is Cisco’s property. “The essential part of the partnership is that history is being preserved, even if it’s not part of the museum’s collection,” says Jabloner. “The partnership also gives us the ability to preserve history now, while it’s happening. If we tried to do this 50 years from now, we’d have to just hope that things had been saved.”

Fortunately for Cisco a number of employees (both former and current) had saved historic materials and were willing to donate them once they heard about the Archive. The collection now contains hundreds of artifacts, spanning 3D objects to digital files, technical breakthroughs to kitschy memorabilia. Amid the stacks of product data sheets, customer services newsletters and annual reports, two items stand out in particular: Cisco’s AGS+ (‘Advanced Gateway Servers’) router and an engineer’s handwritten notes that Cisco has dubbed the “Two Napkin Protocol”.

The AGS+ router, which dates back to the early 1990s, is the successor to Cisco’s AGS router, which was released in 1986 and is widely recognized as the first commercial multi-protocol router. The Two Napkin Protocol notes, which were originally scrawled on two paper napkins and have been preserved as a photocopied piece of paper, led to the 1989 development of the “Border Gateway Protocol,” a routing protocol that has been described as the technology that “literally makes the Internet work.”

The Archive also contains whimsical items that reflect the playful side of Cisco’s culture. Highlights include gold and silver-colored commemorative versions of Cisco’s best-selling “7960” and “7970” Internet Protocol (IP) phones and a series of the wacky hats (jester’s caps, sequined fedoras) that Cisco distributes at its annual ‘Cisco Live’ customer-appreciation conferences.

Since the Archive is just a single room in San Jose and Cisco is a global company of 70,000 employees, Jabloner and Waslohn are uploading many of the Archive items into an online catalog that can be browsed from any computing device.[3] The catalog displays photos, PDFs/scans and videos in a simple interface along with contextual data such as the date of the object and a short description. “People have to know what’s in the archive or else it essentially becomes irrelevant,” explains Jabloner. “We don’t want to create a time capsule — something in a closet that someone unearths years later.”

Of course, artifacts and papers can only tell so much about a company.

That’s why Cisco hired Charles “Chuck” House to collect oral histories from Cisco employees, customers and competitors. House is a former HP executive who now runs InnovaScapes Institute, a research group that specializes in telling technology stories from a historical perspective. So far, House has interviewed more than 140 people for Cisco and submitted about half of the interviews to the Archive to be stored as transcripts and audio or video files.

The talks have unearthed surprising, compelling stories, including engineers’ tales about evacuating foreign countries following insurrections and the stress and pride they felt when asked to help reopen the New York Stock Exchange after 9/11. “These are [stories] you wouldn’t find unless you went looking,” notes House.[4] They are also stories that would have disappeared, possibly within the next several years, if they had not been recorded. House says his youngest interviewees are in their fifties and the oldest participants are in their eighties. He hopes to conduct an additional 100 interviews over the next year, pending funding.

Cisco’s third history project is Cisco Lore, a documentary that the company is commissioning from the San Francisco-based creative agency First Person, Inc. Sanchez describes the film as covering “a variety of topics and themes related to Cisco” including “what has made [Cisco] who we are…and how our larger purpose and…our outlook, culture and values have held true throughout.”

A one-minute teaser trailer that Cisco posted on YouTube last year uses quirky animations to depict CEO John Chambers’s first day at the company. In the snippet, Chambers recounts how he initially worked in a phone closet due to an office space shortage. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’ve made a mistake [joining this company],’” Chambers recalls, with a laugh.[5] The film is scheduled for completion by the end of the year and will be released externally as well as screened within Cisco.

Cisco-ites say the history projects have helped pinpoint the company’s unique “DNA”, in a genuine way that appeals to both customers and employees. “When you see the artifacts or hear the stories Chuck has gathered, you start to understand what’s at the heart of Cisco, beyond our engineering skills,” Sanchez posits.

Those emotions can translate into loyalty to Cisco (for longtime customers) and company pride (for employees). “If someone’s been a Cisco customer for ten years and you show him some old equipment, it brings back a certain nostalgia,” explains Jabloner. Waslohn, the other Cisco archivist, says some Cisco employees really do get emotional when they encounter certain artifacts. She cites a group of Cisco Japan employees who arranged to tour the Archive after reading a blog post Jabloner wrote about the Two Napkin Protocol notes. During their visit, the employees took photos of themselves posing with the historic piece of paper. “They were excited because they work with protocols, so the notes are an ancestor of their current work,” explains Waslohn.

Will other companies follow Cisco’s example?

Jabloner hopes so. Though Cisco is primarily documenting its history for posterity and corporate culture initiatives, Jabloner notes that tech firms can leverage historical artifacts and stories for PR and marketing, much the way Ford Motor Company, Levi Strauss and Wells Fargo have. “People think technology is created by upstarts, but I think tech companies can use history to their advantage in a lot of ways,” she says. “They can make the case that they have grown and succeeded over decades.”

A 15-year-old Valley firm recently contacted Jabloner seeking advice on how to establish its own archive. “As the Valley matures there will be more interest in preserving its history,” she predicts.

Budgetary concerns may blunt some companies’ interest. Cisco did not divulge how much it spent on its Archive or documentary, but House says it costs at least $50,000 to do a professional oral history project “of any consequence.” “If someone says, ‘We can pull together $10,000; would you come do our company?’ it doesn’t compute,” he admits.

Corporate historians say that companies that can’t afford formal archival programs can simply allocate some office space for storage or cloud/server space for digital assets. The companies can then ask employees to save artifacts in the designated space and appoint someone to track inventory in a spreadsheet or database.

“External preservation” is another option for companies that want to document their histories but lack the funds to hire professionals. This strategy involves contacting a company’s fan base/users and seeing what artifacts those enthusiasts have saved on their own. “Companies often have hobbyist communities that are really interested in their products,” notes Devon Dawson, the archives manager at Keysight Technologies. “Partnering with those groups is a great way to do preservation if a company doesn’t want to spend its own resources.”

Dawson says companies should make an effort because historic preservation can influence their legacies. As an example, he compares an HP competitor that “goes under, leaving no background and no backstory” to HP, which “has all this historical material.” Because historical research can be done on the HP material, more historians will write about HP than about its former competitor. “Companies that don’t preserve their pasts risk becoming footnotes in history, even if they made significant contributions,” posits Dawson.

Jabloner takes a broader view. She believes corporate history projects benefit not only the companies that undertake them, but also future generations and society in general. “The Valley has essentially changed the world and it’s important to figure out the processes that enabled that innovation and spirit,” she says. “The more people we have collecting history, the better.”


[1] HP’s archive was founded in 1989 and Agilent’s history center in 1999. Intel’s museum opened in 1992. Keysight plans to establish its archive before the end of 2015.

[2] Interestingly, the CHM gets to keep any money not needed to run the Archive and use those funds for the upkeep and maintenance of its own artifact collection. The Cisco alliance is the first time the CHM has partnered with a company on an archiving project.

[3] Cisco employees can arrange to visit the Archive facility. So can academic researchers, provided they discuss their projects with the Archivists beforehand and schedule appointments. The facility is closed to the public.

[4] House says he has “carte blanche” from Cisco to ask anything he wants during his interviews. But he also admits, “We’re working on [tracing Cisco’s] heritage, not breaking news.” For privacy reasons, the oral histories will not be made publicly available.

[5] Chambers joined Cisco in 1991 and became CEO in 1995. He is stepping down to become Executive Chairman on July 26, 2015.