Shortly after joining CenturyLink as its new CTO two years ago, Aamir Hussain vowed to re-tool the legacy telco into an IT-based services company.
The reorganization has included moving CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL) to cloud-based IP services while leveraging virtualization and software to become more agile and efficient.
On the virtualization front, CenturyLink announced its Programmable Services Backbone, which is an SDN-based network for business services, as well as the goal of virtualization in its IP core network and data centers by 2018. (See CenturyLink Sees 100% Virtual IP Net by 2018.)
In an interview with Telco Transformation, Hussain outlined CenturyLink's roadmap for this year as well as the progress that the company has made as it merges its cloud functions with its core technology and network groups.
Telco Transformation: What are your top engineering projects this year?
Aamir Hussain: We have several priorities that we're using to drive work within our organization. The first one is we are building a platform. We need to make ourselves amenable and easy for our customers to do business with. Our customers continually ask us if they can come to one platform and buy network, build data centers, spin VMs (virtual machines) and run their applications on top. That's the platform we're building and that's a huge amount of work that is happening with the team. It really allows us to codify the network and add all kinds of automation to our workflow provisioning cycles. It simplifies the products. It simplifies the processes and automates the lead to cash process. That's a huge priority for us.
The second one is as things move to cloud, we need to make sure that access is reliable and the bytes are bigger, the metro is bigger and cost effective. Also the long haul and switching need to be the latest and greatest technology and very cost effective. So we have a tremendous amount of work in each of these areas within the bandwidth domain.
The third key area is applications. Whether it's managed video, unmanaged video, or managed security, there's a tremendous amount of work there as well.
The fourth area is Internet of Things (IoT). IoT and sensors are driving a lot of load into our network and cloud, but we need to monetize that so we're building applications using things like big data. There's a tremendous amount of work there as well. Those are the main opportunities we're working towards delivering in 2016.
TT: Can you describe the cultural transformation that needed to take place at CenturyLink, and where you are now?
AH:I would be lying if I said we were there. We started our transformation a few years ago and I think we'll continue to transform over the months and years to come. CenturyLink has some values and guiding principles that we adhere to. Things like fairness, honesty, respect and faith. When I came in, we put in our own team values, which were embrace change, initiate opportunity, have a passion for growth and have the courage to innovate, which is one of the key factors in moving in a different direction.
The themes have been coming along. When you take a legacy workforce and move them into a new direction you have to arm them with the right skill set. You have to make sure they understand the value of being nimble. You have to make sure they have a view of the industry. Our industry is driving us in directions that we haven't gone before. We used to compete with the Verizons and AT&Ts of the world. Now we're competing with Amazon, Google and others with a different set of solutions.
TT: Can you give me some examples of how your workforce is changing?
AH: We are pushing our folks to become more nimble, be more innovative and take more risks. One of the key things we did was we said it was OK to have failures, but have fast failures. Lead with a viable product, learn from failures and improve your product going forward. This is a huge cultural change and a shift from how we did things in the past where we waited a year and half, completed everything and then launched it.
Now we're launching things in five- or six-month cycles. We just launched our SD-WAN product. From inception to build to deployment it was less than four months. That would have been impossible unless people were willing to change how they think about things. It does require us to bring a lot of other team members along and it's going to be a continuing journey.
TT: So by "nimble," do you mean DevOps?
AH: We do use DevOps. All of the managed services and cloud development are done using DevOps. I prefer a better term that's commonly used by my boss and that's the "hair on fire" approach. With everything you need a sense of urgency and that is the "hair on fire" approach. DevOps lends itself pretty well to that model.
Do I have DevOps in all of our teams? No. We're being selective. All of the new development is done in the DevOps model, but we have a lot of revenue that's riding on some of the strategic and legacy products that were built several years ago. We continue to enhance that and we are slowly ingesting that agile DevOps process into it. It will take time before everyone is 100% agile, but I think everyone has started learning. We have a cloud center of excellence and an agile center of excellence within the company. We're doing lots of training, and we're bringing everybody along but it will be a journey and it will take time to get there.
