Repeated for years by Cisco's marketers and the news media (including the Mercury News), the story of the couple, Leonard Bosack and Sandy K. Lerner, mirrors the Silicon Valley dream: Come up with a breakthrough, found a company and become a millionaire.
But the Cisco legend is incomplete. It omits many people who helped develop the multiprotocol router, a device critical to the early Internet. It omits a battle with Stanford that almost killed Cisco at birth over charges that the founders used technology that belonged to Stanford to start their business.
Perhaps most important, legends like Cisco's obscure the true collective nature of the innovation that built Silicon Valley long before the hype and froth of the Internet bubble. A good idea is followed by hundreds of major and minor improvements; the entrepreneur in the group forms a company around the idea, and makes still more improvements.
"One can't define who did what, because it was pretty much of a cooperative effort,'' said Nick Veizades, one of many Stanford staff members who worked on the router. "People tried to improve certain things so they worked better, and in this way they propagated.''
But Silicon Valley legends are hard to kill. Even a Stanford Web site still credits Bosack and Lerner with developing the device "that allowed computer networks to talk intelligently to one another'' in a description of a Cisco-endowed professorship.
Pieces of the full story have slowly emerged, beginning with an exchange of Web postings that followed a 1998 PBS documentary, "Nerds 2.0.1,'' that gave Bosack and Lerner sole credit. Since then, several books have tried to unravel the true story. Cisco spokeswoman Jeanette Gibson now says: "Obviously it was a team of people.'' Lerner also acknowledges the many contributors, saying in an e-mail to the Mercury News, "The only person I'm certain had nothing to do with it is Al Gore.''
Yet the legend lives on, retold again and again.