Executive Insights With Brenda Laboy, AVP, Access Construction & Engineering, AT&T California

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Read Brenda’s thoughts about 5G fiber, C&E challenges and solutions for 2021, and AT&T’s top network-related priorities for 2021.

TOPIC: PRIORITIES

ISE: What are 2 of AT&T’s top network-related priorities for 2021? 

Laboy: AT&T’s 2 top network-related priorities for 2021 lead to one common goal: to connect more people to reliable, high-speed services. At AT&T, we build the technology, networks, products, and partnerships, that make better connections possible. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how valuable those connections are — whether they be for people working remotely, students learning virtually, businesses changing how it reaches their customers, or families staying in touch.

One of our 2021 priorities is the expansion and densification of our 5G Network. Our teams worked tirelessly in 2020 to launch AT&T 5G (sub-6 spectrum) nationwide, and to deploy AT&T 5G+ (mmWave spectrum) in parts of 37 cities across the country. In 2021, we’ll continue to push forward on 5G allowing our customers a more robust experience on our network with blazing fast speeds.

Feeding our 5G expansion has to include building more in our fiber footprint. We have one of the largest fiber footprints in the nation and we still need fiber to connect our 5G wireless nodes. Additionally, we have business and residential customers who want to connect with fiber. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly played a role in elevating the importance of a fiber connection — particularly, AT&T’s fiber that has symmetrical upstream bandwidth. The symmetrical bandwidth will only continue to be more important as our “new normal” becomes simply “normal.” 

TOPIC: ROLE CHANGES

ISE: According to your bio, you manage all wireless and wireline engineering and implementation inclusive of New Site Builds, Small Cell, 5G, as well as Business & Residential Fiber deployments for Southern California. Prior to that you led a 3,000-person team to deliver 1.5M residential fiber living units towards an FCC Commitment along with fiber connections for business and mobility. So, what do you do in your free time? (Kidding.) What do you find most challenging and rewarding about your current role compared to your previous role?

Laboy: Learning and understanding the wireless market is the most challenging and rewarding part of my new role. In both roles, I love that my work has a direct impact on the lives of our customers. When a customer has new fiber service or enhanced wireless service, they can do more and stay connected to what matters to them. 

Particularly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m extremely proud of the services AT&T already provides so that many are enabled to work and learn from home. I know firsthand just how connected we all need to be. I have 2 kids who are learning virtually through Zoom for up to 3 hours a day. After “school,” they want back on devices to stream content or play games. It is critical in my household that we have reliable high-speed services. My team and I know that our customers want this exact same experience and together we are passionate about building an excellent experience for them. 

We’re also working more closely with our Sales teams. Our business planning cycles are linked and we present our plans together to our executive team. This partnering influences our plans on where to invest. 

TOPIC: COVID-19 PANDEMIC IMPACT

ISE: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your wireless/wireline implementations? If necessity is the mother of invention, what new, successful things are you doing now that have been born from this unique time?

Laboy: We transitioned very quickly to support a “COVID-19 environment” which meant a shift in network traffic as people started centering their lives at home, and another shift as more people started going back to their offices. Half my organization started working remotely overnight and there was no disruption in their delivery. The other half of my organization, mostly frontline technicians and their supervisors, innovated quickly with very little disruption noticeable to our customers. In fact, we accelerated delivery on circuits requested by COVID-19-impacted organizations such as hospitals, clinics, and other first responder agencies. 

There was no one single resource that helped us be successful during this time; however, we amped up our communication and went into what I call “emergency mode.” We were making more phone calls and confirming hand-offs to ensure that we were delivering the service our customers expected. For those COVID-19 pandemic escalations, our team would work on verbal direction, at times, rather than a print delivered through our work management system. It was amazing to see the orchestration of multiple teams working as one to achieve the larger goal.

As the COVID-19 pandemic work-from-home environment continued, our team has adopted No Meeting Fridays. This has been well-received across the organization, and has given us the flexibility to use our vacation or catch up on emails and high-focus projects. Personally, I look forward to Fridays because now I have a day of dedicated time to concentrate on planning, strategy, and those emails that pile up during the week. I plan to continue No Meeting Fridays in my organization into the first half of 2021 and assess if we are still seeing benefits. 

