How 5G and IoT are leading Three to ‘big imagination’ territory

1 Nov 2018

Karl Duffy. Image: Three Ireland

This week on Leaders’ Insights, Karl Duffy of Three Ireland tells us how new technologies such as 5G and IoT are shaping the future of telecoms.

Karl Duffy is Three Ireland’s head of enterprise and public sector within its business department, where he has responsibility for the strategic development of this division.

Duffy joined Three from BT Global Services in London, where he worked for nine years. He holds an MSc in management consultancy from Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School and a BSc in sports management from University College Dublin.

Duffy is co-founder of the London Irish Business Society.

‘The pace of development is certainly a warning to the industry; fail to keep up and you will quickly lose your relevancy’

Describe your role and what you do.

I am the head of enterprise and public sector for Three Ireland, where I am responsible for all of Three’s enterprise and public sector customers. Our portfolio in this area ranges from mobility, security and cloud to traditional telecommunications solutions, such as wide- and local-area networks. I joined the team in July of this year and I’m really enjoying the role. The business is buoyant and diverse, with some excellent customers who hugely value what we do.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

For me, the prioritisation of my time begins and ends with our customers. I’ll always prioritise my time for a customer whenever I get the opportunity. It’s very important to spend time with your customers so that you can understand their business and identify where technology enablement would help.

Apart from time with customers, I also prioritise spending time with my team. They’re a talented group and doing some really great work, so I’m inspired and energised by that.

I also enjoy learning about the next big, bold technology and innovation advancements in the market. Three, in my mind, is the most innovative and entrepreneurial communications company in the market at the moment, really pushing boundaries – that’s a big part of the culture here.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The solutions that we provide to our customers, be they mobility, internet of things (IoT) or security, are central to how their businesses operate. This places a lot of responsibility on our shoulders to ensure that the reliability and service we provide meets their expectations. At Three, we have the technology, people and ambition to deliver on this responsibility.

The pace of development is certainly a warning to the industry; fail to keep up and you will quickly lose your relevancy. At Three, we are in the middle of a multimillion-euro investment in our network and IT systems to ensure we are future-proofed and can continue to deliver a great service for our customers.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

5G is a big talking point at the minute, specifically what it can deliver in terms of speed and IoT developments. In the 5G auction, Three was the only mobile operator to secure national optimum 100MHz spectrum and not prioritise urban areas over rural areas. We will be trialling 5G in the coming months and will start our roll-out in 2019. At this point, we’ll be able to marry 5G and IoT together and then you’re into ‘big imagination’ territory.

We are working on a number of IoT cases for our customers at the minute, and the real value is in how tailored the solution can be for the needs of the business. There are certainly exciting developments to come in this space.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

Good fortune! The Smurfit Business School where I studied had arranged an internship with BT Ireland, and it was there I met my first business mentor. He knew I wanted a generalist business management programme so, with hiring in Ireland plummeting in 2008, I had to look to London for work. On BT Ireland’s recommendation, I joined the BT graduate programme in London. I spent nine great years in BT, during which time I developed a real interest in communication technology.

I have a particular fascination with mobility and digitisation, what it enables, and what, dare we imagine, the world would be like without it. It’s compelling to reflect on that, so bringing this to life for customers in my role with Three is part of what makes the work so enjoyable.

man in white shirt and dark blazer with arms folded smiling at camera.

Karl Duffy. Image: Three Ireland

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

This is tough because I like to put a positive spin on things. When I did my Leaving Cert, I got a bit of a scare when I didn’t get the points I wanted, and decided to repeat the year. I have since learned that my performance had little to do with capability and a lot to do with my discipline. There are few gifts in life and I learned that I needed to always work hard.

How do you get the best out of your team?

In a way, I don’t like to overthink this part of my job, otherwise it looks and feels over-engineered. I am lucky because I really do enjoy working with people, learning about their differences, what they like or dislike about the work, what they’re good at or less good at. I think because I like working with people I find I am able to read a person, and being able to do this goes a long way in life and business. Of course, it also helps when it comes to motivating and getting the best from a team, too.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

There has been a noticeable shift towards a more diverse workforce in the telecommunications industry in recent years, which is very positive, although of course we all have more to do. Importantly, this is also creating a virtuous circle whereby the more diverse the workforce becomes, the more it seems to be an option for all demographics.

Who is your role model and why?

That would be my father. He left school at 13 years of age in the 1950s. Ireland was a very different and difficult place economically back then, and he started working as a clerk in a shoe shop, going on to manage that same store while he was still a teenager. Still unsatisfied by that, he went ahead and bought it. From there, he built, over decades, a national retail business with, at peak, about 50 profitable household brand stores around the country. The recession of 2008 wasn’t kind to my father’s business but, where many men would have stumbled, he maintained his positive, progressive and otherwise happy outlook on life. A business hero by anyone’s estimation.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I do really like to read, but my reading habits have evolved a lot over the years. When I was younger and sports-obsessed, I would read the likes of Alex Ferguson’s autobiography. He was an amazing manager and I always loved reading about his direct and competitive approach.

In college I read a lot of business books, such as Five Frogs on a Log, which is a really interesting guide to mergers and acquisitions, and In Search of Excellence, which is an exploration of the art and science of management.

These days, I like to read a Man Booker prize-winning book each year, one of my recent favourites being The Fishermen, which is about four Nigerian brothers told from the perspective of the youngest, who was nine years old. It is a terrific story.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

First and foremost, my team. I understand that they are the real champions of the business and I see my job as more about giving them a leg up, some direction where needed, and investing time in supporting them so that they can perform at their best.

On a more literal level, in Three we have some excellent tools for advanced network monitoring, which I like to check in on to make sure customers are getting the best possible experience. For trading business updates, we use Salesforce, which is also excellent.

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