Interviews

Interviews by Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P.

Sean Curry: Manager, Infrastructure Engineering Calpine Corporation; Recipient 2005 NPA International "Professional Excellence and Innovation Award - Corporate Fortune X"

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Sean Curry, recipient of the ď2005 NPA International Professional Excellence and Innovation Award Ė Corporate Fortune XĒ given out at the worldís largest networking industry conference, Networld+Interop Las Vegas. The Award is sponsored by the Network Professional Association with cooperation and support including from Networld+Interop, Microsoft, Que/SAMS (Pearson Technology Group Publishing), Network Computing Magazine, Network World Magazine, Novell Canada, Ö

Sean is Manager of Infrastructure Engineering at Calpine Corporation. Answering the corporate challenge to reduce expenses, Calpine's Communication Engineering team developed and implemented a Wide Area Network (WAN) optimization project that slashed operating costs by 75%, saving several million dollars per year. This communication network is used 24x7x365 to help Calpine generate, deliver and liquidate its megawatts of electricity; therefore, the cost reductions could not compromise network performance, availability or reliability. Using forethought, creativity, and innovation, the team was not only successful in achieving the objective but they also boosted network performance by 250%.

Discussion:

Q: Sean: your career is hallmarked by a list of notable successes. Congratulations on your fine achievement as the recipient of the networking industryís highest international professionalism award for Corporate Fortune X, the prestigious 2005 NPA Professional Excellence and Innovation Award. The award is particularly significant in the 21st century due to the importance of the internet, networking, communications, and security in what amounts to a trillion dollar industry touching every part of the world and lives of 6.2 billion people.

What key career factors and life events led up to this recognition from an international panel of judges?

A: The last several years Iíve spent with Calpine have been critical in giving me the tools necessary to implement the type of solutions that can provide real business value. Calpine offers an entrepreneurial environment that is hard to find in most corporations. Here, if you can show a real dollar savings and it makes sense from a business standpoint, IT projects can move quickly. In other positions Iíve held, there was the general position that any IT project is seen as overhead. Calpine sees everything as an opportunity.

Hard working, well motivated, intelligent people can accomplish a lot, if theyíre allowed to.

Q: Can you detail the project and describe how others can replicate the project success cited in your Award profile? What processes did you use? What lessons can you pass onto others?

A: The project in question was originally started as an effort to analyze areas of recurring cost to the company, and to develop an internal list of alternatives that could reduce or eliminate these costs. To get it done, I took my team at the time into a room, cleared their schedules for two weeks, and explained what I saw as the options. I told them to go out and bring me back details, including pro/con type information and what a proposed design might be. We went through every iteration of what Calpineís Wide Area alternatives were and narrowed it down to a list of three.

During that effort, we had to challenge a lot of our own assumptions and biases in order to come up with the solution that best align the services of the network with the requirements of our business customers.

I used the Socratic method in terms of interacting with members of the team, and made sure they could dedicate their time to this effort alone.

Once we had our top three solutions, we brought in a myriad of vendors to explain their options, and built actual real world lab environments that directly replicated the rollout we were about to undertake. We made detailed notes about every issue we encountered, and created an FAQ for issues we could use to aid the troubleshooting process. I also had my team actually function in these lab environments for a period of a week, so they could feel any pain our users would in the field.

We wrote detailed implementation procedures, and used an engineer on site for every install, with a backend engineer supporting him. The individual on-site would to the physical work, bringing each component online, while the back-end individual did the actual configuration and initial QA. All implementations were done overnight, and all implementations had an engineer on site in the morning to deal with any issues. At one point we did five installations a night, with the one backend engineer supporting five installations at the same time. Time was money on this projects. We completed the main body of the rollout in less than two months.

Q: What are top major challenges in your current position and what processes, tools, and solutions do you use to resolve them?

A: Iíd break this up into two categories, management level challenges, and technical challenges for the project in question. I have a very good team of technicians I work with, so the issues we did find, we worked through them quickly.

Technical (project focused):

  1. Circuit provisioning with the carriers Ė Always an issue, and any large scale WAN installation is going to have problems here. We brought in an individual and dedicated him to helping with installation scheduling and circuit delivery, and also dedicated a project engineer to the effort who did all of the schedule coordinating and inventory tracking necessary.


