Fotis Karonis1

"IT is a complex science. People think it's like plasticine and it's possible to have different functions, but everything has to be done with a certain architecture and future-proof vision," EE CTO Fotis Karonis explained as he described his strategy behind the merger of Orange and T-Mobile.

Karonis, who also boasts being CIO when Athens International Airport was set up from scratch - overseeing its launch in 2001 as well as the 2004 Olympics - was at the EE technology helm in 2010 when the two operators came together in a joint-venture that would encompass technology, brands and eventually a single network.

"One of the important roles in the merger was to seek efficiencies while the business was moving, competing and maintaining a fantastic customer base of 27 million or so," he said.

"On the one hand we had to compete in the market with our brands and really bring fascinating propositions to the market, but we also needed to be more efficient and foster one network and one IT strategy while serving multiple brands.

"I immediately started to be quite radical, thinking where we needed to get to with one architecture behind it all, and I wanted very up front efficiencies. The key importance was transformation, and I had to transform very quickly to get the one stack of IT and moving to get one integrated network."

Challenges and opportunities

The former CIO of Greek-owned Romanian network Romtelecom told CIO that the challenging nature of the new role and its responsibilities was not daunting, and in fact appealed to him.

"The bigger the equation and harder the equation the more fun it is," Karonis said. "I like to see things as opportunities rather than difficulties so with the merger I liked the difficult things that give people the drive to achieve great stuff, and the challenge of making your dream and vision very tangible and understandable by your colleagues.

"Making people very excited and fascinated by what they're going to achieve and see that problems are really opportunities. That was the philosophy that I put forward.

"The network was hard in the beginning because of complex contractual relationships, but with the IT part I said that we just have to remove barriers all the time.

"We were able to take the best stack from one company, then a different stack from the other company. Being able to see which was the best architectural model, then looking at the business aspect and its uses.

"I presented my strategy really quickly, saying that we will absolutely guarantee that we have our architecture and security in house because that’s really supporting the core business of a telecoms company.

"What we need to know is how the business is going; we are the transforming factor of the business - how to provide new ideas to the business, and to get efficiencies.

"I would say I was very innovative in that sense. To stretch what can actually be achieved and then you can get people really involved and active and you can get the passion of different teams working together to solve problems."

Workforce development

Karonis said enthusiastically that working with his teams had been one of his best achievements, and scoffed when asked if he had noticed any skills shortages while trying to assemble his teams at Hatfield-based EE, which has its executive offices in London.

"I didn't struggle to find the right people. In the UK you have great people and great skills so I was really happy to be able to work with confident people," Karonis said.

"When you can inspire people they tend to think completely out of the box in many areas, which is required, and are able to think not just technically, but also be aware of commercial and financial aspects.

"I really enjoyed making people happy in their working conditions. When they get excited, they deliver and if there are a couple of errors it doesn't matter because if you're not bold, you'll never be a different player in the market."

Karonis said that EE has a core group of approximately 350 in the IT space, with around 1,100 in the technology space as well as an "ecosystem of partners that share our values and objectives".

Indeed, the philosophy of challenging and inspiring his colleagues and IT team also manifests itself in being more demanding of vendors and technology suppliers. Karonis said that once you start creating a different methodology of work and challenge the current method of suppliers and vendors about the possibilities of what can be achieved, that's when you can make your ecosystems work together.

With the IT teams from the existing outfits at Orange and T-Mobile, Karonis said that he merged the teams by taking the best people from both companies and driving things forward very rapidly, "to build a unique culture of one company even though it was trading as two brands".

Big Bang

He said: "I believe in a rapid approach, and not just from the development point of view because I came from a systems integration background at Capgemini and was at Athens airport, but also because it's nice to do things in parallel when you're doing a huge change because you avoid the continuous ripple effect that happens with multiple iterations and then people get demotivated and disengaged.

"It's better to have a big shock, but well done and well prepared with all the risks anticipated and analysed. And then the system adapts itself because of the nature of the change and the volume of the task of the people - they can deal with anything after that.

