The Wit & Wisdom of David Hughes

LONDON -- David Hughes has little patience with telecom service providers who make excuses or blame others -- regulators and vendors -- for their problems or pace in managing a digital transformation.

As vice president of engineering for PCCW Ltd. (NYSE: PCW; Hong Kong: 0008), Hughes is familiar with the challenges of getting legacy operations and support systems ready to handle virtualized infrastructure and demand for faster, more nimble service delivery. He's overseen the Hong Kong-based carrier's data center evolution and NFV development for the past three years. But speaking at last week's "OSS in the Era of SDN & NFV" event in London, the former US Marine said some of telecom's problems are self-inflicted.

"What is holding us back is we've got a bad case of the 'poor mes'," Hughes said "Poor me, I'm regulated. Poor me, I can't do all these things. Poor me, I don't have any money. I was in the Marine Corps, for what it's worth, and we had an expression there, we can do so much with so little for so long that we can do absolutely anything with nothing."

David Hughes, in Action

Earlier in the day, he had also challenged telecom operators to start doing more things for themselves instead of relying on and complaining about vendors.

"Maybe it's time we mature a little bit, and learn how to do for ourselves," said Hughes, whose 15 years at PCCW hasn't dulled his Southern drawl. "We are always talking about this whole need to reduce costs, and that's up there with 'the government is here to help you,' it's a lie. You are never going to reduce costs, what you hope to do is better manage your costs."

Hughes didn't just chastise the industry, however, he also had some solid advice. To wit:

  • Telecom today is "actually three businesses that run in parallel. Yes, you do have a legacy business but secondly, you need to be working on businesses that attract rapid growth and that model has different tools, different processes, different skills and you have to plan for that. And thirdly, you have to also be developing the things that might be coming in five to ten years, the bets, that are emerging. So you need to be innovating on process with your legacy current stuff, you need to be innovating on business models with the new stuff to attract growth and then, you are just looking to disrupt."

  • Breaking down linear thinking means engaging an entire operation in innovation, not confining it to one "skunkworks" group. "When the skunkworks pops up and says, 'Here I'm done,' everybody says 'We can't put that in,' so the legacy resists the change. We need to flip that model around. And the legacy needs to take ownership for absorbing the organizational debt created by these new business models and this emerging technology and feed it back in. The skunkworks approach is actually retarding growth and innovation because it pocketizes it. It doesn't help the whole company to innovate, you have one little group innovating instead of whole company innovating. We need to realize we are all in this together."

    Want to learn more about the technology and business opportunities and challenges for the cable industry in the commercial services market? Join Light Reading in New York on November 30 for the 11th annual Future of Cable Business Services event. All cable operators and other service providers get in free.

  • On managing change within PCCW and getting others to accept things such as DevOps working procedures, Hughes has a strategy. He doesn't use the industry terms like "cloud" or "DevOps" and he doesn't hit his team with the big picture all at once. "I don't say we are doing DevOps. I just said, we are going to do some automation. You lay out a crumb trail and they follow. You have to balance how much you tell them about the big picture, because if you tell them everything, they're going to quit and go work somewhere else." So rather than overwhelm his staff, he manages expectations and workloads, and doesn't imply that there is a massive transformation afoot. "People grossly overestimate how much they can get done in a year and they grossly underestimate what they can get done in ten. If you pitch it all, they get overloaded and they can't get anything done."

  • Competing in the digital services space doesn't mean going up against web-scalers, it means doing edge-computing and other strategies: "It all comes back to FOG and edge cloud architecture. You are not going to compete with OTTs because they will outspend you, they will out-nimble you and we are regulated. The best strategy for the carriers is to look more to the edge and pushing content and processing toward the edge."

  • New things in telecom used to come with new protocols and that moved slower. "In the protocol days, vendors had to wait for standards to put the new protocols into action. So we'd all sit on the river bank and watch the water go by for five, six, seven, eight years until the standard was there, it was in the hardware and we could use it to build the system that customers were asking for eight years ago. It was a wonderful thing, we could take our time and be very patient and diligent and risk-averse and all these wonderful things."

  • In today's network, things are API-driven. "When you are thinking, I can't use an API until there's a standard, that is linear telco thinking. But that's not the case. And the OTT providers who aren't used to the protocol-driven 'Let's wait eight years to get anything done,' they are jumping right on it, plowing ahead in the absence of standards. Not to dismiss standards, standards are still relevant, but maybe we need to rethink what standards need to be for."

The last comment came right before Hughes shared his thoughts about common data models, which have already appeared in Light Reading twice. If you haven't seen them, just search for "pigs will fly." (See Heavy Reading: Common Data Models Unlikely and ONAP Takes Flak as Telcos Prep for Release 1.)

