People keep saying ex-CEO John Chambers is still calling the shots but Cisco insists that he's not

Chuck Robbins and John ChambersCisco/YouTubeCisco CEO Chuck Robbins and Cisco chairman John Chambers

It’s true that Chuck Robbins term began with a bang: he immediately put a few new executives in place and ousted a few of Chambers’ lieutenants like Padmasree Warrior. And instead of continuing Cisco’s traditional big end-of-year layoffs, he chopped a few whole product lines.

But we have heard when Robbins was first appointed, people inside the company didn’t believe that former-star-CEO John Chambers was really going to give up the reins.

So everyone’s been looking for evidence that supports those suspicions. The latest is a report by NetworkWorld’s Jim Duffy that Cisco’s star engineers, the team running Cisco’s most important new product, still really report to Chambers, not Robbins.

We don’t doubt that Chambers still talks and interacts with these engineers, known as “the heart, soul and brains” of the company: Mario Mazzola, Prem Jain, and Luca Cafiero. Along with their top marketing person, Soni Jiandani, the team is internally known as MPLS. (That’s an inside joke: MPLS is an acronym for a popular technology for building high-performance networks that Cisco helped invent.)

These engineers are responsible for nearly all of the company’s major break-out products in the past 20 years, and they did it via Cisco’s unprecedented arrangement called “spin-ins.” That’s where Cisco funded their startups, then bought each startup for millions when the product was ready. Cisco has funneled billions of dollars to these guys and their teams via spin-ins over the years.

Cisco MarioPremLucaBusiness InsiderCisco’s legendary engineering triumvirate ‘MarioPremLuca’

The team is currently working on Cisco’s latest, fastest router and the tech that is allowing Cisco to fend off upstarts like VMware who are trying to eat Cisco’s lunch.

A Cisco spokesperson absolutely denies that Chambers is still running the show, because Cisco considers Chambers to be reporting to Robbins.

This even though Chambers is executive chairman, a title that typically means a person is in charge of the board, and still actively involved in a company’s day-to-day business.

Here’s how the company explained it to us:

Chuck is CEO. He runs the company. Everyone reports to him, including John [Chambers] and ‘MPLS’. The Board operates as a whole unit as far as voting decisions are concerned. Chuck reports to the Board as a whole, not to any one individual on the Board. That’s why it’s not incongruent that John is an employee who reports to Chuck, and that Chuck answers to the Board.

Still, Chambers’ power at the company, and his image as an business clairvoyant remains strong. It was Chambers, not Robbins, who interviewed Apple CEO Tim Cook on stage at the company’s huge sales conference this week when the two companies announced their huge new partnership. That’s just optics, but it still says something.

Tim Cook, John ChambersCiscoApple CEO Tim Cook with Cisco executive chairman John Chambers

The other issue is how long the MPLS engineers are going to stick around at Cisco now that Chambers has semi-retired.

They have all had decades-long careers and a few of them have tried to retire a couple of times in years gone by, with Chambers pulling them back in for another spin-in.

Those guys wield enormous power at the company, so people inside and outside the company will be watching to see how this all plays out.

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