Group CTO of the Year: VEON’s visionary says success speaks for itself

CTO Interviews

Yogesh Malik won Mobile Europe’s Group CTO of the Year award for his visionary approach to telecoms, enthusiasm for new technology and lack of complacency. He talks to Graeme Neill.

Yogesh Malik is lost for words. As anyone who knows VEON’s eloquent and verbose Group CTO can testify, this is a rarity. All it took was one simple question to the 2017 winner of Mobile Europe’s Group CTO of the Year award: how has the role of the CTO changed in recent years?

After a lengthy pause while he considers his thoughts, Malik says the CTO role is effectively in a triangle of differing priorities pulling each executive in different directions. He says: “Transformational leadership is the first. The second is the knowledge of, not products, but software and integration. That is very important. The third element that is extremely critical is to be financial savvy.”

He says the stakes have never been higher in terms of risk. Whereas early generations of CTOs focused on mobility and rolling out of new products, CTOs are now more heavily involved in business transformation. “There’s a huge amount of strategic importance in [the] initiatives we are taking,” he says. “There’s [also] an amount of understanding between engagement and monetisation, depending on the service you are bringing forward. It’s a lot of very fine balances required if you are going to do justice to the job and the role.”

Malik points to virtualisation as one area in which all these issues come together. He explains: “In virtualisation what we see is that we are extremely dependent on integration skills because people say ‘my vEPC will not work with your NFV infrastructure’. It’s important to get to the bottom of it and that goes hand in hand with driving transformation to technology.”

Fiscal prudence has evolved beyond the sole domain of the Chief Financial Officer, Malik notes. “Being financially savvy does not mean investment that gives yield return in two years,” he says. “This is investment that will transform our business. Hence that understanding of investor relations and being able to succeed and convince them to see what this transformation will bring ultimately.”

Anyone who has heard Malik speak will know that the change agenda underpins everything he does, and everything that he thinks telcos should do. As you will read in our judges’ comments, Malik is keen to tear up the traditional model of what a telco should be and does, and reorient it towards one that is truly customer centric.

He is refreshingly frank in admitting this has been a failing of telcos and even his own work. He says: “We have to be relevant in how we roll out these [new] technologies to the end consumer. Maybe that’s where we missed out in the 3G wave, at least I can speak for operations I have worked with, and we missed out other industries regardless of the geography in the 4G wave in terms of creating much more relevance in what LTE can provide.”

He adds: “What I do see as an issue is our own capacity to make [these new technologies] relevant to the end consumer and hence not just do a hotspot launch for the publicity, but to really make it part of the offering.”

 

Software able

What enables this is software and this is an area that VEON that excelled in. Malik has been one of the strongest proponents of NFV and spent last year implementing vEPCs across five markets. He says the goal was to leave legacy-heavy systems behind and replace them with leaner, software-driven infrastructure that is needed for swifter, more efficient operations.

Attention has turned to rolling out an Open Stack-based network functions virtualisation infrastructure (NFVi) with VEON implementing the likes of home location register (HLR), customer premises equipment (CPE), VoLTE and VoWiFi. Malik says: “These projects build confidence that yes, we can move traffic, we can move forward and we can really do extremely well.”

But despite his palpable enthusiasm for the technology and desire to make it happen, Malik says he still managed to surprise himself when it came to the implementation. He smiles: “I expected that I would be proven wrong. I expected that there would be issues. That’s the normal expectation. What I was surprised by is that the traffic is extremely stable and growing. We have been able to remove the hard lock between the boxes and made it more foolproof, more agile and more pool-based in a way that we have deliver a better customer and network quality.”

He adds: “Our experience has been it is reliable. We have been doing extremely thorough tests, so we quality assure extremely well, we have all written contingency measures extremely well between applications and between hardware. From that point of view, we see once we decide to migrate traffic, and I would say HLR and EPC are the two most sensitive elements, we see reliability. This is not only for data but for voice as well.”

By widely deploying NFVi, VEON is getting a “glimpse” of what a fully virtualised network could look like and also gives the operator a platform to build upon. Malik says the intention is to go “full steam” on the likes of HLR and virtualised messaging. He says: “I am on a journey of complete cross layer transformation. It’s not only vEPC, it’s a [full] cross network transformation, which means application layers, which means infrastructure layers, which means radio access layers, which means the applications at the front end facing the consumer, all the layers we are going through and transforming.”

He accepts not necessarily everyone across the telecoms industry shares the same enthusiasm as some of virtualisation’s advocates. He says: “You have those who are on the fence but are not distracters. Embracing and identifying the ones who want to change is what we are constantly doing. We are also looking at those on the fence and observing them because those people are looking for the proof points. Once they see that proof point, they jump on.”

He adds: “For people to get the concept, really move and not just sit around on the fence and say ‘oh my God, I may have this issue or that issue’, then [operators] need to test effectively. We are a data driven organisation. We are able to make a fact-based decision, yes or no. That’s what we did and in my view, today, we are happy with that.”

 

Mustering troops for the future

Effecting widespread change such as this requires a new generation of skills and staff. Malik says VEON’s policy is to target graduates and postgraduates, as well as poach from related industries such as fintech. He says: “These two types of staff need to coexist and given we have identified the internal change leaders, with those we bring in externally with the right skillsets, both add to our experts and leadership levels.”

