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  • Guest: Paul Sulisz

  • Company: Biarri Networks

  • The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch

    Craig:

    Hello, everyone and welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch, alongside my colleague Brad Hine, Product Director for Analytics Solutions at ETI Software. I’m Craig Corbin. Today we are speaking with Paul Sulisz, the CEO of Biarri Networks.  Paul’s career within the telecommunications industry spans the better part of two decades, with more than seven years in fiber and fixed access networks and 11 years in wireless networks, including cellular and microwave deployments across the Asia Pacific region, as well as North America and involving both access and private networks. He holds a double degree in electronics engineering and information technology, and began his career as a design engineer, finding his passion in large complex rollouts, where he honed his skills in project director and program management roles.

    Craig:

    He quickly moved into general and senior executive positions and over the past four years, has focused on productizing and deploying innovative approaches to digital design, engineering and construction while building the global capability for his company.

    Paul, we know that Biarri Networks is a dynamic organization.  Please tell us what is going on today with Biarri Networks.

    Paul:

    Biarri today is really focused on trying to, for the most part, connect America. Most of our work is in the US. We do have some work in South Africa at the moment as well. Although we’re a global company, most of the focus right now and has been for a number of years here in the US. I’m based in Denver, Colorado. I often get asked why Denver and why Colorado? I typically just point at the mountains because they’re majestic. But we really spend most of our energy as an organization focused on helping to connect rural America.

    CEO’s Journey from Australia to Connecting America

    Brad:

    How did you initially get involved in this industry?

    Paul:

    When I was about to graduate from university, there was a couple of research options. (I did have a passion actually for image processing just as a fun fact. I can completely geek out occasionally when it comes to that side of things.) But I really, really wanted to get out and start work as much as the PhD side of things sounded interesting. I joined Telstra, which is like the AT&T of Australia, as a junior graduate engineer, and initially got into designing networks. At that time, it was more around designing fixed access networks, then I moved into a wireless project and then program managing wireless networks from there. That was my start.

    Paul:

    I did have a passion, initially, for something a little bit different. But I really wanted to get a job and there was a great graduate program with Telstra that I jumped into. I was fortunate enough to work with some amazing engineers and managers that helped fuel the passion for complexity and working on really interesting problems from there in.

    Brad:

    Fast forward to where you started with Biarri – what initially drew you to it? Also tell us a little bit about Biarri globally and beyond telecom?

    Paul:

    The Biarri Group is made up of many companies, and they really focus on different verticals and different industries including oil and gas, mining, transportation, supply chain, workforce, predictive analytics, energy and obviously networks.  Telecommunications networks is what Biarri Networks does. At the core of all those companies is commercial mathematics. The founders of Biarri Group were very passionate, and still are to this day, about bringing impressive commercial mathematics to bear and making it accessible to people.

    Paul:

    They felt really strongly that these really cool ways to solve these problems or challenges, should be accessible to normal people that aren’t mathematicians or scientists. It was on that basis that they started Biarri as a group. Biarri Networks is, almost like the oldest sibling of the family, if I can put it that way. So, there’s a myriad of different businesses within the group, all global, that focus on different things. At the core, there’s a lot of commercial mathematics and smarts that bring our capabilities to bear.

    Commercial Mathematics Driving Fiber Broadband Network Optimization

    Brad:

    Specifically in telecom, which is very network driven, you’re trying to remove some of the complexity out of fiber network planning and design for your customers – basically just making a very simple system that any user can be comfortable with it. Tell us a little bit about that.

    Paul:

    At the core, we use a lot of optimization capability. That allows us to not only use automation techniques, but also combine that with optimization. Essentially, the technology really looks to build out network plans or designs, that find the cheapest way to serve the demand – whatever that demand may be…whether it’s a house, whether it’s an MDU, or whether it’s a small cell antenna. It doesn’t really matter because we can configure the algorithm and the technology, to utilize a set of rules, specifically around the architecture, if there’s any design or engineering rules, or any construction constraints.

