by Divina Paredes

CIO50 2019 #16: Mark Beder, Spark

Mar 28, 2019
Artificial IntelligenceBusiness ContinuityCareers

“As the leadership team member responsible for the engine room powering Spark, it is my job to enable the organisation’s path away from a traditional telco towards a globally recognised digital services provider,” says Mark Beder.

Beder, who was appointed technology director nearly a year ago from chief operating officer, works closely with leadership team members and the tribe leads (as the new executive and leaders are called) from across Spark, discussing key requirements both from a technology and IT perspective.

“The model that I employ with my peers is then replicated at each layer to ensure squads are responding to business needs and that we collaborate effectively to ensure the company’s priorities are met.”

As a team, the technology tribes and units stand for three things: operational resilience, technical leadership and value maximisation, he explains.

“We emphasise these three elements in our decision making and prioritisation to get the right outcome for the business. This ensures that teams like marketing and sales are already planning for technology developments before they happen.”

Last year, Spark made the transition to Agile @scale, an unprecedented business model of this scale in New Zealand.

The change involved thousands of people moving to tribes and sitting in squads.

Where previously technology people all sat at desks on one area, now they are spread throughout several different tribes and squads, explains Beder, whose role combines both the CIO and CTO functions.

“My role was to guide and support, making sure we empowered our people to operate successfully in an Agile model.”

“We agreed as a team how we would structure the technology team between Agile heavy and Agile light – solutioning the best outcome for product delivery.”

The role of leaders in Agile organisations is also very different.

He no longer has a technology leadership team, he has tribe and unit leaders. “Together we work towards delivering on the company’s strategic goals.”

The new organisational structure allowed them to discover new skills from the internal teams.

“We worked hard to find the right people for Agile leadership roles and we found talent in the organisation that we didn’t know was there,” says Beder.

“It’s known that women often don’t put themselves forward for promotions and we worked hard on encouraging and supporting all our high performing women to apply for tribe lead, chapter lead and product owner roles.

“It’s my job (along with the technology tribe and unit leads) to focus on the long-term, and to help set the direction of our technology. It’s then up to the tribes and squads to work out how we get there. The squads themselves decide on priorities, resourcing and execution.

“Spark is no longer the place for hierarchical leadership. We still set strategies, execute, and measure performance,” he says. “But under Agile, we unite our people with a common purpose, setting a long-term direction, ensuring everyone feels included.”

Full speed ahead

Beder says over the past year, his team had worked on a range of projects.

“5G will drive the next evolution of our business,” says Beder.

“The philosophy behind Spark’s ambition to deliver 5G first in New Zealand is foremost to deliver the extra data capacity that our customers demand. 5G also takes us into the next technology wave and we’re ensuring New Zealand is a leading digital nation,” says Beder.

“A 5G network that delivers superior performance also has the benefit of lowering our own operating costs for existing mobile and wireless broadband services.”

The team delivered New Zealand’s first 5G indoor and outdoor trials in Auckland and Wellington as well as New Zealand’s first 5G Lab and test network.

The lab is a showcase of 5G technology but is also designed to give New Zealand companies access to a 5G network, so they can experiment.

The lab is a purpose-built facility with Spark engineers for technical support and a working space available for their customers and partners to come in and collaborate with them on co-creating the 5G future.

The showcase includes IoT, drones, virtual reality, AI, and robotics.

He says the company is also densifying its mobile network and will be actively building more cell towers over the next few years to effectively manage ever-increasing customer demand for mobile data and wireless broadband and prepare for 5G.

In July last year, Spark had completed the first major milestone in its transition from the old Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) to a future-ready IP-based voice network dubbed the ‘Converged Communications Network’ (CCN). The CCN provides a unified platform that processes calls from a full range of access technologies like wireless and fibre.

Over the past two years, he says the company also embarked on an intense programme of work to analyse customer journeys and redesign each journey to improve resolution times and access to digital channels.

This means, they are offering more self-service options for customers. With their big data and AI capability it also means better understanding of the customer journey and the ability to make these easier, says Beder.

He says these improvements saw the number of calls coming into the call centre reduced by a quarter in the 2018 financial year. The number of customers using their self-service channels increased by 15 per cent. Net Promoter Scores – their primary measure of satisfaction – have also increased.

“We have also started using virtual assistants or chatbots to assist our customer service teams,” he says. “This technology does a great job answering the more basic enquiries, freeing up our people to deal with complex customer problems.”

Since we launched our virtual assistants in August 2017 they have had more than 750,000 customer interactions. In October last year, Ivy, as they call Spark’s digital assistant, resolved around 40 per cent of customer questions, essentially doing the work of approximately 43 full-time staff that month.

“Because she is intelligent and is constantly being taught by our teams how to do things better, we can expect that resolution rate to keep improving,” he says.

Over the past year, they have also implemented several automation initiatives that have allowed them to move three months of network upgrades to a single night (core network and IT estate). This means Spark almost entirely runs on a fully virtualised IT stack.

“We use the ‘as a service’ model to deliver IT services internally and to customers using DevOps and Agile,” says Beder.

Today, he says, there are around 52 ‘bots’ automating business tasks and processes across a diverse range of areas including security, fibre provisioning and IT operations.

These are jointly implemented by IT and the Data Automation team.

“We expect to have 100 bots working for Spark by the end of the financial year.”

He says staff have seen the value of agile ways of working and are enthusiastic about the opportunity to speed up processes for their customers.

“This means giving the repetitive, low-value work to ‘bots’ so staff can instead focus on more complex and challenging problems,” he says.

“We are very aware that the rise of artificial intelligence does mean some jobs will disappear, so we are ensuring our people can upskill and are able to continue doing more rewarding work.”

The changes implemented have had a different impact to the technology team at Spark.

Managing director Simon Moutter has acknowledged that the technology team, in particular the engineers, have been pulled out of the backroom and stepped into the limelight, he says.

For Beder, this is a testament to his experience that the CTO’s greatest challenge is “getting the balance right between technology, business requirement and cost”.

“You can’t afford to focus on any of these in isolation and must ensure that all elements are applied with equal amounts of good judgement, business acumen, and risk evaluation criteria.”

He says the biggest learning in his career in ICT is to ensure he’s taking his team and their teams on the journey to understand the relationship between all three aspects.

As he puts it, “technical staff are usually highly skilled in their area of expertise, but not always able to understand wider business requirements.”

Thus, he actively encourages his direct reports to understand the business holistically and help them to grow their commercial acumen.

“Their technical skills are world-class and don’t require any coaching, so we spend a lot of time discussing and unpicking the other issues in one-on-ones and team meetings. They then share these learnings with their teams,” he says.

Beder and his Tribe Leads hold internal roadshows where his staff explains the financial metrics at Spark, and how their team can and do contribute.

“In this way we are broadening the horizons of quite niche technical specialists to have a better understanding of business drivers.”