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It was a Friday night in March when Shannon Leininger, a top executive in Cisco’s state and local government and education division, received a phone call from her team in a northeastern city with urgent news. The state’s governor was days away from announcing major steps to combat the novel COVID-19 pandemic: All state employees — upward of 100,000 people — would be shifted to remote work and some 1.1 million students would transition to distance learning.

 “We knew about it before the governor announced it,” Leininger recalled. “But that’s when I knew that this is something that’s going to be really different and transformative for our country and for the world.” 

The state transitioned to remote work and schooling in a matter of days. To get it there, Leininger led back-end logistical efforts to make sure Cisco met the city’s needs. She met with Cisco internal teams and worked under tight deadlines to rapidly reallocate resources and ensure the right equipment and people were available in the state.

Part of the team’s deployment included sending and diverting nearly 100 Cisco DX80 devices, the company’s collaboration platform-inclusive desktop line, a large correctional institute in the Northeast amid fears of disruptions and sudden lockdowns there.

For Leininger, who leads a team that has since worked to accelerate digital and remote capabilities for public sector customers across the U.S. in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, those whirlwind days in March were when she realized the country was facing a “new normal.” 

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic also required Leininger and her team to improvise solutions when needed, prioritizing health care and government organizations. 

“We had to keep cities and schools running,” Leininger said.

Making a Difference

Leininger learned the importance of resilience early on. Raised by a single mother, she points to three important mantras that have guided her throughout life: never be dependent on anybody, believe you can do anything you set your mind to and growth comes by getting outside your comfort zone. 

For Leininger, those guiding principles also meant choosing a career where she felt like she could make a difference in the world. 

As Cisco’s area vice president for state, local and education East, Leininger leads the acceleration of digital transformation of Cisco’s government and education customers, offering technology like cloud and shared services, internet of things, mobility and analytics tools to better protect, serve and educate citizens in the public sector.

More recently, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has also helped drive a push for community continuity and resilience plans, digital government and education, and improved public health services.

Leininger, who joined Cisco in 2007, has been perfecting the art and science of problem-solving most of her life. 

Growing up, Leininger wanted to be a scientist, fascinated by science kits and science fiction novels. As she reached higher education, her career interests shifted to government and politics, but ultimately, her path would change in college.

During her undergraduate studies at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, where she was preparing for law school, Leininger ended up working for a technology company to put herself through college — but not before a stint as an entrepreneur. 

Leininger started her own business at 17 out of her dorm room providing job placement services for people on workman’s compensation. She was working at an insurance company when she heard the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority could use extra help. She sent a proposal over, was awarded the work on a $40-an-hour rate and grew her company from there. 

She later sold her company and was offered a sales position with a technology company she couldn’t refuse: an offer to pay for the rest of her undergraduate education.  

That’s how Leininger put herself through college — and entered the tech space. 

She received her degree in government and politics in 1993, decided to jettison law school and went to work in computer sales. She worked for a high-performance computing company that worked with research and science-focused organizations, then spent six years at the professional services giant Ernst & Young in various management and sales director roles. Before landing at Cisco, she spent three years as a business development manager at Platform Computing, which was later acquired by IBM. 

Leininger’s Cisco career began as a product sales specialist in high-performance computing. She then leveraged her long-time love of science and her background in computer sales to lead the company’s civilian scientific region, where she said she was constantly driven by working with some of the smartest people in the world to solve big problems through science and technology. Leininger also worked in the company’s federal civilian health care and science markets. 

But what ultimately solidified her shift to the technology space — and her longevity there — was working in the public sector. 

“I discovered purpose. And that’s why I stay in public sector,” Leininger said. “I believe every day I get up and make a difference in the world.”

Leininger’s portfolio at Cisco is full of projects with profound impacts: saving the lives of veterans by providing post-traumatic stress disorder counseling capabilities over the WebEx video conferencing solution; helping predict when the next tsunami will hit; and contributing to making schools safer from shootings. 

“It’s less about technology, but more about the impact,” Leininger said.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cisco and Leininger’s team rose to the occasion yet again.

“It’s less about technology, but more about the impact.”   

SHANNON LEININGER  |  Area Vice President, US Public Sector SLED East, Cisco

Time for Change

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for a digital government, and as a result, agencies’ needs for cloud adoption to make remote work more efficient.

“You can’t deliver digital transformation without having a platform in place,” Leininger said.

It’s also important to harden that platform to ensure agencies can deliver services and capabilities securely. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cisco has been given the opportunity to serve its customers in ways it may not have done in the past.  

As part of those efforts, Cisco has been working with its customers on digital and contactless government, and education, infrastructure modernization, and community continuity and resilience. 

Specifically, Leininger has seen three major digital trends accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic through the needs of Cisco customers: cloud adoption, secure remote work and hybrid learning. 

Cloud adoption is largely being driven by the need for ease, agility and the speeds of applications and services deployments. Some of Leininger’s customers already had applications in the cloud, which made the transition easier and more seamless compared to those who didn’t. 

