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10,000 Hours: The Link Between The Beatles and a Telecom Test Expert

An increasingly critical part of our service to operator and managed service clients is consultation on test strategy, and helping to devise appropriate methods and procedures that drive on-time and under-budget project delivery. Time and again, the same key challenge arises: how to minimize OPEX spending. It’s a critical question for most operators, given that the ratio in their published CAPEX/OPEX spending is 1:4 (this rises as high as 1:10 in the initial years of longer ROI business cases, such as FTTx). Addressing this challenge successfully in our domain of testing during the construction, activation and troubleshooting phases has a direct impact on key project metrics, including first time right (FTR), number of repeat visits/truckrolls, lead to cash, and customer satisfaction levels resulting in increased average revenue per user (ARPU) and reduced churn.

In addressing our clients’ need to address OPEX challenges, I usually steer the meeting slightly off-course by engaging in a discussion about The Beatles. This may seem completely irrelevant, but bear with me. My own experience in supporting many successful deployment and upgrade projects has led to the insight that a key success factor lies in developing the expertise of the telecom engineers that we are asking to deploy, commission and maintain our next-generation networks. In our field, the ability to devise appropriate test plans, methods and procedures is just one side of the equation: without an expert engineering force, these projects will be marked by setbacks, delays and budget overruns. The classic root cause discussion pertaining to such unsuccessful projects usually pinpoints this lack of expertise,  confirming that engineers do not have enough training/knowledge to accomplish their tasks right the first time.

Like me, I’m sure you have met with many genuine and self-styled experts along the way. However, I wonder if you are curious as to what in fact really makes an expert an expert, and perhaps more importantly, how the formula can be mass produced and bottled to serve our own needs?

My own research led me to an outstanding story about high achievers in sports, music and industry. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell frequently refers to the “10,000-Hour Rule,” stating quite simply that mere talent and training are not enough, and that the key to success in any field is dependent upon prolonged and deliberate practice of the art, skill or discipline in question within the right environment, and that these factors are what really differentiates the highest performers. To a large extent, this equates with practicing the said task for an estimated 10,000 hours (i.e., 5 years of hard labor working 6 days a week, and 8 hours a day). Of the many examples in the book, the reference that I would like to draw your attention to is that involving The Beatles. When the band got its initial “break” and went mainstream, the four band members hadn’t just met that same day and set about to writing and performing the hit songs that propelled their rise to fame. In actual fact, they spent years playing the circuits in UK, Holland and Germany, perfecting their art individually and together as a band. They logged their 10,000 hours in the clubs of Hamburg, developing the expertise that is both admired and envied in equal measure. On reflection, it makes perfect sense—expertise is born not only of talent and knowledge, but also of the deliberate application of these skills over time, leading to complete mastery of one’s subject.

Back to next-generation telecom deployment. It is easy to see why so many projects run over time and budget. Training courses are great (but cost time and money); however, without the deliberate practice leading to “expertise,” is it any wonder that there are so many issues with respect to training retention, or that so many unresolved issues lead to escalations and repeat truck rolls?

I would go so far as to say that the challenges remain the same, whether the company has ten engineers, or 1,000 to 10,000. The fact of the matter is that a lack of expertise in the field force hurts, and very badly. From a telecom contractor supporting cell-tower applications (moving from testing low-speed TDM services to 10G Ethernet services) to a large incumbent operator deploying FTTx (moving from their legacy xDSL residential network), the key challenge seen time and again is not in the sourcing of equipment or building of test plans, but rather in the expertise of field engineers, who are already “experts” in one area, but who suddenly find themselves faced with a need to rapidly absorb completely new technologies with a completely different set of standards, tools and methodologies.

Happily, that’s where EXFO can provide relief and support, as we’ve placed our “10,000 hours” inside the box. Functionality and technical compliance are critical elements when selecting a test solution, but our secret sauce is that we deliver these solutions in such a way that engineers are able to quickly pick up and start utilizing them in an expert manner, and right the first time. There is no magic formula here enabling us to reduce learning and retention curves to zero. However, in partnership with many clients, we have developed test suites and applications that contribute to successful daily deployments, and all of this expertise is readily available to be applied to your own projects today. For example, an engineer with 30 minutes of training can pick up an EXFO OTDR and, via the iOLM application, characterize an optical link in 20 seconds with the same level of accuracy that a 30 year veteran would be able achieve in 10 minutes with a traditional tool. That’s the result of our 10,000 hours—right inside every iOLM, and ready to go, now.

I’d like to leave an open invitation to my colleagues to respond to this blog by sharing HOW they personally contribute to delivering 10,000 hours toward the development of solutions and applications such as iOLM (optical fiber), SmartR (VDSL), WMDi (DWDM and TravelHawk Pro (3G/LTE deployment).

Meanwhile, when working with EXFO to address your OPEX challenge, feel free to ask us to show you how our 10,000 hours can be found inside the box. You will be surprised!