There are few industries that have been turned inside out by technology in quite the same way as the telecommunications sector. Telstra Chief Technology Officer Vish Nandlall has watched it from the inside, and seen the role of the CTO change dramatically along the way.
Mr Nandlall has held the Chief Technology Officer title – or Chief Architect – at a number of companies over the years, including Nortel Networks and Ericsson North America.
Twenty years ago, the CTO at a telco equipment vendor had oversight of a fairly predictable set of technologies. They were predictable in the sense that advances happened over lengthier periods, and followed a common path.
This is no longer the case. It is instructive that Mr Nandlall’s last position before joining Telstra 15 months ago – at Ericsson North America – carried the title CTO and Head of Strategy and Marketing. The modern CTO is entrenched deeply in the business these days.
This is especially true for telecommunications carriers, living in a world the generalised thirst for improving ‘digital experiences’ keeps growing at an accelerated pace – whether from retail or business customers.
Anyone who has watched Telstra in recent years will tell you this company has been playing smart. Telstra is today a very different outfit compared to a decade ago, having thrown off its combative, technological recalcitrant tendency to cry “humbug!” each time something new came along.
Mr Nandlall plays at the centre of all this. It’s a great job. He is clearly enjoying it immensely. Telstra remains the 10,000-pound gorilla of the Australian communications sector. It is a company of fundamental importance to the Australian economy, and in particular to a successful Australian technology sector.
I had a chance to speak to Mr Nandlall recently about the trends that are shaping to industry.
What does your role as Chief Technology Officer in a company the size of Telstra look like on a day-to-day basis? And then what’s the longer term outlook?
Vish Nandlall: Clearly there are technologies that a telecom giant like Telstra invests in, and those technologies are in fairly predictable fields for the past 20 to 30 years [in relation to the evolution of carrier technology]. But what we’re finding is as some of the broader technologies have changed dramatically what a traditional carrier model looks like.
My responsibility is to create a bit of a map to understand where we are today and where we need to go tomorrow. To do that we need to keep our ear to the ground to find out what are consumers and enterprises are looking for in consuming digital experiences. What are the ways they want to [consume digital]?
So much of my work is grounded in that. It’s primarily tracking technology and making sense of trends. It’s also trialling new technology. You have to have empathy with the technology you’re working with, you have to see how it lives and breathes in natural environments, so we do a lot of trialling and assessments.
One of the ways in which we do that is through our [Gurrowa] innovation lab in Melbourne, where we can work with customers on real life problems.
We try to apply some of these technologies, and see how they can resolve some of the un-met needs of the industry. It also helps pinpoint problems or issues that customers have.
It is a combination of having a technology radar, and also applying technologies to real-world problems to create new insights. That falls under my portfolio.
You have been in CTO roles previously and have experienced the acceleration of technology change first hand. The role in understanding customers and delivery and platforms is so different …
Vish Nandlall: When I started off, I think the CTO role was a mix of research, and it was more involved in technology foundations. But because the types of experiences that we [now] run on top of the network change so quickly, these days the role of the CTO really leans towards business insight.
So, how do I take a technology and understand how it will impact parts of the business or create opportunities? And the time scale in which that occurs; let’s say 20 years ago when I was starting out in the industry, it would’ve been 3-5 years to figure that out, but today you might have a year or less.
From the time a technology starts hitting your business, to the time it really has an impact is really very short. Probably the most recent example is in 2007 when the iPhone came in and fundamentally changed everything. Everything. So that wasn’t that long ago.
What are you most interested in at the moment, what are you taking a really good look at? And then what is the thing that’s keeping you up at night?
Vish Nandlall: If there’s a relatively little concern in a market and the technologies are pretty well understood, then you’re really dealing with incremental kinds of innovation. That’s [the kind of innovations where] it’s necessary to keep the business running, but isn’t going to be a huge change to the shape of whole markets.
But I tend to focus my time at the intersection of highly uncertain markets. I look at areas that will have high impact on the business, and [the network].
So if I took a look at something like the [internet of things] I’d say we’re in a marketplace that is not well-defined. A lot of people are still grappling with what is it they need from connected sensor fields, for productivity gains to operational efficiency, or predictors of prescriptive analytics and trying to understand the values of these [markets]?
And then, if I looked at a side-on technology, what are the technologies that go with analytics, with big data. What is coming through in terms of being able to store and model massive amounts of data that comes in different forms and variety. This is really important.
And obviously big data is still quite emerging. Most of the systems that come from the open-source community are very fragile. So these aren’t mature technologies. Then you add in analytics and machine learning on top of that.
These are a couple of the emerging fields that have had some breakthroughs in recent years and are profiting from, but they’re still very early on in maturity.
So it’s the combination of those two that really help to focus where my attention needs to be. This is a very big part of the universe where I am trying to create a greater sense for Telstra.
As we move towards services that are more cloud-based, we’re finding that we have a system of [customer] engagements that sits on top of [our network], where we are designing new experiences, using software sciences in order to develop and deliver new services.
And that’s another thing to figure out. How are those products going to be built, how are we going to take advantage of these things? How do we make concepts like agile software development and lean methodologies a part of the Telstra vocabulary, in addition to the traditional approaches we need to manage our network.
Those are the other areas of transformational technology that I spend a lot of time looking at.
If we look at things like software defined networks, I guess that means there’s a whole bunch of new challengers and new competitors in the market. How do you then develop those internal systems and processes that allows you to compete with these smaller nimble players? And as a workforce up for that kind of battle?
Vish Nandlall: These methods of using software to deliver digital experiences have really been the purview of the unicorn companies like Uber or Amazon or even Apple. And that’s different from the traditional challenges looked at by more institutional industries like telecom.
And I’d say that the telecom sector deal with many of the problems of physics. Things like how do I get better spectrum efficiency of frequencies with difference wireless technologies, or how do I pack more bits into a transmission medium.
When I first started off in the telecom industry, the companies that were delivering voice service that owned everything that it needed to provide that service. It owned the servers, the transmission infrastructure, you may have even owned the phone that was sitting in residence.
That is not true today. Applications are built in a very different way. You may not own the servers; they may be sitting on third party infrastructure from Amazon. The delivery mechanism of the application may actually be another third party infrastructure like Akamai, the content delivery network. The back-end storage may be a service offered by Apple or one of the others
All of that now comes together and is delivered over wireless and wireline networks. The application is actually not doing anything to communicate with the network to provision any set of services that helps it to deliver.
And so the question is, as we [Telstra} build out new intelligence, this new set of software capabilities across our networks, how can we leverage that for capability, so that Telstra can deliver a better experience.
For example, if you want to set up a point-of-sale terminal in a new small business, and you want that to be plugged into the network and you want the network to automatically provision the types of services that make it PCI compliant.
The network needs to understand the application that is being attached to it, and automatically set up those capabilities. That can save the small business hundreds of thousands of dollars because it no longer needs to bring in a third-party to develop that capability. In this way we lower the cost of creating a new business.
You can see similar things, like if you [run a doctor’s surgery] and you want to ensure your medical data Australian privacy compliant. So how do we develop the network so that we can deal with different types of data in isolation and provide the right level of data security and integrity to that data. And so that those systems can be brought online very quickly.
So that’s the kind of thinking that we’re trying to apply to the network. It’s not necessarily that I’m going to come up with a product like Apple in terms of delivering the next consumer product that’s going to take the world by fire.
It’s how do we take our own core assets and make them relevant in these emerging applications, which is not something that the service provider community has really been great at doing.
They’ve stood it up as separate businesses that ships in the night – it just so happens that these applications have to fit on top of these wires. We want to make it more friendly for these applications.