CXO Interviews

Toomas Polli, Head of Technology Unit and Board Member, Elisa Estonia, shared his thoughts on some big issues our Q1 2019 Mobile Europe magazine.

What is the biggest issue on your mind now?

Issues not so much, let’s call them challenges. We are challenged daily to take the organisation further. One of the important questions in my mind now is 5G and timing: 5G will be more disruptive than the evolution from 3G to 4G was. The question is, “When is the right time to switch the investment focus to be just on time?”.

Which person has most influenced your career?
It is hard to point to one definite person, but the person who influences your career most is you and the actions that you undertake yourself. Of course, there are other influences as well in the people you work with – my team and colleagues from the management board. I’m a people person and I like Sir Richard Branson’s philosophy on employees.

What is the most important lesson you have learned professionally?
The latest saying by Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings: when asked what his company does with “brilliant jerks” he replied, it gets rid of them because, “For us, the cost to effective teamwork is too high”. The big lesson for me from this is that sometimes we postpone decisions for too long.

You launched a 5G commercial network in June 2018, underlining your pioneering credentials. What do you think will be the biggest change 5G will make to telecoms?
For sure 5G will bring lots of new services – things that we currently cannot even fully imagine. What we are likely to witness is that telcos will become even more open to cooperating with different start-ups.

There will be a boom in new services, and after that, in the second stage, many of them will die. Then there will be market consolidation among the remaining ones. Out of that we could see the definition of telecom operations changing, compared with what we have today. Then the main revenue stream will come from totally different lines of business. When I look from a narrow CTO point of view, 5G will change how we manage our net-works – a lot.

What’s the biggest obstacle to 5G’s success and how will you overcome it?
In some cases, 5G is needed already today to solve telecoms challenges such as congested network hotspots or to provide better capacity for existing services. But still, when 5G is rolled out, it will enable lots of different types of connections. Take, for example, IoT – today, many business cases are not viable due to the cost of sensors being too high. What 5G needs to become successful and go to being mass market is a little more time.

What is your greatest professional achievement?
Here I would point out two things: one is ‘done’, the other in progress. I put the ‘done’ item in inverted commas because we know that processes are never really finished. But I’m happy that we have transformed Elisa development from waterfall to agile, and we have transformed not just the technology unit, but the whole company. This enables us to deliver the most important things to customers and we can quickly adapt to market changes. The other thing I would highlight is the merger of Elisa (one of the biggest mobile operators in Estonia) with Starman in 2017 (one of the biggest TV and fixed broadband providers).Of course I cannot take 100% credit for those achievements, there are lot of good people behind them.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?
We have a very active sports club in Elisa, so there is training and other activities to take part in. Last year we formed a group, trained and made the Otepää 70.3 Ironman compe-tition. That was an experience. My personal hobby is cooking – with very quick iteration you can get positive feedback.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the telecoms industry?
The industry needs to change, and more rapidly than it is now. Above I mentioned adaptability, and telcos have not yet done it fully. I mean, look at the ecosystems that are developing in parallel in the start-up scene – we need to become more open.

Just as example, at MWC there are hordes of suit-and-tie people going around and a big amount of space given over to demos of cellular devices when we can see that the service part is what we really need to build. I have nothing against nicely dressed people or devices!

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