  2. TCP MSS Ė We used a GRE tunnel over a VPN tunnel to keep our dynamic routing available, so the overhead for some large TCP based transfers presented exceeded the max value on occasion. By adjusting the max negotiated sequence size on the routers ingress at the remote sites, we were able to keep the packets small enough to allow for the overhead of the IPSEC and GRE.


  3. Throughput Ė IPSEC encryption chews up a fair portion of the available capacity, so in order to provide a more throughput, we investigated compression and control technologies (Peribit/Expand were the finalists; ended up picking Peribit because of their centralized configuration management and simplicity of installation).


  4. Application Issues Ė with any large WAN change, application groups are going to be prone to look to the network for any issues in their applications. Calpine deployed netscout probes at every single site to give more information for troubleshooting remote site issues, which have proven to be a tremendous benefit.

Managerial (General):

  1. Time Ė with so many opportunities, and the burden of trying to be thorough about research into all of them, the number of hours in a day turn out to be my biggest headache. I have a tendency of working the long hours in order to get a project completed, and expect the same of my team. When failure isnít an option, burning the candle at both ends is inevitable. In order to help with keeping myself and my staff sane, Iíve adopted a ďflex-timeĒ schedule and allow up to 50% of an employees week to be spent telecommuting. Good people will end up doing more work from home in my opinion, and for me, itís the work product Iím interested in, not how you get there.


  2. Priorities Ė This has been an ongoing issue for me, everyone wants their project or their effort to be the one getting my teams immediate attention, and that isnít possible with the small number of people involved. To help with this, I adopted the practice of recording the list of my teams projects and requested research efforts, and assigning them a numerical value for criticality. I post this information for Calpine Management to review, and ask them to identify efforts that they would like more attention paid to. Having that work log has helped many understand the workload, and prevented some of the frivolous efforts that have no value.


  3. Last minute critical efforts Ė are going to happen in any company, so planning around resource issues is difficult. Calpineís IS management has allowed us to adopt a flexible sourcing model to help accomplish these types of tasks, that has proven very successful, of late, in meeting short lead-time business goals.


  4. Nay-sayers Ė This is an issue for any innovator. There will always be those in any organization who are resistant to change, who are not capable of explaining their rationale and will make the implementation of any new system difficult. Itís difficult to stay focused in dealing with them, so I try to remember the quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

    "It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat."

    We also used a double blind implementation practice, where we slated sites with personnel known for being negative about the effort for transition and then did nothing on the scheduled night for installation. When the personnel called to complain about performance the next day for the new solution, we told them we hadnít changed anything, and included their management in that communication. Word got around pretty quick, that unless you actually had an issue, then you were going to look silly. Youíd be amazed how well that worked.

Q: Amongst IT Pros, what ten factors contribute to professional success?

A:
  1. Work Ethic
  2. Attention to detail
  3. Strong supporting team
  4. Broad knowledge of solution options
  5. Ability to deal with change
  6. Knowledge of the business environment
  7. Partnerships with management
  8. Knowing when to ask for help
  9. Keeping the big picture in mind
  10. Vendor relationships

Q: What do you still hope to accomplish and how will you realize your goals?

A: Iím in the process of further negotiating savings for Calpineís WAN in preparation for a mass VOIP rollout. Other larger projects are datacenter server and storage consolidation to help right size that environment, and the tuning and installation of enterprise identity management systems.

Q: Describe Calpine and how IT is essential to the corporationís success and sustaining competitive advantage. Can you demonstrate by example and case study how this is done?

A: Calpine has traditionally been one of the first companies to become active in market regions, largely due to the abilities provided by the IS group. Business opportunities present themselves continually through the acquisition and divestiture process, and the IS group has been actively analyzing business cases for automation where it can save the company money.

Q: How do you encourage diversity in the workforce?

A: In terms of what I look for, I hire the best person for the job, period. I donít care if that person is blue or green or red, it really doesnít matter to me. During the interview process, I give specific instructions to make the interviews as technical as is reasonable, to include lab and real-life scenarios to get a feel for a persons ability for problem solving. This method of hiring has gotten me a team that is ethnically very diverse and has proven successful.

