The further advancements in technology can often alienate those who are not within the industry. As we are pushing for the future, it helps to learn how to bridge that gap among our end-users and customers so we can take the advancements to them and head on to what’s next together. Only then can we achieve business excellence. With his way of making everything clear, Jason Inskeep, the Director of the 5G Center of Excellence for AT&T, sits down with Carrie Charles to talk about how they are bringing 5G solutions for business excellence. He shares his insights about the future of 5G, the changes in the industry between tech and telecom, and how they are scaling things at the internal level so they can bring the customers on board. What is more, Jason also discusses how to deploy and monetize 5G and find the right talent and retain them. Follow along as he imparts more wisdom and some tips on getting inside the industry.
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5G Solutions For Business Excellence With AT&T’s Jason Inskeep
I’m very excited to have my guest, Jason Inskeep. He is the Director of the 5G Center of Excellence for AT&T. Jason, thanks so much for being on the show.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
What is your role at AT&T? I find it fascinating. Tell us a little bit about your role. What is the 5G Center of Excellence?
It’s a very interesting role. I got lucky enough to fall into it as we developed a business strategy to work with 5G. As the technology began to evolve, it was late December of 2016. We’re starting to think about, “What is 5G? What does it mean?” At that point in time, we’re all like, “I have no clue.” From a business perspective, plenty of people have been diving into it technically. The team started down a little bit more product-focused. Fast forward to mid-2019, the team was like, “We’ve got a good plan of how to attack it. Let’s go figure out how to scale it.” The team was put together to look at the changes that have happened, where it’s not just technical.
There are some fundamental operational changes in how you view the world, especially from a business lens. The team is put in place to help that charge, and help scale those things that are needed in messaging, both technical and operational. I sometimes say, “Not just think outside of the box, but rebuild it. What do we need to do differently as we move forward?” That was the role and intent. We have about a three-way split, most of the time with customers, part of that time with our internal product teams and marketing. There’s another time that’s in-depth with the technical. The idea is to translate between those three things to get to “Goldilocks” for the optimal thing on the other side.
I love that, build the box. Don’t just think outside it. That’s what you need to do with 5G for sure. You have a fascinating story and how you got into this type of work and also a little bit about your journey. Can you talk about that?
I sometimes get poked at saying I don’t talk technical. I don’t think of myself as technical at all. I think of myself as a good translator. I harken back and I know what you’re referring to, “How do you associate that based on what you do in life.” I came from the oddest of backgrounds compared to what I do now. True blue collar, I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. As I progressed through college and technical, dad and parents would say, “What do you do?” It’s not that they’re less smart. They’re just different in terms of how they associate things and how they look at things.
My benchmark always was, “If I could translate it for dad, then I could translate it for anybody.” That wasn’t “make it simple.” That was just “make it contextual.” We used to talk about, “If you’re doing a sensor IOT on a tractor and how does that play into the field, your yield and your crop rotation, I can do that with technology.” You then see the light bulbs click. Those kinds of things I’ve carried forward in this role because you have that. There’s a difference between a wireline person and a wireless person. There’s a difference between an application person and a network person. They talk, act and perform differently. Getting them to understand one another sometimes takes that ducks and bunnies as I call it a lot of times. It’s, “Let me put it in your context.”
It’s all it is. It’s not making it simple. It’s making it contextual. That started with I was doing technical roles, technical jobs and dad was curious. If I just started speaking about spectrum, radios, this and that over his head, it’s not fair. If I can twist that scenario to put it in the context of what matters to them, it becomes easier to grasp. Hopefully, you move along to those things you need. That’s the genesis of the background. For all the technical, whether I have it or not, the thing I probably do best is translate and take those complex things and break them down.
That is a skill that is needed in the world of telecom for many reasons. Number one, we were selling 5G to the enterprise. It’s not just between us anymore. We’re looking outside. People that don’t understand it. They’ve never heard the language before. It’s an incredible skill to have a translator. I love the way that you put that. It reminds me of this whole concept that IT and telecom or tech and telecom are converging. It’s different than it was a few years ago. What is driving this shift?
It’s based on two big things. Oftentimes if you see 5G presentations, it talks about, “More IoT, lower latency, more liability,” all the buzzwords that come with 5G. As I think about the enterprise, it revolves around three premises that we didn’t do when we talk about it in prior Gs. We talked about it in prior Gs as, “More bandwidth, better map, better pricing.” That was your focal point. Now you’re at a point because of virtualization and democratization of spectrum, there are now a lot more players that can play in this world that was typically a very closed ecosystem and a very closed system. As technology has outpaced learning, you’ve got to create the unicorns in between.
The people that can see both sides, not necessarily understand the depth on both sides, but start to understand the aggregation points, where wired meets wireless, where app meets network. There’s a tuning of distance versus performance versus experience that you didn’t have to think about before. It was over the top. You just did what you needed to do especially on the wireless side. Wired is a little different. You’ve got to be able to translate between both languages to be successful. Our customers go into, “What else has changed?” The first thing I want to do with customers is to throw the G out the window. Let’s talk about cellular inherently. Most of the time you’re coming from a Wi-Fi background, another wireless background.
There are similarities but there are differences. Those differences affect the operational models, the cost models and everything else downstream. Understanding what those are that will make and give our customers the ability to make those decisions. If we can’t give them both before and after, it’s going to be hard for them to make that transition. For the enterprise, forget the G. The enterprise wants to know, “What does this thing do? How do you make my thing better with what you’re doing?” That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s 3G, 4G or 5G. It means it’s a cellular construct with these features based on place, time and available spectrum. That’s the change.
Every time I talk to you, Jason, I get things like I’ve never got to them before. You have this magical way of making everything not necessarily simple but it’s clear. It feels clear. In this world with telecom and where we’re going in the future in 5G, and what you’re doing with AT&T, it’s important to be clear and let the enterprise know, “This is how we can help you. This is your solution,” then they get it. I want to ask you this question because I’m wondering about this. What will telecom look like in five years? Will telecom go away and the industry will be called tech?
It could because you’re seeing the blurriness that happened between application needs to inform the network. The network needs to inform applications to achieve the next generation of technology. I won’t say use cases because use cases are the action. The technology is the tool that completes the action. As my action wants more, the network needs to inform the app. You’re seeing this converged type of mentality where the lines get blurry not just between wired and wireless, but between the things that support around it and the things that go into the ecosystem. In a sense, it will change. I don’t know if it’s the change as far as what you’re thinking because there are still some things wired that are never going to change. There are some things in the Cloud that are never going to change, but that aggregation point, that meet-me point between all those things, that has a big opportunity in front of it. I don’t think we even know what that opportunity is yet.
You think about it in terms of edge computing. There are a lot of conversations around it and I’m sure you’ve had this. Edge computing at a high level, you’re like, “Great, I get it.” There’s edge computing and there’s edge networking. Their nirvana is both of those work harmoniously. That’s what edge computing at the standard level is trying to do. If you break it down a step further, you’ve got edge networking and edge computing. Edge networking will lead the way as flattened because that helps the developer know where and what knobs I can turn in terms of application without basing it on the lowest common denominator. Conversely, there’s still an opportunity for security before I get to that use case.
All those things are the aggregation point. That aggregation point is changing fast in terms of what the network could look like, how’s the security stack comes behind it, and ultimately, what are the knobs and twists we can do to make compute play nice in that space or optimize itself in that space at scale. Long answer to a short question, yes, it’ll change. I don’t know to what extent, but there have to be some changes as you start thinking about solving both business and personal challenges with the tools that are being promised tomorrow.
I’m going to coin a term called Tech-Com because that could be our new industry. Anyway, that’s for another day. A lot of people are challenged these days with selling in the telecom space. It’s very different than it used to be. The customers, products and choices are different. How do you win in this new world of selling?
