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How AT&T embraced the telecoms technology transition

AT&T’s CIO of network and shared services, Sorabh Saxena, discusses how to reskill telecoms engineers and exploit open standards as the operator embraces the future of networking services provision

Despite being one of the world’s first telecoms operators, with a 130-year history deeply entwined with the invention of the telephone, AT&T would rather you didn’t call it a telecoms business any more – it would far rather be seen as a technology company.

For Sorabh Saxena, CIO of network and shared services at AT&T, the shift from telecoms to technology has been coming for years, and the driving force behind this shift is the emergence of software as an important instrument in the network engineer’s toolbox.

“About three years ago, maybe even earlier, we could see this shift coming in the industry,” Saxena tells Computer Weekly. “So we were quite keen in our observation of the future, and changed ahead of when we needed to. We always start a change ahead of when it’s demanded, so we can define the change.

“To put it differently, our organisational structures, our processes, our culture have all shifted towards not talking about networks and IT, but to talking about technology as a common backplane.”

A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, Saxena joined AT&T in 1995 as a network architect. After working in a number of roles around the business, he became CIO of network and shared services in March 2017 after a three-year stint as senior vice-president of software development and engineering. It is fair to say he knows the company, and the technology, inside out.

To meet this transformation head-on, AT&T embarked on a massive reorganisation to make sure its staff walk the walk and talk the talk. With more than 250,000 full-time employees at any given moment, and many other contractors working within the business, this is no mean feat, says Saxena.

“The ideal skillset needed for the future is someone who is great at network engineering, someone who is great at understanding the product and the marketplace, someone who is great at software development, and someone who is great at operating software applications and operating the network,” he says.

Capabilities evolution journey

“It’s very hard to find one individual who can do all that, so we have embarked on a massive capabilities evolution journey to train people for the future.”

To date, AT&T has invested $250m (£195m) in creating cross-functional expertise across the business, and between them, its employees have invested 20 million working hours in completing the coursework.

But these courses are not just for network engineers – AT&T fully expects its senior leadership to go through the process too, says Saxena.

“I’m a technologist and the CIO,” he says. “In many companies, you might find CIOs without a deep technology background, but in our case we are investing heavily in us, the leaders, being technologists too. And, of course, we are being evaluated the same way, so I’m doing the skills pivot courses just like everybody else and I’m studying the industry just like everybody else.

“You have to actually be the transformation that is needed as opposed to a siloed leader, so I take that as a challenge and learn wherever I can learn – from sales, customers, other technologists. It’s an intense effort and relentless learning, but that’s the way of the future.”

Hearts and minds

It’s all very well to talk about embracing change at the top of the business, but AT&T’s transformation relies heavily on reskilling network engineers who may have been specialists in their field for 10, 20, 30 years or even more in some cases. Is this a challenge? Clearly, says Saxena, so he has put a lot of time and energy into creating the most compelling vision for the future of AT&T that he can, and then communicating it prolifically.

“When you start getting tired of delivering the same message over and over, then maybe it’s starting to sink into the depths of the organisation,” he says.

“It’s really critical to win the hearts, not just the minds, of the people – [to tell them] why this transformation is critical for the corporation, why it is critical for them, and to actually recruit them willingly into the transformation.

“And by the way, our HR processes have adjusted to a point where people who have taken the capabilities evolution coursework are, by definition, getting selected at a two times faster rate for the next internal job, so they can see this positive momentum.”

At the same time as developing new skills among its workforce, Saxena and the rest of AT&T’s leadership are trying to change the business culture, to create a truly agile development process that embraces collaboration and goes beyond scrums and scrum masters.

“It’s about having people sitting together with different knowledge sets and understand what the other is doing and how they can help each other through the development lifecycle,” says Saxena.

Importance of open source

As previously explored by Computer Weekly, the transition into the world of software is seeing telcos wholeheartedly adopting open standards to support themselves through the process – not least because the support of a wider community can make the reskilling process a bit less traumatic.

This trend is by now well-established, but Saxena says it still bears repeating that the transformation of a telco of AT&T’s size and market stature must be as open as possible.

“The impetus for this should be obvious by now,” he says. “In the closed environment we were in, we had so many great products from various vendors, but they were all proprietary. The problem with that was it was quite costly. We were beholden to the vendor for any changes – and the change cycle was really long. And, of course, all the integration costs were on us.

“We want an ecosystem that is open so that we don’t have these closed solutions with all of these problems.”

The move to open standards was also an imperative, driven by AT&T’s customers, says Saxena. “At the end of the day, we are serving the customers, and the customers are asking for business agility so they can deliver to their clients.

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“Of course, what they want is not just agility, but the ability to do real-time solutions and real-time commands, and you can’t give real-time control of network functions unless you actually have open interfaces and an open architecture.”

To prove it was for real, AT&T opened its enhanced control orchestration management platform (Ecomp) to the world at the beginning of 2017, handing over its code to the Linux Foundation for placement into open source.

“My world is changing in the sense that not only am I consuming from open source, but I am contributing to open source, so I’ve really encouraged my teams to participate in the community, whereas in the old world, service providers stayed in a siloed box and never ventured out much,” says Saxena.

The need for give and take in the open source world has precipitated further internal change at AT&T, and Saxena has played a key role in helping to alter these processes.

The company has now gone from a point where seven different approvals were needed from various intellectual property lawyers, line-of-business leaders and even technology standards bodies to contribute intellectual property to the open source community, down to just one blanket approval.

“You don’t get business agility without innovation, without open source, and without doing what we’re doing, walking the walk,” says Saxena. “It’s a massive transformation to have technology be the underlying foundation [of AT&T], so that’s what we really mean when we say we’re a tech company – that’s how you change from a telecommunications company to a technology company.”

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