Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of Local Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Cisco System’s new “Site Executive” for its 4,000 employee campus in RTP is a familiar face. In fact, he’s one of the original four people who established a Cisco presence in the region 17 years ago.

“I jokingly tell people that I was part of Cisco Raleigh and most people don’t even realize that we were in Highwoods for about year half,” recalls Joe Novak with a laugh.

He also remembers the days when no one knew what (Nasdaq: CSCO) was.

“While the company has done so well , the fact is we went from being at a company that when I would tell people at a church softball game they would ask me ‘Who is Cisco?’” Novak said. “Now, we have such a significant presence in the area.

“It’s been a lot of hard work, but I’ve met a lot of fantastic people along the way.”

The North Raleigh office over time mushroomed into Cisco’s high-tech campus in RTP that currently has 4,300 employees and contractors. The Triangle is Cisco’s largest presence outside of its California headquarters. The world’s largest maker of Internet communications gear and other products employs 64,000 people worldwide.

Cisco celebrated its 15th anniversary in RTP on Thursday, with Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Chambers offering the locals a salute. But Cisco launched operations here two years early with the Raleigh outpost.

Novak succeeds Ed Paradise, who is moving upward in Cisco’s ranks but remains based in RTP.

Novak’s official work title is Vice President Technical Services Acquisition Integration at Cisco Systems. That’s a long title for an important job. In addition to the site executive role, he is responsible for the integration of acquired services into Cisco’s seemingly ever growing product menu.

A five-year veteran at Nortel, Novak was recruited along with another former Nortel and a former IBMer to launch the Raleigh operation. Cisco chose to expand to the Triangle just as the Internet and “dot com” booms drove frenzied growth around the world. But the initial going in Raleigh was slow, Novak recalls.

“We had gone to San Jose for 90 days because there was no place even for us to work here,” he recalled with a chuckle during a recent interview. “The anxiety was that we had taken the jobs knowing they had not recent a spot for us yet. We kept asking ourselves if the company would really put something in place in RTP.”

As the Internet and “dot com” business surged, so did Cisco. And the Triangle, which was already home to IBM’s largest campus as well as three major universities turning out the kind of high-tech engineers and talent it needed, was selected as one of its primary launch pads to Net dominance.

The first RTP building opened in 1995.

Much has changed, from technology to Cisco to the Triangle, in that time, said Novak, who has always called the area home. He, his wife and family live in Wake Forest.

“Oh my goodness, the changes,” he recalled. “Thinking back to 1993, I think we probably had less than 2,000 full-time employees.

“It’s fantastic, right? The fact is I had no concept in my mind that we would go from a handful of personnel people to start, then some 20 inside support people and a small engineering team when we opened the Highwoods office to now more than 4,000. I don’t think any of us realize how significant our presence could be here.”

One of Novak’s major tasks right now is to incorporate Starent’s multimedia and mobile broadband offerings into the Cisco portfolio. But he also will be busy as the site executive.

“I will be quite involved in the community,” he said. “I don’t know if I even have the vocabulary to express what the role means.”

For years, Novak has been actively involved along with many others at Cisco in supporting food bank efforts.

"We live in a high-tech world, and we take it for granted," he told The Skinny when we first met back in 2003. "Our biggest concern is our commute to RTP. (

"Sometimes we lose track of the challenges other people face. If we’re not careful, we become oblivious to them."

Novak also knows he has a role to play in trying to maintain growth within Cisco coming to RTP.

“I use the word ambassador. It’s ambassador to the external community, but I’m also an ambassador back to the company. I will continue to promote the capabilities that we have here in the Triangle so that, hopefully, we will continue to grow.”

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