Optical networking wasn’t a priority of IBM’s at the time (circa 1994), but the company gave Ramaswami’s team the freedom to develop the technology and find a buyer.
That buyer would be Tellabs, where he directed the Optical Networking Group in 1997-99. His team there shot up from a dozen to over 130 in short order. “And right after that, this field was continuing to get hotter and hotter and even hotter,” he recalled.
In the span of a few years, he discovered the boom-and-bust realities of the technology business.
Moving to Silicon Valley in the Crazy Years
Ramaswami’s work at IBM Research started catching attention in the Silicon Valley. Offers began pouring in as the dot-com boom ramped up. In 1999, he moved his wife and two small children from the East Coast to the epicenter of the dot-com bubble.
Naturally, he was one of the first handful of employees in a new company. “In the late ‘90s, everything was being hyped up in the internet boom,” he said. “It was my first experience as an entrepreneur in a real startup.”
Things went well at first. Soon, companies started throwing staggering sums at his enterprise. Nortel, the Canadian telecom giant, offered $3.5 billion in stock for his startup. One of Canada’s biggest companies, Nortel didn’t look like an especially risky bet. Selling for paper stock instead of hard cash seemed perfectly sane. They took the stock. Then came the crash of 2000.
The dot-coms imploded first. Then the telecoms collapsed. Nortel’s stock cratered more than 90% in the 12 months after its August 2000 peak.
“I never dreamt that this could happen,” Ramaswami recalled. “And, of course, it happened. It was a life lesson. I learned not to be too greedy.”
Finding Stability and Growth
Cisco Systems, whose network routers enabled the internet boom, survived the crash bruised but intact. They recruited Ramaswami in 2002.
“That's when I transitioned to being a general manager,” he said.
Cisco was a global company with an expansive product line and a raft of opportunities to try new things.
“I thought I'd go to Cisco for a couple of years, but I ended up staying eight years, because every few years, I got a chance to go run a different business,” he said. “That was a big growing-up thing for me.”