Is this the coolest (and most misunderstood) job in mobile?

Sagiv Draznin has a message for the telco world: In the age of 5G, virtualization and automation, operators are the new engineers.

The title engineer has something of an illustrious ring to it for those technically-minded people pursuing a career in telecommunications. However, Draznin argues that the virtualized nature of Rakuten’s revolutionary mobile network ― and all the networks that will follow in its footsteps ― means that the role of operators has become more important than ever.

After all, the name says it all, he quips. “We’re MNOs. Mobile Network Operators. That’s what we do. We operate.”

As senior vice president of Rakuten Mobile’s operations department, it isn’t too surprising that Draznin would make such a bold claim. But it’s a claim that Draznin is in a good position to make, having come from an engineering background himself. Originally from Israel, he majored in electrical engineering, before working at Cisco, Verizon, and other companies in the telecommunications industry for the better part of two decades.

The things that we’re doing today at Rakuten are going to be common knowledge in the next couple of years. I think the rarity of cloud among mobile operators, public or private, is going to disappear.

Sagiv Draznin, senior vice president of operations for Rakuten Mobile

“Throughout my career, I was always part of engineering and architecture,” he relates. “I was heavily involved in designing the principles and standards for network architecture. So, I’m a bit of a veteran of this industry.”

For Draznin, the big switch came in 2019, when he joined Rakuten Mobile. “Today, I’m head of operations at the most sophisticated cloud-native telco in the world,” he says. “The jump from engineering was like night and day, oil and water. And it’s so much fun. I’m almost regretting that I didn’t get into operations to start with.”

Operations in the cloud era

“The term operations scares people. It has this connotation of the old world of maintenance, working around the clock to maintain physical infrastructure and doing a very repetitive day-to-day job. [However,] in the era that we are in, operations is the new frontier.”

“It’s pretty amazing what’s happening in the industry right now,” Draznin says. “The things that we’re doing today at Rakuten are going to be common knowledge in the next couple of years. I think the rarity of cloud among mobile operators, public or private, is going to disappear.”

Heading up operations for the world’s first end-to-end virtualized mobile network, Draznin has something of a bird’s eye view of the industry’s progress. He compares it to a similar transformation that took place in the IT world not too long ago.

“Years ago, every company had a big room full of email servers, and a whole lot of people maintaining them,” he reminisces. “Today that would be the exception ― I don’t think companies today are anywhere near as likely as they were then to host their own email system in their own network.”

Now, it’s the telco industry’s turn. “Mobile networks are going through the same process. We’re becoming more IT-oriented, more cloud-oriented, and much more automated.”

This transformation means that operators are playing a very different role to what they were in the past. Automation ― which Draznin believes to be the next industrial revolution ― means that the mundane tasks that human operators once handled are being taken care of by machines. It’s now the job of humans to manage those machines.

Another of Rakuten Mobile’s major achievements in the industry has been the decoupling of the hardware and software required to run the network, and the democratization of vendor selection. While operators had long relied on a single network vendor to provide bespoke software solutions to work with their own proprietary network hardware, the open nature of Rakuten Mobile’s network means that systems can run on off-the-shelf devices provided by several vendors.

“We are no longer confined to the traditional path of picking a single vendor to buy both hardware and software from. We have the flexibility to do that on our own now,” Draznin explains. “This opens a totally new ecosystem of suppliers and new opportunities in the market.”

A byproduct of this is that operators are also in charge of driving their own sophisticated software systems, creating new demand for broader skill sets.

“Because we’re so software-centric, we need people who can go through the network, north, south, east and west, and really understand everything that’s going on.”

Senior vice president of Rakuten Mobile’s operations department Sagiv Draznin (standing top center) with his team before the pandemic.
Senior vice president of Rakuten Mobile’s operations department Sagiv Draznin (standing center) with his team (prior to the pandemic.)

Operations as a career foundation

Draznin admits that the term operations has something of a PR problem among industry professionals.

“I think people misjudge what operations is in the new age,” Draznin laments. “The term operations scares people. It has this connotation of the old world of maintenance, working around the clock to maintain physical infrastructure and doing a very repetitive day-to-day job. That was my perception as well before I joined Rakuten Mobile as the head of operations, only to realize that that’s such a mistake. In the era that we are in, operations is the new frontier.”

“This is the place where stuff happens and where you learn the fundamentals of providing exceptional user and service experience.”

Thanks to the virtualized, automated, software-centric nature of Rakuten Mobile’s new network ― and future networks following in its footsteps ― working in modern operations is anything but repetitive.

“Once you step into operations, you get the luxury to look at the end-to-end ― every product, every piece of architecture ― everything that moves in this network basically needs an operations aspect,” Draznin reveals. “It’s one big playground, which I adore.”

But operations’ image problem endures. Shortly after joining Rakuten Mobile, Draznin held a small hiring experiment. “I published two positions on LinkedIn,” he explains. “One was in the operations organization, the other in engineering. The exact same job. But one said operations in the title, the other engineering. Guess what the ratio of applicants was? One to ten. For the same position.”

Draznin seizes every chance he gets to shift this sentiment. “There’s nothing that I like more than talking to new grads, new employees, and giving them a glimpse of what operations can do for their career, what it can do for their life, and where it’s going to put them in the long term.”

His biggest selling point is the sheer breadth of experience the field has to offer. “You will learn devices, backhaul, radio, BSS, core, intranet, cloud and more. And you can do whatever you want with that knowledge.”

This, he says, is in stark contrast to the experiences of those starting out their careers as engineers. “In engineering, you will learn core, or something very specific,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong ― it’s amazing. It’s my background, it’s what I like to do. But if you think about the future, that’s where things are at. It’s very difficult to convince people that actually, operations is the new engineering in a company like Rakuten Mobile. However, in a company that lives in the IT era and is developing and pushing what we are, it’s really a no-brainer.”

“The jump from engineering was like night and day, oil and water. And it’s so much fun. I’m almost regretting that I didn’t get into operations to start with.”

Draznin sees some parallels with working in sales. “In order to be able to sell a product, you need to be very technical about it. The same thing goes for operations and engineering. You can’t really engineer a good product if you don’t know the operational consequences.”

This is why operations is the perfect starting point for budding telco professionals, he argues.

“It’s a very good stepping-stone. I can tell you, regardless of what you do, regardless of the path you take in life, operational knowledge is something that you need to have under your belt. It’s something that you need to have in your resume,” he appeals, adding: “This is the place where stuff happens and where you learn the fundamentals of providing exceptional user and service experience.”

An operational platform for the future

Draznin isn’t only focused on Japan. With Rakuten Mobile’s core network in Japan mostly complete, attention is shifting to the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP), an initiative to deliver prebuilt custom mobile networks to operators abroad, based on Rakuten Mobile’s cutting-edge tech.

“This is something that Rakuten Mobile will be offering prospective operators in the future,” he explains. “We built it, and we know how to operate it. We can actually replicate what we are doing in Japan, and it’s going to take away the burden of building a new network from scratch.”

“Once you step into operations, you get the luxury to look at the end-to-end ― every product, every piece of architecture ― everything that moves in this network basically needs an operations aspect. It’s one big playground, which I adore.”

RCP will see the operational foundation that Draznin has built employed across the globe, playing a significant role in shaping the future of telecommunications.

“I think some pretty amazing things are happening in the industry as a whole, and Rakuten Mobile is spearheading this revolution,” he says. “RCP is definitely the path of the future, and it’s a fascinating view of what mobile operations is going to look like in the next few years. It’s a glimpse into the future, and it’s beautiful.”

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