A network automation state of mind

Network automation is an end-to-end process – so it touches almost every existing area of a telco’s operation. This means that organisational synergy must be running like clockwork for a network automation programme to succeed. In a preview of his talk on this subject at the Layer123 Network Automation Congress, Anuradha Udunuwara - Senior Enterprise Solutions Architect at Sri Lanka Telecom - talks about what telcos need to do to make sure their network automation programmes make a lasting difference.

 

Anuradha, your talk is entitled ‘Network automation: it’s all about the right mindset and culture’. How would you define the right mindset and the right culture for network automation?

It’s not only for network automation; the right mindset and right culture are key to many things in our lives. In fact, human success, both physical and mental, is based on these two important aspects. When it comes to telecoms and technology, we often say that the combination of technology, people, and processes is what drives innovation and the industry. The people factor here is directly connected to the mindset and culture.

As the telecom industry progresses through Old Generation Networks (OGNs) of Circuit Switching to Next Generation Networks (NGNs) of Packet Switching to Software Generation Networks (SGNs) of virtual NGNs, the complexity of networks and systems involved have comparatively increased. As we move from the bottom of the stack (TCP/IP or ISO OSI) towards the top, shifting our focus more towards software than hardware, a major paradigm shift is needed in the telco industry, both for the infrastructure and people. All the new capabilities like Network Functions Virtualization, Software Defined Networking, Network Automation, Orchestration, Telco Cloud, Analytics, AI, etc., are associated with the core concepts of openness, virtualization, disaggregation, modularity, abstraction, microservices, and cloud nativeness. In general, adopting these capabilities require a major “people” change and this can only be realized by having the right mindset and culture.

As network automation sits on the top and is an end-to-end process closely related to end-to-end orchestration, it has a lot of interrelations with other capabilities below it. This makes network automation both critical and complex. The traditional networks are more about individual network element configurations. The new networks are all about network programmability. As most of the things happen on software, understanding and visualizing this new world requires a different mindset – a software mindset. This becomes the right mindset when the workforce has the confidence (in terms of skills and knowledge), energy, guidance and visionary leadership to face the new world. But the right mindest cannot itself come to existence without the right organizational culture. That’s why culture and mindset go together. Creating the right culture has a lot to do with the right vision of the leadership and needs to be driven from top to bottom.

 

What might be the main internal obstacles – either technical, cultural, or organizational - to a network automation programme?

It’s not only for network automation, for most of the other associated capabilities mentioned earlier require people before technology. The main internal obstacle to telco digital transformation and telco softwarization in general, and network automation in particular, is how the workforce thinks. How one thinks largely depends on the culture one is in. We have seen how humans resisted change in the past. When the typewriter was replaced with the computer, when manual processes are digitalized and on many other occasions, people’s natural initial reaction is resistance. It takes a while for things to settle. The main reason why people resist is their lack of confidence, which is mainly related to skills and knowledge. With the right internal processes in place and with the right leadership, building the confidence of the team on their skills and capabilities can address the issue.

How can telcos manage the issue of upskilling?

Managing upskilling is not an easy task, especially if you have an ageing workforce with a legacy hardware mindset. A thorough, company-wide skills assessment is needed to have the right picture. Reassigning and reskilling are possible in some cases. But in most cases, acquiring the right skills from outside is the best option.

What advice would you give to ensuring internal buy-in to a network automation programme?

The easiest way to ensure internal buy-in, not only for network automation programmes but for any other programme too, is to build employee trust towards the company vision and leadership. This trust builds confidence and needs to be supported with programmes and culture to uplift the skills and knowledge of the team. The best advice is to have a plan, share it with the relevant stakeholders, execute and do continuous monitoring. An agile DevOps-like approach is best suited here. A telco could get the support of a reliable vendor and/or a systems integrator in the initial phase and have the staff learn the new skills on the job until the internal capabilities are developed to an acceptable level.

What is it about Sri Lanka Telecom’s corporate culture that makes it easier to automate?

The present Sri Lanka Telecom’s corporate culture is a result of over 160 years of collective experience, blended with the ethos of traditional Sri Lankan culture. Listening to, helping, supporting, cooperation and teamwork are integral parts of our workforce. This helps to avoid siloed thinking. We have recently reinitiated and strengthened our R&D unit and have invited all interested parties, both internal and external, to participate and work with us. As a result, many have shown interest and are now working on multiple projects related to Telco Digital Transformation, Telco Softarization, and network automation. It’s not easy for an incumbent like us to change everything overnight, especially the mindest of our people, but we are progressing well. We have company-wide training for staff upskilling and we continue to headhunt for new talent from outside, despite challenging conditions in the external environment.

 

Register for the Layer123 Network Automation Congress to hear Anuradha and many other network experts discuss the technical, organisational and cultural aspects of network transformation.