Keri Gilder, CEO of Colt Technology Services, is one of only a handful of women leading a global telecoms company. Named CEO of the year at the World Communications Awards and a leader that “has the ability to move mountains” by the Global Telecoms Women’s Network, Keri’s passion is changing the industry. At Colt, Keri is committed to transforming the company from its legacy as City of London Telecom to a digital infrastructure business delivering extraordinary connections.


Mei Lee Quah: Change is a constant. As we wrap up the year and head into 2023, I thought it would be timely for us to look at where we are and where we need to go from here. Let’s get started on where we are. My observation of the telecoms industry is that it has not changed very much over the years and is still very much a “Build it, and they will come” industry. Do you concur?

Keri Gilder: I thought that too when I first came into this role, and it surprised me. As CEO, I’ve changed the way that we approach our businesses cases. We at Colt only “Build it, and they will come” proactively into major data centers where we know the consumption of bandwidth and traffic is going to be high.

Outside of that, our business model is to always have an anchor tenant for our digital infrastructure. If that does not exist, then we need some significant market data to say that it is coming. Even then, often, we will not proactively build until there is actual customer demand that is going to fulfill the return-on-investment capital.

For example, with a major build requiring significant investment in the Iberian Peninsula, we took a risk-based approach where the entire investment would not be returned based solely upon the anchor tenant. Instead, we built it in a way that not only enabled the anchor tenant, but also enabled enterprises with connectivity and/or services on top of it. With a major return on the investment in place powered by the anchor tenant, we then only needed a few enterprise connectivity leases for us to be profitable on that build.

If talking about legacy type mentalities, two things come to mind. Control and the way we pitch to customers. Let’s talk about control first.

Control is what I have seen, and I have been incredibly open about my stand on this through the Global Leaders Forum and other vehicles. Enabling digital is less about control, and more around collaboration and how we need to work together to enable a universal digital infrastructure around the world.

We are in a capital-intensive industry where there is not enough capital in the world for one company to take control of global infrastructure. To compete, we need to improve our value proposition and to do this, we need to work together. Working together means that we must relinquish control, and we must be comfortable with doing that.

Now, let’s talk about the way we pitch to customers. The usual approach is the vendor pitches to the telco and the telco pitches with the exact same approach to enterprises. Lately, I am seeing this changing. How are you pitching differently at Colt?

You must look at how business takes place today. Even at Colt, most of our business is transactional. It goes through the procurement engine for A to B connectivity buys. It is basic but it is happening in a declining market, where there a constant downward pressure on retail pricing at the same time as upward movement in costs. As a result, we must change the way that we are engaging with the market.

What that means is a more complex sales proposition and a more complex product proposition that not only includes our portfolio – the connectivity piece – but the portfolio of others, which could span the cloud, the compute, the mobility, and the access side. As such, we have been bringing on board a series of partners that have specific capabilities which integrate with ours. We are good at bringing the proposition together and then having a conversation and saying, “We can stitch this together and we can add value as your consultant to help you meet your needs across the entire construct.” The message is becoming clear. Colt is not just in the connectivity space.

The telecoms industry lacks disruptors and it is hard to find evidence of disruption. Every time somebody talks about disruption, the same few companies come up. What do we do about this?

The telecoms industry does need some forward thinking. We are an industry that is aging and because of that, things have always been done a certain way. It is exceedingly difficult to change mentalities to do things differently. However, with the new era of software and software-defined networks, as well as the current economic climate that has triggered many mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in the telecoms industry, things are starting to change rapidly. All of this is creating an environment that is rife for disruption. Companies may be large, but they must think about data differently. We must look at the digital infrastructure, and see how everything within it can be monetized, almost like how a real estate agency appraises property. We have not done that as an industry but now is the time to start.

Disruption is the best time for innovation but even though we are in technology, we depend on others for innovation. What can we do to encourage more innovation within the industry?

We need to be more curious. Curiosity is what is required for us to fulfill some of the next generation customer needs and requirements.

If we look at Apple and the iPhone: the iPhone was an innovation that happened before people realized they needed it. We need to be thinking that way – thinking about what is the innovation that enterprises will need and build it before they need it in a smart way so that that the investment can return the value that is required. Having said that, I do think that our OSS/BSS system needs to be more proactive, especially around how we are looking at the future i.e., with cloud-based infrastructures that are nimbler, and active product and future development.

