NBN CIO: The IT strategy of Australia’s new telco

NBN Co has a head start that would leave many telcos green with envy. Armed with $27 billion in government funding, and at least $9 billion from debt markets, the two-year old National Broadband Network wholesaler has the resources and backing that could catapult it ahead many of its decadesold equivalents.

That’s not to say the challenge before the organisation isn’t any less daunting; within the decade NBN Co is set to change broadband in Australia. The monopoly wholesaler is bound by carefully worded legislation to provide equal access to many of those it will compete with on a shiny fibre-to-the-home network, and satellite and wireless offshoots.

Best of all, the company is starting with a clean slate.

It must have been a breath of air for NBN Co’s British CIO, Claire Rawlins. After all, she doesn’t have to deal with the obsolete infrastructure and decrepit naysayers that plague most verticals.

Although the company will need to scale rapidly in the coming years, adding at least 1000 staff in the next year alone, there are no unnecessary obstacles within the company itself.

Clearly, Rawlins felt the same way; she turned down two senior positions at financial institutions to join NBN Co in late 2009. Just 18 months into the role, however, she admits it was something about which she was initially naïve.

“One of the things I’ve underestimated is the amount of ingrained thinking,” she says. “You need to encourage people to think out of the box and not just repeat what they already know.”

The funding and publicity surrounding the company are boons enough for NBN Co to attract the best and brightest minds in the business. About 15,000 people have responded to job offerings at the company so far. But the organisation’s immaturity can hinder as much as it can help.

“You don’t have a common culture, you don’t have a history as a group,” NBN Co’s chief enterprise architect and Rawlins’ second in command, Bill Barnett, says. “What you have are little tribes of people who each came from a common background so it can be really hard to achieve coordinated action across that group of people.”

Despite NBN Co’s growth since its first board meeting in April 2009, there is a way to go before the organisation builds the kind of culture associated with the likes of a well-established telco such as Telstra, or even a smaller provider. And it is culture that is needed for the company to thrive; an idea championed by Rawlins’ ex-colleague and mentor, Al-Noor Ramji.
Ramji, Rawlins and Barnett have all crawled through the mires both of financial institutions and telcos during better part of two decades, in companies such as British investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, US telco Qwest and British Telecom (BT), where, as first group CIO, Ramji was responsible for integrating the network and technology of a telco whose legacy surpasses most others.
Ramji would by no means call his time at BT an easy ride. ‘Legacy’ — both in terms of systems and thinking — is often considered to be counterproductive to change management, particularly when combined with ingrained attitudes, but Ramji acknowledges the advantage of a team whose relatively high average age and inherent experience brought with it a foundation that benefited his change agenda.

They became affectionately known as the ‘Weebes’ (‘we be here before you, we be here after you’). Thanks to their efforts, by the time the new IT heads arrived, BT’s workforce had up to 144,000 established network and infrastructure metrics, providing the basis to implement and effectively gauge the merger of the telco’s systems over the next six years. NBN Co’s tasks are split between network construction and business-as-usual telecommunications, and few of the company’s employees could map out the same 20-year careers at the company that often herald the same position at Telstra.

They share much of the history, however; many of the staff hired so far herald from chief executive, Mike Quigley’s own alma mater — Alcatel-Lucent — as well as a range of Australian and international telcos.

In IT, the company is hiring based on existing experience, but remains mindful of the need to learn new tricks.

“We still run up against people wanting to look at a particular organisational unit or their own view rather than looking at the entire picture,” Rawlins says. “Predominantly, we’ve had to do a lot of work to persuade people we’ll get the results by looking end-to-end.”

Rawlins’ past has clearly influenced her priorities at NBN Co. Her experience at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein has left her wary of stovepipe systems that inhibit flexibility. Likewise, BT provided insight into the dangers of underestimating the impact of internal and external process changes on business. They are issues she is keen not to replicate.

“We went back to basics and asked: What do we know about NBN Co? And the thing we do know is we have to be a very low cost wholesale service provider,” she says.

If there’s one clear driver for the NBN Co IT team, it is the attempt to avoid complexity in the infrastructure behind the operations. As a result, many of the projects thus far have relied on standardisation and automation of processes, with a preference for commercial off-the-shelf kit and little configuration where possible.

Rawlins has overseen the adoption of Agile project methodologies, leaning to TMForum and ITIL standards frameworks for service management and the network construction phase. BT’s fibre rollout has also had its effect, leading Rawlins to champion four end-to-end processes that dictate NBN Co’s IT philosophy: Lead to cash, trouble to resolve, plan to pay, and concept to market. Some are borrowed from financial institutions. Others are firmly grounded in the telecommunications industry.

Although IT has become the self-appointed ‘custodian’ of the end-to-end processes, the most appropriate departments within NBN Co are responsible for implementation.

The standardisation push also explains the lack of surprises in the contractual decisions emerging from Rawlins’ office. A start-up in many senses, NBN Co has nonetheless forgone the chance to work with the newer names on the software market.

Instead, it operates under a ‘best of suite’ philosophy, with the likes of Oracle and IBM dominating many contracts. If nothing else, the decision has allowed for fast implementation; Rawlins’ first task, for example, was to replace Quickbooks with Oracle’s eBusiness suite for ERP, a project undertaken in 60 days.

Most tasks have a 90-day release cycle but the business is keen to speed up the process. Oracle is likely to play an increasing part as NBN Co ramps up, and Rawlins is keen to combine the customer and IT infrastructure under a single, manageable portfolio.

The operational and billing support systems, too, are set for an incredibly fast turnaround. It’s by no means simple; Quigley himself has continually pointed to the complexity involved in establishing this infrastructure, and the industry’s inability to fully meet the company’s requirements.

But the telco has essentially gone with a four-piece mix of IBM hardware and portals, Accenture for services, Alcatel-Lucent for fulfilment and its internal development resources for the customerfacing Web portal that will control day-to-day relationships.

“As requirements come in, they are mapped to capabilities and mapped to platforms and therefore delivered on common software,” Barnett says.

Freedom from legacy again rears its head. Rawlins and her team must build IT infrastructure in tandem with the network, leading to instances where sites in Tasmania and even on the mainland have been launched without final customer and billing systems. As a result, the company has undertaken to ‘slice off’ bits of equipment here and there to meet both short-term and long-term responsibilities. These include a temporary instance of SharePoint hosted in Microsoft’s Singapore data centre and varied other Cloud providers chosen primarily to provide the flexibility NBN Co needs in its early days.

According to Barnett, the exercise is much like Christmas: “There are out of the box toys that you take out and use and there are out of the box toys that you’re up until seven in the morning putting together.

“We are very focused on buying the things that get us as close to our needs, then configuring where we have to.”

Despite the challenges ahead, Rawlins doesn’t seem fazed. Even the extra pressures of the continued battle between clean slate infrastructure and the ingrained legacy of dozens of corporate cultures in one place doesn’t appear to have prevented the wholesaler from forging ahead with billions of dollars worth of contracts. As the organisation grows into Australia’s new wholesaler, it must balance the needs of both retail service providers and, however indirectly, end users.

It’s not an easy task.

“Most telcos around the world are pretty much happy with what they’ve got,” Al-Noor Ramji says of his personal experience with some of the world’s largest incumbents. “The biggest worry about incumbency is they think they’re doing a great job and everybody else thinks they’re doing a terrible job. The two live side-by-side because they’re just measuring the wrong darn thing.” Thankfully, if Ramji’s high praise of Rawlins is anything to go by, she’s the right person for the job.


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