TOPIC: FIBER AND 5G

ISE: 5G will not only enable transformative new services — the Internet of Things, connected cars, telehealth, and precision agriculture — it will create economic productivity and jobs across the industry. But the future of wireless is inextricably linked to our ability to deploy fiber infrastructure across the country. If we want to bring economic productivity and jobs, we need to scale fiber and deploy more fiber to everyone. What are some creative solutions AT&T is employing to helping FTTx-to-Everywhere efforts?

Laboy: Last year, AT&T leadership brought our Construction & Engineering teams under a network leader for each market area. This enables us to be faster and to use our fiber more efficiently. If an engineer is building a fiber network in a specific business or residential area, he or she can reach across to see what wireless nodes are going in the same area. 

Additionally, we have a national team who are building tools that enable the market teams to get a better view of what’s in the pipeline for other programs. Now engineers can visibly see the facilities that are in the planning phases. This collaboration helps us to better design and build infrastructure and reduce costs.

In a similar fashion, AT&T is well-suited to attract a single customer for multiple products. It’s not just about a fiber customer or a wireless customer but also how we attract a bundled customer with HBO Max. For example, when a customer signs up for unlimited residential fiber service, an HBO Max subscription is added at no extra cost. By layering our products in an attractive mix, we’re able to provide better value to our customers and propel our investment in building fiber in more places.

TOPIC: CONNECTED THE UNDERSERVED FOR REMOTE LEARNING

ISE: According to a recent survey conducted by Digital Wish, 19% of students do not have Internet connectivity at home, and over 21% do not have access to a computing device, impacting their ability to adequately participate in remote learning. Share what new tools in the toolbox AT&T is using to reach/connect the underserved.
(Source: www.digitalwish.com)

Laboy: AT&T has been a longtime supporter of keeping our customers and communities connected as well as addressing both economic and digital divides. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we included teachers, nurses, physicians, and their families, in our 25% wireless service discount we were offering to first responders, active military, and veterans, who were already benefitting from the program. Additionally, we are offering Internet access for qualifying limited income households at $10 a month or less through our Access from AT&T program. (1)

We also committed $10 million and are collaborating with Connected Nation to provide free Internet connectivity and devices to underserved communities across the country. Separately, through DonorsChoose, we established a $250,000 matching donation program for distance learning projects in low-income school districts addressing special needs students. It is our hope that these dollars will improve access to distance learning for the most vulnerable students and those most likely to be left behind. 

NOTE:
(1)
Requires AT&T Unlimited Starter, AT&T Unlimited Extra, or AT&T Unlimited Elite. AT&T may temporarily slow data speeds when the network is busy. Eligibility requirements and other restrictions apply. See att.com/internet/access.

TOPIC: INFORMAL MENTORING

ISE: One of your colleagues said this about you. She said, “Brenda has also become an informal mentor to many within the Leadership Development Program, by helping nurture and by giving career advice to many new to the company and to the program.” Talk about the impact of being an informal mentor. Why is this type of mentoring so critical in our industry right now?
(Source: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brenda-gooch-laboy/) 

Laboy: Developing people in all parts of the organization is key to building a strong company. I believe this starts with being approachable and open to conversation. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I made it a priority to visit different work buildings, hold Town Halls, and simply walk around to talk with my team. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have become more intentional about reaching out. I’m still looking for the right balance, but I’ve held informal video calls with small teams, as well as reached out individually to non-direct reports as a check-in. 

Equally as important is engagement in our employee diversity groups. Each year, I attend several of the meetings and events for these organizations. These teams bring together employees from different parts of AT&T. I find these are particularly rewarding for making connections at all levels but most importantly across the organization. I don’t always have a chance to mix with product marketing or content teams, and these events provide a forum to do so.

TOPIC: PAIN POINTS

ISE: What are AT&T’s biggest network-related challenges right now? 

Laboy: One of AT&T’s biggest network-related challenges are extreme weather events, influenced by climate change. With rising sea levels, hotter temperatures creating wildfires, and more frequent hurricanes, our network continues to be tested year over year. AT&T has spent close to $1 billion recovering from climate-related severe weather events since 2016. 

We recognize our responsibility for keeping our customers connected during these natural events. For many employees, including me, it’s personal. I know what it’s like to have loved ones evacuated or living through natural disasters. At that moment, nothing is more important than connecting with your family to say, “We’re okay.”

Our local teams and our National Disaster Recovery (NDR) team plan for how to restore service as quickly as possible. Our NDR team has 95 Technology Recovery Semi Trailers, 30 Satellite Cells on Light Trucks (COLTS) and Emergency Communication Vehicles (ECVs), and more than 200 additional NDR equipment technologies to reconnect our customers. 

