Business Transformation

Hitting Reset on the Telco Mindset

Many people probably walked away from Light Reading's Big Telecom Event last week feeling that the industry is evolving rapidly in its embrace of cloud concepts for both networks and services. But, if you listened closely, there were also reminders of the challenges that remain -- especially the cultural ones -- for telcos in particular as they move into the cloud and data center networking realm.

Jared Wray, senior vice president of platforms at CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL), helped kick off BTE's second day with a keynote speech that painted a picture of CenturyLink as perhaps the rare telecom moving fearlessly into the cloud era by charging Wray himself to lead a dynamic shift in CenturyLink's network and services support architectures. (See Wray Reshaping CenturyLink Cloud Operation and Adventures in 'Platforming' at BTE.)

However, while it's clear that CenturyLink is moving aggressively, Wray later that same day commented on the greatest challenge most telcos will face in pursuing this transformation: "The biggest thing we've learned from our experience is that there is more of a cultural gap to cross than an architectural one," he said during a panel at the Data Interconnect Summit, a three-session afternoon breakout event during BTE.

"It's a different way of thinking," he added. "Instead of planning 10 to 15 years into the future, you're planning six months at a time. Our CEO wants a three-year plan from my group, and we still haven't delivered it." (Note to Wray's CenturyLink bosses: He sounded more sheepish than boastful.)

Michael Kozlowski, vice president of product and offer management at Integra Telecom Inc. , said during another DCI Summit panel that his company, though smaller and more regional in nature than CenturyLink, is trying to pursue a similar path.

"As the industry learns to separate applications and networks, our business is going to become less about the optics [in terms of bandwidth] we deploy, and more about the control we offer the customer and how we use it in our own network," he said. "The app essentially will drive the network."

Though Integra is intent to understand the evolution and change with it, Kozlowski admitted that the Western US carrier will not necessarily lead the industry-wide charge. "We're a fast follower, making organizational and network changes because we believe the way networks and services will be built has to change. Ultimately, I think we'll have an enterprise that looks more like a DevOps culture. We are probably five years away from completing that transformation."

Check out all the news and views from the 2015 Big Telecom Event at Light Reading's
dedicated BTE show news channel.

Finding people ready to work in that kind of environment can be challenging. From Silicon Valley up to Seattle, the Western and Northwest US is of course rich in talent used to working under web-style or DevOps organizational rules -- CenturyLink in fact found its change agent in Seattle when it acquired Wray's company, Tier 3. (See CenturyLink Buys Cloud Leader Tier 3.)

A lot of these people, however, might not necessarily want to work in what they perceive to be bland telco corporate cultures that are afraid of change. Even Wray admitted that before CenturyLink convinced him of its commitment to cloud, he was ready to tell the big telco exactly how badly it would screw up the Tier 3 acquisition. Integra understands this is a big hurdle to overcome, but Kozlowski said the company can sell new recruits on the nobility of the cause.

"The opportunity here is that service providers like Integra still have a responsibility to the public welfare in the services we provide, and you can still innovate on that to provide more enriching services," he told Light Reading in a one-on-one chat after his panel. "There is a ton of opportunity here to transform the communications industry."

— Dan O'Shea, Managing Editor, Light Reading

nasimson 6/29/2015 | 11:13:57 AM
Telco 2.0 @ Dan:

What a refreshing piece this is! We are yet to see Telco 2.0, with a few exceptions here and there.

I believe telcom executive would not transform telecom companies. It will be seasoned IT pros in board positions and top mgmt positions who will get the honor to do this much needed job.
MordyK 6/16/2015 | 4:58:01 PM
Re: Culture is only one part of the problem Great points Seven! The article mentions another aspect which is the separation of the culture of applications from that of networks, to enable a more flexible development approach not hindered by the network side. While I agree with this in general, a complete separation can also have negative effects, as applications can gain tremendous value by minor adjustments to the network that have zero effect on the network but tremendous value for an app. So its important that the felxibility mindset trickle into the network as well.

I look at AT&T's successful foundry and see this very issue prominently. They pretty much hand you a network and say ignore what you can do within the network but see what you can build on top of it, and when they do allow you to tinker with the network its super high requirements software only like like Intucell's SON but no actual deployment adjustments.

If they want to be true innovative players like Google and Facebook, they need to think like them and innovate throughout their entire stack, instead of relying on their vendor community to define vanilla networks.

This critic is largely focused on the american and european carriers, as many of the asian carriers are more creative.

mendyk 6/16/2015 | 4:40:28 PM
Re: Culture is only one part of the problem I agree that some of this feels like we're strapping an engine to horse and calling it a car. In making the case for virtualization, maybe there's a little too much conflation of objectives going on. The network gear heads need to understand why virtualization matters from a network operation and performance standpoint. Those points are often buried by all the stuff about business transformation and the like. That's not to minimize the importance of BT, but keeping the network running and making it better are certainly no less important.
jabailo 6/16/2015 | 1:39:21 PM
App will drive network Exactly right...the days of a company "laying track" and then letting devs fill it up is over.  Now every app is an off road SUV, making a trail wherever it goes.

So if you're not laying tracks, what does a network company do?  Maybe it's more about application support.  Opitimization help.  Monitoring...


brooks7 6/16/2015 | 12:40:13 PM
Culture is only one part of the problem Essentially, you have problems in MANY areas:

1 - Skill Set:  How many telco guys are familiar with IT systems.  I harp on this a lot on the boards here as many technical problems with virtualization have been overcome in the Enterprise IT world.  Some may apply to Telcos, many will not.  But who is studying why people use some Open Source and yet spend a boatload on VMware?

2 - Spending Patterns:  Virtualization at the Enterprise level did not happen in one fell swoop and generally did not need to happen at any given time at a large scale.  Many applications within Telecom require quite large deployments in order to do something other than a bulk replacement of what is already there.  How can carriers match spending to employ new technologies in a way that they don't have to redo their entire network to offer a single new service?

3 - Stability:  I want to put a word of caution here.  We are all making an assumption that supporting this kind of new network will cost the same or less than existing ones. Why do we think that?  I know there is all this talk about 5 9s but there is a cost to trying to diagnose and fix things. Virtualization makes some of it easy - just spin up a new instance and tear down the old one. But service interruptions on mission critical services is going to be interesting.  Let me use an example, who here thinks Email was designed by the IETF to be a real time data transmission scheme with essentially 100% reliability?

4 - Culture:  The problem here to me is top down.  I used to ask how many video games we think Ed Whitacker used to play online for a bit of humor.  But this is a real problem.  The networks being designed by the Googles/Facebooks/Amazons of the world are being done mostly by people with a very open viewpoint (i.e. they are young).  How do the dinosaurs of telco folks compete with that?

5 - Employee Education:  So, how many people think unionized labor with a High School Diploma is going to work as installation and support folks in this new world?

Note:  None of the things I have posted are directly related to technology choices.


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