    Paul:

    Then we fold that into this technology that will then output the cheapest way to serve in accordance with those rules. It will connect everything because it is an objective approach and deterministic. What that allows us to do is, tackle significantly larger problems than a mere mortal human can do at a time.  Areas up to and above and beyond 10,000 homes at a time, for instance, with a fiber to the home deployment. We can get there a lot quicker than traditional methods. Because we humans can only do so much and process so much complexity at any given stage, we hand over that complexity on a larger area and the algorithm can do that so much quicker and so much more effectively.

    Paul:

    And, it doesn’t have the subjectivity of engineers. I often say this because I’m an engineer by trade. Engineers are really good at working with guidelines and working around guidelines, so taking shortcuts when we can, whereas the machine has to follow the rules. I’ve had many conversations over the years, one with a very large service provider in the US and I was speaking to the VP of Engineering and the comment he said to me hasn’t left me, he said, “Look, I’ve got 80 designers, which means I’m going to get 80 designs,” which is problematic if you’re trying to construct a network that is quite uniform for the purpose of maintenance and operations.

    Brad:

    How did you get involved with Biarri, specifically in Australia, and then how did you transition to the US in later years?

    Paul:

    I was in another company building networks in Australia. We were building out the National Broadband Network that’s the largest attempt to connect the country of Australia. At that time, around nine months before I joined the Biarri, one of the founders Joe Forbes contacted me. We had a mutual acquaintance and this friend of mine said, “Hey, you got to meet this team at Biarri. They do some crazy stuff. It’s right up your alley. It’s complex, it’s technical. They use math.” I thought that’s weird, they use math. That’s interesting. I was intrigued enough to have a coffee actually with Joe and his co-founder, Ash Nelson.

    Paul:

    We just talked for hours.  At that stage, we left the conversations like, “Hey, maybe down the track, we’re both busy, we should work together if we can. It’s great to meet you.” We left it at that. Then around the time that Biarri started coming to the US to try to make an impact and sell their wares, they landed a whale of a customer here on the west coast, out of the valley. At that time, Joe and Ash realized they needed to stand up a services capability. Because until that point, Biarri Networks’ focus was on an enterprise software tool, that was allowing NBN in Australia and also Chorus in New Zealand to plan, at scale, national deployments of fiber.

    Delivering Large Fiber Network Designs with a Young Non-Telco Team

    Paul:

    When Joe contacted me said, “Hey, I’m in Brisbane. Do you want to have a cup of coffee?” I’m always up for a good coffee, so we caught up and he said, “Look, I’ve landed a whale and it’s …” He mentioned who it was and to me it seemed intriguing and like a huge challenge. It seemed like it needed a lot of horsepower to deliver that very quickly. In many ways he was stacking the deck against me, but I enjoy that. I typically thrive when someone says, “Oh, look, this is not possible.” That’s like a red rag to a bull for me. That was intriguing enough for me to leave a very good role and pursue something pretty crazy at the time with Biarri Networks.

    Paul:

    We stood up a services capability and started delivering auto design outputs within a matter of a month to this customer. We did that with a very young team. We hired a stack of graduates and seniors, as Americans call them out of college, to stand up this capability. The thing I’m most proud of is that, besides myself and a few other people in the business at that time, these graduates were not telecommunication engineers. They were mathematicians. They were computer scientists and data scientists. Some of them were biotech engineers and they knew nothing about fiber.

    Paul:

    Yet here they were designing large markets in the US with very little telco knowledge, because they could use this interesting and fascinating capability whereby the machine could be configured to generate these outputs. They just needed to know how to work the machine, how to configure the machine to do that work. It was amazing time. Some of the most fond memories I have in my entire career actually are in the early days of what we call the Biarri Order Design Team or the BAT. You can imagine how much fun we had with that. There was the bat cave. All kinds of stuff came out of that, and we still have some of that existing in the company today.

