The five minute CIO: Thomas Grant

22 Nov 2013

Thomas Grant, chief technology officer at e|net

Thomas Grant, the recently appointed chief technology officer at e|net, the MAN operator, explains why switching between technical and commercial roles has given him a more rounded view of the business.

Your title at e|net is CTO: what does the role involve, on a day-to-day basis?

Day-to-day responsibility for the operational side of the business: service delivery, network operations, planning and engineering. Everything from the design and build of the platform to delivery of services and ongoing service assurance to ensure a flexible, solutions-driven ethos is at the very core of e|net.

How complex is the network infrastructure at the company, and how do you manage it?

The network itself is relatively straightforward but the lack of a core backhaul network makes it more complex to manage as we have multiple suppliers. We are in the process of standardising the backhaul to reduce the complexity and secure growth.

We are in phase two of our Alcatel-Lucent MPLS roll out, which has been a major success for the company in consolidating the core and aggregation to a single supplier. The platform is managed 24/7 from our Network Operations Centre in Limerick, where we have implemented CA Spectrum as an umbrella services and infrastructure manager for the platform.

How important are repeatable processes, and having benchmarks to measure the service against?

We went 24/7 with our NOC around six months ago and, as part of that, we put in a number of KPIs to track how things are going – uptime on the platform, the number of tickets raised, how long they’re opened, who they’re allocated to – so we’ve a clear picture month-on-month. I go through that with the team and we see what needs work or what is causing us issues.

We’ve since extended that to the delivery team, so we have a much better handling on the business day-to-day. It starts to flag up different pinch points that you wouldn’t have realised were there. We’ve a full suite of reporting and we track it on a weekly basis.

Was that in place before you joined, or is it something you wanted to implement since taking the role?

Some of it was in place but since I took over, we went 24/7 and we needed it. We were busy firefighting before then, and now we have a bit more headspace. We believe we do things smarter, better, more efficiently. It helps us manage the platform. Maybe a year ago it would have been a bit more difficult.

With that in mind, what’s the ratio between the time spent on maintenance and ongoing work, compared to innovating and improving?

I would hope it changes over time, I would hope to get our experienced guys out of the day-to-day firefighting and getting more into strategy. The more we streamline and smooth out the kinks, the more the guys can focus on what’s important: where we want to drive the network to.

And the knock-on effect is the experience guys are looking at how to improve themselves … e|net is still a fairly small organisation. We have a hard core of engineering people and a newly developed NOC team. To keep the experienced people motivated and challenged, you need to show them there’s new stuff to be worked on. What an engineer sees the value in, is proposing a new architecture to work on, or a project – they enjoy it, they feel ownership. The buy-in of those guys is essential to the success of the potential of the platform.

How close is e|net’s technology infrastructure to its ideal state, in your opinion?

There will always be changes, migrations or upgrades required on the platform as it is constantly evolving and growing. No sooner is one project complete then we are planning and scheduling the next. The backhaul network is an area of improvement; we are in advanced stages of completing a deal that will see us standardise backhaul across the metropolitan area networks (MANs). Once completed, we will be close to the ideal state – if there is such a thing.

In your experience, what’s the secret to successful technology projects – how much of it is due to the technology itself, and how much do other factors play a role?

The selected technology is obviously one of the key factors to the success of a technology project but other major factors are the project team assigned to the design, verification, acceptance and roll out of the project. They need to set realistic goals and deadlines to ensure the project is delivered in a timely and professional manner and to the agreed specification.

Have you found project outcomes tend to be more successful when you have more engagement from the people involved?

One of the MPLS projects: that was a complete change of technology for us. It was a big challenge for the company. So it was getting the guys trained and up to speed. I think they all bought into why we were doing it. It’s a challenge and the ownership stimulates the team more than the nine-to-five work.

What has been the most important piece of technology you’ve used in your career, and why?

I could have talked about MPLS: I’ve seen dramatic changes, especially in optical core networks, but I think the smartphone just has been incredible … to keep in contact when you’re out of the office, be able to look things up … But on the downside, it means you never get away from the office. Even if you’re on holiday, you’re always looking at it. I always remember the BlackBerry flashing light: ‘read me, read me …’

We hear a lot about how IT people often don’t understand business goals – is that a fair assessment, do you think?

No not at all, the majority of the technical team are striving for the perfect platform, and can become frustrated by the constraints placed on the network by the business. As long as the goals are clear and the risks highlighted so there can be no surprises. They may not be happy to implement an inferior solution but will understand the reasons why.

You’ve had roles in both technical and commercial disciplines – how have you found balancing the two? Which of them came easier to you, and which one did you have to work at?

I am a techie at heart but have really enjoyed the commercial roles that I have had. They have given me a much more rounded understanding of the business. Understanding the network strengths and weakness are key to securing the best deal for the business.

I think I’ve been lucky – opportunities have just come up at different times in my career: I dip into technical sales, then back into engineering, then back into commercial roles, then back into technical engineering and delivery.

It definitely gives you a better understanding of the network. You can understand why deals are being done from a sales point of view, where if you came from a technical point of view, you might think it doesn’t make sense. It gives you a view of what advantage it has in the longer run.

Would you encourage others in technical roles to do this?

I think some people are open to it. You meet people and you know which one is the die-hard engineer: to get them to move wouldn’t necessarily suit them so well. Some guys just love getting their hands on the box and getting into lines of code.

Then there are other guys where I’ve encouraged them on that way, for the value I’ve seen. I’ve related it to other colleagues and they’ve moved. It’s more about understanding the person and what value they would get out of it. But I do think it’s no harm to get a technical person to take a support role, not to lead the meeting with a customer but if there’s an operations issue, it gives him a bit more exposure to that side of the business. They see the decisions they made, three, four, six months ago, that are impacting the customer.

What can you tell us about e|net’s business and IT strategy for the year ahead, and how you intend to make that happen?

As mentioned, the biggest business and network strategy decision for the year ahead is securing the best backhaul deal that will see the business succeed in the marketplace for years to come. Working closely with the commercial teams to analyse the proposals on the table from both a business and technical perspective to ensure it meets e|net current and further backhaul requirements. This will be followed by an aggressive build and migrations phase.

Will your strategy be influenced as a result of e|net’s recent acquisition – will there be more budget made available, or will there be minimal change for the immediate future?

Our new investors are up to date with our plans and are providing valued input to the strategy. They have vast experience in the telecoms market, which we will be utilising to ensure we make the right decisions going forward. Budget will be made available on the successful approval of a business case.

The acquisition will have no impact on e|net’s day-to-day business operations and importantly, the new investors see potential to expand and to maximise the MANs, particularly in partnership with the State.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic