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The Big Interview: Community Fibre CIO Chris Williams

"We've really stretched the use of it; I'd say it's great value..."

It might be September, but Chris Williams has been spring cleaning – and he’s been at it for the best part of two years, with impressive results. He joined rapidly growing internet service provider (ISP) Community Fibre as CIO back in November 2021 and it’s been 22 months of transformation across the company’s technology estate.

Williams, a telco veteran who previously spent five years with BT and before that, close to a decade with EE, has streamlined the ISP’s operations and also taken 28 new systems live; an impressive pace of digital transformation over a condensed time frame that he says was driven by the need to scale efficiently as Community Fibre expanded.

The company, backed by private equity heavyweight Warburg Pincus among others, is rolling out 10 Gbps-capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) across London. In July it passed one million homes connected and its customer base has tripled since the CIO joined, he says.

Some of the near-term choices were obvious; others less so. He sat down for a coffee with The Stack to discuss strategy, good partners, and his procurement decisions apropos that digital transformation.

One of the most obvious near-term overhauls was the company’s desktop estate which he says, amused at the memory, was a little inconsistent: “When I arrived there, I couldn't understand why people wouldn't turn up to a meeting. It's because some of these people were on Google calendars, some were getting Microsoft calendars. Some of them had both and the two didn't sync on a desktop. It was crazy.”

On the desktop front it’s now a Microsoft shop. (“Virtual desktops?” The Stack asks, speculatively: “Normal Microsoft: E3 plus E5 security extensions” he responds. “Microsoft’s pricing doesn’t encourage VDI. We decided that we’d get better volume and security this way.”)

Another major overhaul has been its approach to contact centres.

Community Fibre has swapped from Zendesk contact centre software to Amazon Connect for its fully remote contact centre staff.

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The idea is to make its systems not just fully omnichannel but customer service better optimised for customers; recognising for example if certain customers have certain needs and being able to offer them the best channel. The ISP is pretty much SaaS-first by design and also uses AWS (DynamoDB) for a network rules engine that powers that decision making.

Ultimately, Williams says, he wants Community Fibre to be proactive in customer services, intelligently recognising why a customer might be getting in touch to streamline the process of helping them and perhaps then moving to preemptive outreach, for example if telemetry shows that a customer is having any issues, contacting them or just fixing first.

That has required a major data overhaul too.

He has centralised a fragmented suite of databases and datasets around a Domo platform that the CIO has warm words for: “It does all the warehousing; it’s a good visualisation tool; it does orchestration, even to the point where we've used Domo, almost like an API layer. We've really stretched the use of it; I'd say it's great value. I’m used to data warehousing projects taking 12-18 months. This took us 12 weeks."

More recently, his team has also gone live with a new CRM system for consumer and wholesale customers. It’s opted for TCS HOBS, which he describes as a “telco-in-a-box that does everything from lead management, sales, provisioning, billing, customer management…”

The company previously had “separate billing, separate CRM, separate customer management” systems he says, detailing that part of the shift, and the “integration wasn't particularly good, so data was a problem. I wanted a faster go-to-market [system] and having a single data set for your customers is safer and definitely more accurate.”

Some CIOs are wary of talking about specific tools or setups and Williams is refreshingly forthright on what tools have worked for the job. They are all, ultimately, in place to underpin a broader business strategy however, which he says he wants to be “all about experience.”

Whilst Community Fibre uses some of Openreach's existing ducts and telegraph poles, its full fibre network it builds, owns, operates and maintains itself and does not share the network with other ISPs. At 920 Mbs average download and upload for ~£25/month it’s pulling in customers fast across the London area.

As Williams puts it mildly though: “Budgets don’t scale in the same way that customer numbers do, so we need to find ways of doing things super efficiently whilst making sure that we stay highly secure – anyone who says security is not a priority is kidding themselves. We’re planning from a BCP (business continuity plan)/disaster recovery perspective, to make sure that we're in the best shape we can be if anything happens. I think the other thing we're doing is we're trying to make the whole business aware it; we have really good engagement from the CEO and board.”

With The Stack raising the skills gap, Williams says that he hasn’t suffered extensively from the widely-flagged issue. With an in-house IT team of around 30, plus around double that working with partners, he has also managed to keep attrition healthily low (“zero this year”).

How? “Building people's knowledge, making sure they're happy in what they're doing and they've got everything they need. We invest in training and try to talk to people on a really regular basis; we're focused on trying to make sure they feel involved in the business; they can understand the strategy and the vision. Our measurement is on output rather than when you're in the office” he says with the palpable relief of someone who lives in Devon and who used to work at BT.

His team has certainly got a lot done in less than two years.

Any tips for other IT leaders in making that happen?

"Spending a bit of time at the start with the business -- looking in detail at the problems, talking about the challenges, talking about the vision for the future, understanding all of those things, then creating a joint vision with the business. I'm prioritising those activities pretty ruthlessly" he says, adding "getting some early wins on the board, partnering with the right people, and having the right level of expertise around" [are also critical]. "Having the support of the business and also a level of forgiveness at times, because you cannot deliver that much change without a few things happening..."

See also The Big Interview: TomTom CTO Eric Bowman's new vision