    Paul:

    That’s how we got started in terms of the US. I essentially commuted in and out of the US for three and a half years. It’s not the best commute, I must admit. It’s a challenge. You get some really cool travel hacks out of it. You learn a lot. It was great. I really enjoyed it. It was tough. For me, the toughest thing was leaving customers that were very keen to get moving and having to jump on a plane for 14 odd hours from LA, to then have to come back again. It was tough from that perspective, because most of my career is in services, in telecommunication services. I found that tough. But fortunately, as an organization, we evolved to the point where It made sense to live out here.

    Paul:

    I brought my family out here. I convinced the wife and the kids to … or not the kids, they just have to come along, right? I convinced the wife to move across the world and fortunately, she liked Denver as well. Ever since we landed here, it was a matter of adapting to the US culture and not only in terms of work, but also with broader life. Since then, we’ve brought out a bunch of other Australians and their families to join the cause here and move to Colorado. We’ve hired a few Americans. We’ve got a salesperson out of New Jersey. We’ve got a product person out of Seattle.

    Paul:

    We’ve grown ever since. I think we’re up to 12 or 13 people now in the US and that’s only going to grow considering what we have in front of us. It’s been a crazy ride, but I’ve enjoyed every second of it.

    Craig:

    You’ve been talking about the opportunities that are in front of you and everyone, with the growth and expansion of broadband that is coming globally and certainly here stateside. There is the obvious need for broadband that everyone has seen given the COVID-19 situation, with so many working from home in addition to the need for both distance learning and telemedicine. Looking at what you specialize in which is saving money, time and effort with your FOND or Fiber Optic Network Design solution, how important is that going to be for providers as they embrace broadband going forward?

    Fiber Optic Network Design (FOND) Solution

    Paul:

    I think it’s going to be critical. If this isn’t the compelling event to get a lot of the industry leader’s interaction, I’m not sure what is.  There’s been some amazing and at the same time startling statistics, not only from the US but around the world about the impact of COVID. In many cases, unfortunately, the adverse impact it’s had or the negative impact it’s had on communities. For instance, nine out of 10 kids are at home at the moment. That really struck me being the father of four boys. I’m very fortunate, because we’re connected. We’re doing this podcast via an internet connection. There’s so many families, so many kids around the world and obviously in the US that are not connected.

    Paul:

    The challenge is that they may be left behind. They are getting left behind because they don’t have access.  Beyond telemedicine and telehealth, education is going to be in many ways put on the back foot. As kids go back to school at some point, a normal school or whatever normal school looks like, there’s going to be a wave of children that didn’t have access to keep things moving ahead. It’s deeply concerning. The reality is that we need to get a move on as a community of telecommunications professionals. Again, in the US as an example, this is the time to innovate. This is the time for us all to get together and pioneer approaches that will get these communities connected.

    Deploy Fiber Broadband Faster & Cheaper with Teams of Experts

    Paul:

    If something like this happens again around the world, (hopefully it doesn’t), these communities are better placed to deal with this and the families are better placed to deal with these types of situations. In terms of the value we bring – beyond the technical value that I described earlier around optimization, automation, being able to hit up the design, engineering and speed – is something that we are very passionate in and we’ve evolved this passion and has grown over the last couple of years, as we’ve talked to more and more people around the US in particular is that, the best way to do this is getting the right people in the room. That means it not just us.

    Paul:

    That’s a team. That’s a team of experts that collectively solve the problem, that collectively help to get these networks deployed quicker and cheaper. We’ve really been trying to advocate for approaches that are interoperable. And I know Brad, you and I spoke about interoperability years ago, so to me it’s heartwarming that there’s other organizations out there, and some that I would consider worthy rivals, that are starting to talk about this more openly as well. I think that’s great, because that’s the key. The key to speed is interoperable approaches that enable data from start to finish. This data drives decision making.

    Paul:

    It drives what should happen to get these communities connected quicker. Notwithstanding the benefits they’re going to have from a data driven approach once these networks are operational.