Right now is a big transition phase. You heard me earlier mentioned democratization of spectrum and virtualization. That is a total shift from a networking perspective overall. We’ve been talking about it for several years. It’s not a new concept but in mobility, it is a very new concept. You didn’t start seeing virtualization on the LTE network until a few years ago. LTE was around in the monolithic sense and then virtualized. What does that mean? It’s all internal to start and you’re like, “How do I take that and make that external?” You have a traditional network-minded mentality that now has an opportunity toward this Cloud side mentality. You have the Cloud that can now start taking on a network mentality.
You have one movement to the left and one movement to the right. You’re trying to help the customer at the same time because the customer is hearing from the right side of the telecom methodology may be from the bottom up. You’re hearing from the Cloud provider coming from the top-down. Both have a valid meeting point at that aggregation point, which is that new big opportunity. That is how that new meet-me point looks, but we’ve got to educate the customer in context across the whole thing. That’s the challenge and the opportunity. Those customers are craving, “How can I drive my business better? How can I insert value statement into my business?” They don’t care how it’s done. They just want to know what’s best for the business.
It’s imperative at least right now that they’re getting a clear picture of what’s changing. The two points I made before start that pyramid. What does that mean over time? There’s not a clear picture of what the overall scale will look like given we’re at the tip of the iceberg on this stuff. We’re starting to see a major pivot. People talk about, “5G is going to change everything.” I don’t think it’s for the reasons that they think. The reasons that we see are more around that convergence and new way to approach environments. Not so much on the speeds and feeds perspective that has been every other generation seemingly.
That approaching a customer and having this converged conversation, are you saying that the people and the companies that are going to be successful are the ones who can paint the whole picture for the customer and include all the pieces? How do you introduce this converged conversation to a customer that doesn’t understand what’s happening?
It’s not easy. The first thing that we’re trying to do is educate in context. Looking for folks that understand the end-to-end or the life of the packet. Customers are getting a lot of noise from different directions on, “5G is going to solve everything. 5G is going to do this. The edge is going to do that. The edge is going to do this.” They’re hitting it all from different angles. There’s some truth behind telling the truth. Here’s what it is. Here’s what’s changing. Here are the commonalities amongst these different things. Right now, because of all this new stuff that is a value add by itself, how do you find Goldilocks to make the optimal? All of these different things can work in a standalone and then provide value.
The challenge is, how has that aggregated across the different pieces when you look at the time to scale? What we’ve thought about in the past years and one of the things we’re probably as proud of as anything is how we approached from a methodology perspective, working with the customers. From a perspective of, “You’ve got these characteristics to think about from spec, from the backhaul to core, to use cases, user types, the data management, the data ownership. You’ve got all these different things that play into both your application and now into your network.”
It’s trying to help them understand the big picture. That’s where we are. That’s leading to some big opportunities and big questions with customers and internal. There are still a lot of roadmaps. There are still so many things that are coming where we have to continue day by day to fail fast, relearn and do it again. That’s the opportunity in front of us and for our customers as well. They’re all trying to figure it out. We’re proud to be on the front end of it. It’s very fun.
AT&T is lucky to have you too because you’re doing a great job with your role. You’re perfect for the role that you’re in at the 5G Center of Excellence. How do we need to think differently to deploy and monetize 5G?
There are table stakes, which is everything that we’ve done before as a carrier, whether you’re AT&T, T-Mo, Verizon or whoever. There are table stakes conversations, which are focused on making sure that consumers have the bandwidth and needs that they have. The second piece is a big opportunity for virtualization and democratization. How do I help my customers make a transition to the new world? Those things are the education phase for us and what we do with our customers and trying to plot that roadmap in context with the noise. That’s a big part of my job and it can be very fulfilling, but it can also be very frustrating.
In a company like AT&T, we have the ability to do everything across the board, from wired, wireless, Wi-Fi so forth and so on. We have all those offers which are the gift and the curse. When you have everything, sometimes it’s hard to get to the optimal side because you don’t have to pigeonhole. That also creates a continuous learning aspect. We have to continually learn and continue to challenge ourselves internally. That’s been a big focus as well. You’ll see that continue to mature in the industry. We’re continuing to try to drive that from internal as well.
Let’s talk about AT&T’s 5G strategy. How is it different from its peers?
