The Wit & Wisdom of David Hughes

PCCW exec David Hughes eviscerates the telecom 'poor me' mindset but with a light touch, Carol Wilson writes.

November 8, 2017

6 Min Read
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."

Figure 1: 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."

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  • 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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