Of course, the issue isn’t as straightforward as going to a graduate jobs fair and snapping up the best talent ahead of anyone else. Making a telco attractive is as much of a challenge as transforming it. Graduates and post-graduates in particular may prefer to flutter their eyelashes at Google, Apple, Facebook or Amazon, or even get to work in their own garages and build their own digital disrupter for the decades ahead.

Malik says positioning VEON as an attractive company is a “very important issue” but notes that its headquarters in Amsterdam serves as an initial lure. He says: “There are several factors at play here. The first is is the leadership committed to change or not? A lot of people, from what I have seen is they would like to do something which is ultra-meaningful and gives them the ability to shine, to not just be a player but to drive change and establishing a new culture. I get personally involved in hiring, across multiple levels, to show them the commitment of change.

“The second reason is there is a big level of entrepreneurialism within [VEON]. If you select these people, they want to see a telco industry that is close to the technology landscape and are able to see it changing as well. They want to be pioneers and if you look at our values, we want to be truthful, innovative and entrepreneurial, as well as pioneering new boundaries, new frontiers. We find a resonance, especially in the leadership positions.”

Any conversation about building for the future inevitably dovetails into 5G, raising a chuckle from Malik. “No conversation in any network department would be complete without 5G,” he notes. This is where he calls back to his talk about the importance of the end consumer, and telcos’ occasional amnesia that that is the true target rather than headline speeds or changing revenue sources.

In order to succeed, he says: “We have to stop looking at technology per se but start looking at the end consumer in order to give an integrated experience. 5G will be relevant for latency reasons right away. That’s one application.

“But the more we start thinking from what the purpose of 5G is rather than the action and reaction, we will see a 5G that gives a clear execution base to test and develop what it can do for your networks. That’s the way we are thinking. We are at the drawing board with those questions and I think we are making progress. It’s leading to a much better discussion around the company rather than ‘Oh, we gotta have 5G because everyone else has 5G’.”

He talks excitedly about the potential that exists with new kinds of applications and services that could be at the fore, rather than focusing on speeds and capacity. He adds: “What you see is the ecosystem changing and this is where cross-layer transformation becomes important. No matter what the application, you will need to see it across your footprint if you want to make a difference and come out in a positive manner.”

The Internet of Things is another must-discuss area in telecoms and it is here Malik is more measured in his approach. The operator is gearing up for NB-IoT trials later this year, but the CTO says VEON’s attitude is technology agnostic. “What we are religious about is continuous progression, continuous evaluation and the search for a better horizon all the time. When it comes to agriculture, e-health, [it’s all] fascinating stuff but I personally am not into [opting for] this technology for IoT over that.”

 

Sourcing inspiration

Like many successful CTOs, Malik’s enthusiasm for the industry is palpable, but what lies behind that? He says: “Managing change is one of the biggest and foremost skills [required] and that’s where I have derived the most inspiration from. I want to look at our role at the horizon from the end-consumer’s point of view. I want to give staff chances to come up and show me new things.”

He says a longer term view is inspiring, identifying and working through the “waves” of transformation required to build a forward thinking company, but ensuring this transformation does not make staff feel left behind. 

Looking back for a moment, Malik pays tribute to former Telenor CEO and current GSMA chairman Jon Fredrik Baksaas as playing a key role in his career. Before joining VEON, then Vimpelcom, Malik was CEO at Telenor Group’s Indian subsidiary Uninor. He says Baksaas was highly influential in “moving the needle”, as Malik puts it, adding he was crucial in coaching and guiding him as well as navigating a telco through “three decades of evolution”.

The Group CTO of the Year is now firmly focused on the future. He says: “I derive my inspiration every single day from the fact we can improve.”

 

Why he won: Mobile Europe’s judging panel on how Yogesh Malik demonstrated the x-factor

Kester Mann, CCS Insight

Yogesh was the stand-out candidate for the Group award, impressing in multiple areas including network virtualisation, LTE, cloud services and Business Support Systems (BSS).

His achievements are all the more impressive given the challenging and varied market dynamics across the company’s wide-reaching geographic footprint.

Two efforts in particular caught my eye: the launch of LTE at 450MHz in Armenia and the introduction of mobile financial services in Pakistan.

Yogesh displays many of the characteristics of a great CTO; he is willing to take risks but learn from mistakes, has ambition to set the future technology agenda and displays limitless passion and desire to make a genuine difference within the industry.

Over the past year, one of Yogesh’s greatest achievements has been his instrumental role in the creation of VEON. The platform seeks to reincarnate the company, from mobile operator to global technology leader. It is entering unchartered territory in so doing, taking an uncharacteristically bold and far-sighted approach among normally risk-averse network operators. The ambition should be applauded as the company aims to establish a new paradigm for telcos.

 

Bengt Nordstrom, Northstream

Yogesh heads up the technology strategy for one of the most diverse operators globally covering markets from Central Asia and Russia to Southern Europe and Africa. This makes it very challenging for the CTO to identify and delivering on synergy and scale opportunities across the operations.

Notwithstanding these challenges, Yogesh has an outstanding record of achievements in 2016 which have further strengthened VEON’s position in the market place. This includes the extension of VEON’s LTE footprint in an overwhelming majority of its markets, setting up network sharing agreements in a number of key markets, as well as introducing a common virtualisation infrastructure solution (NFVI) based on Open Stack and implementing several different functions.

Yogesh is one of the most visionary CTOs in the telecom industry and one who understands that operators need to move quickly to stay relevant in as fast changing technology landscape. He is also unique in the sense that he combines his visionary thinking with a very pragmatic and hands on management style. He is simply a man that get complicated things done.