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NBN CIO: The IT leadership 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.

Read more Australia’s National Broadband Network

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.

Read more about IT leaders in CIO Australia’s Management category.

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.

Read Part 2 of this interview - Going commercial

Follow CIO Australia on Twitter: @CIO_Australia


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