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MD Tech Leader Talks with Phil Haslam, CTO at TalkTalk - The roundup

One of the main focuses for Greater Manchester-based broadband provider TalkTalk is the upcoming transformation of moving the UK broadband network to full fibre from the legacy copper wire infrastructure. The Government has issued targets to providers and wants full fibre accessible to 25 million homes by 2025 (to the road not the door). 

This large-scale digital transformation was one of the topics discussed at Manchester Digital’s MD Tech Leader Talks on June 8. 

Guests networking at Manchester Technology Centre for MD Tech Leader Talks

Phil Haslam, has been at telecoms business TalkTalk for 20 years, and the chief technology officer for just over two years. He was interviewed by Tom Huggon, Principal at Slalom discussing legacy systems and the upcoming change to full fibre, the future of AI within telco systems and his career to date. 

Phil talked us through the history of TalkTalk, which was originally born out of Irlam-based Opal Telecom, and was a subsidiary of Carphone Warehouse, de-merged in 2010. The company is headquartered in Salford and offers telephone and broadband services. 

Tom Huggon, Principal at Slalom (left), interviews Phil Haslam, CTO at TalkTalk (right)

Tom asked Phil to talk about his career path: “Early in my career I changed roles probably every four years reflecting the amount of change as the business grew. One of my reflections looking back, is that a key moment for me was being offered the opportunity to run a network transformation programme. I thought it through and decided sometimes you just have to take a leap into the unknown. It was the best thing I ever did. Getting to my current role was definitely a long-term ambition.”

TalkTalk moved its HQ to its Soapworks site in Salford in 2018, although it still has a presence in London. Phil explained, “The business always had a significant footprint in the North West but it was still a bold move. But it’s great to have this history and culture, as we have always had sites in Irlam and Warrington. It’s really important to be a part of the Greater Manchester tech community. We have an ongoing partnership with Salford foodbank, we have students from MMU, recently we sponsored the Great Northern Run with AJ Bell, and we founded the annual  North West Women in Tech Awards too to celebrate the achievements of women working in our sector and to encourage more to join.”  

In terms of the current state of the telecoms and broadband industry, Phil explained, “We are in the thick of an IT and systems estate transformation. We’re modernising systems and there’s a journey into using cloud technology. 

“Within the industry, we’re looking at career paths and how our teams are made up, as the job role is becoming more about software rather than traditional engineering. This changes the shape of our teams.

“As a value brand, we have to use tech to punch above our weight in terms of competing with other telcos. One of our many ongoing challenges is how we increase the capacity of our network, stay ahead of ever-increasing demand for the internet without becoming too expensive for consumers and our wholesale partners – it drives us to innovate more.”

Tom also questioned Phil on recruitment and finding the right talent, which is always an ongoing challenge for every tech company. He said: “The retention of talent is an ongoing war – but people either stay for five minutes or 20 years. We do have lots of great activity from our comms and engagement team as well as lots of retraining opportunities. We do a lot to keep people within the business. There is a real vibe and there is definitely a TalkTalk family. People all have each other’s backs and it’s been great to see more and more people coming back to the office – not least for our £1 breakfasts!” 

Alison Ross, chair of Manchester Digital, takes questions for Phil from the audience

Tom asked Phil about the challenges of emerging tech. “One of our challenges is that the consumers have lots of different tech - they might have smart speakers, smart TVs or Ring door bells etc - and they expect it to be seamlessly compatible with their broadband and Wi-Fi technology. At the moment, the Internet of Things is still very fragmented with competing technologies, such as Zigbee and Matter, competing for spectrum which constantly presents new challenges for us to understand and adopt.

“Of course, you would have had to be living under a rock to not realise that AI is the biggest tech development at the moment. At TalkTalk we are just dipping our toes in the water at the moment and proceeding with cautious optimism. For example, we’re using AI to help coach our employees at contact centres and give them the right answers to queries, and exploring how AI can help monitor the network.

“There are lots of practical ways that we will be able to use AI to help with diagnostics and make it much easier for customers to fix their own problems with broadband and ultimately proactively fix them in real time. 

“I’m certain that AI will revolutionise what we do – but I fully expect there to be moments of both brilliance and challenge along the way. But overall, it’s a great opportunity and of course, we will lean into it. This has the promise to be the next stage of the Industrial Revolution if we get it right. Machines and automation have given humans the opportunity to think of higher things. I think it will be a right angle turn for us all - and I hope we exploit it safely and brilliantly.”

We’d like to offer a huge thanks to Slalom for sponsoring and hosting our June Tech Leader Talks event. If you’d like to pick up a conversation Slalom  - their MD Caroline is happy to chat:

For more upcoming Manchester Digital events, keep checking our events page.

Please note the next MD Tech Leader Talks is planned for the 9th November 2023.

Our next event is the Member Conference and Summer Social on 22nd June.

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