In the new space, the first thing you say is peers in the new world are the same as peers in the old world. Peers in the 4G, 3G, 2G were T-Mo and Verizon. In that case, it was who could deploy the spectrum fastest, who’s got the best radios in this area, best price, maps, speeds, feeds. That’s the prior generation. Democratization comes out with different other factors with the spectrum, virtualization. Those things happen. It’s not just those guys anymore. There are those guys, plus everybody else can now step into space because of these opportunities that are in front of us as well. They’re not just limited to the new people, they’re us as well. When I see that competitive landscape, the first thing is I try to isolate, what do we have? What AT&T’s overall asset was?
We’ve got fiber in the ground around the country. We’ve got radios and networks around the country. FirstNet deployment for our first responders. It takes care of that. Thank you for your service, I believe as well. We’ve got that. As we think about those assets, fiber spectrum end-to-end, that’s what our customers are thinking about. They care about experience. Experience isn’t just the Sailor network. It’s the end-to-end. When I look at the enterprise customers, how do I supply that full end-to-end experience from packet origination to central and back? That’s where I see us being different from a lot of the peers in the new world. You’re down to the operators on the Sailor side, there are differences in spectrum deployments that are still there. Our strategy leads into the business.
We saw the business opportunity first. We went down a path that was probably more geared toward a private Sailor edge sort of deployment to start. Tier-one operators, T-Mo and Verizon, you’re going to see them do that as well. It was more of a timing thing in those areas. I see them in the same category. You’re going to see that scale where we started and we’re putting impetus into focusing on the business. We think there’s a big opportunity for us to enable the business and their customers. If we can give them a flat operating platform of differentiation, both at their site and as their people move between sites, we think that’s a differentiation that our customers’ needs given the assets that we have and the scale that we’re looking at. That also pertains to a lot of customers are multinational. That’s global footprint coupled with our IoT background there as well. We give them that scale from end-to-end. We feel like as we’ve aligned to the business aspect, that’s going to be very differentiated for us going forward.
One other thing that AT&T has done well is attracting, retaining and developing talent. In this new converged world, how tough or easy is it to find people that have the skillsets that you need to be successful in this converged world?
I got lucky. I got put in a program that dropped me out of a sole wireless world into the wired world. I hadn’t talked about switches and routing since college. I had been in pure software. I got dropped in a world that forced me to figure that out again, which it came back. It didn’t take long. Fast forward, I’m doing what I’m doing and it all rolls off, but I see that others either have one side or the other. I often use a good example. In Wi-Fi, you have a certificate. The certificate is equivalent to the SIM card. You don’t think about it and the light bulb goes off. It was like “I got it. I understand what that means, the correlation in between the two.”
A good portion of the time, that correlation gets people over the hump. I haven’t seen it at scale yet. We’re still looking for those people. Those people are hard to find. We call them the unicorn. It’s an ongoing joke internally, find the unicorn, find the ones that sit across the scope. If we’re thinking our differentiation end-to-end, then we’ve got to make sure we’re focusing and thinking about that. That’s how I’m looking for them. I’m looking for those folks that have that mix between what we would categorize as an IoT seller and a wireline seller like a hybrid view. If you know how those people sell, interact and communicate, it’s the hybrid of those two. There are a couple of different ways to think about it. That’s the aggregation point person. They speak geek, they speak capitalist. It’s an interesting niche. You’ve got to figure out which one is easier to upscale because there are very few that are end-to-end that we’re seeing.
That brings me to another question which is what advice would you give to a young person who’s thinking about entering the telecom industry? How do they become that unicorn?
Volunteer for everything. Get involve. I learned better by failing fast. Failing fast means you jump in, ask questions, get involved, get your hands dirty. That’s how I learned. That’s even more true if you’re starting out early. I’m sitting down and trying to read and understand because a lot of the training you have is very engineer-focused. You want to be engineer-focused in the context of business. That’s the thing that software companies typically do well because they’ve got to figure out what’s the end-user value for doing X, Y and Z with the application. They can now have an opportunity to let the network assist in making that user experience better. How do you blend those two pieces either coming from the network side or the software side? That’s the first high level.