    Brad:

    Because we’re all talking about ways to get people connected and keep them connected and for them to continue to work together as well-oiled teams, all in the same loop, how does your FOND solution impact the customer that way? How does it provide time saving and effort saving features as well as cost saving too?

    Paul:

    We launched FOND as a SaaS product probably about 12 months ago or thereabouts. It really focuses on people that aren’t necessarily engineers or who know very much about network design from an outside plan perspective, to enable them to ingest geospatial information data, and also augment that data with additional data that we have.  For example, in North America, actually the US specifically, we’ve actually got the data for all the streets for most of the US as well as parcel data for most of US. It gives our customers and others a leg up, to start thinking about and designing feasibility level designs for many parts of the US that are not connected.

    Paul:

    That’s quite powerful. FOND gives the ability also for that to be visualized and the outputs of that tool can be shared readily. The bill of materials is easily exportable. The outputs out of FOND can be downloaded and easily pushed into fiber management network solutions and databases. We maintain an agnostic approach to the way we think about the workflow. We don’t really mind what geospatial layers people have or what data they have. Similarly, if they have databases they want to use, that’s fine. The outputs play nicely with everything we’ve seen so far. The other side of our capability comes from services.

    Fiber Network Design – Transparent Dataflows & Workflows

    Paul:

    When it comes to delivering detailed designs or low level designs that you can construct, that’s where that side of our capability comes in. When we talk about collaboration, what we do from a services perspective is we set up these workflows and data flows from start to finish. It really helps, even though we don’t necessarily work in every single facet of that end-to-end value chain, because again, we would like to bring others to do those elements, whether that be boots on the ground for field validation, whether that be construction management software downstream, or whether that’s data validation. We help to establish the workflows and data flows and again, interoperable data flows to enable others to come on board.

    Paul:

    Having that data flow established at the beginning of these projects, really helps with transparency. It gives insights not only to the project team across all the various partners in this end to end, but also the end customer and in some cases the customers customer, so they can see without doubt exactly where the network is at. They can see exactly what phase they’re in and where and they have all that insight. Because all the data is there, the ways you abstract that information into something useful is almost limitless. We can configure that very readily across that value stream to our customers, so they see and they feel like they have some level of sense of control as well.

    Paul:

    It really informs their decision making on how they need to pivot maybe the output, maybe they need to change the sequence of design and/or construction in accordance with constraints, whether they’re internal constraints, external constraints or any other elements such as that. Irrespective of whether we’re looking at bringing our capability to bear from a FOND or SaaS product perspective, or from a services perspective, the key for us is to make as much of this information, transferable, interoperable, and transparent, so people can use that information up or downstream, however it suits their purpose in terms of what they’re trying to achieve for their deployments.

    Brad:

    If we could “pivot” a bit now as well…You’ve worked on a couple different continents. You worked on successful projects both in Australia and in the US with Biarri.  What can you tell me is the difference between those two environments?

    Fiber Network Design with Good (but not perfect) Data

    Paul:

    For the most part globally, there are regions that are data rich and the understanding of geospatial data has evolved to a mature level, if I can call it that way. The US, for the most part has a mature sense of what geospatial data should look like. Obviously, what’s interesting about the US is there’s so many different types of networks, there’s so many different types of service providers, specifically things like cooperative utilities or electrical co-ops that are building networks. You just don’t see that in Australia. You don’t see that in New Zealand. There are some interesting players. Some of these organizations have geospatial data of their existing utility, and they have a view of the quality of that data.

    Paul:

    That’s the other big pendulum that swings across the world as to what’s considered good data. Garbage in garbage out reigns supreme everywhere. We spend a lot of time with customers irrespective of where we are in the world talking about the importance of data, and also trying to dispel myths around the fact that data has to be perfect. Obviously, the more accurate the data is, the more precise the data is, the better the result is going to of an automated approach or an optimized approach out of the gate. But that is very rarely the case. We typically find ourselves augmenting data sets that customers have.

