Qwest's Pieter Poll on why being a CTO is a dream job

Qwest's Pieter Poll on why being a CTO is a dream job

Carrier's chief technology officer talks of joking about being paid for his job 'because it's fun', and outlines where Qwest is headed

Pieter Poll is Chief Technology Officer at US-based Qwest Communications International, which serves business customers nationally and residential customers in 14 western states with telephone, high-speed Internet, fiber-optic Internet and DirecTV services. The company is also serving as an agent for Verizon Wireless services. Poll talked about his career and the directions Qwest is taking.

You have an education in math and a graduate degree in physics. As CTO, you are now responsible for technology strategy at Qwest. What do people in your line of work need from an education?

My bachelor's is in math and physics, and my doctorate is from Cornell in physics. So that meant making a transition from theoretical physics into the telecom lab at Bell Labs. There was a logical segue between the way you approach problems in physics and with problems in the lab. The first graduate degree, the masters, is not there to teach you material. It teaches you to think critically and that's a key skill we need in any technology industry. People are not just turning a crank and answering a problem. They are thinking critically. Also as a technologist you need to learn about business, as well, since you deal with business matters.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part is ensuring you are building consensus, or support, for what you are proposing, because there are always other points of view. There's also always tension between what is right strategically in the long run and hard to do in the short run because of finances and economics.

Has the recession been frustrating in your sector?

Actually, the recession has not been frustrating for Qwest. As a company we have grown revenue in the business space, and revenue in the consumer and wholesale part was as planned. The wholesale channel business is focused on making margins, since revenue is easy to get, but we want to make sure it's profitable. Qwest has flourished if anything in this economy. It's an opportunity that's probably true for all telecom. There are challenges facing the service industry in telecom, yes, and some companies are diminishing a bit, but it's not the same as some other industries where the bottom has been hit.

So what's the exciting part of your work? I've said it many times, that being CTO has got to be the coolest job you can get. It's hard to imagine a job where you influence strategy while working on technical problems. You sit with suppliers and customers and you are on the cutting edge of problems in the industry. For a person with a science and engineering background you love those things. You joke at times that you wouldn't take pay because it's fun.

Can you briefly describe your technology strategy at Qwest?

We have structural challenges around how to provide broadband access and broadband speeds for consumers in a portable fashion.

Qwest is very active in service convergence, and we have a philosophy of partnerships to improve the customer experience with Verizon Wireless and Direct TV, along with broadband from Qwest.

You are getting out of the Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) business. How is that going?

The MVNO exit is going very well for Qwest, and is working on a definitive timeline. It gets hard to support diminishing subscriber numbers on the existing arrangement, but we're making it painless. We're thrilled to work with Verizon Wireless, and they have an awesome network. Basically, Verizon Wireless is a partner, and we're reselling Verizon Wireless service in our 14-state territory. It is absolutely their wireless network inside the Qwest local territory and they work with Qwest to backhaul the wireless with specific assets. In the past, Qwest built wireless on CDMA in medium-to-large cities in our 14 states where we have local phone access. But it was sold, some to Sprint and some to Verizon, and other CDMA carriers.

You also now offer free Wi-Fi access to broadband customers, including some businesses?

Yes, we also announced in May a Wi-Fi arrangement, powered by the AT&T Wi-Fi network, available to Qwest high-speed Internet customers at 17,000 nationwide hotspots. It's part of a broader look at wireless as a start to make user experiences better.

What are your plans for WiMax and LTE?

Qwest and the vast majority of carriers are strongly behind LTE. We don't do WiMax for backhaul, but have some trials of it and could certainly do it.

Any thoughts on the value of video to Qwest and to users?

Video is interesting because it gets to heart of challenge we have with broadband networks, and how we make broadband affordable. Video changes everything and video streams are long-lived, not bursty, so one of the things Qwest has done to support video is install fiber optics to the node. That technology is designed from day one to accommodate long-lived streaming.

How is Qwest able to be successful nationwide with business customers, including large companies?

Qwest participates nationwide for business customers and we have invested in awesome nationwide technology that's recognized by the Networx award. IT folks and CIOs are interested in scaling costs and want technologies that help with emerging problems such as security and how to start to deal with that. Also, a lot of folks are struggling with cloud computing.

Verizon and others are offering cloud computing services. What about Qwest?

Qwest is developing a full portfolio. Cloud computing means different things to different customers, but we are very good in reliability and scalability. Obviously if you are five guys running a business in a garage, things that the cloud offers you at a platform or service level are very different from a large company.

Maybe it's my East Coast orientation, but it surprises me and some others that Qwest can serve a business nationwide as you advertise it can.

I think that people get that, and our revenues show that is a growing business for us, whereas for most competitors, it's not.

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