Do you receive your horoscope or a reminder of your mum's birthday by text messaging, SMS? Is your ring tone a version of the latest chart hit? Would you like to be able to pay for parking or motorway tolls in a cashless transaction via your mobile? Today location-based services are becoming more widespread, with a list of local restaurants or the time of the next bus coming to a handheld device near you. And once you catch the bus, you could while away the journey playing games with people all over the world.
Picture and video messaging, together with the development of new picture standards, are already well advanced in Asia, which generally leads in all technologies related to telecoms, and such technologies are becoming more common in Europe. But would you believe that research is under way to transmit odours and textures through the telecoms network?
Services, Services, Services
Technological wizardry is not enough. Right now, the telecoms sector is service led, and companies are dreaming up a whole range of new services, geared towards businesses as well as individuals. Because infrastructure development is so expensive, in a tough economic climate it is safer to be innovative in service provision than in hardware development. And that means understanding people--and what they will pay for--as well as physics and engineering.
"Technology does not stand still in this industry," says Steve Sim, general manager of research at BT Exact Technology, the R&D division of British Telecom. "There is something new every 5 years, and I cannot see that drying up." The time between research and application has decreased markedly, which means that technology is changing with increasing frequency. "The majority of our employees appreciate being in a sector in perpetual evolution," confirms Guy Carrère, scientific director at France Telecom R&D in Paris.
"There is a huge potential for growth," notes Sim, which means that there are plenty of research areas in which to make your mark. Among the most dynamic areas of expansion are security--especially for online payment and wireless office networks--and wireless, with the soon-to-come third-generation UMTS protocol expected to support broader band and faster access. Additional key current R&D areas in the telecoms industry range from mobile technology to integration of telecoms and Internet through, for example, applications for e-commerce and voice and data networking, which could include speech technologies. (See the associated Industry Insider profile of Francis Charpentier.)
A Tight Job Market
But if you're excited about the telecoms sector's challenging research problems, be warned: "The main challenge at the moment is to find jobs," says Rich Miner, VP of Orange Imagineering, the company's R&D division. The collapse of the Internet-telecoms bubble means that there are more qualified people than actual jobs. "The marketplace is shrinking, and we are recruiting smaller numbers than before," agrees Gillian Anderson, UK resource manager at Vodafone. "We have a lot of high-calibre candidates," Anderson adds, so employers can afford to be picky. "Competition was more notable a couple of years ago, at the height of the dot-com boom, when the city was snapping [up] anyone with knowledge of IT," says Sim.
But although some of the skills telecoms companies require are similar to those highly sought in the dot-coms, the sector--and the range of jobs it offers--is far broader. Jobs include everything from developing the hardware and software that constitute network infrastructure to setting up protocols for data routing and signalling on the network, designing the actual devices that allow connection to the telecoms network, and developing new services to fit the infrastructure and devices.
As a result, telecoms can be attractive to people from very different backgrounds. "We recruit people from across the range, including those with human science degrees, as long as they have a high academic calibre and are interested in telecoms," says BT's Sim. For instance, someone with a psychology degree could help define different market segments by profiling customer groups or could even be involved in designing ergonomic products that people find easy to use.
Preference goes to people with scientific degrees in electronic and electrical engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry, biology, and maths. But the preferred candidate changes from one country, and company, to another. About half of Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica's R&D recruits are telecoms engineers, and the other half or so are computer scientists; the company does not recruit much from other backgrounds to work in its four R&D labs in Spain and Brazil. And although researchers can work for a PhD once they're in-house, PhD scientists and engineers are not particularly sought after as new recruits. However people with PhDs in speciality areas, such as artificial intelligence or wireless system design (see profile of Alex Hum), can be attractive to some companies.
But recruiters definitely look beyond academic performance. "We are also looking for other competencies and skills, including the ability to work in a team, commercial awareness, customer focus, and leadership," points out Sim. In fact, independent of a candidate's background, what matters most to recruiters in the telecoms sector is experience. Ideally, says Miner, Orange would like to recruit people with experience in a start-up company. "It is more important to have people with start-up experience than people with a PhD," he asserts, explaining that Orange wants to employ people who have reached a stage where they have made their mistakes and acquired a practical mindset through commercial experience. Unfortunately, "it is almost impossible to find people with start-up experience in Europe," remarks Miner.
But since the telecoms sector is by nature an international industry, companies can tweak their research activities to fit with the local talent base. Hence, in the US, Orange would set up specialist teams whose project leaders have experience in start-ups to drive innovation, whilst in Europe, there would be rather more emphasis on projects exploiting the high-level scientific and technological skills found here.
"We are recruiting a lot of technical people who would look on the Internet to find a job," says Anderson. As a whole this sector makes great use of technology in recruitment, with all the major players offering the opportunity to file a CV online (see box). Currently Vodaphone's system has 20,000 people registered, over 300 of them with a PhD. The company e-mails prospective candidates regularly to remind them to update their details. "It has been so successful that we're hiring more than 50% of our new staff directly from the Web," says Anderson, adding that "we have decreased our recruitment costs by 25% in the past 12 months." And it's certainly not all doom and gloom in the sector. Including its retail operation, Vodafone will be recruiting about 2000 people across the UK in the next 12 months; "in the technology sector alone we have yet to recruit another 300 people," highlights Anderson.
Telecoms companies still call upon the traditional recruitment routes as well. Typically, they try to spot talent from within universities by offering student placements. "When we need to extend the size of our research team, we look to recruit people through [the placement] route," explains Sim. (See the BT undergraduate graduate placements Web site.) "For instance, BT has more than 100 students as part of our 400-strong research team," which in turn is part of a total population of 2800 people involved in short-term development projects, he explains.
Vodafone adopts a similar approach. Each year 100 graduates--60 in technology--undertake 6-month placements in the different technology areas of the business. The company also has a 2-year training scheme. And in the UK, BT has its own MSc in partnership with University College London that gives broad training in communication technologies. The company funds PhDs, too.
Another strategy, as an academic, is to get involved in one of the research networks associated with companies like France Telecom, either at the national level in France or at the EU level through the 6th Framework Programme. These collaborative research projects are designed to speed up innovation through pooled expertise and can be an ideal way to learn about the sector.
Carrère sees R&D as an ideal starting point for a career in the telecoms sector. "Starting your commercial career in an R&D centre, working for an operator or an equipment provider, would allow you to familiarise yourself with the technologies," he advises.
France Telecom sees its R&D centres as competency reserves from which "the majority of upward recruitment is done," says Carrère. After 2 to 4 years in R&D, opportunities will open up within the business units of the group, he suggests. Again, timing for upward progression varies from one company or country to another. At Telefónica, for instance, employees need to have spent at least 5 years in the R&D department before becoming managers. And according to Isidoro Padilla, CEO of the R&D section of Telefónica, a postgraduate course at a business school would be a plus for such a promotion, in order to learn commercial values, teamwork, and customer focus.
"Don't wait until you are finished with your degree and your PhD," advises Sim; "get opportunities to demonstrate your abilities rather than bringing just a CV." Miner agrees: "Work to get some relevant experience however you can," would be his advice. The most important quality for a scientist or an engineer wishing to work in industry is to be practically minded and have a mind geared towards problem-solving. This is really what makes a difference during recruitment.