Breaking the glass ceiling

The pandemic has turned the tables in the IT industry. Now, anyone who has a great idea for a product or service can enter the arena without any special pass

Two decades ago, while working for an IT networking tech firm, I tried hard to convince telecom operators to embrace IP technology to carry their voice, data, and video traffic on data networks. No one believed in our vision at the time. They thought that we were peddling snake oil. One day, with great difficulty, I got a meeting with the chairman of one of the premier telecom players of the time. I was informed that the entire leadership team would be there, gathered, to listen to our revolutionary ideas (though bizarre at that time). We wanted to pitch the idea of a robust, scalable IP backbone that would carry all types of traffic, not just data.

Finally, the D-Day came. My team and I reached the corporate office well in time. We were chaperoned politely into the boardroom. Soon, the chairman arrived. After the usual polite introductions, I was asked to begin my presentation. Five minutes in, the chairman looked at his watch and excused himself. He said that he had an urgent call to make. I guess, the tough message that was being given to us was that we were not ‘telecom network’ class players, but ragtag IT equipment folks, foolishly venturing into the brave new world of telecom.

During the pandemic, we learnt to work with great speed and agility, adjusting marvelously to the changed circumstances, in double quick time.

No sooner had he left the room, all the executives started excusing themselves, one by one. Within a few minutes, we were left alone to eat humble pie and make our way out of the building. Before leaving, we were asked to hand over our presentation on a memory stick, “just in case”. We licked our wounds and came back to our office in a rather somber mood. Our goal that afternoon was to make a pitch, for MPLS networks, which would, in a very bandwidth-efficient fashion allow service providers to offer voice, data, and video services seamlessly to businesses and consumers.

No one then wanted to accept or believe that high-quality voice and video could be delivered over a data network. Our pitch may have seemed to be too futuristic. We were not talking of convergence, but conversion.

A couple of years later, as the world moved on, I was invited to an event on the future of telecom networks. Lo and behold, the same operator who had politely nudged me out of his boardroom (we were not even offered a cup of tea) was one of the keynote presenters. As they presented, I was dumbfounded. I saw my very own slides being played back, word by word! I just smiled and sat smugly for the rest of the event. I had the feeling of great satisfaction that they had finally got converted. There was an important lesson I learned that evening. If you have conviction, keep trudging. You will eventually prevail.

Fast-forward to the pandemic. We have undoubtedly learned some very new and valuable lessons. For one, we have worked with great speed and agility, adjusting marvelously to the changed circumstances, in double-quick time. We have learned the art of working rather efficiently. In fact, each one of us has innovated and found new solutions, new ways of supporting our customers, new ways of engaging with our teams to keep them motivated, and new ways of making money. All of these of course powered by IP networks! Many organisations have pivoted their fundamental business models and introduced a surprising range of new products. A sanitary napkin manufacturer has got into the business of high-quality face masks, liquor firms have started making sanitisers. Perhaps no other event has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies more than the pandemic.

Many folks ask me what the post-COVID-19 economy will look like. One thing is for sure, it is going to be very different. The lessons learned during the pandemic are not going to be forgotten. Some things are going to remain forever. The change in consumer behavior is one good example. Having got used to shopping online and getting great deals, consumers will keep coming back to these platforms. Stickiness will stay for good. A higher volume of online purchasing will open up many new opportunities in the area of warehousing, logistics, and last-mile delivery.

The pandemic has changed consumer behaviour. Higher volume of online purchasing will open up new opportunities in warehousing, logistics and last mile delivery.

New-age consumers have become very altruistic. They care for the environment a lot more. The thought of the earth becoming 1.5 degrees warmer in the not-so-distant future is worrying. New-world, post-pandemic customers are going to be more concerned about the environment. They will care if the delivery boy is turning up in a guzzler or an eco-friendly electric vehicle. Also, the convenience of digital payments (no touching please) is here to stay. It is not just about someone ensuring that you receive what you want at your doorstep, but more importantly about the process and care by which it reaches the customer. Images of clean air, beautiful blue skies, rare bird sightings have all made headlines. Everyone has suddenly recognised the need to focus on the impact of climate change. Evaluating vendors on their outlook towards saving the environment and approach to sustainability has become key. Which packing material is the food being delivered in is as important as the quality of the food itself.

Your customers watch you more closely than you think. Did you step up and stand up to be counted? How did you help those less fortunate than you? What are you doing for your community? Did you help your employees through the tough times? All of a sudden, customers have started giving premiums to vendors who are behaving more responsibly. Everyone wants to be associated with an organisation that has a purpose beyond making the shareholder richer.

So, what will the future look like? For one, it is going to be very different from what we had envisaged prior to the pandemic. The pace of innovation has increased manifold through the pandemic. Digital transformation and the focus thereon are non-reversible. Winners will invest more feverishly here. There is a huge opportunity for those who can help organisations across industries in their digital journey. Focus on the environment, societal engagement and governance are going to be important. Organisations will start reporting around these areas, in addition to financial metrics. There is also a huge opportunity for vendor partners to step up and help their customers as they go through this new transformation.

Everyone has suddenly recognised the need to focus on climate change. Evaluating vendors on their outlook towards environment and sustainability has become key.

The future is going to be far more exciting than what we have seen in the past. No one is going to let you get out of the boardroom in a jiffy if you have the right idea or product.

After all, eventually, voice and video did ride the data networks.




Manoj Chugh is a four-decade IT industry veteran

The views expressed are personal.

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