Danielle Royston: The road to tech evangelism
When Swedish telco giant Ericsson pulled out of a scaled-down, pushed back Mobile World Congress in 2021, Danielle Royston said it took her all of “a few minutes” to make the multimillion-pound decision to take over the newly vacated 65,000 sq. ft space.
If few in the industry had heard of her evidently deep-pocketed telco cloud consultancy before last year’s event, everyone has heard of Telco DR now after Royston went on to lay on a multiplatform temple to the cloud in the Fira’s Hall 2, complete with chorales from long-serving 80s rock god Jon Bon Jovi, who played a live acoustic set.
“We had the money and Jon was super psyched to come because he hadn’t done a live gig in 18 months. He even played Livin’ on a Prayer which he rarely does because the changes in the octaves of the song are so hard on his voice, but he played a slowed down version, and it was awesome.”
Royston speaks about the public cloud as a telco enabler with the same unabashed passion that she speaks about the ballads of Bon Jovi and I’m keen to find out more about her path to tech evangelism.
It all started, she says, when she was working as a turnaround CEO at the then-loss-making software provider Optiva (formerly known as Redknee) which she transformed into a profitable company by pivoting the firm to become a cloud-native software provider for telcos.
“I was just amazed when I started talking to telco execs that they didn’t really know what public cloud was and employees at Optiva had warned me that telcos would be a hard sell,” she recalls.
“Even last year one telco exec I had dinner with mistook public cloud with the internet. And I’m like, dude, they’re totally different things. So, there was no one in our industry talking up the benefits. Evangelising about the benefits of public cloud. And so, I guess I got to be that person.”
Royston likes to bring up Space X and Tesla Motors’ CEO Elon Musk a lot. She has been quoted, sometimes out of context, as saying that she is “the Elon Musk of public cloud”.
She explains: “He’s just someone that keeps on going in the face of total criticism. He’s like, ‘I’m going to Mars’ and people are like, ‘You’re nuts. And he’s like, ‘I’m going to launch an electrical vehicle company’. And people say ‘It won’t work,’ and yet he keeps on going. For new, radical changes in tech you need that and so I’m doing that with the public cloud”
Royston believes that public cloud will allow telcos to stop spending their organisational energy on storage and databases and “all this crap which is not their business” and instead technically leverage their network and use the data they have at their disposal to provide products and services around their connectivity.
“Cloud isn’t just a data centre in the sky from which you can run all your applications. The secret to public cloud for telcos not in the network but the fact that you have access to what that the subscriber is doing, and you can change that experience and build loyalty and brand passion.
“I think if telcos did this and embraced it, we would also go from having one of the worst customer loyalty scores to one of the best.”
Remote working, a practice that Royston carried out since 2009, is a tremendous opportunity for telcos to provide connectivity and service packages, she says, adding that in the ten or so years she spent as a turnaround CEO the first thing she did when she took over a company was to shut down its offices.
“Office space used to be a $10 trillion industry. Now with offices changing into maybe purely collaborative environments, not individual workspaces and with workers demanding to work from home, right – that’s going to change the internet at the home.
“I have a 1GB connection to the home right now because my husband works here. I work here, our kids use it for gaming, and we are all our TVs. That is a huge opportunity for telco,” she enthuses.
I ask her about her work as a turnaround CEO dealing with legacy tech companies, people resistant to change and people whose roles are no longer a good fit for the direction the company is moving in. I suggest it must be a tough gig.
“It’s kind of a girl job. Like working on a home renovation – you might see the good in the bones of a home. It might be rat-infested with a hole in the roof but it’s in a good neighbourhood and is the right size. Similarly, [when] you break it down companies – maybe change out the people, change the messaging – the ability to organise and sort of messes – I think women are suited for that”
So how does she sort out the period features from the asbestos in the walls?
“You look at what made them successful in the first place. There are usually one or two ideas. At some point they start to diversify but most of the revenue is usually concentrated in one or two things. One product often carries the load of all the others.”
It’s for this reason, she adds, that she’s a very big fan of building profit and loss at customer level, especially for telco.
“I like to count the operation side of things. If 90% of your customer base is in the US but you have one customer in Lebanon, you need to look at the burden of the entity in that territory and all the regulation and make sure that it’s worth it. It makes you really look very honestly at what you’re doing to support the customer but also to look whether that customer helping you for where the company is trying to get.”
Royston takes a similar approach to employees in an organisation who are failing – for whatever reason – to fulfil the role asked of them.
The Stanford-educated software engineer with a flair for recruitment made an early career pivot into compensation HR – an area, Royston adds, that allowed her to climb the corporate ladder within high grossing tech companies such as the former Motorola-owned firm Freescale Semiconductor.
According to Royston, these HR roles taught her how to apply a logical, Mr Spock approach to decision-making which, she adds, also requires a “Mother Teresa-style” compassionate delivery.
Most managers, she adds, get these things confused – allowing emotions to cloud their judgement over firings and then appearing quite cold and ruthless once a decision has been reached.
She explains: “When managers look to let someone go, they tend to get all these emotional blocks and that’s when the pushback begins: ‘but he’s my friend’, ‘but I just gave her a promotion’ or ‘but they are having problems with their kids”.
“So, I’m like, let’s try as hard as we can to put all those extenuating circumstances aside; Objectively, can they do the role? If they can’t do the role is there another place in the company, they can move to? If the answer is no, then we make the decision to exit.”
Once you’ve made a decision based on facts, Royston adds, then it’s time to get compassionate and bring those extenuating circumstances blockers back in. What makes them feel comfortable in terms of compensating the employee for all these extenuating circumstances? “And that’s when – If I suggest a year’s pay – the manager usually balks!” she adds.
Art of war
Mother Teresa aside, achieving success as a powerful turnaround CEO does not come without consequences and women leaders would do well to learn the art of war, she claims.
By the time Royston’s son was ten, she says, he’d already mastered it – those strategies needed to retain power – boys and men grow up learning them and encountering them through online role-playing games and Warcraft, but many women would do well to learn this, she urges.
She cites the curious case of Carlos Ghosn, the former superstar CEO of Nissan who turned from a celebrated industry leader to a fugitive who had to flea Japan in a musical instrument case to Lebanon.
Royston also mentions Away founder Steph Korey whose employees and certain quarters of the tech media rounded on her after reports of micromanaging and cruel behaviours at the luggage start up (which others dispute were unfair allegations).
“It teaches you that the more power you gather the more people want to take it away from you. It’s not necessarily because you are a woman – it’s because you have something that someone else wants. And you must deploy war tactics to keep it.
“As women we are not educated to constantly think ‘what could other people do to take away what I have?’ or ‘How do I keep them onside?’ or ‘What resources and leverage do I have to do so?’ I never used to think this way, but I do now.”
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