This article is part of a series of interviews with Rakuten Mobile employees. In this edition, we speak with Sagiv Draznin, who heads Rakuten Mobile’s Service Experience Center. With career experience in major telecommunications companies such as Orange, Cisco and Verizon, Sagiv is championing a new vision for network operations.
Rakuten Mobile recently launched the world’s first end-to-end cloud-native mobile network, which you can read about here.
What brought you to Rakuten?
It’s very rare to have the chance to build something completely new. Especially with mobile networks — most of them are already established, so there aren’t a lot of new builds coming in. When I heard about Rakuten Mobile, I was like, ‘hmm, interesting.’ But I wasn’t sure if it was interesting enough.
Then I found out about Rakuten’s vision of building the next generation of networking in a cloud environment, and I said ‘that’s it! That’s what I want to do.’ A once in a lifetime opportunity to build a network with cutting edge technology. Not just more of the same, what everybody has been building for years, but something truly next-level. There was no question, I was ready to leave behind my old career and join this amazing adventure.
What happens at the Service Experience Center?
We’re responsible for operating the entire network. It’s a bit new for me because I didn’t focus on operations in my previous life. I did engineering and architecture, both of which only require you to work on specific segments of the network.
Once you step into operations, you have the luxury to look at the network from end-to-end. Basically everything that moves in this network needs our perspective — devices, applications, websites, it doesn’t matter. At Rakuten Mobile we’re looking after the user experience from the minute they leave the Rakuten Mobile shop or website with a phone, to day-to-day life, when they leave the house, go to work and come back. We’re looking at this entire journey, how the network behaves throughout the day, and how well the service functions for the user.
How was the switch from engineering to operations?
It’s definitely different. It’s a different lifestyle, much more demanding. You need to always be aware of how everything is clicking.
When I joined, Rakuten was very much still in a build phase. My main task was to kick off that evolution from a company that is building a network to a company that operates one. It’s a totally different mindset.
“I found out about Rakuten’s vision of building the next generation of networking in a cloud environment, and I said ‘that’s it! That’s what I want to do.’”
That can be tough, because when you’re building, you build. You never say no, you just build. When you reach the operations phase, you have to say no. And that’s difficult for me, because I want to say yes, I want to get more things done. It’s exciting.
But we have to maintain stability and establish maturity, by making tough decisions and saying no. Otherwise we’d never leave the build phase.
Any advice for someone considering working in operations?
I did a little experiment a couple of weeks ago. I published two positions on LinkedIn. Same job, but one said operations in the title, the other said engineering. The engineering one got 10 times the number of applicants. For the same position.
People are afraid of the term operations. It feels like a relic of the old world of maintenance, working around the clock doing a very repetitive job. That was my perception as well before I joined Rakuten as the head of operations, only to realize how much of a mistake that is.
“Operations is the new frontier. It’s the new engineering, the new architecture.”
You need to touch so many domains. You’re going to learn devices, you’re going to learn backhaul, you’re going to learn radio, you’re going to learn BSS, you’re going to learn core, you’re going to learn intranet, you’re going to learn cloud.
The wealth of knowledge, the wealth of experience, the journey of working in operations, it’s just second to none. If you asked me now if I would restart my career, I would tell you that operations is the new frontier. It’s the new engineering, the new architecture. Especially when we talk about cloud.
In engineering you’re going to learn core or whatever it’s going be. It’s very specific. Don’t get me wrong, engineering is my background and I love it. But thinking about the future, in a company like Rakuten, in a company of the IT era, operations is where it’s at.
So I want to encourage everyone to open their minds. To new cultures, to new things, to a new mindset.
How did you begin your career?
I’m originally from Israel. I had a very Israeli upbringing — high school, army and then university. I started out at a school of veterinary medicine, only to realize that I didn’t really enjoy it, and ended up majoring in electrical engineering.
I was always fascinated by communication. It’s what binds people, humanity, society. And I knew that if there was an area of communications that I wanted to work in, it would be cellular.
I got started in the age of 3G, and it was fascinating. I remember coming to my professor at university and telling him, look, there is an IP address in this phone and I can surf the internet!
Around 2002 we relocated to the U.S. with our newborn and I joined a company called Verizon. I was at Verizon for almost 15 years, and for the last six months I’ve been in Tokyo working at Rakuten Mobile.
What sets Rakuten apart from other companies?
If I have to pinpoint one thing, it would be the culture. It’s a real community here. All these people with the same goal — everyone wants to see it work, to see the network run successfully, see it evolve and change the entire society of Japan and beyond. Having so many people on board with the same values and aspirations is just incredible.
My team members are amazing. I think we have people from about 40 different countries in operations. It’s phenomenal to work with them. That dedication and desire to make an impact makes me look forward to coming to work every day. I haven’t seen that in many places before.
“We are really doing remarkable things. We’re making history. We’re building a revolution. It’s not just evolution, it’s a true revolution.”
If you come from an established telco where everyone already knows everything and suddenly step into this young, very dynamic environment, things feel totally different. It’s a can-do environment. Whatever comes up, it’s like, okay, let’s get it done.
There is never a dull moment! Every day is different, everything moves so fast. Two weeks in Rakuten feels equivalent to six or eight months in any other company. It’s phenomenal.
What kind of person works well at Rakuten Mobile?
I know exactly the answer. Someone who’s curious, wants to learn, and isn’t afraid to make mistakes. If you have the combination of those three things, you’re who we’re looking for.
“Are we making mistakes? Yes, we are! Are we also paving the path to where everybody is going to be in the next five to seven years? Absolutely yes!”
Be curious about what you do and ask questions all day long. Always question the status quo, always disrupt. But don’t just disrupt for the sake of disruption — it needs to bring value. Think about how you can do things better and always keep in mind whose lives you’re trying to improve.
How do you see Rakuten Mobile in the future?
I see Rakuten heading in a global direction. Other operators are interested in the Rakuten Mobile model, they’re watching how we’re doing things here. Are we making mistakes? Yes, we are! Are we also paving the path to where everybody is going to be in the next five to seven years? Absolutely yes!
I think we will be guiding other carriers around the globe to follow what we are doing. We have the ability to share this knowledge with everybody else out there. Because we are really doing remarkable things. We’re making history. We’re building a revolution. It’s not just evolution, it’s a true revolution.
Sagiv Draznin and his Service Experience Center are guiding Rakuten Mobile as it switches its focus from building the world’s first end-to-end cloud-native mobile network, to operating it.
Visit Rakuten Mobile’s LinkedIn page for job postings, announcements and more info.