Today, Ibrahim Gedeon, TELUS Chief Technology Officer leaves a 20-year storied technology career affecting many Canadians at home and at work, for new adventures. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the American University of Beirut and has a master’s degree in electronics engineering from Carleton University. With a total of six titles with previous companies like Nortel Networks, Bell and Mitel starting in 1988, the Lebanese-born self-professed “tech-geek-chef” always was customer driven. During a TELUS labour strike, he rolled up his sleeves and installed TELUS services in Edmonton often ending with recipe exchanges with home occupants at the kitchen table. After my interview with Ibrahim in 2004, his first formal media interview, I realized TELUS had hired an armful of technology leadership, and more.
On a warm summer evening we met in heart of downtown Edmonton at Co Co Di Restaurant and Bar on Rice Howard Way, complete with water pipes, better known as hookahs, brimming with the cool aroma of tobacco marinated with apple-flavoured molasses. It was a five-hour affair on a sidewalk table busy with passersby. And of course a long parade of Lebanese dishes, with guidance. “I would rather do business or negotiate over a long meal like this,” said Gedeon.
Here is the interview published in the Edmonton Journal on August 2, 2004.
Note we talked about technology 20-year old technology then, a window in the past where companies like TELUS were positioning themselves with new tech challenges.
At first glance, Ibrahim Gedeon looks more like an elevator service person than his white-collar colleagues rushing home after work. This corporate Chief Technology Officer (CTO) was definitely different.
“OK, so I have a title,” he says “But I see a world where there are no white-collar or blue-collar workers… just no-collar-collar.”
The 40-year-old bachelor has been the Telus CTO since last October but insisted he stay low until he got to know his new employer better.
Gedeon recently gave the Journal his first formal interview over a five-hour endless stream of Lebanese dishes and apple-flavoured hookah he had selected in downtown Edmonton.
What do you bring to TELUS?
I am a geek that can make technology work.
What makes a good CTO?
Successful CTOs are extroverted engineers who can speak and articulate well.
What motivates you at TELUS?
It’s like a 100-metre dash. Which would make you run faster, a lion chasing you or an Olympic gold medal waiting for you at the finish line? For the last three years we just saw the gold medal ahead of us. But today I am motivated because I can see a lion behind me.
Who are the lions?
The unregulated service providers who are competing with our technologies.
What is your goal?
To evolve the TELUS vision to something more applied and practical.
So tell me about the TELUS consumer vision.
We want to bring network services into homes so the PC, TV, set- top box, phone and stereo work together on one screen. But we need to make it feature friendly and easy.
Gedeon orders an appetizer. “You are going to love these, they are fantastic.”
What frustrates you in t his industry today?
That everybody is converting to the same place through different routes. They all forget what their key value proposition is to the end user.
Aren’t you taking on new technologies beyond your core business?
We won’t succeed building our own application, neither will Shaw. We’re just too small, we’ve got to build the right framework for existing technologies… I approach everything with an open mind.
Do you ever talk to competitors?
Canada is a small place. We need pre-competitive relationships. I meet, casually, with other CTOs to understand where the industry is going, as pure professionals.
“OK, the food is here, this is fine for you, but don’t touch that one.” (he remembers I’m allergic to sesame oil)
What bugs you about how outsiders view TELUS?
Everyone is more impressed with how much money we spend. To me it’s what you do with it. I mean I can just go and make a pitch to the board and spend $ 300 million more. If that’s going to move the shareholder, fantastic. But it’s not who buys the fastest car, it’s who drives it faster.
How do you decide on what technologies TELUS should invest in?
You don’t want technology to be a boat anchor that kills you. You shouldn’t let peer pressure of people announcing new things impact you when it doesn’t make sense.
“Excuse me, I’ve got to fix my hookah because if I don’t smoke well I can’t be innovative when I am speaking.”
You equate everything with sexuality?
