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Interview - Sachin Venkatrao, Telco Cloud Solutions Owner (NFV) at Nokia
Tuesday, August 16, 2016, by Mark Hardaker

As Solutions Owner at Nokia Networks, Sachin Venkatrao has more than 18 years experience building networking products for the cloud and SP industries. The Malaysian-born software engineer has applied his talent across the world for leading industry names such as Samsung, Juniper Networks and Embedded Wireless.

Sachin was an early contributor to the industry specification group ETSI NFV and also founded his own SDN company that worked closely with the Korean government. Self-described as “nomadic and extensively travelled,” Sachin relocated from Asia to Bristol last year to join the mobile broadband specialist. 

Iperium sat down with the technology expert to discuss the future of NFV, the differences between working for start-ups and established companies and why everyone should consider relocation.

IP: You moved to the UK from India last year. How are you finding Bristol?

It’s definitely not as hectic! People complain about the traffic jams but they’re not quite as bad as what I’m used to. Bristol is a quirky little place with a great music scene and lots of live music and I’m enjoying living in a bohemian part of town where there’s lots of independent shops, artists and culture. There’s definitely a buzz here, people seem to be open to new ideas and the university also does some cool stuff in SD and things I’m interested in.

IP: How has your family settled in?

My wife and 8-year-old son only arrived here last month. We decided it was best to let my son finish his year at school before moving him over, so I’ve been regularly travelling back to see them in the meantime. They seem to like it here and I imagine my wife may begin looking to re-start her programming career in the near future.

IP: What’s happening at Nokia?

It’s especially hectic on the work front because there’s lots of new stuff happening. The role has involved more travel to the Middle East, Asia and Finland.

IP: NFV can mean lots of different things to different people. What does it mean to you?

NFV is virtualising what’s on the integrated products from individual vendors. For example, with Packet gateway the vendor has his own hardware chassis which he adds his own operating system and platform software then bundles the protocols. This led to very pricey solutions such as black box implementations which overall increased the TCO for the end customer.

NFV is trying to decouple the underlying hardware platform from the actual function with IMS and routers and so on. Removing the hardware is what all operators want to do so they can evolve independently and roll out tenders. Once they have common infrastructure in place they can get applications from anywhere and from any vendor. That’s the vision but it’s going to take a while. I think NFV needs to blend in a lot of best practices from what we have seen in IT and the cloud. There are a lot of things to learn, look at the applications they are very easy to deploy and there are many good management and operational tools which NFV has to incorporate.

IP: How is NFV shaping the future of telecommunications networks?

NFV is changing a lot of things for operators, vendors and the sales force. Whereas previously a sales guy would make margins selling boxes, now its subscription based. The operators are getting a say in how they would like products to be architected, designed and deployed. Vendors can no longer assume that everything is turn key and vertical. We need to think about how open interfaces are not bound to any management systems and can hook into cross hardware.

Many of the vendors have been involved in NFV since the early stages. There is a certain lack of clarity around how it’s going to be sold and operators were skeptical of how they were going to consume it. Are they going to have to buy licences? Is it going to cannbalise their existing products? NFV is no longer hype, its cross-hype cycle and you are now seeing customer deployment. Operators should have the infrastructure in place by 2016/17 and then we will see the first applications. 

IP: How did you find the experience of running your own start-up company?

A few years ago I teamed up with two friends and we decided to start our own company in South Korea. Our start-up was one of the latest data center networking technologies and we were one of the earliest SDN start-ups. We developed our own SND controller and our own SDN switch, primarily for research and academic use. We worked very closely with the Korean government agencies developing products for their research backgrounds. After a while, one partner wanted to continue with the research side, while myself and the other partner wanted to sell the products commercially, so we decided to go our separate ways.

IP: What are the differences working for a start-ups to more established companies?

In my experience I have found that although there are a lot of differences, they also have many things in common. When I started my own company I was responsible for operational issues, salaries and staff, which obviously I don’t have to worry about now. I also worked at a start-up in the U.S where I was an aggressive programmer working long hours and coding all night while eating pizza with the other guys. It was a lot of fun and we had no-holds barred discussions and people were free to criticise each other. At Nokia I’m now focusing on really niche stuff and don’t have to worry about all that. The people here are generally very friendly and helpful and there’s not too much hierarchy, which is good and although it’s a big company it seems to be fairly nimble, which enables things to get done. At my company we tried to incorporate the best of what we had seen before, such as the cool stuff from Juniper in the U.S. and the need to be innovation focused. We also tried to bring in some of the structures we had seen at Samsung and some of their best practices. 

IP: Are you still involved with ETSI?

When I was working with Juniper I was very involved with the working groups. Since joining Nokia I’ve not been able to spend much time with the groups but there is a massive team within Nokia who are working with ETSI.

IP: What advice would you give to someone thinking of relocating for a new position?

I would say to someone jump at any opportunity to broaden your experience of different cultures. Try to move to a place where you can make a difference to the overall product or solution to the company because if you always stay in your comfort zone you can’t always make a big impact that you may want to. By doing this, I have friends all over the world so it’s a great way to broaden your horizons.

IP: How important is it to choose a recruitment company who understand your industry?

I feel what Tim (Iperium Director) and the team at Iperium are doing is pretty impressive and I’ve never encountered a recruitment company so tech savvy and who know how to identify and match talent. I was at the top of my game at Juniper and there wasn’t really any need for me look at moving to a new company, however Tim understood my skill-set and explained the idea of Nokia while liaising with their management to ensure both our ambitions closely matched. I was impressed.