    Paul:

    In the US, even within large organizations, the challenge is the completeness of the data set. For example, let’s say there are existing layers of network that are spread across an area which may be conduit or may be existing fiber, the completeness of that data from one part of the country to the other may vary significantly for all kinds of reasons.  It could be they acquired a bunch of smaller companies or they just didn’t have the manpower and resources to collect the data in a timely fashion between rollouts. There’s all kinds of reasons why the data sets would not be uniform from a completeness perspective.

    Paul:

    The other part is, sometimes the layers are different, or the availability of certain layers varies all around the country. We see all kinds of data challenges. The key is to not to scare people off away from taking on this kind of approach, because they feel that their data is ugly. They’ve had other people come in and say, “Hey, I don’t have the data to do this.” I don’t think we as a community should really stand for that.  We shouldn’t  allow that to be a blocker for these organizations, many of which don’t have their own internal expertise in data, nor network engineering and design to commence a process, whereby they undertake an end-to-end, really objective approach to designing and deploying a network that they so desperately need.

    Paul:

    We’ve done a lot of work to date in terms of standing up broader capabilities around data to help customers from that perspective. Funny story, I pitched this to a VP in Australia. I had a slide that my team laughed at because it was talking about data, and I literally had a picture of a Dyson vacuum cleaner on the slide and that was it. “Why are you showing them a vacuum cleaner?” I said, “Because this is a cleaning exercise.” Everyone understands what a vacuum cleaner does. We actually used that for a little while as we talked about data around the world. It’s been interesting and it is the most common challenge that we start with – the input data and what we call the input data gap.

    Paul:

    We try to help customers. We help them find the data. We help them procure the data. We procure the data on their behalf. We try to find it through open source ourselves. We spend a lot of time around that input data challenge. Over the last year in particular, we have really honed approaches that are far more dynamic in working with all those nuances, with all those challenges of data. In terms of how to get to the starting block with auto design, we found ways to dynamically stitch together different data sets, so you can make a start. I think that’s something unique in our approach.

    Brad:

    We’ve talked about some of the things that make Biarri different and unique, one of which is that you’re a cloud-based solution. When you and I started talking about the pandemic you told me that your team went through a process, to make sure that you were absolutely ready and that some of that technology and vision necessary was already built into your product. Tell us a little bit about Biarri’s COVID-19 Task Force.

    Continuous Service to Customers with SaaS Fiber Optic Network Design

    Paul:

    We sit on a trajectory set many, many years ago, that we would try to deploy a capability using cloud-based technologies. Since that time, for at least the last six years, we’ve had a globally distributed team, albeit six years ago, it was very small. Over the years, we’ve grown offices and had pockets of 10, 20 people spread across the world. We’ve evolved and tried to make that approach more efficient as we went. Part of this is that we fortunately went down that track a long time ago. We’ve had offices and large production teams spread across the world.

    Paul:

    We have an amazing team in Manila, in the Philippines. We’ve got teams obviously back at home base in Australia, in Brisbane and in Melbourne. Now we have an office here in Colorado. We did that for the purpose of socializing with our teams. Nothing beats being face-to-face.  (Like being at the trade shows, which I know we all miss at the moment.) In many ways, we honed our ability to work as distributed teams. There’s still a lot of work to do. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve learnt a lot of hard lessons over the last couple of months in particular, but fortunately we were in a really good position to make decisions very rapidly.

    Paul:

    We did set up a COVID Task Force, probably four weeks before the lockdowns really started kicking in. Kudos goes out to the amazing team that we have in our business that work very passionately with our people and really look out for staff globally. There were a lot of decisions made and we had people dispersed around the world. We were still traveling, so very quickly, we sent people home. The interesting thing was that, we had people flying back from the US to Australia because Australia was their home and we had Americans flying back from Australia to their homes in America.

