Nortel CTO Gives Uninspiring Interview

In an interview with CNET’s News.com, Nortel’s CTO John Roese, who joined the company in June, suggests, perhaps with some justification, that the company was hopeless adrift before he came aboard.

Roese seems to think he can set the right course singlehandedly, but, when asked where and how Nortel will re-establish itself as a market leader, he offers hackneyed, unconvincing, or vague replies.

According to Roese, Nortel will emerge as a leader in 4G wireless — even though he defines that market ambiguously — and in enterprise networking, where he foresees "hyperconnected" networks.

He says Nortel is second to Cisco in enterprise networking today, which is correct, but he fails to make a compelling case that Nortel will be the benefactor of potential Cisco missteps. From my vantage point, I can see Foundry, HP ProCurve, and perhaps even Extreme Networks picking up more share from Cisco in the next two years than will Nortel. From a marketing standpoint, Nortel has fallen off the enterprise-networking map.

When discussing his biggest challenge since joining Nortel as CTO, Roese says the following:

We really have to change the culture of the company. As CTO, I need to establish a technology vision and then evangelize that vision to create a market for the technology. I’ve been trying to drive the R&D folks to think about what they do in terms of creating products. That hasn’t been the way people at Nortel have thought in the past.

I’m not sure Roese has the process right. Not once in the above paragraph does Roese mention customers. In fact, he says the word "customers" once in the entire interview. He doesn’t seem to recognize that developing compelling products and solutions involves more than the genius of a CTO. It involves primary market research, lots of time spent understanding what customers are trying to accomplish and why, and then it requires the creativity and innovation to define and develop products that solve their problems.

The CTO’s vision should be distilled and communicated only after he understands the company, its customers, and its markets. Judging by the text of this interview, I’m not sure Roese has gone through that process.

In the same interview, Roese mentions that Nortel is putting more emphasis on partnerships, and he cites the company’s unified-communications partnership with Microsoft as an example of how the company will work in concert with other vendors. I’m not sure that was the best example, particularly since Microsoft’s ultimate intent is to benefit and learn from Nortel so that it can eventually embed its own VoIP technology into Office Live Communications server. Over the long haul,  I don’t see Nortel getting reciprocal value from that relationship.

I think Nortel and Roese need to deliberate further before they decide where to place their bets. Before they make those choices, they should think about spending more time with customers and channel partners, getting a clearer idea of what sort of mandate the market is willing to extend to a remade Nortel.

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