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How 'survivor' Ciena is using video to change its culture

How 'survivor' Ciena is using video to change its culture

Ciena has been in business for 25 years. Not all of them have been easy.

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When Ciena floated in 1997 the company had a first day valuation of US$3.4 billion, the then biggest initial public offering of a startup. It enjoyed the biggest revenue ramp up for any company in history and in its first year of going public was the most profitable company ever.

A downturn in the telecommunications market downturn in 2001 saw revenues nosedive by 80 percent and sales of its optical networking equipment fall by nearly two thirds.

Since then it has made numerous acquisitions, diversifying the business from selling optical transport solutions to other networking equipment, support services and software, plus consulting, services and network monitoring. Local customers include the likes of Telstra, VERNet, Sydney Trains and Vodafone New Zealand.

Ciena is, according to chief information officer Craig Williams, a “survivor”.

“I was always fond of this company that just kept battling in this market that’s always shifted and changed,” he tells CIO Australia.

It’s what attracted Williams to the role less than a year ago, one of a number of LinkedIn IT leaders leaving in the wake of the Microsoft acquisition – along with Hasan Talukdar former director of IT communication and collaboration services at the social networking site, now head of infrastructure and operations at Ciena – to make the move.

As Williams positions IT as an innovator, a driver of transformation and profit centre, his team’s efforts are bringing about a major change in the company’s culture.

“You can't wait. You have to experiment. You have to be OK with a little confusion,” Williams says. “But you have to be aggressive and know that sometimes you know better. You know that they're going to like this stuff. They just don't know it yet. And you just need to have a little stamina to prove the point.”

Winning collaboration

When Williams arrived at Ciena headquarters in Baltimore, the company had just completed a major Oracle ERP upgrade.

“They had literally taken close to three years to get it done. A huge, huge undertaking. Now they needed someone to run IT and really partner with the business to not just keep the lights on but focus on how we can help win and help the company make more money,” Williams, who has served in senior IT roles at Red Hat, Cisco and Mitre, explains.

“I think in the past we just got used to keeping things going. So we started with a vision with IT being a competitive advantage, making sure the team really understood that we're here to move the company forward. We really had to get that mindset down because if we're going to help our products mature or we're going to help our services teams we're really going to have to dig deep and identify how we can add that value,” he adds.

That work has begun with a focus on collaboration tools, in particular video communication.

While there was initially some work required to “clean up the network” and roll out Zoom (selected after a number of user feedback studies), the tough part, Williams says, was getting people to use it.

“I remember several conversations with people where, you know, it was challenging: ‘hey just turn on your video, we're going to have a chat’. And I used to say if we were physically in a room we wouldn't close our eyes and chat, so let’s kind of get over the fact that we shouldn't just flip on the video,” Williams says.

The IT team pushed out a number of announcements and hosted webinars following the roll-out, appointing the executive team to be early-adopters and champion its use.

They also published user stats to drive “healthy competition”.

“It just took off from that point,” Williams says.

We're all human

The adoption of video conferencing among Ciena’s 6,000 employees worldwide – included those at its Australian headquarters in Macquarie Park – has been “staggering”, Williams says. More than 85 per cent of employees are using the new tools, clocking up a combined 350,000 minutes each day.

The push towards face to face video conferencing has brought with it a change in culture, Williams says.

“I don't care if your dog is in the background, I don’t care if your kid runs screaming by, you know what, we're are human beings, we all have our own ways of where we have to work, when we have to work. Some of that drama got let go when some of us would literally just take a call in the car parking lot or at home and the spouse would pass by or something like that. It just got to be less of a dramatic event,” he explains.

Although the business benefits are somewhat intangible and difficult to measure – although the effect on travel costs is being looked at – staff feedback has been hugely positive. The CEO and his direct reports use video conferencing daily.

The success of the roll-out has also given the IT team the kudos and goodwill for the next stage of their collaboration tool effort, rolling out Office 365 globally.   

“Now that we've gotten some of the attention this will be a little easier,” Williams adds.

The support strategy is also changing to a modern, self-help style.

“You don't have to open a ticket all the time or track it or wonder if someone will get back to you,” Williams says. “The employees just want to get back to work, they don't want to have to deal with IT. So let's figure out ways of getting out of the middle and making that experience better.”

Although there has been a lot of new tools and processes for employees to get to grips with, adoption will be swift, Williams says.

“It's kind of like if you have a new Android or new iPhone – you'll get it you just need to sit down and take a deep breath and try a few times and then over time you go oh my gosh now I can see how I can do this much better than before,” he explains.

The key is working through any initial resistance to new ways of working, is stamina and a thick skin, Williams says.

“You have to have a thick skin to be in IT. You talk about these collaboration tools – everyone knows better: ‘That culture won’t survive here’ or ‘these technologies should be something different’. This is how IT is,” he says.

“If you’re going to survive long term you have to have thick skin and figure out that maybe you’re going to lose a couple of battles but you’re going to win the war overall. That’s how we have to view IT.”