TT: So was there a cultural change within the company, or did you have to do training outside of CenturyLink to get your workforce up to speed, or both?
AH:It's both. It's a cultural change but it's also training in things like agile thinking. People aren't used to having scrum masters making sure that we're developing things in shorter sprints. We're having daily huddles, daily scrums, and then a retrospective process after things don't work. For some people these are a completely new way of doing things. We have an agile training program. That training program is taking most of the employees who are either customer-facing, or in operations and development, through that vertical training so they understand the value of being agile in a DevOps model. In some cases we are forcing the issue, and in some cases we just want people to be aware of what is going on. But slowly and surely people are seeing the value of this process. Value only comes when you can shorten your time-to-market and deliver quality products with good customer feedback. This process allows us to do that.
At the end of the day, customer experience is our product and to get there we really have to have a sense of urgency. We're driving agility development and we're driving agility on customer support to build an experience that not only brings in new customers but also keeps our current customers happy.
TT: Have there been any unexpected challenges or workarounds during this transformation process?
AH: I don't think there's a big surprise, but you learn that when you take an amazing workforce and put them through a new process you should not expect them to come up to speed on the first day. There was some push-back, and in some cases we made some changes. In other cases we just have to be patient and we need to understand that some of them have essentially been a part of our workforce for quite some time. Before they can understand the value of being agile, they have to understand a new technology, and come up to speed on where they need to get to.
Were there big surprises? No. Did we have some fallout? Yes, but we also have to be very nimble in this process and we've been trying to be patient in working with the teams. Some of this doesn't lend itself to just the business. At the other end we have customers with expectations. We have to send them software releases or notify them when we're working the networks.
It's not only internal employees. It's also about educating the customers because technology is changing really, really fast. We have to help them get to the cloud, for example. Being agile means we need to clearly define not only what is in it for us but also for our customers. It's a learning process.
TT: How do you decide what gets developed internally versus using vendors or partners?
AH: We are doing a little bit of both, There is a lot of work that happens internally, but I'm a big believer in not reinventing the wheel. There are certain things that are in our wheelhouse, our core competencies such as network, things like big data and analytics, but there are certain things we partner on. We announced a partnership with SAP where we use their resources. We got trained and we took all of those workloads into the cloud. We're not going to write an SAP application, but we're going to take an application to the cloud and manage it well. (See CenturyLink Inks Global Supply Deal With SAP.)
So we are very, very picky about what we do internally and what we do externally. I think it's a good balance, but we use our teams to do most of the work.
TT: What about SDN and NFV as enabling technologies for your transformation?
AH: I think we are doing quite bit of work on both SDN and NFV. Basically we did announce that within a few years almost 100% of our core IP POPs will be virtualized, and we're 40% of the way there today. We started this journey almost three years ago. We have many customers who are buying virtualized firewall services from us today. We just launched virtualized SD-WAN services. It's up to us to add more and more services, and SDN and NFV are key to our transformation. They help us get to our customers faster and provide them with better services.
TT: Can you give us an update on CenturyLink's Programmable Services Backbone?
AH: By the end of this year we want to make sure we're 65% to 70% there in terms of virtualization. We're building a federated SDN controller. We see this world, just like the network world, composed of many vendors and partners. So we need to make sure we are able to orchestrate among different types of services, different types of infrastructures, and amongst different partners. We need a massive orchestrator on top of everything else and that's something we're building internally. Everything else is being acquired through partnerships and integrations.
TT: What about using containers, and what open source communities are you active in?
AH: We are pretty active in containers. Our own cloud can manage containers and we built our own platform. We do support OpenStack along with VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW), and we support multiple types of hypervisors. We are also pretty active on Cloud Foundry and OpenStack. Again we see the world being a combination of different things and we see the world from our customers' perspectives. They require us to manage all kinds of solutions on their behalf so we have to be nimble and make sure our platform addresses those needs.
— Mike Robuck, editor, Telco Transformation