On the subject of mentors…

Thinking about Dr Pinkerton made my unruly mind reminisce about the many individuals that have really helped me at certain critical times in my working life. Sometimes they have done this knowingly, but I guess mostly not.

I’m a great believer in picking other people’s brains as much as possible and using this gained knowledge to modify my world view (if required!) or help me take that next practical step forward.

It’s not so much facts and information that I look for, though that is exceptionally useful, but more in the area of views and opinions gained through raw experience at many coal faces. It’s funny really, but I’ve always found that many of the best opinions to listen to come from those individuals that have failed or had a bad experience in a particular venture or activity.

I’ve always found that moving job to a completely different market requires the most reliance on learning through talking and listening. Unfortunately, in this new connected world we live in, there is usually no time to learn basics when taking on a new leadership role. You are expected to be up and running from day one and know exactly where you are running to. I could never recommend becoming a CEO in an alien industry where you could not rely on your own experience for guidance.

One of my biggest changes came when I left the semiconductor industry to join the telecommunications industry. By the way, this was one of the best career moves I made, though the last few years have shaken that view I tiny bit. What did I know about telecoms technologies and businesses? Simply nothing. Before I made the move, I went into a blitz of discussions to try and find out what such things as SDH and ATM were. You don’t know? Shame on you! Well, SDH is Synchronous Digital Hierarchy. How could I forget that ATM is Asynchronous Transfer Mode. More on these later in this blog I’m sure.

Ummm? I now wonder what made those two particular TLAs pop into my head? Maybe it was because both of these technologies are on their way out after being the seen as the golden network technologies of the mid 1990s. I digress again!

However, SDH does lead me onto PDH, SDH’s technology predecessor. This in turn, reminds me of several individuals who helped me with that big transition to the telecommunications world.

When I joined Cable and Wireless nearly 15 years ago, I was one of those many IT people who were creeping into the industry and who knew little about the 150 years of history, technology development and standards that made the industry what it was. I was so, so, ignorant, I’m ashamed to say.

In those days C&W employed many engineers known as ‘F1s’. These marvellous people joined the company from school and were shipped out to the colonies on the whim of the management to run the local ‘stations’. These guys, were thrown into the middle of jungles and local wars and were expected to get services up and running and manage everything from digging trenches (well maybe not), commissioning satellite and terrestrial systems, negotiating with the local government and managing the local business – profitably of course. Boy, were they the real experts! A good read would be Voices Over the Horizon: Tales from Cable and Wireless.

I remember so well writing a strategy paper about SDH and I needed to know what PDH was all about (mountains seemed to be a pertinent word in the PDH world I seem to remember). I went around many departments trying to get a clear definition and understanding of what the limitations of PDH were. With little success I might say. OK, I’ll put you out of your misery, PDH stands for Plesiochronous Digital Hierarchy (BTW, I’m sure this term was invented after SDH was defined to describe a legacy technology). This was my first exposure to an F1 and I guess that I practically lived in their pockets for the next few months. I needed to, as many that I met were just about to retire!

Another interesting fact was that these ‘old timers’ (not from an age, but experience perspective) were very open in their attitudes and accepted new services and technologies such as the Internet with great ease. Indeed they welcomed them with open arms! I didn’t necessarily find that in other quarters where it seemed to me that the principle aim was to preserve the status quo of legacy services because they felt threatened. This was particularly the case with IP. NO please, come on, not intellectual property, Internet Protocol.

I learnt such a lot from those guys and would definitely buy them a few beers any day and reminisce. Of course, this would preferably be on some pleasant Caribbean island like Antigua or Barbados with a large tumbler of rum in my hand. However, the Falkland Islands or Ascension Island would be just as pleasant. But, that is another story.

Thank you F1s for taking the time to educate me. I have never forgotten what I learnt.

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