by Martha Heller

How IT became business problem solvers at Level 3 Communications

Aug 16, 2017
CareersCIOCollaboration Software

IT doesn’t wait for business requirements at Level 3 Communications — it co-creates them, says CIO Atilla Tinic. Learn how he is changing the culture in his IT organization.

What does “digital thinking” mean in the telecom industry? How does an IT organization in a company that delivers a complex array of products become a “product organization” itself? How do IT and business operations work together on customer experience? For Atilla Tinic, CIO of Level 3, the answers lie in removing hierarchy, sharing dashboards and getting the company to start thinking “outside-in.”

How have you turned IT from a culture of order takers into business problem solvers?

Our mantra is that in IT, we know the business as well as our business partners do. IT organizations have traditionally thought of their business partners as “customers” with IT there to take the customer order. 

That’s not us.

atilla tinic cio level 3 Level 3 Communications

Atilla Tinic, CIO, Level 3 Communications

I tell my team that I never want to hear the words, “We are behind on this project because our customer hasn’t given us the requirements.” When you are an IT organization that solves business problems, you are not waiting for requirements. You are working with your business partners to create them.

How do you drive home that mantra?

That philosophy is built into the fabric of everything we do. People in IT sit with our salespeople to understand their experience when using systems and interfacing with customers. IT and our business partners co-present on major program updates so that no one can tell where IT stops and our business partners begin. Organizationally, I have direct reports for sales, operations, finance and corporate systems. That structure helps us build a level of trust that is foundational for a consultative relationship.

In what way is IT a “product organization” at Level 3?

Each of our major technology initiatives has a product owner who might be from IT, marketing or the product organization. Team members could be from operations, networks, marketing or any other function that is relevant to a particularly initiative. Critical to the success of these teams is our shift from a hierarchical mindset to a culture of cross-functional teams. Let me explain:

Imagine a cross-functional team that spans four departments. That translates to four different layers of management. If everyone, on every layer, is trying to guide the program, all of those managers will inadvertently push against each other, which can slow down the team’s work. In our less hierarchical structure, our managers know that their job is to remove roadblocks. But it is the team’s job to make major decisions about the program. Team members are accountable to the team as a whole and not solely to their managers. 

How have you changed the metrics you use in IT?

We have not dismissed traditional IT metrics around time, budget, availability, but we have begun to use many of the dashboards that our operations groups use to drive our priorities.

For example, our customer experience team has a heat map that shows where the company is doing well with our customers and where we can improve. With this heat map, we can break down the customer experience journey into segments: When are customers shopping, buying, receiving services or paying? We know whether each step in that journey is positive or negative or somewhere in between.

It’s important that we as an IT organization understand that entire journey, since unlike any other organization at Level 3, we are involved from quote to cash. Each step in the journey may be unique, but the reality is that they all build upon each other. In IT, we see the steel thread and the levers we can use to improve the experience.

There used to be a time in IT when we would say to our business partners: “Don’t tell us the how; tell us the what.” We are beyond that now; we don’t wait for the “what.” Our job is to bring the “what” to our business partners.

For example, members of my team were looking at how the business was processing orders. They found a way to aggregate multiple orders, which made the process much simpler. They came up with that themselves, and brought it to the operations group, where the solution was well received. 

Our approach is “show us your business,” and we can find opportunities for improvement.

How would you characterize digital thinking?

The telecom industry is more than 100 years old, so we have a great perspective on moving from industrial to digital. It’s really changing from an “inside-out” approach to “outside-in.” We used to think solely about internal operations when developing a solution. That meant our customers had to understand a lot about telecom, including all of our acronyms.

Our new outside-in philosophy allows our customers to be at the center of our solutions. For example, we have a product called Dynamic Capacity, which allows our customers to manage their network bandwidth themselves. They don’t have to pick up the phone. That solution was the result of IT, the CMO and our CTO all working together to improve the customer experience. 

With an outside-in approach, it’s not what technology should I produce for my customer; it’s “how does my customer want to interact with our solutions?”

About Atilla Tinic

Atilla Tinic is CIO for Level 3 Communications, responsible for the global IT organization. Tinic joined Level 3 in 2014 as part of the tw telecom acquisition and had been with the company since 2004, where he served as senior vice president of IT. He has more than 20 years of experience in IT architecture, system engineering and data management. Previously, Tinic held leadership positions with Bell Canada, Bell Sygma, Saville Systems and American Management Systems (AMS).

He holds a B.A. degree in Economics and Psychology from the University of Western Ontario and an M.A.S. degree from the University of Denver.