Mobile Pioneers at Rakuten: In conversation with Sharad Sriwastawa
This article is part of a series of interviews with Rakuten Mobile employees. In this edition, we speak with Sharad Sriwastawa, vice president of Rakuten Mobile’s radio access network (RAN) department. Sharad and the Rakuten Mobile team recently launched the world’s first end-to-end cloud-native mobile network, which you can read about here.
Where were you before coming to Japan?
I was born and brought up in Delhi, India. I completed my studies in engineering and started working in 1995. I’ve now spent more than 24 years in the telecom industry! I started my career in India, but over the last 24 years I’ve worked in more than fifteen countries ― primarily on emerging technologies and greenfield network rollouts.
Why did you choose a career in telecommunications?
I began studying telecommunications back in the early 90s. This was a major turning point for the telecom and networking industry, and since then the industry has really excited me.
“Right now, everybody around the world is watching Rakuten.”
Where else have you worked around the world?
All over Asia, the Middle East, Australia, the U.S., Europe and Africa. The longest was in the U.S. for about four years.
I joined the consulting division of Australian telco Telstra in 2001, when they were expanding their business in Asia, consulting on RF planning for various operators. That’s how I ended up in Thailand, Singapore and also back in India.
How did your journey bring you to Rakuten?
I’ve been working with [Rakuten Mobile CTO] Tareq Amin on different projects for the last 12 years. Last year, he took on the challenge to build the world’s first cloud native network and within a month I was called to be part of this exciting journey. Without any hesitation, I moved here with my whole family. And here I am in Japan!
“I’d worked with CEOs in previous jobs, but this is very different.”
Generally, that’s what I do. Any country I go to and any assignment I take, I go with my family. We live and cherish the challenges together.
How has your experience at Rakuten compared to previous jobs?
With Rakuten Mobile, for the first nine months, the entire focus was on planning, finalizing architecture, test cases and vendor onboarding.
But now the current challenge and focus is about deployment. The entire group is involved, [Rakuten CEO] Mickey [Mikitani] included. We have a weekly meeting with the entire Rakuten group. All the CxOs have come together to support this mammoth rollout. We’re working very closely with Rakuten Travel, Rakuten Express, Rakuten Logistics ― all of the departments are involved in making this vision a reality.
I had worked with company CEOs in previous jobs, but this is very different. Mickey himself is involved, and every day he is spending a good amount of time on every aspect of the network, be it coverage, stability or quality.
What victories have you had so far with Rakuten Mobile?
There are so many! I clearly remember when we executed the first data call, proving vRAN technology to the industry across the globe. It was all over the media. The first photograph that was published was me, Mickey and Tareq walking down at the river by Rakuten Crimson House conducting a walk test on our fully virtualized network, I still get goosebumps when I think about how we achieved the most critical milestone in the telecom industry, making the impossible possible.
What’s the best thing about the people in your team?
In my department, we have people from more than 27 countries, including vendors from all across the world. My team brings great diversity and experience to the group.
“People from other operators think we’re crazy!”
What makes your team unique?
The critical thing is that we’re all about customer satisfaction. With any mobile network, the RAN and RF team are the front liners. Even if it’s a device or a coverage problem ― any kind of issue comes to the RAN team first. If your network is not there for any reason, the first thing you do is go to the RAN team.
It’s challenging, but you have the opportunity to drive the entire ecosystem and push other parts of the organization to make things happen.
So far my team has been meeting all our deadlines, so every day is an achievement! Every day there is something new happening. Personally, in 24 years, this might be the most challenging project I’ve worked on.
What makes it challenging?
The timeline! Rakuten Mobile is all about Speed! Speed Speed! If you look at how far we’ve come since last December, it’s remarkable. Not only have we proved that we can build a fully virtualized network, but also that we are able to bring 3,000 sites up around the country in the space of a year. To get integrated and have this kind of coverage is not easy. People from other operators think we’re crazy!
“That’s the power of the Rakuten ecosystem.”
We’re able to achieve this thanks to the Rakuten ecosystem. You have all the sales teams, the e-commerce teams involved ― everybody’s doing their part. We’re collaborating with partner hotels to set up base stations; we’re collaborating with convenience store chains to access their property for sites; we even give phones to Rakuten Express drivers ― they gather coverage data at zero extra cost just by driving around making deliveries!
That’s the power of the Rakuten ecosystem. If we had to do this MNO alone, it would be very hard on such a short timeline.
What kind of person works well at Rakuten Mobile?
Someone who can adapt to new challenges. If you like challenges, welcome! If not, then you might have a hard time.
“We’re kind of on the front lines.”
Rakuten is a big group, but every business, every department works like a startup. Getting approval for something, for example, doesn’t take days. It can be immediate.
With Rakuten Mobile, Mickey himself is very involved, so our engineers can take any problem to him directly. Just talking to your CEO at any other MNO would be a challenge. But at Rakuten Mobile, that’s something you’ll need to get used to.
Do you have any advice for anyone considering joining Rakuten Mobile?
If you want to learn about new technology that’s going to take us into the next age, then Rakuten Mobile is the place for you. Right now, everybody around the world is watching what Rakuten is doing.
Last year, everybody said this technology wouldn’t work. Other big players in the industry, they all said it won’t work. Now we have 3,000 sites on air.
I’ve been in telecom for over 20 years, but now, after working at Rakuten, I no longer feel like I’m working in the telco industry. Rakuten Mobile is an IT company at heart.
Sharad Sriwastawa is vice president of Rakuten Mobile’s radio access network (RAN) department, overseeing a range of business aspects including radio frequency (RF) planning, the Japan-wide rollout of new 4G and 5G networks, and network architecture design, including edge and regional data centers.
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