    Paul:

    We quickly changed travel plans to make sure that everyone could get home before they couldn’t any longer, if that makes sense, and quarantine for 14 days. We mandated that people quarantine for 14 days just in case, even with domestic travel and we did that very quickly. Again, kudos to the team that led this and got that happening. We met daily, there was a daily catch up that I sat on, in the early days as we got things moving. We had some instances, in particular in the Philippines, whereby we needed to also mobilize devices so people could work remotely, could work from home, people that didn’t have to before then.

    Paul:

    There was some adjustment from a technical perspective and productivity. We wanted to assure people that, “Hey, don’t worry about being completely productive in terms of what you feel is productive right now.” We tried to be mindful of people’s working conditions. Some of us have got kids that are now home doing remote learning, some have pets, all kinds of conditions. Some of these areas, where we’ve got people, had power outages as the grids couldn’t keep up with a significant load that was now at home versus in the capital cities. We tried to stay mindful of everyone’s working conditions and assure people that, “Hey, this is not normal. It’s fine. Just do what you can and let’s just support each other.”

    Paul:

    We also ramped up the communications. Beyond the standard dailies that were part of our standard cadence in Biarri and other regular meetings – there were also a lot of ad hoc meetings and more just touch points with each other that was set up by some of our staff, and they did a fabulous job of that. People posting funny videos of themselves doing things with their family. We’ve got a lot of musicians in the company that did really cool video clips. It’s just some amazing stuff just to keep morale up. I couldn’t be prouder of the team in terms of how they did that.

    Paul:

    We launched some employee assistance programs, to ensure that we really looked after the mental health of our teams. That was really the critical thing we focused on. The cool thing was, as I started with because we’re used to working in a distributed environment, we’ve used cloud technologies. Our SaaS product really didn’t get hit. We didn’t really have anything that would lead us to believe we had anything incorrectly set up to do that. It’s web based anywhere really, so that was fine. In terms of our services division, we could continue and deliver to our customers.

    Paul:

    In fact, over the last couple of weeks, we’ve won a lot of work, which has been great for morale, because as we all know a lot of people that have been hit badly by the current pandemic. We all know of people that have either lost jobs, or their friends have lost jobs. It’s tough times and we’ve been very fortunate that our team have really been okay through this tough time.

    Ongoing Mission to Connect People with Fiber Broadband Networks

    Craig:

    Based on what you’ve already shared, where does Biarri go from here? What would you see if you could have that crystal ball the ultimate mission and going forward?

    Paul:

    The current constraints that we live under, this compelling event that we’ve spoken about, fuels our business, fuels our amazing team to think outside the square. We need to continuously innovate. We feel it’s our obligation to keep pioneering this approach. We feel compelled to help others understand that there are better and more efficient ways to tackle these kinds of problems. If this is the bit that we can do, if this is the way we can make a positive impact in educating others in the industry and in the broader communities around how we can be smarter and build networks quicker so people aren’t left behind, we’re very passionate about doing that.

    Paul:

    That is our mission. We really want to help connect the world.  As unfortunate and tragic as this current pandemic is; it’s fueled us as a team to really see what else we can do. What aren’t we doing? We’ve solved some interesting problems over the years. We’ve got amazing traction. We really want to throw down the challenge not only internally but to others in this community to say, “Well, so what? What else can we do? What aren’t we doing? What’s the next frontier that we need to really pioneer? What else can we do in terms of solving some of the other challenges in the end-to-end value chain? What’s the next blocker that we should be really working hard on, whether it’s ourselves or whether it’s with others in terms of eliminating, so we can do what we need to do to connect people?”

    Paul:

    Because let’s face it, we’re fortunate, we’re all connected but there’s others that just aren’t. We’re trying to do our bit. We have a lot of smart people that we hire globally. We’re growing as a team, so my hope is that we continue to grow and continue to make a really positive impact. To your point, in an altruistic way, we want to do it with others. We want to bring others along that journey, where they challenge us to be better; we challenge them to be better and do better.

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