Because he used humor and folksiness, Hughes took some of the sting out of his critical comments, but they were nonetheless quite pointed -- and timely. The good news is, he projects a real sense that telecom operators are far from helpless when it comes to charting their own course, and directing their own change.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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Carol Wilson 11/8/2017 | 7:14:09 PM
Re: Crumbs No argument that low latency is important, I just don't think it's the only thing edge computing is expected to deliver. 
DanJones 11/8/2017 | 7:09:22 PM
Re: Crumbs Well latency is all - important if you don't want your self driving cat to slam you into a wall, for instance.
brooks7 11/8/2017 | 5:07:30 PM
Re: Crumbs  

Okay Dennis....how does your idea make any sense.  The whole point of automation is to reduce opex.  Opex reduction is a nice way of saying "Eliminating Jobs".  Oh yes, you can do small reductions by cutting travel and such.  But 70% of Operating Expenses in the average business are headcount driven.  As a shareholder, I would just as soon have no employees - even a CEO.  But hey, can't get rid of everyone - yet.

You keep claiming that this automation is different than in other industries.  I don't think so.  I worked at a Magnavox Plant in Greeneville, TN in 1982 that was installing a hands-off TV assembly line.  One end parts.  The other end TVs in boxes.  When that line turned up, lots of jobs were gone.  It has happened in every production industry there is.  It is no different here.



mendyk 11/8/2017 | 3:12:40 PM
Re: Crumbs For starters, how about a guarantee that all those valuable-for-now employees who enable automation get to stay with the company once the job is finished? That could motivate people to do a good job without having to feel like they are building a guillotine for themselves. And maybe paying competitive salaries would help as well. Of course, those strategies are more costly than laying crumbs.
Carol Wilson 11/8/2017 | 3:04:29 PM
Re: Crumbs Dennis, I think you are conflating some things here. 

For sure, automation eliminates humans and jobs are cut. What's the alternative for telecom? Continuing to do things the way they are done today and concede defeat in the marketplace?

The folks David is talking about are software engineers and similar IT folks for which telecom has to compete with Webscalers, start-ups and other "sexier" companies. He has to worry about how to keep them happy and engaged, and it's been his experience that hitting those folks with massive transformation projects doesn't accomplish that. 


mendyk 11/8/2017 | 2:37:34 PM
Re: Crumbs "I don't say we are doing DevOps. I just said, we are going to do some automation. You lay out a crumb trail and they follow. You have to balance how much you tell them about the big picture, because if you tell them everything, they're going to quit and go work somewhere else." So we don't tell the truth to our employees because they may leave us. We just get them to develop stuff that eventually will allow us to make them expendable. I know we live in interesting times, but I don't see a whole lot of commendable in this.
Carol Wilson 11/8/2017 | 2:21:24 PM
Re: Crumbs I don't think he's saying to keep people in the dark about long-term strategies, in fact I don't think that's the intent at all. It's more about how work is organized - do you tell people, "Hey we are going to change everything about the way you work and the work you do and if we fail, the company fails?" 

He talks  about balance, which I took to mean showing enough of the big picture to inform but not so much it gets scary.

As for edge computing, I don't think latency is the big thing. I'm responding to this as I sit backstage at the TIP Summit, listening to Mansoor Hanif talk about what BT is doing in industrial IoT, using edge computing. There's a whole edge computing group now within TIP, and I'll check it out further and get back to you.
brooks7 11/8/2017 | 11:40:34 AM
Re: Crumbs Well, that last point I have been making here for a few years.

I found it interesting that he sees the only way to compete with the web giants is edge computing.  Really the question there is: Who will use that and why?  The next time I hear latency I will barf.  Absolute latency is a problem in a very small minority of cases.  And it is not clear to me that this will fix latency issues.  I keep coming back to the application developer issue....If they depend on a special network, then they limit themselves to ONLY special networks.  Application developers want to have national or global deployment footprints.  Which means that this comes down to the telcos being faster and more nimble in their application development.  Problem is that by the time they have recognized the problem 12 startups have already had products on the market and 3 of them have been bought by substantial firms.


petitecougar 11/8/2017 | 11:29:58 AM
Re: Crumbs Yes i wonder it too Mendyk, rencontre cougar.
mendyk 11/8/2017 | 10:09:01 AM
Re: Crumbs Most of what Mr. Hughes said is sound -- including the "for what it's worth" qualifier about his Marining. But if your management strategy is to keep people uninformed about the long-term plan so they don't quit, it's kind of important that you keep that strategy a bit more hidden.
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