Afterthoughts of Istanbul

It is too soon to give a proper review of the Subex User Conference 2014, which was held in Istanbul last week. So much great content was presented at the event, it will take me a little while to compile my notes and gather my thoughts. But the event did leave me with vivid feelings and memories, and they are easy to share.

The gala dinner was held on a boat, sailing up and down the Bosphorus. At the completion of the meal, Turkish dancers entertained the audience, inevitably dragging some onlookers from their seats, teaching them the steps to traditional dances. When the professionals left the dance floor, the amateurs happily remained, and their numbers swelled. We witnessed the happy spectacle of Africans, Europeans, Arabs, Americans and Chinese, all dancing together to a soundtrack of joyous Indian music, upon a boat floating halfway between Europe and Asia. That says a lot about who we are, and what we do. At times like this, you realize we live in a global village, where the binding forces of what we have in common are more powerful than the differences that push us apart.

The communications industry has played a tremendous role in bringing people together. Whilst we may work for rival operators, we are not defined by our rivalry. Our better nature encourages us to be co-operators, working and playing together. We often gain more by sharing than we lose by revealing our secrets. As chairman of the event, I opened with a few words that encouraged the audience to interact with the speakers and each other, to share their knowledge, to ask questions and engage in conversation. Their response left me feeling very privileged to chair this conference.

The presentations were of very high quality, matching the standard set by the 2013 Subex User Conference. Better still, the telco case studies were refreshingly honest, describing not just successes, but also mistakes that were made. Subex were robust but down to earth, attentively and politely listening when told about areas they needed to improve. The telcos also found fault with themselves, frankly sharing the lessons they had learned about their own weaknesses. I had the feeling that the room was full of people who had the confidence to admit that they are imperfect. As a consequence, the supplier was unashamed about asking how they could do a better job for the customer, and the customer was equally open in talking about how they could have done more to help their supplier, and to help themselves.

We are grown-ups, and we all know that people get things wrong from time to time. In fact, there would be no need for business assurance if nothing ever went wrong. Sometimes we learn more from failure than we do from success. I cannot give enough praise to the speakers and audience at Subex’s conference, for how they shared their experiences, both good and bad, so that everyone could learn from them. I have never attended an event where there was so much open, constructive and realistic dialogue around how to do revenue assurance and fraud management.

Even when I think of it now, several days after the event, I am staggered by what happened during the question and answer sessions that occurred at the end of each presentation. I have chaired a fair few conferences over the years, and one reason I get asked to do that job is because I can be relied upon to think of a couple of questions to put to each speaker. Speakers often work hard to compile their presentations. Many of them are nervous about speaking in public. There is nothing worse for them than reaching the end of their talk, and discovering that nobody wants to ask a question. It makes them feel that nobody cared about what they said. As a chairman, my job involves more than introducing and thanking speakers, starting the applause and keeping track of time. I also need to ask questions, if nobody else does. But in Istanbul, there was never the need for me to do that. The number of questions posed by the audience was overwhelming. I have never experienced anything like it.

The volume of questions may have been partly encouraged by the innovation of allowing people to use their smartphones to submit questions over the internet. During one talk, I discovered the audience had already asked two questions, via smartphone, in the time it took me to return to my seat after introducing the speakers. Instead of interrupting speakers or forcing the audience to save questions to the end, this technology seemed to free the audience to immediately share a question as soon as they had thought of it. As a consequence, we found that some of the Q&A sessions ballooned in ways I had never seen before. After some talks, we projected the questions on the big screen, so speakers could choose the order to take them, and whether to group some of them together. In the time it took to answer one question, two new questions would be added to the list on the screen! Obviously that makes it impossible to answer all the questions in the time available. Thankfully, Subex has agreed to compile all the unanswered questions and to pass them on to the speakers, encouraging them to give written answers which will be shared over the web.

Whilst this technology may have helped stimulate more questions, the source for each question is a person in the audience. The sheer number of questions proved that the audience was incredibly engaged, and that the speakers had done a brilliant job of holding the audience’s attention. This remained true from the first speaker to the last, and they all deserve praise for that.

Of course, people do not ask questions unless they believe they will be answered. One telling moment came when Surjeet Singh, Subex CEO, took to the stage and asked his customers for feedback. Unafraid, he also had their questions projected on the big screen, unfiltered. Surjeet proceeded to work his way through them, though once again it was an impossible task due to the number received and the time available, even though his Q&A overran well into the lunch break. For me, his time on stage epitomized the conference. When you put a lot of people in a room, it can be hard to manage a dialogue. Some people may not be heard. Or maybe people are unwilling to speak. However, this event overflowed with open, constructive dialogue. That is because people felt free to speak, and sure they would be listened to. I attribute the success to both the character of Subex’s management team, and the enthusiastic spirit exhibited by their customers.

I only felt the need to correct a speaker on one occasion. Reto Meier of Swisscom was last on stage, on the final day. During the preceding coffee break, Reto humbly confided that he intended to keep his talk short, because people wanted to leave. I politely disagreed. Anybody in the room had chosen to be there, and they wanted to hear what Reto, and his colleague Urs Schmitz, had to say about implementing their upgraded FMS in Swisscom. A more charming person might not have contradicted Reto, but I wanted him to know his contribution would be appreciated. What is more, the audience was so engaged that I had no concerns about them desiring an early end. Reto and Urs received a string of questions at the end of their talk, demonstrating that the audience’s attention had not wavered over the two days of the conference.

And then something else happened, which cannot be faked, and which showed how happy the attendees were. During the final day, people would occasionally ask if I was tired, having been on stage so much, and having enjoyed the evening merriment as much as anyone. I said I felt fine; nobody feels tired when they do things they enjoy, and it had been a great pleasure to chair this conference. Though I had listened a lot, and learned a lot, I still felt plenty of energy. It seems I was not alone. A talk in another room had overrun, and some of Subex’s customers were hanging around, waiting for me to do my final job: to give the brief words of thanks that would conclude the conference. I took to the stage for the final time, and congratulated the audience, the speakers, and Subex, for how they had all come together and created an outstanding event. And then, joking around, the guys looking after the audio-visual equipment turned up the dance music. So I danced a bit. Within moments the stage was full, and I was once again dancing with people from around the globe, as both customers and Subexians joined the spontaneous bop. The world of business assurance is populated by hard-working people whose efforts should be appreciated. I feel proud to state that, for a couple of days in Istanbul, they got the celebration they deserved.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is a recognized expert on communications risk and assurance. He was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and others.

Eric was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He was a founding member of Qatar's National Committee for Internet Safety and the first leader of the TM Forum's Enterprise Risk Management team. Eric currently sits on the committee of the Risk & Assurance Group, and is an editorial advisor to Black Swan. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.

Commsrisk is edited by Eric. Look here for more about Eric's history as editor.
  • ShaadH

    Hello Eric,

    I like when you say “Whilst we may work for rival operators, we are not defined by our rivalry. Our better nature encourages us to be co-operators, working and playing together”. It sums up the big family that Revenue Assurance is.
    I am looking forward to the insights and learning in the coming days. On another note it would have be good to have a may be some of the video’s or papers about the presentation/discussions shared. Maybe Subex can take the lead to share with those who could not make it :).

  • Wei-Hong

    The global village as it was indeed. We can only be better together.