Fred Briggs: MCI's CTO shifts the company's playing field
THE FACT THAT MCI WorldCom's outspoken CEO Bernie Ebbers last month railed against the use of the word "telecom" to describe his company has enormous implications for CTO Fred Briggs.
It is Briggs who must drive the company's future product and service development, which will stand behind Ebbers' vision for taking MCI WorldCom far from its roots as a long-distance phone company.
Ebbers let it be known last month that he has in mind a plan to transform the company into a one-stop provider enterprise, one that dot-com customers can use to meet virtually all communications and ecommerce needs. So dramatic is that announced transformation that Ebbers has even suggested banishing the use of the "MCI" label strictly to the company's separate long-distance voice efforts.
The details of what to call and how to define MCI WorldCom point to the challenges facing Briggs, who has worked extensively with Ebbers and other key executives in shaping the company's makeover.
Specifically, Briggs has already had to steer the technology solutions behind the new MCI WorldCom advertising blitz that attempts to capsulize Ebbers' ideas -- a marketing campaign centered on the phrase "generation d." Because the "d" stands for "digital," the slogan is an attempt to designate the company as a staunch player in the digital marketplace.
Briggs talked with InfoWorld Senior Editor Jennifer Jones about his vision for the tactical deployment of solutions that will help stake MCI WorldCom's claim on the ecommerce space.
InfoWorld: Do you think MCI WorldCom's declaration that it no longer wants to be considered a telecom company is indicative of the market? Is there no longer such a thing as a traditional telco?
Briggs: There will always be telecom companies that provide just connectivity, dial-up, and other traditional services. And sure, we will still have some telecom components. But with our 'generation d' announcement, we have signaled that we are going to change.
That does not mean we won't leverage our traditional telecom past. But it does mean that we will be getting into a whole new area of providing infrastructure support to e-commerce companies along with the tools and capabilities they need in their market.
If you look at some of the research lately on that market, it puts us in a space that Forrester Research and others say will be a $7 trillion market in four to five years.
InfoWorld: Does your new focus on the e-commerce space and your new strategic direction signal any changes for your enterprise customers?
Briggs: One of the basic things about our enterprise customers is that many of them at all levels are now looking at what they can do to become more involved in e-commerce.
They are examining things like their supply chain, ERP [enterprise resource planning] -- things that will bring them closer to their customers and [will] differentiate themselves in new markets.
As we go further into this new space, it will also bring new possibilities to our enterprise customers in terms of the basic tools, basic telecom services, connectivity, security, and interfaces with back-office systems -- all of the tools necessary to set up an infrastructure and serve customers in this new digital world.
The waay we interact with our customers will broaden considerably because the range of products we offer will change considerably. There will always be telecom services involved, but we are also becoming a significant player in hosting and co-location, which is really a business we have been in for over a decade.
But now we are making the toolkits and microservices, transaction processing and underlying infrastructure necessary to take what we have been doing to the next step to begin offering customized solutions and e-commerce tools our enterprise customers need. So we will be formulating customer solutions from a broader set of products in a much different ways than we did in the past.
InfoWorld: As you move into this new market space, whom do you consider your biggest competitors?
Briggs: The interesting thing about this space is that there is no real competitor that is offering full packages and complete solutions. There are no large companies offering truly end-to-end solutions. There are some regional and small players offering pieces of it, but no company with the worldwide presence that we have.
InfoWorld: What about AT&T and some of your more traditional competitors? Aren't they moving in similar directions?
Briggs: Yes, others are moving in this direction since most everyone has realized that e-commerce is such a big part of our economy.
But our question to those competitors is this: Can you match our global reach, our hosting facilities, our microservices, and the potential partners we have in this area? Again, everyone has pieces of this, and some would like to emulate what we are doing, but they lack the basic set of resources to do it.
InfoWorld: Just what does it take specifically in terms of resources to provide the kinds of capability you are talking about?
Briggs: Well, we have a global network, and we have hosting space that now totals about 2 million square feet. We also have managed services, which have not been highlighted a whole lot. But those include services that we have offered to our largest customers for well over a decade. For instance, we offer managed network services on a broad scale to customers like the Nasdaq Stock Exchange and the FAA. We are now leveraging that experience in the e-commerce market.
InfoWorld: As MCI's CTO, what has been your role in defining the new vision for the company?
Briggs: I have been right in the middle of it. As a technical organization, we will have to confront changes over the next couple of years that are in some ways bigger than what I have seen in my 17 years at the company.
Telecom services themselves are changing with the advent of broadband access using technology such as MMDS [multichannel multipoint distribution services] and DSL and cable data modems. That is going to change the complexion of access software and move just about everything from narrowband to packet-switched networks.
We are looking into things like voice over frame relay, voice over ATM,[and] voice over IP [VOIP] in an attempt to leverage our history as data and voice continue to converge. We are building this new infrastructure and at the same time developing microservices and portals for our customers.
So looking at the amount of change and the new capabilities emerging over the next couple of years, it really falls on us to create the infrastructure and services necessary in that evolution.
InfoWorld: How do you interact with CEO Bernie Ebbers and other company leaders in crafting these new solutions?
Briggs: It is really a two-way course of action. What we do as one of our most critical functions as a technical organization is to show the rest of the company what is possible.
For example, what can be done with thhe new broadband pipes or the e-commerce capabilities or new networking technologies. It is our job to show what the opportunities are.
We also work with the marketing executives and others who can iterate back to us the kinds of products they'd like to see. We end up educating each other this way, and we end up with a compromise in terms of the types of new services we come up with.
In working with Bernie, we also have looked not only at the direction, size, and potential of this new market but also [at] how we will change our own infrastructure to support this marketplace.
InfoWorld: What exactly do you think is behind Mr. Ebbers' displeasure with the word 'telecom'?
Briggs: Well, part of that is just Bernie's style. This 'generation d' push is a very big shift, and he is trying to telegraph the message that we are a different company. Clearly, we have great telecom capabilities, but we have made a decision to fundamentally shift the types of products we focus on as we go further into this e-commerce space.
InfoWorld: In the unveiling of 'generation d' there were several references to VOIP technology. How does that fit into this broader picture we are talking about?
Briggs: VOIP technology is going to become a significant part of infrastructure in our company as well as in our e-commerce customers. I see it breaking down into two pieces. One is what I would call IP software and VOIP solutions, and the other is multiservice networks using ATM, frame relay, and IP for voice and video.
InfoWorld: What do you foresee in terms of bandwidth growth and demand?
Briggs: I think demand will continue to grow by about 800 percent per year. If you extrapolate that into the broadband environment, by 2003 we will be adding the equivalent of today's entire network every day to keep up with growth. If you look at what will be required to support the $7 trillion e-commerce marketplace, it is staggering and exciting at the same time.
InfoWorld: Central to the 'generation d' announcement was the inclusion of an e-business toolkit. Would you explain some of the functionalities contained in that effort and give us some signals as to what services we can expect?
Briggs: With the toolkit, we are going to roll out a pretty comprehensive set of services over the next six to seven months. We will be delivering functionality that will let businesses quickly deploy operations to the Web.
The toolkit will be made up of microservices used in things like transaction processing and building an e-commerce infrastructure. The next step is customized solutions and a broader set of e-commerce tools.
Looking out, I also see the advent of intelligent IP devices built around SIP [Session Initiation Protocol], which will allow us to offer a whole new layer of services for intelligent devices. I'm also expecting a whole new range of solutions for customer service and interactive centers that integrate voice, e-mail, chat, paging, and pushing information to customers.