The second thing is having the ability to get to the lowest common denominator. We all talk on mobile, there was always this thing of, “I want to get a technician to do more tickets in a day, this and that.” I started just breaking it down. It’s the carrier pigeon route. I’m going to send a pigeon one way with a message. The pigeon is going to come back with another message. How can I get that message between those two points faster? That’s the idea. That’s just one way. I try to simplify things back to what your thinking is. Instead of looking at the technical jargon, try to figure out how to look at it from ducks and bunnies comical perspective. Find that correlation to something that you know, love and understand. It makes everything else easier. That what I could use more.
The second on that point is we do a lot of work with universities. We have Purdue University. You’ve probably seen it in Missouri. I work with the researchers all the time. I’m like, “I know you guys are doing a bang-up job on the technical side. How can I help you make these folks more pragmatic? I know what you see in a research environment, but let me show you the reality.” We’re trying to do a lot of work with those folks too so that we can get those entry-level folks to see the world differently than what you would see behind a research book. I’m very happy with the work we’re doing there. I’m proud of it and I want to continue to see that because it does help with keeping the pace of technology that we’re looking for.
I love the fact that you go into universities. You work with them and you teach them how to prepare. You’re going in at that level and there’s a generosity component there too. You’re also preparing these young people for the future. It’s not just for your future, it’s for the future of the industry and the future of our world.
I was an athlete in college. The old joke was school first, football second. That was the old joke, “Do what I show you, not what I say.” I say that in all jest. It’s just I was lazy. At the same time, I could have used some of that tutelage from people that are doing it in a pragmatic sense. That would have helped me tremendously. I don’t know if it was done everywhere. It’s probably there. I just didn’t look at it because I was too blind to open my eyes at that time. I’m saying it wasn’t there for me. I want to go give that back and help out in that.
More people need to feel that way. In this new world, reskilling and upskilling are going to be crucial to get us to the next level. You’ve already mentioned that yourself. I know that AT&T invested $1 billion in reskilling their employees a while back. What were the results now that we’re past that a bit of this reskilling? Was it a success?
I’d say I got lucky. When we were starting the reskilling processes is right when I was starting my rotations right back into our foundry and research and development. All those tools were coming out for us to push. It helped me tremendously. I could take the class and turn around a propeller head that was sitting beside me. I’d be good at translating because he was a propeller head. It was helpful because I could take that context and go straight to someone else. Overall, it’s made great strides in terms of what we think about and how we operate in particular on the wired side when you look at how we virtualize the network and how we’re continuing to virtualize and think about that.
You’re now seeing those effects come into a product, come into the sales channels. The teams that have taken those training, now you’re starting to see the context and the reality of those training take shape. The conversations with customers are shifting. The conversations with labs and how we communicate with labs are shifting. It’s becoming more of a tech company, as you pointed out before, where you’re doing those tech practices in terms of trying to be agile, maybe we say agile fall in the telco space. We’re trying to do that. It all starts with understanding what does a virtualized world look like? What does that skillset look like? What is Cloud RAN? All these new cool terms, what does that mean?”
You think, “Customers don’t need to know that.” Actually, it helps with customers more than you think. They can wrap their arms around, “That’s what X means to Y and give me the Z.” We made a big investment there. It’s paying off. The challenge at a big company is always, how do you keep continuing and keep refreshing, especially when software eats hardware’s lunch? That’s where we are. You got to keep up. It’s not an easy task.
What is it like to work for AT&T? What’s the culture like in your opinion?
I love the culture here. We have a great time. My team have a great time. We push each other, my team specifically. Joe, my boss is very supportive. He knows that the role of my teams, which is very broad across a lot of different segments. There’s great support there. Greg to Frank and my chain of command, working with Ann Chow, doing great things at her level. It’s a great comfort. They care for us like a family. I enjoy that. They are very supportive. When I look at the way and some of the things that I touch or we touch from the horizon perspective, there’s a lot of trust in terms of the feedback tactically to the leaders, strategically. In a technology, fast-paced moving world, you have to have that trust and you see that.
