Eben Albertyn (VodafoneZiggo): The Right Balance Between Technology and Clients

Eben Albertyn (VodafoneZiggo): The Right Balance Between Technology and Clients
Of course, at VodafoneZiggo, they focus on the right tooling and continuous deployment as a service and do push themselves to the cutting edge. Executive Director of Technology Eben Albertyn says this with a wink, but the underlying message is serious. ‘Complicated diagrams are a means, not an end. Clients want to send a text message or make a phone call – they have absolutely no interest in words like digital or technology.’

It is a gray January day in the center of Utrecht, the Netherlands. It never got completely light today. Yet Eben Albertyn makes a cheerful impression. The South African is a member of the Executive Board of telecoms and cable company VodafoneZiggo and is in charge of the technology portfolio. He loves the Dutch climate – even 4°C and fog. ‘I lived around the equator for a decade, where it is 32°C for 365 days straight. It makes you lose your sense of time. Thanks, but no thanks, I prefer the Dutch climate with all its seasons.’ At the central office of VodafoneZiggo, located right next to Utrecht Centraal station, Mr. Albertyn welcomes Geert van den Goor, partner at consulting firm Valcon, for a conversation about his ambitions at VodafoneZiggo, his working method and his aversion to 'technology for technology's sake'. ‘I do not want technology people to be concerned with just the technology. I want them to be concerned with what technology means for our clients.’

First, let's reflect on your personal journey. You are from South Africa, you have worked at telcos in several African countries and you are now working in the Netherlands. How did you end up here?
‘For me, the Netherlands is the sixth country I have lived in. After finishing my studies at Rand Afrikaans University (RAU) in Johannesburg, I launched an IT startup with some friends, and that company still exists. But when I was 22 or 23, I decided I did not want to do that forever. I wanted something different. I had the ambition to work for a corporate and to see the world. I started working for a South African telecoms group company, and after that I worked in many different places across Africa.
After about ten years, I felt like a new adventure. In 2015, I came into contact with Vodafone Netherlands. At that time, Vodafone had a South African CEO, Rob Shuter, and I got talking to him. Just when I had decided to join Vodafone, the company actually ceased to exist. Rob called me: "Eben, I have bad news and more bad news for you: Your new job does not exist anymore, and neither does the company you were going to work for." Fortunately, there was room for me at the new VodafoneZiggo, the company that emerged from a joint venture of the Dutch operations of Liberty Global – Ziggo's parent company – and Vodafone.’

That sounds like a difficult start. How did you find that joint venture?
‘The transition actually went quite smoothly, but mainly because hundreds of people had worked extremely hard toward it. I was pleased that the senior management structure became clear very quickly. That is important, because otherwise you cannot make decisions. We spent a lot of time getting the right people in the right place. That was not at all easy, because the two parent companies would have preferred us to divide all the teams exactly fifty-fifty. That proved to be an extra challenge in this joint venture. In most mergers, one of the parties has a majority – even if it’s 51% to 49%. But this was 50-50: Both parties had exactly the same amount of say. The general opinion on this was not always positive in the external comments either: “This has almost never worked out, it does not make sense, it’s definitely going to fail.” But in the end, we managed to put together a very well-balanced management team, all high achievers and great professionals.’

That fact that all team members are high achievers does not automatically make for a good team.
‘That is correct, but what has worked out well here is that we are all working towards a common goal. There are no hidden agendas. We all start from the same plan on a page – our strategy concisely worked out on one side of A4. We all look in the same direction, agree on the strategy and approach the competition in the same way. We are doing what we need to do to make this company successful in the Netherlands
and we also gain a lot of trust from the parent companies. ‘Do what you need to do to be successful in the Netherlands’: Those are great marching orders. We are also completely focused on the longer term. Nobody wants to optimize something for just a year. Optimization only happens if it makes sense in the long run. We want to create a company that the Netherlands is proud of, and a company that our children can also be proud to work for.’

How else would you describe that company?
‘Most people might associate us mainly with Ziggo Sport, Ziggo GO or with cell phones. Make no mistake: We are a key company in the Netherlands. We saw that again recently during the lockdowns. We ensure that the Dutch can continue to work and stay in contact with each other. Our clients include essential Dutch companies and government authorities. Our work is important, and if something goes wrong with our network, it also goes wrong in society. That is why we have to provide a stable, secure network – that is our primary focus. Just imagine if we had had to work from home in 1986. We would have fought over the home phone, and we could have sent a few faxes at most. It would have been utter chaos.’

How do you ensure you are future proof?
‘First of all, it is essential that we continue investing in the future, continue investing in the network, products and services and new technologies such as 5G. We also take our social responsibility seriously, as we want to contribute to society. That is why, for example, we teach about media literacy and cyberbullying in secondary schools and we help elderly people set up video calls or get started with Facebook.
We also take responsibility in the area of sustainability. We want to make our network and our offices more sustainable – we already run on 100% green energy. There is a good reason our headquarters are located right next to Utrecht Centraal station: This has enabled us to replace lease cars with public transport cards. It means that we can limit the number of car kilometers and associated CO2 emissions. For essential car kilometers, we try to use electric cars more and more. We have promised to have a fossil-free fleet by 2025.’