However, at AT&T we don’t just plan our response, we also want to help solve the larger issue. 

In 2019, we supported a Climate Change Analysis Tool (CCAT) pilot with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory focusing on regional climate impacts in the Southeast. To encourage local collaboration, we launched the AT&T Climate Resiliency Challenge for universities and local governments to use the data contained in the CCAT to determine risks and mitigation plans. Internally, we use CCAT to cross-reference our fiber cable locations with projected sea-level rise to understand where to harden existing infrastructure and better plan future builds. 

In 2020, we made a bold commitment to be carbon neutral across AT&T’s global operations by 2035. Working with other like-minded organizations, we hope these actions will stem the rapidly changing climate and its impact on our network.

TOPIC: COST EFFICIENCES

ISE: In a recessionary environment, conservative cash management is imperative. How has your team created cost-efficiencies? Please elaborate.

Laboy: At AT&T, we are focused on moving faster and working together to serve our customers first. In fact, my current job, along with those of my peers across the country, was created to find ways to work more efficiently in the Network organization. By consolidating the end-to-end wireless and wireline construction and engineering functions, we are driving towards more shared use of our infrastructure. As we build out wireline projects, we’re looking to see if wireless is planning projects in similar areas and can that infrastructure be built at one time — efficiently submitting permit requests and disrupting residents less — and ensuring that we’re serving every segment of our customer base that we can from each foot of fiber.

Additionally, we are always looking for ways to automate and innovate to work more efficiently. My team has led the creation of a national web-based tool that aggregates cell site project status providing transparency at all management levels and enables IT simplicity. 

On the equipment side, we have also worked with our vendors to create new cabinet and panel configurations for fiber deployment that allow us to adapt existing infrastructure with moderate upgrades. By pursuing continuous innovation, my team streamlines and automates our processes and equipment so we can deploy services faster for our customers. 

TOPIC: CULTURAL TRANSFORMATION

ISE: Explain why cultural transformation is as important as technical transformation is to ensure that Communications Service Providers (CSPs) thrive in the future. 

Laboy: Our telecom infrastructure was originally built as a utility with little choice for customers. There was a certain culture that went along with that type of business. Today is different. We’ve done a lot at AT&T to evolve technically and culturally, and we continue to find ways to improve upon those areas every day. 

I started my professional life in Bay Area start-ups so I’ve seen the good and bad from both sides of corporate and start-up life. At AT&T, I see tremendous ownership and pride in our network during emergency response situations. My team jumps into action for wildfires and Public Safety Power Shutdown events — which unfortunately we’ve had quite a few over the past several years. And I also see this passion for hitting our build targets so we can turn up services for customers. 

As a leader, it’s important to engage our teams so they continue to feel connected to how their role makes a difference to our customers. At a big company, it’s easy to lose that connection. And as a leader, I strive to bring that focus back into view for my team. 

TOPIC: IN PURSUIT OF KNOWLEDGE

ISE: What’s the best book you’ve read this year?

Laboy: After the untimely passing of Tony Hsieh, Zappos.com CEO, I read a few articles about his business philosophy and wanted to learn more. I picked up The Power of WOW: How to Electrify Your Work and Your Life by Putting Service First,  which is by The Employees of Zappos, written by Mark Dagostino, with insights from Tony Hsieh intermingled. At first, I was a little skeptical of the book’s message: could making customers happy all the time be profitable? 

About halfway through the book, I read a story about a customer abusing a one-time coupon multiple times, and a Customer Service Manager said “no more” to the customer. Tony Hsieh left a Post-it® note on the Customer Service Manager’s desk: “Give her the coupon.” Wow. I stopped questioning if it was possible, and started reflecting on how I could incorporate the philosophy in my own life. The core values of Zappos are simple to understand but it takes effort to live them every day. 

I have friends who are passionate about using Zappos. True to the employees’ stories in the book, Hsieh’s customer philosophy creates loyal fans who not only use Zappos themselves but recommend it to others. It made me look closer at what I do and what I can impact in my role. Are there small things that I’m holding on to that make little difference to overall profitability but make a big difference to our customers or employees? If you want a new perspective on how you serve employees and customers, I highly recommend The Power of WOW. 

