This is Part 3 in a series of posts. I am sharing some observations from a discussion I had with Travis Ewert of Level 3. Travis is the senior vice president of global network software development there.

Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

Focus on Automation

Travis told me that innovation efforts at Level 3 are aimed to increase operational scale and customer control by expanding the use of automation, as opposed to focusing specifically on SDN and/or NFV.

“Whether the resource is physical or virtual, for us the heavy investment is on what orchestrates and controls all those elements,” he noted. “We didn’t have a focus on architecture, engineering or operations by themselves. Instead we worked across the groups. We found folks who came out of those backgrounds to be our innovation leaders.”

I asked whether they selected people with the desired backgrounds in software and systems, and this is where things get interesting. Travis said that the leaders all have some background in software, and in some cases they augment that knowledge with experience from the outside. However, there is one critical internal asset that the company prioritizes: knowledge of the customer experience.

“Closer to the Customer”

I asked Travis about the focus on the customer, and he explained, “We rely on those folks who are closer to the customer. That could be someone in operations who understands the nature of network and services – in addition to the experience of the customer. They understand both the tooling of the network and the services layered on top, as well as what it means to turn up and assure that service.”

In some cases they do have to leverage external expertise, such as in the area of analytics. “We have been bringing in folks who came out of the financial services industry. They have been supporting stock trading, where you have millions of data series and you are looking for a correlation or anomaly to trigger an event. We are relying on them to build similar types of capabilities for more network-centric data. We are also going beyond simple algorithms to machine learning or even artificial intelligence.”

These developers have expertise in analytics, but not telco operations and services. How does Level 3 get them up to speed?

“We put our developers on rotations to watch over the shoulder of our operational teams and perhaps even do their jobs for a period. Doing so gives the developers a completely different appreciation for the operator’s role and what it means to the customer. We also have an array of in-house and third party curriculum and training focusing on operations and services, that some of us refer to as our intelligent network university. All of these efforts help the more traditional IT developers get network-savvy.”

What About Organization?

I asked Travis about the importance of organization in supporting his innovation efforts.

“My functional leaders came out of a variety of disciplines, such as architecture, engineering, operations and IT. At every layer of the organization we have people that have strong underlying knowledge, not just that of networking, but also of operations and network services. For example, we have a number of people across those disciplines who have gained MEF CECP certification.”

More on Staffing and Training

This sounds like a very good approach. I asked if Travis feels he has substantially solved the problems of organization, staffing and training?

He laughed and said, “Those are strong words so I am not sure I would go that far. We do know what kind of staff expertise we want, and it’s threefold: networking experience, software aptitude and business processes. By business processes, I mean an understanding of operations and the services and what they mean to customers and experience. It’s not easy to find all three, so you take people with two of the three and train them, and that’s not easy. It takes time. Once you’ve done that, those people are a hot commodity.”

I asked Travis about the geographic distribution of Level 3’s staff.

“I’m fortunate to have development teams all over the place, whether it’s Denver, Thousand Oaks, Rochester, Tulsa, Southfield (Detroit) or Ireland,” he said.

Does he face competition for those resources? “Yes, especially here in the Denver/Broomfield area. We have the university presence, and high-tech presence with Google, Comcast and others coming in. It’s become our own little Rocky Mountain Foothills Silicon Valley. We’ll have to come up with a new name for it, but we are developing that Silicon Valley flavor.”

We’re Just Getting Started
Hopefully these posts have stirred some thoughts. I’m interested in hearing about what your organization is doing to bridge this skills gap. Please share with me your thoughts.

Here are links to the complete series: Part 1Part 2Part 3.