Cisco Innovators: Dave Zacks

Dave Zacks is waiting for a flight at San Francisco International Airport, and his bags are packed to the brim. The Canadian-based Cisco Distinguished Engineer just picked up 17 books to add to his vast collection on this particular trip to the Bay Area. And Zacks travels a lot, which tells you he has some full book shelves at home. The avid reader isn’t only diving into subjects close to his heart like routing and switching, but also constantly explores an ever-changing set of topics, including rocketry and aeronautics, astrophysics, genetics, biology, chemistry, quantum mechanics, mathematics, cryptology, and history. At the core, Zacks is an avid learner. That’s what he loves so much about Cisco.

“Everyone around me is incredibly smart, I am constantly learning from everyone I work with here.” Zacks is being modest. Not only did he rise through the ranks in his 17 years at Cisco, starting as a Systems Engineer in 1999, and ultimately rising to the position of Distinguished System Engineer, he speaks at a variety of conferences and events as an expert in his field of network systems and solutions, with a specialized focus on advanced networking silicon – the ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuits) that form the heart of modern networking gear.

With a chuckle, he says he’s glad Cisco has experts in all areas of tech, but his primary interest lies in things that move packets from A to B. Despite being very technical, he does a good job of breaking complex technology down to an understandable form. Zacks has been recognized as one of only six people worldwide to achieve the rank of Distinguished Speaker ‘Hall of Fame Elite’ for Cisco Live (meaning he scored in the top 10% of all speakers at the show as rated by the customers attending – more than ten times).

At one conference, he told the audience the story of trying to delve into a new, breakthrough silicon chip that Cisco had in development at the time. He asked a colleague for the detailed specification document. What he got back in response to his query was a multi-thousand-page PDF.

See also: Cisco Innovators: Jyoti Sarin

“How do you make a thousands-of-pages document consumable? Our job is to make this technology understandable by normal humans – explaining not just how such a piece of technology works, but WHY the new innovations it provides actually matter to customers, and make a huge difference in their networks,” Zacks says. This task is something he is intensely focused on, and which he really enjoys.

His tech career started as a teenager in 1977, when he spent a few months programming computers for special needs kids. This netted him his first computer – an Apple II Plus, from which he still has the motherboard – and from that point on, he was hooked.

“If you want to make an impact in networking, there’s no question. Cisco is the place to be.”Now in his thirty-second year of designing and building networks, Zacks spent the majority of his Cisco career as a Field engineer, focused on large, complex network designs. Two years ago, he switched over to the product development side. Now he focuses on things the tech industry will see in the future, with a special focus on programmable, flexible ASIC silicon.

“What I enjoy the most about working at Cisco is inventing things to solve customer problems, and then working with an awesome team to bring those ideas into the development process, and finally shipping them out and seeing them get used in customer networks. That’s a tremendous amount of fun.”

The Distinguished Engineer says he’s still awed by the breadth of what Cisco does.

“A lot of other places are narrowly focused, and you’d work on one little slice of technology or one little piece of the network. Since Cisco is involved in every aspect of networking, we can execute on end-to-end capabilities – all the way from innovations in silicon, through to innovations in software, the new protocols and capabilities those technologies enable and the new solutions they let us build – all the way up to the cool user interfaces that we can use to implement them into the network. Think about that. Here at Cisco, we can drive innovation all the way from the gates (silicon gates, that is) to the GUI. That’s how we can have maximum impact in ways that actually matter to customers, and are consumable,” Zacks explains.

See also: Cisco Innovators: Tim Szigeti

He says, “Right now, I don’t think Cisco has ever been better aligned to do that. We are in an awesome place with our product and portfolio mix, the hardware and software. Also, organizationally we are streamlined to move with speed.”

Regarding innovation, Zacks says it has more to do with the people than the process. “It’s definitely the people that make the company. And we have awesome people. If you want to make an impact in networking, there’s no question. Cisco is the place to be.”