TOPIC: ENERGY

ISE: If energy were free, what would your team do differently?
(Question source: Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, via www.inc.com)

Laboy: Working on the network is tricky. When it works, everyone takes it for granted; when it doesn’t work, everyone tells you: your boss, your neighbor, someone you just met at your daughter’s school fundraiser. 

If energy were free, I think my team would spend more time telling people we’ve fixed an issue, and then invest the time to resolve the instigating process. 

My team is a heads-down, get-it-done kind of team. When a problem is reported to them or they see it in our network data, they jump on it — but it can take months of planning, engineering, submitting for permits, and finally building, to improve service. The process can be very long when we build something. And once we’ve solved the issue, we’re generally on to the next problem to solve. 

However, it’s important that we circle back to let people know that service has improved. Now that we’re more connected to the Sales teams, we’re doing more to communicate resolutions to our front-facing teams and our customers.

And, to take it a step further, my team would want to deep dive into the root cause of how the service issue started in the first place. Resolving poor service in one area can be moderately easy even though the process is lengthy. 

However, diving deeper into the process or procedure that caused it can take more time, and may even require software or system changes. It’s untying a knotted rope that has been knotted by multiple people over the course of many years.

 In our fast-paced jobs, we don’t always have the energy it takes to trace back to the beginning and then work forward to develop a new process. 

TOPIC: EMPOWERMENT

ISE: What is it like to work for you?
(Question source: Robert Sutton, author and management professor at Stanford, via www.inc.com)

Laboy: I’m a very open and collaborative leader. I spend a good amount of time listening and understanding what my team or an employee needs to be successful. Based on what I hear, I help my team build plans to be successful and I work to remove roadblocks. It’s my goal to engage people so they feel empowered to identify problems and also pursue solutions. When I see them on the right path, I get out of their way and celebrate when they hit success. 

It’s also important that my employees see the larger picture of how their role adds to the end product. Each year, I’m intentional about setting up communication plans addressing my organization in different ways. I make sure to include time for Town Halls, site visits (Pre-COVID-19 pandemic), video calls (during the COVID-19 pandemic), along with casual interactions where I can hear what’s really going on with the front line. It’s not uncommon to find me walking around one of my Construction yards talking with the techs and supervisors. 

This last year with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was harder to find that casual space. After a mentoring session of my own, I scheduled a series of “Breakfast with Brenda” video calls where I could talk with various teams about what the “new normal” meant for them and how they were adapting. These calls were some of the best I’ve ever had. I learned more about people and connected in a new way. I also shared company direction and feedback on where we were headed for the year.

Lastly, I consistently urge my team to think about how we can do things better. I challenge them to find a way to automate or use tools to simplify and streamline. I’m excited when they have an idea about how to do something differently. 

TOPIC: TEAM MEMBERS

ISE: Among your stronger employees, how many see themselves at the company in 3 years? How many would leave for a 10% raise from another company?
(Question source: Jonathan Rosenberg, adviser to Google management, via www.inc.com)

Laboy: We have very low attrition in my organization. As an example, I have 1 person who has been with the Company for more than 50 years! The team is very engaged in what they do, and we always seem to be working on something new. 

But I don’t take that for granted. Over the years, as a company, we have built a culture that allows employees to try new roles. If an employee wants to learn and grow, there’s an opportunity to do many different things within Access Construction & Engineering. It’s a constant dialogue between supervisors and direct reports. And it’s one of my passions to get people to where they want to be in an organization. It doesn’t always happen, but I work hard to get people in the right role.

Additionally, I spend time developing my team and working with them to develop theirs. Like many, I give my direct reports special projects and stretch roles, and I also put new ideas in front of them. For example, my staff meetings are more than information exchanges. I develop the agendas so they are also opportunities to develop non-direct reports, as well as inviting guest speakers from other departments to deepen my direct reports understanding of the business.

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About Author

Sharon Vollman is Senior Vice President, Editorial Director of ISE magazine. She oversees all editorial processes and staff for ISE magazine, the ISE e-newsletter,www.isemag.com, and leads the educational content development for ISE EXPO and several events. Vollman has created educational partnerships with the major communications and entertainment providers including AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Frontier Communications and Cincinnati Bell. She has covered the telecom industry since 1996, when she joined OSP magazine as editor. Prior to that she worked in advertising with Ogilvy & Mather and CME. Vollman has a bachelor’s degree in journalism/advertising from the University of Iowa.

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