AT&T's CIO: "IP Will Eat Everything" - InformationWeek

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12:52 PM
Paul Travis
Paul Travis

AT&T's CIO: "IP Will Eat Everything"

Hossein Eslambolchi sees AT&T's future in automating processes and offering services around high-end IP communications.

In the winter of 2000, Hossein Eslambolchi was having second thoughts about changing jobs. Eslambolchi had spent 14 years in increasingly important technology jobs at AT&T, the communications giant that put a telephone in nearly every American home and business. But then he decided to jump ship to become a senior VP in charge of a business unit developing equipment for telecom-services providers at Cisco Systems, whose switches and routers were helping to power the Internet revolution.

"I was a little frustrated with the scope of my responsibilities at AT&T and didn't think there was any room for growth," says Eslambolchi, at the time an AT&T senior VP for packet and optical services. He also was traveling every week, spending around 80% of his time on the road. "I felt I owed it to my family to consider alternatives, so I said yes to Cisco."

After a few weeks at the new job, Eslambolchi started to feel "guilty that I had left a job unfinished at AT&T," he says. "I didn't want to think in my own mind that I had failed." Eslambolchi met with Cisco CEO John Chambers and told him he wanted to return to AT&T. Chambers tried to convince him to stay, but Eslambolchi had made up his mind: "I wanted to finish the job at AT&T."

That job has gotten a lot more difficult. When Eslambolchi returned to AT&T, the company's major push was around its cable TV and cellular businesses to go with its long-distance network, and its goal was to sell a package of voice, video, and wireless services and regain its role as the leading provider of communications to the American public. But the company was forced to sell off its cable and cellular units, and unfavorable legal and regulatory decisions caused it to retreat from the residential voice market. Now AT&T's focus is on providing business communications services, a market where technological innovation is essential if AT&T is to differentiate itself from a host of competitors.

It may be exactly the kind of challenge Eslambolchi was born to take on. A slim, compact man who grew up in Tehran, Iran, he says he inherited the innovation gene from his father, an engineer who developed software algorithms to control the temperature in chicken coops to help eggs hatch. "I was taught to innovate," he says. "I was inventing things as a child. I was born thinking out of the box." Eslambolchi says he graduated first in his high school class and was accepted into medical school, where his plan was to become a brain surgeon. Instead, he chose to move to the United States and become an engineer. He started at Oklahoma University in 1975 and later, seeking a warmer climate, transferred to the University of California in San Diego, where he earned a doctorate in electrical engineering.

He joined AT&T Bell Labs in 1986 and worked to improve the quality and reliability of packet networks. He led the team that developed AT&T's Fast Automated Restoration System, which quickly restores services when a high-capacity optical fiber is cut. He also served as interim president of [email protected] Broadband Network Services, where he improved network reliability and grew the customer base.

After his brief flirtation with Cisco Systems, Eslambolchi began to move up the AT&T management ranks. He became CTO and president of AT&T Labs in September 2001. A year later he was named the company's CIO. And at the beginning of this year he was given the job of running the network. Along with the responsibility of four jobs, he gets a paycheck to match, earning more than $4.2 million a year, making him one of the highest-paid CIOs in the world.

"In my own head, all of the jobs are related, all connected," Eslambolchi says. While there's no such thing as a typical day, he allocates roughly 20% of his time to operations, 25% to the labs, 25% to the CTO job, and the remaining 30% to CIO issues. He receives and answers between 400 and 500 E-mails a day, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to fire off a response. "We sometimes wonder if he ever sleeps," says Robin Bienfait, VP of network operations, network security, and disaster recovery.

A serial inventor, Eslambolchi has more than 300 patents granted or pending. "I get bored easily," he says. "Whenever I get 20 minutes of free time I start sketching out ideas." In conversation, ideas and concepts tumble out of him in a never-ending stream.

"He is a very bright guy who is one of the thought leaders in the industry," says Rob Rich, an executive VP at the Yankee Group research firm. "He's a 24-by-7 kind of guy who operates at 100 miles an hour."

In his spare time, Eslambolchi plays soccer for about three hours each Saturday and is completing a book tentatively titled "20-20 Vision" that describes the changes that computing and communications technology will produce by the year 2020. In his view, "IP will eat everything" and high-speed Internet Protocol-based communications will create the "vitual" world touted by the Internet visionaries of the late 1990s. It will be a real-time, interactive world where wall-sized high-definition screens, gigabit-per-second connections into home and offices, and ubiquitous broadband wireless services enable virtual house calls by doctors, widespread distance learning and telecommuting, virtual project teams, automated systems controlled by voice response systems, and more.

"The next 10 to 15 years will see the dawn of the multimedia age that will free people from the constraints of time and place," he says. "It will be a dramatic change."

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