I believe food is attractive and sexy. What’s the definition of attractive – it doesn’t say woman -it’s something that is highly desirable, like that electronic board I showed you in the lab that we are evaluating – piece of genius like a beautiful cooked dish. I am a geek deep down and I think technology is attractive.
How are you going to match your TV quality with cable and satellite?
I have ours and Shaw running in my apartment in Edmonton. The key thing is, it’s digital, so they are comparable.
What about HDTV?
There is no consumer rush yet for HDTV so we can’ t build a case for a small market segment. But next year it will be just as good.
That’s really nice, what’s this?
Who has the technology advantage between you and Shaw?
They have an initial speed advantage but beyond that it’s fair game for everybody. But we have been in the telephone business for 100 years. (laughs)
“The hookah enhances my taste buds, its apple flavour, but I don’t breathe it in.”
You offer VoIP in your enterprise sector, but seem happy to push your older land-line service on consumers while competitors offer cheap home-based IP telephony
Yes, I could come in and replace your phone service with IP, which is what we eventually want to go to, but there are government regulations that I am not an expert in. Even so, why should I invest in both technologies to give you the same service unless there is a compelling argument?
Well, you could lose business!
We will stay the course, whether it’s labour, regulatory, capital or profitability. I don’t mind suffering a couple of years to win the war.
“You need to draw harder to get the smoke up in your hookah.”
How will you sell all this integration to a mass audience?
For now, you sell it as Telus voice or TELUS TV. People have a lot of disconnected things in their home and reach the point where they say, “Oh my God, I have to do all this.” Can TELUS fix that? Yes. How can we make money? We need to know.
When will we see the new consumer TELUS?
In 2005, where you can pick and choose products and services. We are laying the seeds with the consumer to what the new world can be, so you are getting a cooked meal.
How is technology changing the old-fashioned telephone?
IP telephony now becomes a computer application people can use in many ways.
“Hey Lisa, is there sesame in the garlic sauce? Eat this, it’s great… lamb, beef and chicken.”
Consumers are attracted to new and cheap technology, like a competitor’s IP-based phone for half the price of your land-line phone.
People understand a value proposition. I have been going to the same tailor for the past 16 years. He is not the cheapest, but delivers the quality I need. Companies like Primus will eventually run into problems because of quality of service.
Why can’t TELUS customers have the same number in their land-line phone and cellphone, rather than subscribing to two services now? It looks like a money grab.
Our strategy is not to squeeze the consumer just because we can. The technology is there from companies like Motorola. I would like to come to your home computer wireless network and let you make free calls from cellphones. Even make each one ring differently. But for now, it’s much easier and important to maintain the identity of each caller. That’ s something we are looking at but there are internal and regulatory issues too.
Would you ever get rid of your land line?
Do your bosses listen to you?
What is the killer app for today?
In terms of revenue, it’s voice. And you know, I pity those people who only use e-mail to communicate.
You and Shaw seem to be stepping over each other’s turf competing for all-in-one services to homes. Can you pull it off?
Shaw is considered best in class and I hope they become the most successful cable company in Canada. But I want to be the most successful service provider in Canada. If my intent is to make your life easier at home, I will work with the devil to make you happy.
“OK, you have to move the coal slightly, so the tobacco burns evenly.”
Is the technology sector making money today?
Most technology today displaces wealth… dollars they pay today are being paid somewhere else. I think it’s going to be a slow adoption interim for new wealth creation.
So why won’t you offer computer technology with your bundle?
If you want to buy bread, go to the baker. We are not a baker. We want to be the place where you have a choice of bread, a choice of meat.
Why did it take you so long to “meet the press?”
I needed to understand TELUS rather than speak early from cheat sheets just to please everyone. The first thing I did when I joined Telus last October was to go to home installations with the truck crews and meet and get to know consumers. It was a beautiful experience for me.
What frustrates you inside TELUS?
I think it’s a personality thing, the culture part. People keep telling me I am different. Maybe I am compared to the norm, I suppose. But TELUS is much bigger than me so I am adapting. The night is young!