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NBN Co CIO: The IT leadership strategy of Australia’s new telco - Part 2

An interview with NBN Co CIO Claire Rawlins and Al-Noor Ramji

NBN Co CIO, Claire Rawlins

NBN Co CIO, Claire Rawlins

Going commercial

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.

Read Part 1 of this interview.

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.

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

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.”

Forging ahead

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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