"The important thing is to get that first success, and then it becomes like a very strong light to everybody, who start to feel part of the decision-making process."

EE was ranked by The Sunday Times this year at number 18 in its list of best big companies to work for, and Karonis was particular proud that his own department is regarded very highly internally at the company.

"We are one of the top 25 workplaces in the UK for employee satisfaction," he said.

"And the IT people feel that they are essential in the productivity of the company. IT is at the top of the company's internal score, so they feel they are driving the company and are involved in the decision-making which makes me proud.

"So I have experts and partners and IT teams that work with users and know the business, and they can negotiate a solution that actually fits in with the business objectives.

"We have mixed working groups working with other departments like customer operations and finance and we try to ensure that we listen carefully to them.

"This engagement level is the maturity of the company, and at the top there is really only one team at the executive level. We all work for the same objectives, and my objective is creating value for the company."

Cloud consolidation

As part of the merger and transformation, Karonis was able to slim down the size of the operation at EE, ditching data centres and moving their infrastructure to the cloud, as well as slashing the number of applications the company uses.

"We built an on-site data centre, a private cloud if you like. We had a current mode of operation with a host of data centres, but we wanted to get to a future mode of operation which is about dynamic computing and bundled security.

"We saved about 25% of our operational expenditure, around £50 million, moving our infrastructure to the cloud. For me, innovation is driving this, making us a flexible, healthy and scalable company.

"IT liberated costs in the merger which we could quickly reinject in other parts of the company."

Karonis also explained the savings the organisation was able to make to aligning the areas of the business which have extremely similar requirements.

"Overall, if you look at big telcos like us, we have our large call centres and stores and corporate side which have reasonably close requirements so its most effective to have some options for laptops or similar devices for corporate employees.

"The most interesting and sophisticated part is getting the right applications on the device. We have a strategy called Telco 50 - which means we think 50 applications are enough to manage all our functions."

Karonis said that the operator was now laptop-based everywhere apart from in the call centres, with hot-desking used at a ratio of around 10 desks for every eight users.

"Thin-clients only," he said. "With very little processing power, it's all dynamic computing.

"We're quite keen to work the way we sell. We're a top-class mobility company so we have to match that as an IT service internally, whatever the complexities of the merger. We have to step out of that and be compatible with the visions of the company to be mobile and forward-looking.

"We have done a lot of things to be modern, to make the way we work more collaborative."

Athens Airport and risk assessment

Ninety minutes into our time with Karonis on a Friday afternoon, I check with him that our discussion is not taking up too much of his day.

"But I'm only just getting started," he roars before enthusiastically discussing his role at Athens International Airport, where he also attributed his achievements to surrounding himself with a great team.

"I'm really interested in soft skills; not just the hardware," Karonis said. "The methodology of delivering is the vital part of the equation - how do you engage with marketing, with brand, with communications? It's all about modes of engagement.

"In Athens we applied the modern IT techniques of the way we build systems and the way we interact with users. We had to make sure we had enough testing time, especially with baggage handling which is one of the most complex systems you can work with.

"I took some big bets - and I'm probably one of the few CIOs who has survived an airport opening!

"The secret is to engage with all of your user community and to convince them. But engaging doesn't just mean listen because you end up being overflooded. It was about saying we needed to share things and have a common architecture and backbone.

"The keys to success was to pilot stuff very, very early. The big bang requires the appropriate planning, the appropriate mindset and the appropriate risk assessment."

Testing, stability and risk were constant themes for Karonis as he discussed his different roles and strategies towards various projects, and was of particular concern as he spoke about EE's product - its 4G network.

"4G is such an incredible evolution because I love the wireless world," he said.

"The foundation of our industry is the network, it's the product and our business is only as good as the network, and this is the one thing that permeates most into every area of the business.

"And the role of the CIO is to make sure that the company has stability, especially when it's going through a transformation.

"We've added fault tolerance into the IT and networks so there is no single point of failure. We are continuously challenging ourselves and doing risk assessments - we challenge everything to see which changes affect something else."

And your other duty, for Karonis, is to "simplify the estate, and simplify the processes in order to make it a better place to work".