Cerent fit into these “soft” categories nicely. Once the Fiberlane split left Cerent in Petaluma to focus on its “SONET mux,” absent the in-fighting, engineering team members coalesced into a cohesive unit to release the first version of the product. Meanwhile, the sales and marketing teams were staffed to move the product and generate revenue growth (and eventually, profitable sales).
On their path to achieving this goal, trust among team members was high. It is most important in the success of any startup. As Karlgaard writes, “[Trust] may seem like a fuzzy concept in terms of ROI. But without trust you’ll never create always-on innovation. Employees who lack trust will never share their best ideas. Without trust customers will drop you at the first chance and shareholders will sell or sue.”
Smarts were abundant at Cerent, in terms of ASICs, hardware, and software development, and systems integration, as well as customer outreach.
Hui Liu, Cerent’s director of hardware development, told me that there were no respins of the ASICs for the early product releases, a testament to the abilities of ASIC engineers like Martin Roberts and Phu Le . Individual brilliance, while critical, however, is wasted without an organization owning smarts too. Members sporting “group brilliance” are rooted in “a different place than IQ. They come from grit, determination, empathy, and purpose.” Cerent was rich with hard-working employees that persevered in their work while caring for their colleagues. Cerent’s sales, marketing, and customer services teams exhibited such an attribute too.
From another perspective, physiological, one’s taste detects bitter or sweet, among other mouth-altering sensations. Taste, as it applies to high-tech, is the word Steve Jobs used to use when he described Apple’s universal aesthetic appeal. Robert Egger, designer of Specialized Bicycles, refers to taste as “the elusive sweet spot between data truth and human truth.” For Cerent, its sweet spot was the DS-3 equipped OC-48 configurations that drove the company to achieve a billion dollars in equipment sales in record time. As Karlgaard writes, “If you don’t want to sell at the commodity level – who does? – you need taste. Hint: Tastes doesn’t come from market surveys and predictive analytics.” Indeed, customers defined how their high fiber diet of optical transport products would taste. They opted for the Cerent 454, seasoned to taste, and Terry Brown was the master chef.
“Durably great companies tell an enduringly appealing story,” Karlgaard says. Cerent told a great story, which attracted it a large, loyal customer base early on. The company redefined the optical transport space and was quickly snapped up by Cisco Systems in 1999.
Cisco built upon this success and under the marketing genius of Jayshree Ullal and yours truly, among others, the optical story grew to become Cisco COMET for Complete Optical Multisevice Edge and Transport.
COMET, launched in late 2001, leveraged Cerent and the rest of Cisco’s optical acquisitions to provide service providers with the scale, reliability and flexibility needed to transform their old networks, remaking them as cost-effective, efficient and profitable as possible. Whereas “Cerent’s” portfolio contribution (454, 327, and 600) focused on metro and regional networks, Cisco COMET provided a complete portfolio of optical solutions to address the customer requirements in the Metro Edge, Metro Core, Service Point-of- Presence (PoP), and Long-Haul/Extended Long-Haul networks to maximize service velocity, density, variety and capacity.
Cisco became a major player in optical networks, realizing that company’s dream of being the premier provider of IP + Optical solutions.
 In February 2016, Hui Liu recalled the impact of his team’s successful ASIC program: “The one-spin success of the most complicated ASIC with the latest technology, the highest I/O speed, and the most gate count with the least number of engineers was a miracle that was replicated over and over during the early days of Cerent. The ASICs contributed to the foundation of Cerent's success, without which, we would have had nothing. There would have been no microwave-oven size box, no multi-service, no low power, nada. Lucent thought our ASIC program was ‘mission impossible’ when I told them I had 3 people working on the BTC and 3 people on the SXC, as they had more than 50 people working on their chip set.” Hui adds, “I don't think Lucent ever shipped their chip set.”