Q: In general, women are underrepresented in the IT field. How can this be corrected?

A: In my opinion, women are underrepresented in technical fields across the board. I think that may be changing though, in the past few years, Iíve seen more female technicians coming into entry level positions. Calpine is actually odd in this case, as the two VPís in IS are both women.

Q: What the biggest technical obstacles for IT Pros and how can these obstacles be overcome?

A: The largest challenges I see donít come technically; technical challenges are the fun ones, the ones that we all look forward to getting into and resolving. Most of the vendors are coming around to using a more standards based approach to their systems, which can help resolve some of the most major problems weíve seen in the past with inter-operability of systems and applications.

Cutting through the hype cycle of technology is always challenging, as effective marketing gets us all ramped up and ready to go to do the latest and greatest thing. Slowing that down and making good decisions about what are going to help the mission of your business is whatís going to buy the trust necessary to survive in the future. Outsourcing is always a risk as well, as more and more systems become standardized, IT becomes a commodity, that in the eyes of most executives, can be serviced by anyone.

Q: What are your tips for effective leadership?

A: To take a page from the Marine Corps Leadership Principles:
  1. know yourself and seek self-improvement
  2. be technically and tactically proficient
  3. develop a sense of responsibility among your subordinates
  4. make sound and timely decisions
  5. set the example
  6. know your marines and look out for their welfare
  7. keep your marines informed
  8. seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions
  9. ensure assigned tasks are understood, supervised, and accomplished
  10. train your marines as a team
  11. employ your command in accordance with its capabilities

Q: What are you most proud of and why?

A: Professionally, Iím most proud of the team Iíd built at Calpine and their ability to perform. The key members of that group will go on to do great things, and it was a pleasure working with them. Iíve worked with a lot of people over the years, but the group of technicians that made up that team combined to make the best network engineering group Iíd seen.

Q: What does professionalism mean to you? How do further plan to make a difference in your workplace, and community, and in academia, industry, and government?

A: I donít think I agree with the conventional way itís interpreted in corporate America. To me, its more than just how an individual dresses, where he went to school, or how he speaks. Itís also more than being technically proficient (we all know people who are very good technically, but lack something). To me, in practice, professionalism means coming to work and making good and difficult decisions. It means using reason and attempting to understand all of the facets of an argument before jumping to a conclusion. Itís an internalization of the premise that your work does represent you, and it shows in everything you do.

I intend to continue to try to help the company I work for succeed through the application of good technology.

Q: Can you share with us any case studies that illustrate the work of your team?

A: Weíve had several articles published, but the most interesting and applicable examples of our work all include the same efforts Iíve talked about. Taking a problem, applying a strong set of technical knowledge, and helping come up with solutions.

Q: What are your† top resources for IT Pros in your profession?

A: Iíd say the top resources for network pros are:

  1. Google (ya gotta love google)
  2. CCO (I do think this used to be a better source of information)
  3. Lightreading.com
  4. Network World
  5. Packet magazine
  6. Network Computing
  7. Information WeekCIO magazine (I know, it sounds strange, but if you read this, you can be prepared for what your CIO is going to ask of you)

Q: You have been quoted extensively in the media due to your elite standing and expertise. What is going to happen in the IT industry in five-to-ten years? What should businesses be looking for? What pitfalls should they avoid? Where should they be steering their IT teams?

A: I think we are going to see a big move in the networking business to consolidated platforms for all network systems. Iíd say having a single device at a remote site that is everything isnít that far off. It could be the router, the switch, the IPS, the content filter, the file server, the compression engineÖ you get the idea. I also see more of the common services in both security and infrastructure moving to more of a simple sourcing model, with MPLS providing transports to vendors that provide these types of services. NSM and MSSP services are already starting to see allot of play, and the option to outsource email filtering and backups will become more and more common, and the grid notions of using computing capacity outside the datacenter will see more use by mid-sized IT/IS shops.

Final:
Sean, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview and sharing your valued global insights.