Q&A: T-Systems VP Axel Clauberg says carriers need to embrace a 'failure culture'

T-Systems' Axel Clauberg said service providers need to let employees know it's okay to fail in order to learn in a rapidly changing tech environment. (Pixabay)

Whether it's enterprises undertaking digital transformations or carriers moving to virtualization, the cultural transformation that needs to take place with employees is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in the telecom industry.

Axel Clauberg, T-Systems

When Axel Clauberg started working at Deutsche Telekom nine years ago, he was tasked with leading DT's NFV efforts and TeraStream's team. TeraStream was designed to reduce IT complexity in existing networks by migrating the operating systems for network operation to the cloud.

Earlier this year, Clauberg moved from his role as Deutsche Telekom's vice president of aggregation, transport, IP (TI-ATI) and infrastructure cloud architecture, to Deutsche Telekom's enterprise division, T-Systems. At T-Systems, Clauberg holds the title of vice president, strategic portfolio management and CTO of telecommunications services.

"We looked at it (TeraStream) initially just from the technology perspective," said Clauberg during an interview with FierceTelecom at the recent Open Networking Summit. "What needs to be done? What kind of alliances do we need with other operators to actually make it happen, but we didn't look at what kind of cultural changes do we need to implement to actually make it happen?"

Clauberg said the transition from traditional telecom principles, such as waterfall process designs, to truly agile processes wasn't as easy as it first sounded.

"You need to have a failure culture because not everything you are doing in this area will work in the first attempt," he said. "It's important to understand 'OK, what is the path which is not working?' and then stop it as quickly as possible, but learn from it and develop that failure culture.

"I think that is something that was difficult for the operators because normally we want to deliver a seamless service. We want to deliver a high availability service that doesn't normally translate well into a failure culture. We don't want to deliver a bad service, that's not what I mean. A failure culture means in the development work you need to have the proper culture to deal with failures and learn from them."

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In this second installment of a Q&A with Clauberg, which was lightly edited for clarity and length, Clauberg also talks about 5G and mobile edge compute and how his job has changed.

FierceTelecom: How has your job focus changed after moving from Deutsche Telekom to T-Systems?

Axel Clauberg: T-Systems is focusing basically on four elements: On one side it's connectivity, then it's digital solutions, it's cloud and infrastructure, and security. My focus in there is as the one responsible for strategic portfolio management in connectivity, so in telecommunication services. Here you have the whole software-defined services whether it's LAN, whether it's WAN, and the link to automation with what's driven in Linux Foundation and also in other organizations. The orchestration part is critical there as well.

FierceTelecom: It's somewhat surprising how long it has taken enterprises to do their digital transformations. What's your take on where they are?

Clauberg: What you're seeing is that there is a requirement to use the network in a much more flexible way. When I changed sides from kind of the group CTO (at DT) to a more internal and innovation focused role dealing with customers, it's been impressive to see what enterprise customers did in the meantime as part of their digitization journey. But this really drives the need for flexible network services, for fully automated services and for things like real-time analytics to have deep insight into what's happening in the networks, and that's an area where all of the technologies developed here (at ONS) actually help.

They (enterprises) don't have the resources to drive open-source networking themselves. Take a large enterprise. They maybe have two or three people in the networking department. It's very difficult for an enterprise to actually attract talent that would be able to support open-source activities. That's why you only see the very big enterprises, like from financial industry, being active in the open-source communities as well. But here, the operators have a special role because we are serving those enterprises with many services and so we are kind of the tie between, or the link between, what's happening on the enterprise and what's happening on the technical side. Ideally, it's a win-win for what we are driving and what the enterprises are driving when it comes to open source, for example.

FierceTelecom: Is the managed services space becoming more competitive across telcos, managed service providers and hyperscalers?  

Clauberg: It's business, so it has to be competitive. Let's take SD-WAN for example. Back in 2014 when SD-WAN came to the market it was positioned as a solution where enterprise wouldn't want managed services anymore, but could do things themselves. But this is actually hard and over time I think one thing was clear, "Yes you need the flexibility brought by SD-WAN, but you still need managed services and you need a proper migration from the existing world into the more flexible world." You still need high availability, highly reliable services because otherwise the enterprise itself would suffer with their business.

Look at what's happening around 5G. One of the areas where we designed for 5G was also the use in mission critical environments for support of low latency services. For example, enterprises on a campus network, enterprises that have production, and support them in the campus network whether it's with AR/VR applications, whether it's with robot control, drone control, or whatever. For me that's a nice example where you see a new type of managed services coming as well where the software defined WAN, the software defined LAN—you already have a Wi-Fi infrastructure— come together with mobile.

In my career there was always some up and downs with the value of the network. So I started in networking in the mid-'80s and at that time networking was really sexy, but only for the few people who worked in there and knew about the internet. Then when the internet got broader use it became more "Yeah, this is standard technology," and it was less sexy. But now you see actually that connectivity is the foundation for digitization and that makes it very interesting again to work in there.

FierceTelecom: What about mobile edge compute for 5G? There's still a lot to work through for all of these 5G-related applications to work?

Clauberg: It does indeed require significant amounts of work. I think the most important part is when you think about edge computing, and a lot of edge sites you operate, you need to have the lifecycle management working because you're always going to have to do patches and updates. You need to be able to manage the environment in a proper way. You need to have that under control and this is not easy with all of the complexity enterprise customers are bringing in. That's also not easy for the hyperscalers. They are struggling with the same complexity there. Still, I believe it's worth it because in order to deliver low latency services we need the compute capabilities in the edge.

I believe there is also the opportunity to monetize at the edge, but it's an area where you need to invest before you can monetize.