If you were to go back in time and ask 20-year-old Robert Yee where he would be working in 2023, Cisco would have been an unlikely answer. Working in any technical field would have been an unlikely answer. Why? Because I decided to change majors from Chemical Engineering to Asian/Asian American Studies. I wanted to understand the needs of my community and help those like my parents. And speaking of my parents, this decision was just the latest in a string of minor disappointments. Despite this change in majors, my parents still supported me.
Upon graduation, with my newly minted Bachelor of Arts in Asian Studies diploma, I found a full-time job at a law firm … in accounting. My goal at the time was to study for the LSAT and go to law school. But life had other plans for me.
The law firm was going through a technology migration but didn’t have a systems administrator. With some luck, I was offered the opportunity to split my time between accounting and IT work. It turned into a full-time role, and I officially had my first IT job. I picked up the new skills quickly but knew if I wanted to continue in this career, I would need to study. This was the start of the certification boom.
While studying for my first certification, I came across an article online from someone in Hong Kong that talked about this super hard certification called the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) and the elaborate testing process. This “Cisco” thing really intrigued me. I filed that thought away but never forgot it.
In 1999 (pre-Y2K), I had my first opportunity to deploy an end-to-end Cisco network. Up until this point, I had never touched a router, a switch, or a firewall. It was all on-the-job training, I had to learn fast, and I had a lot of help from partner engineers that put up with my many questions. When the project was done, I realized I LOVED networking. I doubled down on my studying. I earned many Cisco Certifications, but that CCIE still seemed just too daunting.
That same year, I attended my first local Cisco Users Group meeting. It was amazing to be with a bunch of like-minded individuals who also wanted to learn Cisco technology. Members of this group started to earn their CCIEs, and their stories inspired me to give it a shot. I met my good friends Jason Bomar and Joe Young here, and we formed a study group. We met many weekends to study. Jason was the first to pass his CCIE. Then, Joe and I passed our exams within one week of each other in May 2003.
In 2008, after years of hesitation and interviewing with three different teams, I finally made it to Cisco as a pre-sales Systems Engineer on the Commercial team covering Los Angeles. My very first day at Cisco was my birthday. It was a career change, and I struggled to understand the sales cycles, find internal resources, build trusted relationships with customers, and understand and project “my brand.” These were all critical to be successful, and they were all new to me. With a lot of help and support from teammates, mentors, managers, and especially my wife, Sara, I was able to find myself on the other side of this wall.
Being a Cisco SE was the hardest job I’ve ever had. Learning new solutions and technologies challenged me constantly. I had to be proficient with the portfolio, understand how my customers’ businesses worked and explain in simple terms how a solution could benefit them. However, it was also the most rewarding and satisfying job I’ve ever had. The results of my work were tangible. I could see the trust I built with my clients and the results of months or years-long projects.
It’s hard to imagine that I’ve been at Cisco for 15-plus years in four different roles. I started as a Systems Engineer, have been a Technical Solutions Architect, and my last two positions have been in leadership. I’m currently the Systems Engineering Manager for a team of Data Center Networking Technical Solutions Architects, and I’m truly grateful for the dedication, knowledge, and skill this team brings to the table. Among them are one CCDE, two Cisco Press books, one upcoming Ph.D., and ten CCIE certifications.
Even though my career path took me in a different direction, I’ve never fully forgotten my original intent when I changed my college major to Asian and Asian American Studies. Cisco offered me the opportunity to make a difference in my community. In 2020, I started the Southern California chapter of Connected Asian Affinity Network (CAAN), an ERO/ERG/Inclusive Community for AAPI and AAPI allies at Cisco. We’ve grown the chapter from about 30 in the beginning to over 90 members currently. It’s been a great opportunity to showcase and share AAPI cultures and give back to my community. As great as my time at Cisco has been, I’ve noticed throughout my career there haven’t been a lot of people who looked like me, especially in sales leadership. I think there is real opportunity to change that. This has been an amazing opportunity to connect with and highlight AAPI talent, encourage them to consider leadership at Cisco and help open those doors for them.
Some people may think that 15 years at a single company is a lifetime. For me, it’s happened in a blink. Every day brings different challenges and new opportunities to learn or teach. I am grateful that Cisco has offered me the opportunity to grow my career and pursue my passion all within one company.
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Very inspirational, Robert.
First, I bet understanding the needs of your community only made you a better Leader in the tech space when you finally made the transition, so it wasn’t wasted effort at all! Second, this is a such a perfect example of how in today’s modern society linear career paths are a thing of the past. Lastly, what a way to show that it’s never too late to chase and achieve a dream. I think we at times get caught up in measuring ourselves up against the achievements of others, but comparison is the thief of joy! We should each embrace and fall in love with our own journey, not that of someone else. Thanks for sharing your story Robert!