Opening up the way to industry transformation

Alan Burkitt-Gray
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Heather Kirksey leads the OPNFV community that is changing the way the telecoms industry innovates and the way it works. She talks to Alan Burkitt-Gray

Heather Kirksey 680x520There’s a deep cultural change rolling through the industry. The way things have been done for the past century and a half – with vendors and operators doing their own R&D and competing vigorously – is being replaced by a new spirit of collaboration. 

At the heart of this is the move to software-defined networks (SDN) and network functions virtualisation (NFV) – two abbreviations that mean, in short, using IT industry-standard hardware in the network with software to define and run the services.

And leading the move is an organisation called Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV), whose director for the past two years has been Heather Kirksey. 

“We’re at an inflexion point around NFV and cloud services,” says Kirksey. “It is a good time to look at new models for industry-wide research and development.” That’s what can be confusing for traditionalists, who grew up in an era when companies – some no longer in the market or even in existence – such as Alcatel, Ericsson, Lucent, Marconi, Nokia, Nortel, Plessey, Siemens and many others developed their network equipment and competed to sell it to operators. 

Operators were usually locked in. If you had opted for Siemens switches in your network then it was a big task to introduce Ericsson or Alcatel alongside them. 

Now, the watchword across the industry is “open source”: software is free, developed by volunteers from the industry, and used by all who want to on standard hardware that is created by IT giants. Competition – for there will still be competition – has moved to different levels. 

“As director, I’m leading the open-source project,” says Kirksey. “I sometimes describe it as being like the CEO of a start-up, except that the employees are volunteers. That means a cultural shift.” 

Unlike CEOs of regular companies, Kirksey cannot dictate what they do. “You have to inspire the open source developers.”

Making things work 

Fortunately, they are a community – a term Kirksey uses repeatedly, even though the members come from dozens of different companies – of people who want to do what they are doing. “Engineers really care about making things work,” she says. 

Part of her task is facilitating agreement and collaboration “when people come from different viewpoints” and have different ideas. “Developers in the open source community are very passionate about that they are working on. They are very motivated. I am helping everyone to row in a similar direction.”

Kirksey likens her role to working in standards – an area she worked in earlier in her career. “I did a lot of time on standards for the telecoms industry,” she recalls. “There are similarities between standards and open source. Both are ways to do cross-company industry-level collaboration. I did standards for a while and then other things.”

Kirksey was speaking to Global Telecoms Business hours after landing in Tokyo for the first of a series of conferences around the open-source business: this was the Linux Foundation’s Open Source Summit, but in two weeks she was off to the OPNFV summit in Beijing. 

She’s been in the tech industry since 2001, when she made a leap into what she “thought would be a short-term job to pay my rent but it turned out to be my career”. Kirksey wanted to be astrophysicist in earlier years, but thought she’d prefer the academic life in English literature, with a first degree and a master’s. 

“I didn’t like academia and it was the height of the dotcom boom, and friends were working in technology.” Fortunately she and they were in Austin, Texas. “I was lured as a glorified admin but then became project manager.”

That took her to Motive and then Alcatel-Lucent, also in Austin and then to Silicon Valley, before Kirksey rebelled against telecoms for a couple of years and joined a database company – until she attended a lecture by Linux Foundation director Jim Zemlin. 

The Linux Foundation has become a sort of mothership for all sorts of open-source software projects. “Jim realised that a number of open-source communities were needing help on best practices as well as events, marketing, PR, branding and so on,” says Kirksey. “They needed help but that’s not what open source people are good at.”

It made “a lot of sense” for the Linux Foundation to offer help and staff, she says, and that’s how the OPNFV continues, with funding mainly coming from membership fees with additional revenue from sponsorship of events. 

There are 53 members in all, with platinum members including some of the top names in the telecoms industry: from AT&T and China Mobile via Huawei and Nokia to TIM and ZTE. Silver members include SoftBank-owned chip technology company ARM, network equipment company Ciena and French group Orange. 

“My role is lots of PR, attending boards, facilitating the technical community, budget and operations, planning our strategy, events and marketing.” 

The open-source argument has not yet been accepted across the industry. “There’s more evangelising to be done,” says Kirksey. There are people in many vendors who “get it”, she adds, especially among R&D and strategy roles. “Where folks are less accepting tend to be in product management and sales. They have a different sales process, and numbers and margins are different.”

More agile 

But “companies are wanting to be more agile and to be able to introduce revenue-generating services more quickly and have the freedom to take risks. They want to be able to fail and fail faster,” she says. “This is hard to do with the existing network approach.” 

Kirksey cites the example of IPTV, rolled out by many telecoms companies as a way of allowing them to compete with cable and satellite operators. “They had to roll out a network and they got this running just as streaming became the preferred mechanism.” 

With SDN and NFV, the software-oriented model, there’s no need to design, build and roll out purpose-designed hardware. “You roll out software and if it doesn’t work, then roll out some more. It’s just software.”

But “just software” is probably the wrong term. “Software is a precious resource,” says Kirksey. “It’s hard to recruit software people. With open systems, you are sharing the R&D burden across the industry. That helps you to innovate faster and share the burden of developing things that everyone is trying to do.” 

So how do companies distinguish themselves so they can compete? “You can direct precious resources to the areas that make you different.” 

Kirksey expects the telecoms industry will see a wave of innovation from start-ups that will develop into successful vendors “just like Linux has enabled [software company] Red Hat to be very successful”, she says. 

“Companies will distinguish themselves on services, on different pieces of the platform. The secret sauce of the innovation team will provide different applications on top – new services no one has thought of yet. We haven’t had a lot of start-ups in telecoms recently, because of the huge capex. It’s a very capital intensive market.” 

Software start-ups 

In the future, “a lot of younger, smaller software firms will be able to offer services, without requiring huge five-nines hardware platforms. They will be software start-ups with ideas that can built into the network stack.”

But we’re interviewing Kirksey for the issue of Global Telecoms Business that features our latest 50 Women to Watch feature – see here. The telecoms industry is hugely male-dominated, and so is the software industry. 

“We’re rethinking a lot of fundamental assumptions,” she says. “It’s a time when you get new young blood into the telecoms industry. It’s exciting to see college kids get into telecoms again.” 

But the balance? The first intern class was 20% women, and not all white, she says. Not perfect, but a lot better than the depressingly low proportion across the industry. “There are a lot of structural issues involved in getting people of colour, women, queer people. We are re-thinking how to open it up to folk of different backgrounds,” she says. 

“We are publicising our intentions, encouraging our culture to be inclusive. We don’t have all-male panels at conferences and many events have child care. We give our people inclusivity training.” So that’s yet more of a cultural change that’s about to transform the industry – not before time.