A standard of excellence

2017-Jun-15

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Mark Hill with Nelson Mandela

Few Cisco employees can claim to have met Nelson Mandela, the late, great former president of South Africa—much less to have worked closely with him and helped solve some of that country’s most intractable problems. But Cisco’s Mark Hill had that honor. After Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, Mark served as a communication link between Mandela and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who began pouring resources into helping Mandela build an organization so that he could run for president.

“My job was to be a go-between,” says Mark, a South African native who spent 24 years at Microsoft before joining Cisco in October 2016. “I spent hours just talking to Mandela.”

Mark also played a key role in helping to get a school and clinic built in Mandela’s hometown, throwing himself into the project with his customary gusto. Back in the Bay Area, he raised thousands of dollars for the project by taking bets that he could run across the Golden Gate Bridge within a certain time. He printed cheap “Running for Mandela” t-shirts, sold them off at a premium and got 1,000 volunteers to run with him.

“I’m a tighthead prop,” says the burly Mark, referring to his position on the rugby field. “I’m not exactly a runner.”

Photo of Mark Hill
Mark’s favorite sport–Rugby!

But he made it across the bridge with a second to spare and was back in South Africa with Mandela, 70 Microsoft employees, and scores of media when the school was launched. The project sparked a trend of corporate-sponsored school building in South Africa, driving electricity and clean water distribution to rural areas.

The story speaks volumes about the kind of leader Mark is. He doesn’t do things in half measures and brings huge amounts of energy, creativity and enthusiasm to the task before him—no matter how big or small. Small wonder that his favorite Cisco value is Make Innovation Happen.

“This is what I am born to do,” he says. “It comes naturally. It excites me, but sometimes frustrates my family! My mind is continually solving some problem or other—whether it’s a simple day-to-day thing or complex business problem.”

His current role at Cisco pits him against many complex business problems. As Vice President of Digitization, he’s a driving force behind the digital transformation of Cisco. As leader of Cisco’s Offer Monetization Office (OMO), he heads a team that has a goal of building a $20 billion dollar software business for Cisco. His focus is to help the product groups transition their core business to software, transform their offer packaging, establish strategic licensing standards by unifying all of Cisco’s customer buying programs, and to establishing a new software-led go-to-market strategy.

Mark played a pivotal role in the launch of Cisco’s new customer buying program, the Cisco Enterprise Agreement, by speaking with the press and briefing analysts including Gartner, IDC, Forrester, and others. Other responsibilities include the product management of the Cisco ONE software suite, SaaS strategies, and eliminating legacy, non-standard

His career highlights before Cisco also involve solving problems on an epic scale. He ran Microsoft’s Africa business in the 1990s, opening the company’s South African subsidiary as well as regional offices covering 49 African countries. The achievement earned him the Bill Gates Chairman’s Award for Excellence.

He also created a 24-hour “Deal Factory” to negotiate with and retain Microsoft’s largest customers during the global financial crisis in 2009. This Herculean effort involved negotiating the company’s top 100 deals worth $3 billion in revenue, and doing so as fast as possible in order to keep customer agreements intact through the crisis. Working day and night, he cut deals over the phone in a day that normally would have taken months to hammer out. He recalls re-signing one customer with a $30 million per year agreement for just $1.

“My job was to do whatever it took to legally keep them on the agreement,” says Mark, who the Bill Gates Chairman’s Award a second time for his efforts. “I didn’t sleep for 6 months.”

As for his experience with Cisco culture so far, he says he loves it. “I feel at home, there are so many great, smart people who are very collaborative and living our values every day.”

Mark was born and raised in Vanderbijlpark, a small rural town near Johannesburg. His first job was as an electrician’s assistant in a factory. After doing his two years of military service in the South African Air Force, he got a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and a master’s degree in Robotic Engineering, both from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Mark with his family in Antarctica
Mark with his family in Antarctica.

A big outdoorsman, Mark is an avid explorer, having visited all seven continents and over 150 countries. His most memorable trip was an expedition to Antarctica with National Geographic to map the sea floor in areas exposed for the first time by the melting ice cap. He also runs a very successful youth rugby club in the Seattle area, with over 250 boys and girls from grades 1-12 playing on 10 teams.

Mark and his wife, Sharon, have three children—Dylan, 21; Callan, 17; and Grace, 11. The best advice he ever got was: “Fight against mediocrity in everything you do—and always give your spouse the time, effort, respect and dignity that you’d give your largest customer who is about to place an order!”

You would never know this but …

  • He never goes anywhere without his smile—“It gets me into everywhere and out of many sticky situations.”
  • When he was 15, he won an early version of a personal computer — a Sinclair ZX81 computer with a whopping 16K RAM expansion pack. “It got me to start programming and into the IT industry—and the rest is history!”
  • If he could have any talent in the world, it would be to be a better singer.
  • When he was a child, he wanted to be a marine explorer like Jacques Cousteau when he grew up.
  • He loves to snack on Biltong (a South African version of beef jerky).

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