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Estrin hits big time as Cisco CTO

Judy Estrin is confident that she can shape Cisco's strategy and cognizant that her new role places her at the forefront of powerful women in high-technology.

When Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Net, is your college adviser, you know you're off to a good start.

Judy Estrin, new chief technology officer at Cisco Systems--the largest data networking firm in the business, is no novice in Silicon Valley. She wrapped up a master's degree at Stanford University and went on to start three companies.

But Cisco is a long way from a start-up culture. The firm had nearly $7 billion in revenue for its most recent fiscal year and currently enjoys a market capitalization that hovers around $70 billion. In replacing long-time Cisco CTO Ed Kozel, Estrin is hitting the big time, confident that she can shape the company's strategy in an ever-evolving market and cognizant that her new role places her at the forefront of powerful women in high-technology.

Estrin, 43, is undaunted, exuding a faith in abilities honed through her hands-on experience. "I have a very strong understanding and passion for networking," she said in a recent interview during her first week on the job. "I have a very strong technical background, but I am very good at communicating to the business customer."

Estrin's resume is impressive. She cofounded Bridge Communications, Network Computing Devices, and most recently Precept Software, which was purchased by Cisco in March for $84 million.

Along the way she tapped into three trends that continue to shape the technology industry. At Bridge, she was a proponent of building industrial strength networking equipment to tie local networks together, a philosophy that put her at odds with executives at 3Com once her firm was acquired by the Cisco competitor in 1987. Cisco was more that happy to fill the breach.

At NCD, Estrin championed the concept of network-based computing and "thin clients," building X-terminals that connected to large back-end mainframe and mini-computer systems. NCD continues her vision to this day, building network computers for the likes of IBM.

At Precept, Estrin caught multimedia fever, building software to facilitate network-based video broadcasts. She essentially became the spokeswoman for the emerging industry based around IP multicast protocols, most recently discussing developments in the technology at a summit showcasing the progress of the multimedia niche.

Estrin has big shoes to fill. Kozel, who is lightening his load at Cisco, is regarded by many as a visionary in the networking industry, adept at targeting nascent trends in how layouts are built.

"Kozel is a tough act to follow," said David Passmore, president of industry consultants NetReference. "I don't know that Judy will be as vocal, but she certainly understands the technology and has the experience on the business side."

Estrin said she is not out to make waves at Cisco, noting that the firm has been doing just fine up to now. "This does not mark a strategic shift," she said. "I would not have signed up if there was going to be a change in style."

Due to the dearth of high-ranking women in Silicon Valley, the inevitable questions concerning her gender are bound to surface, but Estrin said that she has largely been oblivious to her relatively unique standing in the valley.

"Silicon Valley on the one hand is known as a boys' club, but on the other hand, I've never had an issue with this," Estrin said. "When I got into this business, if you had the right technology background, it didn't matter."

Estrin, however, is critical of the "star mentality" that seems to permeate through the valley these days. "I think we've gotten a little full of ourselves, actually."

Those who work with her say she should do just fine at the sprawling Cisco campus in San Jose.

"She knows the valley," Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, said. "She has incredibly high integrity."

Estrin sits on the board of Sun, as well as on the boards of business titans Federal Express and Rockwell International.

"What she was able to do was to give me an insider's view of Sun from the outside," McNealy continued. "She's been a real strong believer in Sun's strategy and making sure we have the strength and the fortitude and the perseverance."

"I think all our jobs are hard," McNealy said. "I think she's very, very smart so I don't think she'll have a problem."