For public sector customers, a hybrid cloud model is ideal. Leininger said there will always be a need for on-premise software in government, while migrating applications and security better suited for the cloud. But before transitioning legacy applications, there must first be a secure platform in place to start delivering those capabilities. 

And as organizations that never allowed or considered remote working now transition to teleworking environments, they need reliable and secure infrastructure, connections and tools to do so.

Now that they’ve proven they can work remotely, some organizations may never go back to the physical office. 

In the educational sphere, Leininger predicts more of a hybrid learning environment where students may experience on-campus or in-classroom education coupled with distance learning. That will also require addressing the uneven distribution of resources and the lack of access to modern technology in what is known as the digital divide, an issue that the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought to light.

“You can’t deliver digital transformation without having a platform in place.” 

SHANNON LEININGER  |  Area Vice President, US Public Sector SLED East, Cisco

Back to Basics

It’s also vital to keep the momentum around these accelerated digital transformation trends going, Leininger said. With the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 infections in the fall, Leininger said it’s important to remain close to customers, and take all the lessons learned during the first wave to build a plan for the near future.  

That means going back to basics with a business continuity strategy and resilience plan, made for a pandemic or any other crisis. 

Ultimately, the fundamentals of digital transformation depend on an organization’s dimensions of change, and where it is on its transformation journey. Leininger focuses heavily on the people, processes, physical or virtual environment, data and security. 

It starts with a long-term plan, one that ensures organizations can continue to thrive. One of the first things Leininger’s team did in light of the COVID-19 pandemic was share some of its business continuity plans with its customers, from ensuring baseline connectivity for access to the internet and standard collaboration, to navigating complex environments and applications.  

Then, Leininger digs into stakeholder buy-in. It’s important that everybody in the organization is on board with the digital transformation plan and agrees with the priorities the plan lays out. 

Once a plan is developed and implemented, Leininger said the key is to look for quick, easy wins and successes to build momentum. 

“What are the applications that you can deploy rapidly, where you have some quick wins?” Leininger said. “Where you’ve got your stakeholders saying, ‘We are in alignment and the impact is real.’”

“What are the applications that you can deploy rapidly, where you have some quick wins?”

SHANNON LEININGER  |  Area Vice President, US Public Sector SLED East, Cisco

An Opportunity for Transformation

Cisco has helped agencies accelerate transformation and quickly adapt to changing digital needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of those changes will shape tomorrow’s digital government. 

The concept of community continuity and resilience — as well as building that concept in government — is key. Certain aspects of contactless government services and providing virtual capabilities to citizens will remain critical even after the COVID-19 pandemic, Leininger said, and her team is diligently working on making that happen.  

Imagine, for example, not having to physically go to the Department of Motor Vehicles for certain services.

“It has the potential to make the services delivery even better and improve the citizen experience,” Leininger said.  

She’s also focused on creating a model for secure hybrid education that addresses the digital divide, provides educational access to all communities and tackles the possible educational degradation students currently face.  

While Cisco stood up portable hospitals and testing sites during the COVID-19 pandemic and provides telemedicine tools, Leininger believes a more general, in-depth public health system overhaul will follow. 

If the COVID-19 pandemic has proven anything, it’s that the nation can do a better job of serving citizens who are sick by providing better access to care, even if they don’t need to physically go into the hospital, Leininger said. 

“Many of those legacy systems and infrastructure needs to be modernized,” she added. “I think there’s going to be a really great opportunity to look at the healthcare system in our country, not only modernizing the infrastructure, but looking at how can we improve access to care.” 

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations should take the opportunity to reevaluate operations from every angle. 

“I think things are going to fundamentally shift,” Leininger added. 


“Many of those legacy systems and infrastructure needs to be modernized.
I think things are going to fundamentally shift.”

SHANNON LEININGER  |  Area Vice President, US Public Sector SLED East, Cisco


Leaving a Legacy

Growing up and throughout her career, there was never a time when Leininger thought she couldn’t accomplish something. When facing fear, she said she uses it as an opportunity to grow, develop and step outside her comfort zone. 

Leininger wants the next generation of women in technology to feel as fearless as she has throughout her career. Leininger finds immense value in mentoring and sponsoring women, sharing her knowledge and advice for lifting others. 

“I lose nothing by doing that, but I gain so much more, Cisco gains more, the world gains more,” she said. “If you’ve got knowledge that you can pass on that’s going to help somebody raise and get to the next level, then do that.”

Along with making a difference through her career, Leininger is determined to leave a legacy as a leader. 

As she has ascended through the ranks at Cisco, she said she’s proud to witness former teams in the company she led or been a part of continue to thrive after she’s left. 

Now, she’s leading her team to solve the country’s biggest challenges by showing up differently. Not just by having a seat at the table, but by transforming her team to own seats at the table and lead the discussions on how digital transformation can improve government beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We make great products. We have great technology — but I want to solve problems,” Leininger said. 

Click here to learn about Cisco’s Cloud Solutions for Government