A brief farewell after 10 years

I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers little after I joined Telefonica as a researcher 10 years ago. He said that it takes approximately 10000 hours or 10 years to become good at something. I was on my way back from US. I was leaving academia after 10+ years and I was heading to my first real job. I had a recent PhD, a good number of publications, and a growing number of scientific collaborations under my belt. My viewpoint on things was more or less as follows:

— A Network was a Graph

— Competition was a Strategic Game

— Investment was a Facility Location problem

— Complexity was Combinatorial

— A good solution had to be non trivial

Today is my last day with Telefonica.

— A Network is a mindboggling mess of cables, boxes, buildings, antennas, people, and companies that run around it like bees to keep it running. It’s so amazing that it works most of the time. Nobody fully understands why.

— Competition is an even worse monster. Companies collaborate in one place and compete in the another. They are friends today and enemies tomorrow. Regulation, public opinion, and random events can change the game from one day to the next. Good luck trying to make sense of it through Game Theory.

— Cost structures, CAPEX, OPEX are so complex that even producing an accurate bill of something like our total electricity consumption is a highly non-trivial task. You can try to optimize one thing here only to find out that you are breaking 10 things there.

— Complexity is still combinatorial but not so much on the number of links but on the number of business units, business models, and on the number of assumption that one makes about the future.

— It’s really great when a solution is trivial

Telefonica has been a great school for me. I saw more cable than I even believed existed. I switched off rows of modems to save energy and got surprised to see the remaining ones locking at a higher bit-rate due to reduced crosstalk. I participated in building real stuff, from CDNs to WIFI aggregators, and from ride-sharing systems, to browser addons for privacy. I was given access to tons of numbers about how much things cost and how much traffic goes through them. Got to work with regulators, investment planers, strategy departments, innovation departments, communication and PR people, HR, and almost any other specialty that you can imagine. I was allowed to create an NGO.

Throughout all this I managed to remain a researcher. I don’t know if I managed to fit Gladwell’s predictions, but I am sure I stand way more firm on my feet today than when I walked in. I am grateful for the great opportunities I was given and for the wonderful people that I got to work with these 10 years.

Telefonica is a fantastic place for any young researcher that wants to take a walk on the real side of things.

Via Augusta, circa 2010.