CTO Sessions: David Tomalin, CityFibre

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? “It’s about getting the conversation going with teams to really understand the business goals and ask the questions; is it a tactical solution or a long term one?”

Headshot of David Tomalin, Group CTO at CityFibre

Name: David Tomalin

Company: CityFibre

Job title: Group Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: October 2018

Location: London

Having worked within well-known vendor and network provider organisations for over 25 years, David Tomalin is now CityFibre’s Group Chief Technology Officer, delivering the UK’s largest independent Full Fibre infrastructure platform. In this role, Tomalin is responsible for the selection and evolution of all powered network technology assets as well as all AI driven working practices and new implementations. Tomalin joined CityFibre from Ciena where, as CTO for Europe, the Middle East and Africa he was responsible for leveraging Ciena's technology and operational leadership to enable partner success and drive Ciena’s regional business reputation and growth.

What was your first job? My first job was an antiquarian bookseller in a second-hand bookshop in Guildford at the age of 13. It was such an interesting place where I worked with people from all walks of life. We sold a whole range of books, from brand new ones and second hand to 400 year old books. Seeing all those different slices of history was really interesting for me.

Did you always want to work in IT? I’ve always wanted to work in a sector that pushes the edge of what you can do. I’m in tech because it’s an intellectual problem, which I really enjoy, but growing up I had a range of jobs in mind. These include being a rocket scientist, marine biologist, archaeologist – the list goes on!

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a degree in Physics from the University of Kent. Personally, I think we constrain the potential of people by believing in too many certifications. The best individuals I’ve met in my career in the tech sector, don’t have degrees. They chose a different path, they think and inspire differently.

If I was encouraging anyone, it’s for them to find their own path to reach their potential. Do not assume particular certifications are the be all and end all. That also applies to businesses – when we choose people, we shouldn’t filter on certain qualifications.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I still want to be a rocket scientist – so I guess this is my detour! But I started off my career as employee number six at a small startup spun out of Netscape Navigator, building modem banks. This company scaled quickly achieving over a million customers in its first three years. After this, I moved to a role in the international carrier market, which pushed the industry on how networks can be built, worked as CTO as EU Networks and following that, I moved to the vendor space as EMEA CTO at Ciena. This role challenged me and moved me out of my comfort zone. In 2015, I became a Solutions Architect at EvoTech Consulting and then I joined CityFibre. I’ve been at the company for six and a half years.  Looking forward, I’m comfortable that one day I may get to do something totally different.

What type of CTO are you? I am the type of CTO who wants the team around them to achieve the most that they possibly can. I believe that you can only deliver great tech if those around you are committed. More often than not, your team knows more about the product or subject matter than you do. I prefer to work on maximising my team’s potential through various growth stages – it’s where I get the greatest satisfaction.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Quantum computing – it’s in danger of being overhyped. There are step changes in the way we build things and quantum technology is where we’re really going to see huge shifts in this to help us make things we can’t even envision now, become a possibility. I am hoping I’ll start to see its benefits during my technology career.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? 5G is certainly valuable but I think it can, at times, be at risk of being overhyped. My view is it’s important to see the bigger picture. What we need to focus on is not just the 5G technology itself, but the prospect of enhancing services quality and reliability.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Visual automation. At CityFibre, we’ve done an incubation project with Deepomatic to trial out this technology. As a company, Deepomatic has a very similar culture to our business as they’re willing to try new things – which makes them a great partner.

CityFibre’s engineers use the app-based interface to upload images of network build, upgrade or maintenance-related work prior to closing a job. The images are then analysed in real time to either validate the work as complete or highlight issues that need addressing before leaving the site. The visual record and any associated notes are then stored to provide a searchable history of build information and maintenance activities that can be accessed on-demand by CityFibre’s network management and quality assurance teams.

It’s a technology that’s been developing for a few years, but I’m excited about the fact that we can now apply it to use cases at scale. As a technology, it’s helping us lead the way in our approach to quality, customer experience and satisfaction. This project didn’t require any direct project management from me, the technology excited my team to succeed and the end result has been fantastic.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? At CityFibre, we’re leading the build of the new generation of Full Fibre infrastructure in the UK. This network is capable of transforming the digital capabilities of citizens and businesses, sparking innovation and underpinning our economy in a gigabit age.

