Cultivating Engagement and Innovation: The History of Cisco’s April Fools’ Patent Contest
A Q&A with Cisco Vice President of Intellectual Property, Dan Lang
According to a report from global recruitment firm WilsonHCG, tech companies are the most successful among the Fortune 500 at finding and recruiting top employees. What’s more telling, within the tech industry, the competition for top talent – especially top engineers – is fierce.
The ability to illustrate how employees are able to work on creative, innovative projects alongside inspiring colleagues and managers truly sets a company apart. Thankfully for us on this the first of April our culture of innovation shines through Cisco’s annual April Fools’ Patent Contest.
Taking a unique, fun spin on an enduring part of Cisco’s history in honor of our beloved prank holiday, our engineers are asked to submit goofy patents through the same portal that true patents have crossed in hopes that their invention will be selected as the winner in one of three categories: Most Humorous Patent, Most Likely to be Allowed by the US Patent Office and Best Use of Cisco Technology. Winners receive fame, glory, peer recognition… and a small cash prize.
Nearly a decade in, over 1,000 inventions have been submitted as a result. This year, participants have been asked to submit inventions related to networked 3D printing, wearable technologies, or combinations of both. Looking for that extra perk? Credit is given to those who make it clear how the idea is either a new business area or adjacent market for Cisco.
We caught up with Dan Lang, Cisco’s vice president of intellectual property, who heads up the team that organizes the contest every year to discuss the patent contest and how it’s helping engage inventors and shape Cisco’s culture of innovation…
The patent contest has been happening for nearly a decade now – how did it all begin?
Dan Lang: We wanted to create a fun program that would engage our inventors and create more visibility and understanding of our patent program. Rumor has it that the contest actually began because an inventor submitted an idea on April 1 and we couldn’t decide if it was real or a joke!
The juxtaposition of joke patent submissions and those submitted in the “Most Likely to be Allowed by the US Patent Office” makes this a pretty unique concept. What else sets this apart from company contests or activities?
Dan: It’s true – while this contest is fun, there is also an educational element and a huge learning opportunity for everyone involved. By entering the contest, engineers are exposed to the patent submission process. They learn how to use our Cisco Patents On-Line (CPOL) tool throughout the process in a light hearted way. Some of our volunteer reviewers come from our existing network of patent committees as well, which adds an extra element of reality to the submissions.
Last year there were nearly 150 submissions to the contest so it looks like you’ve tapped a way to engage and motivate people to innovate. Aside from potentially winning the contest, why do you think people participate each year?
Dan: Innovative people are also busy people – I think any opportunity to take a step back, have some fun and laugh a bit is always welcome and great for morale! My team has been organizing this contest for nearly a decade and I think one of the best aspects for us is that it has brought us closer together and also opened up new ways to connect with people across the company. We invite Cisco employees from across multiple teams to be on our review panel, so it is a good opportunity to meet and connect with new faces. It is also a fantastic opportunity to learn about the patent process and the tools we have in place to help inventors see their inventions through.
What have been some of the most memorable submissions for you?
Dan: The submissions get more creative every year! We spend a lot of time laughing, and, occasionally, consulting HR. All jokes aside, some of the inventions that have stuck with me include the Cisco “Self Offending” Network, which extends Cisco’s Self Defending Network initiative by adding offensive capabilities to the network, and the ICMP Go-Away packet, an extension that proposes “Silence Transmitter Function of Unicaster” option to allow upstream routers to stem the flow of traffic.
Each year we also get a number of submissions related to TelePresence. One of my favorites was TeleAbsence, which would allow users to temporarily (or permanently) sneak out of a TelePresence meeting without anyone on the other end noticing and TelePants, a solution for people who forget their WebEx camera is on and need a new look for their meeting.
What have been some of the unexpected benefits of running this contest?
Dan: In addition to it being the catalyst for some of the funniest patent ideas I have ever seen, it also helps draw attention to our incredibly important patent program here at Cisco. We have one of the top patent portfolios in data networking not only because it is backed by a $6 Billion R&D budget, but because inventors truly enjoy the process and take the time to work with us and our tools to enter their patents online. The April Fools contest is a fun way to showcase the innovative culture we nurture here not only in this department, but across the entire company.
Are there any other annual contests or activities that the legal/patent department stages?
Dan: We don’t currently have any other annual contest or activities, however, inventor engagement and cultivating innovation is very important to us, so we are constantly coming up with new ideas and ways in which we can keep our engineers and employees stimulated!
To learn more about employment opportunities at Cisco, please visit some of our resources below. If you would like to learn more about some of the patents that have been a part of Cisco’s April Fools’ Patent Contest, check out our BuzzFeed Community post here.
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