You just mentioned the essential role you played during the lockdowns. Have the lockdowns all gone equally smoothly for VodafoneZiggo?
‘The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on us, but hardly any impact on our consumer network. I did not lose any sleep over the extra phone calls and video calls. In the Netherlands, we have a stable network and excellent infrastructure. As a precaution, we set up a kind of preventive dike monitoring system, but it has never really had to be activated.
I am proud of the fact that we have always been proactive, and that has made it relatively easy for us to cope with the record data usage on our network. If there were any problems at all, they were usually not in the network, but in the clients' Wi-Fi networks: Entire families were suddenly using the Wi-Fi at the same time. In most cases, we were able to solve those problems quickly. What occasionally proved difficult was maintenance work in residential areas. We used to carry out maintenance between 9am and noon, because many people were not at home during those times. That was no longer possible. During the pandemic, we moved it to the early morning.
Internally, of course, the lockdowns were also difficult for us. I hired people who I only saw from behind a screen for an entire year. How do you create a team during that time? How do you share your values? It was quite difficult.’

You touch on the topic of culture. How important is culture to you?
‘Culture is the most important thing, because it is not about stuff, or technology, or planning... What is really important when it comes to building a company is culture. In our culture, we really try to put the client first. It sounds obvious, but sometimes it is hard not to get caught up in ‘technology for technology's sake’. As I always say: We are not here to throw some new magical technology into our network.’

What are you doing to perpetuate the culture?
‘The magic really comes from cross-functional working. That involves people from different departments and business units sitting down together and talking, listening, being open and being honest. As a management team, we also hold regular coffee sessions in which we talk to all layers of the company. During those sessions, I find out about the issues people are facing and the issues our clients are facing. Sometimes you do not realize the consequences of certain decisions. I find these conversations bring me down to earth, and I learn a lot from them. You do not solve problems by throwing more processes, more governance, more checks and more control at it from the top down. That alone will not solve everything.’

Thinking from the client's perspective, not technology for technology's sake: How does the leadership team deal with that? Your position comes with certain tasks and roles; technology is your department...
‘Within technology, we are responsible for the strategy, planning, implementation, construction, maintenance and expansion of all technology: The cables in the ground, the IT, the data centers, the mobile network, and so on. For the other departments, we are the enabler. We can enable their ambitions so that during client operations, for example, they can focus on their primary goal and do not have to worry about the technology side of things. That is our main task.
On second thought, that is not entirely true. In fact, I do not want technology people to just be concerned with technology. I want our technical people to be involved in the business and with the client as well. That is a slightly different starting point. I prefer not to have conversations with the business about which software we can roll out or what we can build next – that is the wrong mentality. Ultimately, technology is nothing more than an enabler: A tool to get where you want to be. The client wants to be able to send an app message or make a phone call – they have absolutely no interest in words like digital or technology.’

I am hearing a plea for ‘reverse thinking’. How did you learn to do that?
‘That is a funny story. It actually happened to me when I began having problems with my own Ziggo products, five years ago – right after the joint venture. It might be good to mention that I have a normal Ziggo subscription, just like half of the Netherlands, rather than some exclusive corporate subscription. When I initially had that subscription, I received an error message several times a week: Error code 2040. It drove me crazy. In my frustration, I walked into an office here and demanded that the problem be solved. I said: "Just fix it."
And you know what? The problem was solved. That was the turning point for my thinking. I thought: I have actually relinquished control here. By letting go of the ‘how’, my colleague took responsibility for solving the problem. That taught me something. I had created clarity on the outcome, only I had not said anything at all about who to involve, resources, costs, suppliers or checklists. I did not give any instructions at all, but the problem was solved!’

Are you a leader who learns by doing?
‘Yes, I am very much somebody who learns by doing. I do find the theory quite interesting, but if I read a handbook on agile transformation, at some point all the buzzwords and concepts drive me crazy. Answers to very practical questions often are not covered by handbooks. I prefer to engage in dialogue. In those conversations, I ban the use of buzzwords, we do not watch PowerPoint presentations or draw diagrams and we are not allowed to use the words digital, technology and transformation. Employees are only allowed to explain what is going on using plain Dutch. Soon enough, it all comes down to client needs. We then create cross-functional teams as quickly as possible, which will work together.
That does not mean that we do not focus on the best squads with scrum masters and the right tooling and continuous deployment as a service and that we do not push ourselves to the cutting edge. It is just not how we should talk to each other. Drawing complicated diagrams is not an end – it is a means.’

You are now living in country number six. Which will be country number seven?
‘I have no ambition to move, but I do hope to live in Maastricht again one day. That is where I lived during my first two years in the Netherlands and it is a wonderful city. As a family, we are now completely focused on the Netherlands. This company is the best company I have ever worked for. The Netherlands is a beautiful country, with a fantastic economy and lots of competition. I love living here – even on a gray day like this.’

This article was last changed on 09-02-2022