No sooner had I finished reading headlines about how businesses can't find enough workers because of the pandemic than I saw Iain Morris' article about Vodafone's plans to hire 7,000 software engineers. "Part of their job will be to write code for a new telecom-as-a-service (TaaS) platform, designed to ensure workloads can be ported between different public clouds," he wrote.
As Vodafone's chief digital and information officer, Scott Petty, explains, "You need specialist teams to do that and present a set of microservices for developers to use, or they'll hard code to AWS or Azure." Understanding that lock-in is lock-in, whether it's hardware or software, Vodafone is wisely, in my opinion, aiming to reduce its dependence on a single public cloud environment. The fact it has also anticipated that continuing to outsource systems integration tasks will leave it without the know-how critical to maximizing the cloud-native opportunity is also worth noting.
No easy choices for telcos
Telcos have by and large opted against building private clouds to run their network services. After dumping billions on acquisitions and new builds, most have realized that competing with the hyperscalers on scale is a fool's errand.
This means the trade-off for telcos now is this: optimize services for a given infrastructure and reap the operational cost and time-to-market benefits or build flexible services that can run perhaps less optimally on multiple infrastructures, but improve your agility and ability to recover from outages.
The latter definitely has upfront coding and ongoing maintenance costs. However, if doing so dramatically increases service availability, then the investment would be well worth it. In a way, it's like buying an insurance policy: You may gripe about the monthly premiums but you'll jump for joy when you get the check to replace your car.
The people problem
I know I've said it before: People are nearly always the gating factor when it comes to transformation. With enough time and money one can usually get the technology to work. Perhaps Vodafone has a different profile among engineers in Europe and Africa than the big three in the US do, but I expect it to face significant challenges trying to entice 20-year-olds to a 40-year-old company.
Free dry cleaning, free food and rock climbing walls may not be enough to attract the hundreds (thousands?) of coders and architects required to manage acres of server farms running automated microservices. Before the pandemic – right around the time NFV and software-defined everything started to be a thing – I spoke quite frequently with telco execs about this talent acquisition issue.
Presumably some of the march to public cloud is a capitulation – recognizing the appeal of the Valley and Pacific Northwest. Given the cost of living in both places, the option to work from home should allow telcos to cast their nets beyond these two areas – but it's likely the companies based in those locations rather than the locations themselves that are the draw.
It's worth noting that Vodafone's Petty said a portion of the 7,000 will come from internal staff who are retrained for software engineering. I'm by no means disparaging the skill level of these people, but wonder if there may still remain an element of old thinking in spite of the new skills.
Transformation is more than a technology change – it's a mindset change as well. Consider outages. In the traditional telco world, networks are overengineered to minimize the risk of an outage. In next-generation IT and cloud-native worlds, the assumption is that outages will happen, so plan in advance how you'll handle them. Consider automation. Traditional telco mindsets tend to trust in service management and assurance systems. Cloud-native puts its trust in automation. In terms of innovating on the services front, Morris soft pedals it, noting that this is "an area where telcos have not previously thrived."
I believe this is due in large part to the old ways of thinking – especially risk tolerance. It's not that 30-somethings are smarter than 50-somethings (granted, this is coming from a 50-something) – it's that they are more willing to throw spaghetti at the walls to see what sticks, rather than boil each noodle separately to ensure it is perfectly cooked to spec.
I don't for a minute intend to imply that Vodafone shouldn't pursue this path. Morris notes that "Vodafone reckons software 'insourcing' and ownership of intellectual property will generate savings of about 20%, on average" – which is nothing to sneeze at. And I am on record as being all for telcos pushing the envelope and throwing the spaghetti. However, when I see headlines proclaiming thousands of new engineers and millions in savings, my skeptic's radar goes off. The pandemic has, indeed, changed many things. Let's hope telcos' fortune is one of them.
- Vodafone plans software blitz to cut IT spend and cloud risks
- Vodafone plans one-for-all European strategy to boost profits
- Don't crown Big Tech the global comms kings just yet
- Are telcos and hyperscalers destined to be frenemies?
— Roz Roseboro is a former Heavy Reading analyst who covered the telecom market for nearly 20 years. She's currently a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Northern Michigan University.