The Past Informs The Future

Telecom room cabling inside a CenturyLink data center (Image credit: CenturyLink)

CenturyLink may be America’s third-largest telco, but it has innovated to become a diversified global cloud and IT services company by investing billions in technology businesses over the past few years. The inside story is how its fealty to its past informed the invention of its future.

“We started out in the 1930s in Oak Ridge, Louisiana, with a $500 investment for 75 subscribers.”

“So in a very real sense our expansion started then,” explained Aamir Hussain, CenturyLink’s EVP and Chief Technology Officer. “We’ve applied many of the same principles to our latest acquisitions.”

The company doesn’t look like what it used to even late last century, thanks to an aggressive acquisition and transformation strategy that has added eight companies over the past seven years in an effort to grow as its customers’ needs evolved for more diversified and integrated tech communications services.

Embarq, Qwest, Savvis, AppFog, Tier 3, Cognilytics, DataGardens and Orchestrate were acquired and folded into its offering, giving CenturyLink the capability to offer network, cloud, data recovery, database management, global hosting, and big data analytics to customers around the world.

“We needed to be where the puck was going,” Hussain said, but then qualified that forward-looking idea with a reference to the continuing influence of the company’s founder, Clarke M. Williams: “He always said put the interests of others in front of you, then put yourself in their shoes and do what it would take to satisfy them.”

Such references to the company’s traditions came up frequently as Hussain described its transformative change, and how those principles informed its decision-making in at least three fundamental ways.

“It took a lot of time to do our homework up front, to make sure there wasn’t just a strategic fit, but also that it was cultural, the tech was cutting-edge, and we were confident we could facilitate the integration so that it would benefit our stakeholders,” he said.

“We passed on a lot of opportunities that couldn’t check all of these boxes, even if they might have looked good on a spreadsheet.”

Once acquired, CenturyLink used an approach that entailed a rigorous process for keeping integration projects on schedule, but tempered it with a willingness to step back from those efforts, when necessary.

“Sometimes we didn’t have a clear idea of how we wanted to solve something, so we avoided doing harm,” said Hussain. “Other times, the tech was changing so fast that we didn’t want to use a solution that would be outdated before we were done, so again, we allowed ourselves to wait.”

Finally, CenturyLink relied on its customers to determine whether the integrated services were ready…or not.

“We constantly tested MVP [minimum viable products] with them, especially in the cloud space, and relied on very active customer and tech review boards,” Hussain said.

The results are unequivocal: In its latest quarterly report, CenturyLink revealed that more than 60% of its revenues now come from business customers that take advantage of one or more of its services.

“We prefer to give our customers what they need, when they need it, and let them discover the value we offer,” Hussain said. “That expansion we started 85 years ago is still underway.”

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