From the mag: Optiva and opportunity through openness

A lot of companies may talk a big game about transparency and diversity. But few are practising what they preach quite like Optiva. CEO Danielle Royston talks about the importance of being open, hiring the best people for the job - and what comes next.
Optiva, Tech, Business, Technology, Diversity, Cloud, Equality, Digital, Danielle Royston, Society, Ben Mack, Future, 5G


Image: Optiva CEO Danielle Royston.

The word “transparency” is one that gets bandied about a lot in business. The problem, though, is that while many executives may talk a big game about the need for their companies to be open with customers and the public, the reality is they are often anything but.

But transparency is what Optiva chief executive Danielle Royston is all about. In fact, she’s so transparent, she’s even honest about the fact she’s relatively new to the telco industry – something not every CEO is willing to confess within the first five minutes of an interview.

Then again, transparency is something Royston says is key to doing good business. “A lot of CEOs want to tell only the good side,” she explains.

“So I’m a little bit different. If you want something in six months, but it’s going to take nine months, I’m going to tell you.”

She expands on the importance of transparency. “We really want our customers to have an excellent experience, so I’ve been really transparent as a leader.”

Royston has been CEO of Optiva for about 18 months – beginning her role on Valentine’s Day (February 14) 2017, no less. Before that, she spent 21years with ESW Capital, specialising in turnarounds for businesses that might be struggling financially. In the case of Optiva – which was founded in 1999 in Canada, and originally known as Redknee – Royston is open about the fact the business support systems (BSS) company has previously had some speedbumps on the road to growth. “It’s not going to be fixed overnight,” she explains.

Yet she’s optimistic about the future. “We’re rising from the ashes. We’ll see how it goes – we’re going with two feet in.”

Royston is certainly well on her way. When speaking for an interview, she was in London and preparing to head to Luxembourg to meet with clients, after having previously been in Tanzania, South Africa, Chile, and more. “I filled a whole new passport book in less than a year,” she jokes.

Such seemingly nonstop travels are necessary, though: after all, Optiva boasts more than 100 customers in more than 80 countries. In the Middle East and Africa, it has customers in places including South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Oman Tunisia, Yemen and even Afghanistan. Despite all those customers all over, Royston points out about 80% of Optiva’s revenue comes from charging products used mostly by telcos.

Benefits of the cloud

As Optiva is changing, so too is technology, explains Royston. That technological change, she says, extends not just to her company, but the industry as a whole. One of those technologies Royston says is changing things dramatically: the cloud.

But Royston isn’t just a believer in the cloud in general: she advocates an open cloud.

“Everyone is running this in their data centres, from the Middle East to Africa to North America,” Royston explains.

Royston says another advantage of the cloud – especially for telcos – is it’s an adaptable technology, which is especially important when customers have different needs, such as if they plan on upgrading to 5G or not. “The problem is my customers have to predict demand,” she explains.

“Over-provisioning,” as Royston explains things, can be disastrous financially if it turns out the technology does not become widely adopted or is soon replaced by something else; reality, she says, needs to live up to the hype. “I had a customer call 3G a ‘nothingburger.’”

She says more. “The way you get burned is you over-provision, you over-invest.”

Hence the cloud. “What’s nice about the cloud is you don’t have to make that investment up front.”

A diverse future

The future is not just being driven by diverse technologies, Royston explains. She says it’s also being driven by diverse workforces – which, aside from the necessity of helping to create a more equal world, will be key if businesses hope to keep up with their competition. “You can always benefit from a more diverse point of view,” she explains.

An important part of that diversity: gender diversity.

Royston says it’s needed in the telco industry. “Last year I met two female executives the entire year. There is a real lack of diversity.”

To help attract – and retain – a diverse workforce, Royston says remote working is an option for some businesses. “By hiring talent that is virtual, you can hire people from around the world,” she explains. “I think the trend is to be more and more virtual. There are smart people everywhere – of all genders.”

And Royston practices what she preaches: not only does Optiva have gender-blind hiring practices to reduce bias, but the company is in the process of going fully virtual – going from having about 20 physical offices around the world to an entirely remote workforce.

So, amid changes to how the company operates, a focus on transparency and equality, and embracing new technologies in ways that don’t require customers to over-commit resources without knowing what kind of return they’ll get on their investment, what might the future hold? Royston says she knows exactly what she’d like people to be saying about Optiva in five years. “I want people to say ‘that is a telco-focused software company that has all their products in the cloud.’”

Not to mention continue to be refreshingly transparent with customers, the public – and even journalists at tech magazines interviewing someone from the company for the first time.

This story was first published in the November 2018 issue of CommsMEA.

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