The innovation we are driving forward at CityFibre encompasses all of the above. Entrepreneurial spirit and innovation is in our DNA at CityFibre. It sparked the Full Fibre revolution and underpins our commitment to deliver best in class systems, products and services, which ultimately helps us deliver great customer experience. It’s about raising the bar, providing best value and helping our customers deliver endless satisfaction for theirs.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Working to refine the insights we provide our customers about their customers’ experience on our network. This in turn helps them provide the best customer experiences onwards. Growing that to scale is an exciting challenge.

We’re also helping customers by continuing to push the boundaries and challenge our industry to do better, with a laser focus on bringing multi-gig full fibre services to millions of homes and businesses across the country. We recently trialled 2Gbps residential services in York with our launch partner Vodafone. The trial was made possible by the recent upgrade of our York network to XGS-PON access technology, which is due to be rolled out as standard across its network from April 2023. The 2Gbps service paves the way for the introduction of residential and business services at symmetrical speeds of up to 10Gbps across its entire footprint in the future. We’re on a journey that will take us to speeds hitherto impossible on legacy networks! Thanks to our XGS-PON upgrade programme, we’ll be able to offer symmetrical speeds of up to 10Gbps in the future, further evidence that not all full fibre networks are created equal.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? It’s about getting the conversation going with teams to really understand the business goals and ask the questions; is it a tactical solution or a long term one? What are the appropriate set of compromises we will make that on journey to get to the end goal? If you want your business to succeed, you also have to accept the ability to fail. It all comes down to communication, you must have robust, open and frank conversations to build the opportunities for the business to succeed and reach its potential.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Not particularly. Often technology companies, are tech led. At CityFibre, in the first few years, we were tech led and our product and service strategy fell behind the tech strategy. The biggest challenge is actually to change your company to be product focused, but it’s a critical step to better understand your customers’ needs. For example, our technology needs are not the same use cases as our customer’s. By doing this, the technology strategy should seamlessly support that.

It may call out some gap analysis on areas where technology cannot deliver, but if you communicate, make compromises and keep an eye on the end goal, your business strategy will be aligned with other teams.

What makes an effective tech strategy? It is crucial to have clear long term corporate goals as a business. This in turns allows your tech and product strategy to be aligned. For example, if I’m looking at what choice of chip sets CityFibre may want to be buying in three years’ time, I need to know what the company’s five to seven year plan is. Of course, this may change, but by knowing the direction of the business, I can make technology choices that ensure we keep as many options as possible open for the business in the long term. Without this knowledge, I’d have to make tactical decisions which are more likely to lead the business in the wrong direction.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The CTO is often confused with the CIO or CDO – particularly in the telecommunications industry – though they are inherently different things. One is about the information technology and the other is about how to leverage technology options to build infrastructures. There is power to businesses in maintaining two separate focuses in these roles.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Working on the introduction of the ethernet standards over MPLS with people who helped me as a network engineer see what my potential could be. This opened my eyes as to what I could do and the benefits of working with diverse (specifically neurodiverse) teams.

This is also when I started believing in myself that I could do more than I thought was possible, or within my control. This self-recognition of my potential gave me confidence and instilled in me the mentality that you can achieve so much with those around you.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? If I were to meet my 20 year old self again, I would tell them the importance of understanding yourself, the value of teamwork and to be appreciative of others. You can achieve so much with those around you and that is why I spend so much time with my teams today.

What are you reading now? I’m reading some classic sci-fi books from the mid 90s. I’m currently enjoying Alan Dean Foster’s Sentenced to Prism. I’ve started reading these again because my son has started to get into the genre. What I find fascinating about sci-fi novels is the language used to describe the future. Every couple of years I like to revisit them to see what has become dated, and what really is still considered at the cutting edge.

Most people don't know that I… spent time at a remedial school.

In my spare time, I like to…take part in dressage horse riding. Horse heads freak me out so I’ve decided to take this up to face my fears!

Ask me to do anything but… Karaoke – you don’t want to hear me sing!