With us today to offer his perspective on the networking industry and leadership is Francois Locoh-Donou. Francois has had an interesting journey over the years, starting in the West African country of Togo, moving on to high school and university in France, and arriving at Ciena as a systems engineer in the USA as the dot com boom started to really take off. He has held various executive positions at Ciena over the years, and is currently the SVP of Ciena’s Global Products Group where he leads their R&D and product development.
TR: Software-defined networking is looming large on the horizon for the networking industry. How is Ciena approaching this new trend?
FLD: Our business is 80 percent service providers and 20 percent enterprise, and the vast majority of our gear goes into wide area networks, not inside data centers. When SDN first got traction it was really in the data center. Increasingly service providers have made statements about its implementation in the wide area network. Obviously we are investing heavily in SDN. And we believe that we have an angle that is different from the routing players. We don’t have anything to lose and it is clear how disruptive and beneficial this could be for our service provider customers. They have competed largely on reach — are you in the building or not — and price. They have not been able to differentiate as much on the flavor of the services they can offer. We see SDN and to an extent NFV as an opportunity for our customers to create new differentiation and rejuvenate their business models. If we can participate in that, we will find a way to make money in it. So we’re really embracing the principles of opening up our gear to third party controllers, providing controllers with modularity to control different types of equipment.
Also, we are excited about our recently announced partnership with Ericsson that includes plans to jointly develop a multi-layer SDN solution set. It is still early days in this partnership, so stay tuned for more details.
TR: The other big trend Ciena has been preparing for is packet-optical networking. Is packet-optical ready for prime time?
FLD: The industry has talked about packet-optical for a long time. But we’re really getting to the point now with the speed of the processors where we can finally take two technologies that have separately, fundamentally changed our industry, DWDM and Ethernet, and bring them together. I think it will disrupt the status quo in the whole space of routing, optical, and metro aggregation.
TR: You started out as an engineer before moving into management through sales and marketing. Do you find that your technical background still helps you in your management career?
FLD: My engineering expertise helps me ask the right questions and to not be intimidated by the latest technologies we have. One of my principles of leadership is that it’s very difficult to lead people if you don’t actually understand what they do. Whether you have that background or not, you have to take the time to understand what the people you lead do on a daily basis. That way you can speak to them in a way that is relevant. But my challenge now is not necessarily a technical one, it’s mainly a leadership challenge.
TR: What has influenced your approach to leadership?
FLD: I grew up in a dictatorship, and it was quite a brutal regime. What I experienced there was the absurdity of management by force. When you look at organizations that perform well over a period of time, what you will find is that they are both smart and healthy. I mean smart in the sense that they make decisions on time; they have the right budgets, mechanics, and operational cadence. But a definition for a healthy organization – which isn’t mine but comes from a book that resonated with me – is one where there are no politics but instead cohesion between the leaders, and there is a clear mission. When people work for that organization, they don’t feel like they are walking on tip-toes. There is a form of candor where people can speak their mind. In that kind of environment, information and authority flows freely, there is a velocity about getting things done that is special, and there is a form of commitment from individuals to the organization. What I have discovered over time is that most leaders spend a lot of their time focusing on the smarts of an organization and very little time on its health. And I think that’s even more true in organizations that are quantitative in nature, e.g. engineering, financial, etc. My focus has shifted more and more toward how to create a healthy organization, and I have found that the returns on that are exponential. A lot of my challenge is centered around working with extraordinary leaders who have grown up in environments that are very analytical, very smart, very quantitative driven, and emphasizing to them, the importance of leading from the heart.
TR: Why do you think it is important to focus on healthy organizations in the networking industry?
FLD: I believe that intelligence and education are becoming commoditized in the world. If you want to get someone intelligent and educated into your company today, you can get it at the end of a fiber optic cable for $30-50K per year, and more of them have come online with India, China, Brazil, etc. There used to be a time 30-40 years ago where companies like IBM would compete on the basis of “I’ve got 5,000 engineers and you have 1,000 so I win.” But what is not a commodity – and I don’t think it ever will be – is the passion and commitment that intelligent and educated folks bring to an organization. The job of a leader is to elicit that passion and commitment. Someone in my shoes has to compete with Alcatel-Lucent and Huawei every day. For every engineer who walks into our office Monday morning, three or four walk into Huawei to build the same kind of products we’re building. I cannot compete with that unless the people who walk in the door at Ciena have a passion and commitment that is absolutely above normal. And you only get that if you spend a lot of time making people feel valued as individuals and creating a healthy organization.
TR: What do you look for in leaders to help you create that environment?
FLD: Seeing what “management-by-force” does to an organization, a country, etc, has really driven me to espouse a model of servant leadership. The last thing I want at the top of an organization are leaders that are bullies or that are insensitive to what goes on lower down in the organization, because I have seen the results of that first hand.
As such, there are two character traits that I look for in leaders, and as time goes on I am becoming less compromising on this. One is courage and the other is generosity. Courage is necessary because without it you can’t have candor, honesty, and the tough conversations that break down silos and help companies make the tough decisions that are required. Generosity is necessary because generous leaders invest their time with other people to give them guidance and inspiration. When I see those two traits in a leader, that’s base one and we can build anything with a leader that is courageous and generous.
TR: You aren’t just active in the world of networking, you have been applying your skills back in Togo. Can you tell us about that?
FLD: The world production of raw cashews is about 2.5M tons and about 40 percent of that comes from Africa. But one of the tragedies of Africa is that for the last 50 years all of that raw production has been exported to India and Vietnam and processed there. Every time we ship raw nuts there, we ship jobs that would otherwise go to women in Africa because the processing is very labor intensive and low tech. In Africa, dollars that go to women have a bigger impact on development because 100 percent goes into health and education for the children. So 10 years ago I started the first cashew processing factory in one of the poorest areas of Togo. Most of the women there had had to choose between collecting wood from the bush to sell as firewood or to leave the country to be a maid. We started 10 years ago with the goal to create 40 jobs and process 40 tons each year, and in 2014 we will process 3,000 tons and employ 700 people.
TR: How do you create a healthy organization in a place where the basic relationships between the people, their government, and industrial development have been so historically dysfunctional?
FLD: The philosophy is to change the relationship with the private sector. In much of Africa we have large companies that come and exploit the mineral resources, but if you look at the population that lives right next to where they are located these people get no benefit and in a lot of cases have their environment significantly affected. And that’s a form of violence that we don’t talk about a lot, but it is a violence and it generates more conflict. When a government is weak and cannot provide the basic infrastructure for its people, companies have to play a bigger role than just creating jobs. So we not only put in the factory, we committed a portion of our profits to investment in the community: a nursery, benches for the school, electricity. So there isn’t the tension that exists with a nearby mining company, and we get the commitment and passion from the community to drive the factory forward.
TR: Thank you for talking with Telecom Ramblings!
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