There are always challenges, but I feel like I can go to any step of the leadership change. You can’t just go and say, “I want to do X, Y and Z.” Share with data and you get support. It goes both ways. I’ve got to be giving them truthful examples of what’s happening. We’ve earned it, but they’ve given us the ability to push the limit on things. That’s supportive. To me, support is the biggest thing. I’m going to go do the job. I got the drive to go do it, just support me. I see that every day and I’m thankful for it. It helps make the job fun.
Speaking of making the job fun, I’m sure a lot of people are thinking, “I want to work for AT&T. What kind of jobs are available?” Before we give the website and where to go to look for jobs at AT&T. What about on your team? Are you hiring for your team? Being on your team would be special because of the way that you explain things, the commitment that you have and the passion that you have for what you’re doing. What’s open on your team?
We’re looking for unicorn technical resources that can understand RAN, Core, Cloud, end-to-end, that can speak geek and capitalist. This is a more technical role. Move your abacus a little bit more toward the technical side for that role. I know other teams are all looking and starving for those types of roles. We’re chock-full in labs. We’re tier-one. We’ve got those brains sitting in, whether it’s AT&T labs or our tech dev or support windows. We’ve got those resources at depth.
It’s hard to transition those into it and do a customer-facing role because they’re so valued in the roles that they’re in. We need those folks that can go stand in front of the customers that aren’t as tied to the backend implementation stuff or lived in that implementation stuff. Those are the places where I need that. You look at the scale. It just scales when you scale to sell it. That whole conversation is shifting to that. For me, the biggest role that we’re looking for is more of those on the technical speaking side, end-to-end sort of unicorn.
It’s customer-facing as well.
Absolutely. I say customer-facing both internal and external. There’s an internal sale and an external sale. You’ve got both right here. You may talk to a customer, anonymized customer, but take that rationale back to the technical teams and help them validate roadmap versus delivery.
I’m hearing that as the industry changes, it’s a great opportunity for everyone and all of us, no matter what age or where we are, to upgrade our skills. If you have good soft skills and you’re great with people, you’re great with customers, upgrade your tech skills and then vice versa. If you’re very technical, looking at upgrading your emotional intelligence and your soft skills and your ability, maybe take a sales course. There are some opportunities to converge yourself.
I laugh as you say that because I’d take one of those tests. It’s funny. Everything for me is about 50/50 down the list until you get to emotion versus task. I have no emotion. I’m all task. When you think about those things, it tells me in my job function, I have to set up. You talk about changing how you work because you know yourself. I have to set up calendar appointments to say thank you sometimes or take somebody to coffee this month. Those are the kinds of things you do. I say that because it’s an engineering mind and all tasks, no logic or all tasks, no emotion. You got to think about not just the technical side.
You’re very smart to put it in your calendar because you have to support yourself with structures as well. Jason, I could talk to you for hours. I find it so fascinating. I always learn a lot from our conversations. Where can our audience go to learn more about careers at AT&T?
Thanks. ATT.jobs, that’ll take you there. That’ll give you the full list of everything you’re looking for. If 5G is your curiosity space, put 5G in the search engine and you’ll find mine, plus several others I’m sure, or similar names will pop out of that.
This has been wonderful. Thank you so much for being on the show, Jason.
Thank you. I appreciate you for having me.
About Jason Inskeep
Jason Inskeep is a multi-faceted technology leader with a unique skillset allowing him to speak “geek” and “capitalist”. This skillset helps him translate complex business processes into technical requirements leading to outcomes beneficial to all stakeholders.
Over his career he has led customer digital transformations, launched products, successfully driven future innovation, influenced messaging/education and scaled new teams/strategies. At the same time he has maintained high metrics with his efforts earning him multiple awards throughout his career.
Most recently Jason has been an integral part of AT&T 5G for Business strategy while also setting and writing the framework for the AT&T methodology toward Private Cellular (5G or LTE). He is seen as an industry expert in both areas.
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