Ken Paker, TDS Telecom’s CTO, started at the company one year after its internet service provider business began. Prior to that, TDS was strictly a phone company and owned about one hundred small, individual telcos. The challenge then was moving from a voice-centric to a broadband-centric business. The task since has been keeping the network evolving at the rapid pace of technology.
How did you transition the company from the older technology to fiber?
Once dedicated broadband technology arrived, shortly after Dial-Up, we had to make the transition to more centralized operations in order to mitigate costs—we were essentially having to manage 100 different network evolutions simultaneously. Engineering teams from all over the country were consolidated, and I worked to institute various processes around technology integration. Internet technology was evolving every three to five years, and we had to keep adjusting. At the same time, we had to think about how the network was going to change over time. The challenge lay in understanding how short-term trade-offs would potentially affect long-term benefits. This brings us to the latest groundbreaking internet technology: Fiber. This is cost-heavy on the front end, which makes this a particularly long-term play—but it’s been the right one. The benefits have started to dominate the short-term and medium-term planning discussions.
As a CTO, how did you decide to shift your focus toward a new technology?
We spent a lot of time on the economics of fiber builds. That’s one of the best practices that I would tell anyone with my job in any industry: you cannot let the technology get too far from the economics. It’s easy for technologists to go down a path because it’s interesting or appears to be the next big thing, but the economics determines the success of what you end up doing. You need to constantly bring the new technology into the economic model of where the company’s got to go.
It’s pretty easy to say, “Yeah, we’re going to build fiber everywhere.” The hard part is figuring out exactly where the next place should be. There’s always a trade-off that has to be identified, but looking through the lens of the company’s economic success is how you’ll find it.
There has always been this mix of short, medium, and long-term thinking I’ve had to manage through. You can’t let the short-term financial situation dominate the technical decision, because you’ll end up in a totally different spot. At the same time, you can’t snap a finger and end up at your company’s long-term destination.
Day-to-day operations of the business can be leveraged to get to that target by coming up with standards that are as elegant and future-proof as possible. This helps keep alignment across the organization and builds the necessary momentum for growth.
"You cannot let the technology get too far from the economics”
Working through all the economic decisions along the way, you might have to adjust your strategy based on market results. It’s not realistic to think that you’re always going to make the right call. If you’re headed down a path, and it’s not going the way you want it to go, you have to be willing to change. Sometimes that means completely stopping what you’re doing until you get a better path in place.
What advice do you have for other technologists as they try to grow their careers?
I’m a strong believer in engineering talent and getting MBA’s. Some economic concepts aren’t natural for engineers to easily understand. When technical people train themselves up on how finance people view the world, it gives them a huge advantage.
Never consider your journey done—you can always be learning and growing. For example, with Big Data becoming highly important in the last five years, I’m currently back in a degree program studying Data Science in my “spare time.” It’s a different enough technical direction that I thought it was important I go back and refresh my technical chops so I can help make the decisions required to advance TDS.
Find a company that supports you in this effort to expand on what you know and what you can do. That’s one of the most endearing qualities of our company. Ultimately, this creates a sense of responsibility for you to do as much as you can in regards to technology, which will be invaluable for your career, as well as the long-term success of your company.