Debbie Gross was thrilled when Cisco Systems offered her a $36,000 salary to join as executive assistant in 1991. She didn't know much about the 560-person company, but at age 35 she was up for a new challenge, and the pay amounted to a solid raise from her previous gig.
As Cisco celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, Gross stands among the longest-tenured of the technology company's 74,000-plus employees. And she's spent her 2½ decades there working for a single boss: John Chambers.
"I had no idea that John would ultimately be CEO some day," said Gross, now 59, reflecting on her career working for one of Silicon Valley's most powerful figures. "They were at a point of desperation when I was interviewed. I was the 17th candidate he interviewed over the course of a month."
When Gross came to Cisco, the Internet didn't exist in any meaningful way. Chambers, a senior vice president at the time, had only been at the company for two months. The campus consisted of three buildings in East Palo Alto, California. The stock was trading at about 15 cents on a split-adjusted basis.
It could reasonably be argued that few people in the technology world have worked harder over the past 24 years than Debbie Gross. Her boss, who was promoted to CEO in January 1995, is the longest-standing top executive among Silicon Valley's major tech companies.
Chambers is a traveling machine, and he's meeting people running not just the biggest businesses in the world; but also the largest countries. Among Gross' roster of responsibilities is making sure Chambers is prepared for every briefing, conference, sporting event and sales pitch. He needs details on everyone in the room or on the golf course.
"You'd be nauseated to see what we put together for him," Gross said from the company's sprawling headquarters in San Jose. "He doesn't really know what he's doing until he goes on the plane. Our teams are constantly putting together materials for him to review."