While improving our technology to enable innovation, we are creating complexity. Solutions are now too complex for users and need to be simplified. How do we find our way through this?

The TM Forum is ahead of the game in regard to the Standards Committee on trying to be nimbler, and driving APIs and open source, for example. Working groups need to be creating and innovating, and also simplifying businesses before working with the teams. I’m working with the Mobile Ecosystem Forum (MEF) and other standards bodies to say, “Let’s keep this simple, please run a quick qualification cycle to validate and then standardize it as a piece of the puzzle.” If we do that, then we would be more apt to adopt standards. The standards framework is still needed but with this approach, even if the technology is more complex, the way we use it can be simplified.

There is now so much automation going on that I wonder whether it is going in the right direction. Tell me, in your view, are we automating a dump pipe or hopefully moving away from a one-size fit all?

At Colt, we have started to look at why are we automating, should we be automating, should we be automating into certain areas? To me, it is more around the process and analyzing the customer journey, and then enabling the automation where it makes sense: perhaps where there are quality issues, or where there is highly repetitive work that can be automated.

There is room for automation of network learning and network monitoring as if we get that right, then manual intervention will no longer be required. In data centers, often there are less than twenty people because it is so automated that not much goes wrong there – because the planning, the process, the reporting, and machine learning, are all automated. We need to emulate this level of automation within the telecoms industry. With bandwidth increasing exponentially, if we continue to run the business manually then we need to keep adding more people. This practice will not be sustainable in the longer term because margins are deteriorating, and costs keep increasing. So, it is imperative that we automate, for the right reasons with the right processes within the customer journey. We need to enable a value-added and zero touch service within our operations profile.

This is indeed an interesting approach because we have at one extreme a disruptor that is going all out to automate and here, we have Colt with a more careful approach. Is there really benefit to have that little bit of human intervention left intact?

You are always going to need a human for some of your more complex accounts, but this has become more consulting than anything else. If you are getting the operations right and you are automating, it is enough that your error rate is low.

As we wrap up, let’s talk about how this industry can do better. On that note, I understand that the TM Forum came out with a new measurement system. Please tell me more about this as I know you’ve been leading this.

I worked for the last two and a half years with Nik Willets at the TM Forum to produce the inclusion and diversity score. The reason we did that was because as a female executive – one of the very few female CEOs in the industry – I have held the flag for diversity for a long time. I do not know why that flag is always given to the woman, but it is.

And so, when Nik approached me, we talked about the importance of doing something that would actually manifest change.

For me, as a business executive, what we measure is what matters. So, we produced the measurement system. It is half inclusion and half diversity. It uses machine learning to understand what are the five or six themes that are coming out of the responses on employee sentiment on inclusion.

With that in place, we have been able to build interventions that truly make a difference. At one point within Colt, I found that most of my employees felt they were disadvantaged because they had English as a second language, and felt that they would not be promoted unless English was their first language. This is clearly a perception because in actual fact, my CMO is Japanese and my head of sales has Chinese heritage. But it is a perception and perceptions become reality.

To address this, we immediately changed our communication style and started communicating in multiple languages. That slight change made an enormous difference and helped to create an inclusive environment within the company.

While the results were encouraging, we still have a long way to go. One study found just 14% of telecoms firms have majority female ownership. We can do a lot more if we can get men in male executive roles to start looking at this as more of a strategic imperative and measuring it like one, instead of looking at it as a moral obligation. It is a business imperative, and if we do not take it seriously, then we will not be able to attract more talent into this industry. We need more ‘outside-in thinking’, more collaboration and more investigation into other industries.

About Quah Mei Lee

Quah Mei Lee is a Director with Frost & Sullivan’s ICT practice. Working on Mobile & Wireless Research for Asia-Pacific, her area of expertise lies in telecoms strategy with a specific interest in 5G.

Quah Mei Lee

Quah Mei Lee is a Director with Frost & Sullivan’s ICT practice. Working on Mobile & Wireless Research for Asia-Pacific, her area of expertise lies in telecoms strategy with a specific interest in 5G.

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