2 Minutes with…. Chris Mathews

Chris Mathews co-founded SysMech in 1995 and in his role as Director and Chief Technology Officer, he is responsible for product development and the technology roadmap for its Zen product family. As part of our ‘2 Minutes with…’ blog series, Chris takes two minutes to tell us a little bit more about his career, the Telco industry, working at SysMech and his tech and non-tech passions.
Q1: You’ve had a really interesting career in IT and software. Tell us what motivated you to establish SysMech?

The freedom to design, develop and implement reliable, simple to use, performant solutions to complex problems, and do it better then anyone else.

SysMech has always worked on the basis that it may not be easy, but it is possible and we can do it; if it were easy then somebody will be doing it.

Prior to SysMech, I learned a bit about the right and wrong ways of running a company, delivering products and solutions and how to earn the respect and loyalty of your staff, having always worked for either small companies with an inherent entrepreneurial spirit, or as a freelance software engineer for companies like Digital Equipment Corporation. It was while working for Digital that I met up with my co-founders and business partners Rob Green and Peter Godfrey and where we all realised, as good as Digital was we could never work for a large company, and the idea of forming SysMech was hatched.

This type of varied background experience gives you the confidence to be honest, take risks and deliver on your dreams.

Q2: What tech/gadget do you use most on a day-to-day basis and is it your favourite?

I am a total sucker for Apple gear, having got an iPhone, iPad, AppleTV and MacBook Pro, but my favourite has to be my MacBook Pro, which I’ve been using regularly on a daily basis for over six years now and have even forgotten how to use Microsoft Windows since XP.  In that time I’ve upgraded to a complete new system just once earlier this year, so as you can see I am not one for upgrading to the latest greatest gadget just for the sake of it.

This also applies to my iPhone 4, which admittedly will need replacing soon as it is creaking at the seams trying to run all the latest apps I throw at it, from reading emails to listening to music with Spotify.  And this is a good point; until recently I’ve hardly ever used it for voice calls.  I say recently because when I am not travelling I work from home in deepest darkest Devon where you are lucky to get a 2G signal, let alone 3G or 4G. So to overcome this problem, thanks to Vodafone I have recently installed a femto-cell, device to route mobile communications over my broadband connection.  And yes, I do have broadband; many villages around me do not, but I do, and in fact much to my surprise as we speak they are laying fibre right outside my house, so I will soon be getting fibre speeds on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park!

Obviously it is in the interest of mobile providers to encourage us all to use the mobile phone as our main point of contact and reduce the dependence on land lines, but the irony is, providing femto-cells for areas with bad reception only works at home or an office, and only if you still have a land line!

Q3: Tell us what you do in a typical day at SysMech.

Few days are ‘typical’ which is why I enjoy my work so much. I work far later in the evening than I should, whether at home or when away, but if at home, after having completed the morning school run (which I always make a point of doing as it is sometimes the only chance I get to see the kids) and taken the dogs for a walk, I have a general catch up with the other members of the executive team. On the marketing side I am in regular contact with our PR and marketing partner, The CommsCo, and for product focus with our support, engineering, product and sales teams, with whom I discuss potential issues or opportunities and then set out to research suitable solutions. I am constantly on the lookout for new ideas and use-cases, many of which are generated during workshops with partners, customers or prospects during visits with the sales support teams.  I have overall architectural authority for the Zen Products, but leave everyday control of this to the principal architects who update me on a regular basis when I visit our engineering facility in Kent.

With the amount of worldwide interest in, and success of, our Zen product range these are very exciting times for SysMech. Everyone is extremely busy and enthusiastic about the new features being planned and actively implemented for the Zen Roadmap for Performance and Fault Management (ZenPM and ZenFM) solution packs in a single environment.

Q4: We all know how exciting and fast paced the Telco industry is, why do you think that is and what are you most excited about?

Although various devices such as the Blackberry have been around since 2003, exciting times in the Telco industry really began in 2007 when on June 29th the first iPhone was released.  Little did we all realise at the time that the iPhone was not only going to change the way people would interact with each other but how the CSPs would have to change the way their networks were designed, and how they provided services to their customers. This, in turn, has meant that existing network management systems have also had to move with the times, many of which are still not able to cope with the change in demand being put on them. This is why SysMech started development of the Zen Product Range in 2011, using existing patented, tried and tested correlation, data collection and mediation modules together with industry leading technologies such as Tableau visualisation and Vertica analytics databases. By having support for LTE technologies from day one of its rollout in August 2013, Zen is poised ready to provide immediate integration for a number of CSPs requiring management of their VoLTE networks; enabling them to visualise and optimise their networks in real-time. Also, support for additional interface for SNMP polling and external SON systems is currently under test, with the Management of CPE set top boxes planned in the roadmap for early 2015.

The potential is limited only by one’s imagination.

Q5: Everyone’s got their own opinion on whether big data is still a big deal. Tell us yours.

Rather than repeat much of what has already been written about the subject of “it’s not what you’ve got, it’s knowing what to do with it” I will cheat and point you to an excellent (if a bit academic) article on the subject of working with large quantities of data across many fields Why “Big Data” Is a Big Deal. Detailed as this article is, it does not address the area that most interests me which is how do you determine how long to keep the data for and even what data not to store. Anyone can store huge volumes of data, the real trick is categorising the data into whether it actually needs to be stored (as in streaming analytics), or if it is stored whether it is required for immediate real-time accessibility, background statistical analysis or for enrichment of other data sources. Obviously these criteria differ from case to case, but for the Telco industry there are many common use-cases, and this is where Zen can add real value with its ever-expanding library of customisable action packs.

Q6: Can you give us your thoughts on how VoLTE will impact the industry?

VoLTE is a key enabler not only for delivering voice services over an LTE network, but also in its ability to enable new IP multimedia services that combine voice, video and data for an enhanced customer user experience – but is it the real game changer required to strengthen the competitive edge, stimulate extra revenue and provide a real differentiator over other, established, cheaper over-the-top (OTT) technologies such as those provided by the likes of Skype?

The majority of LTE networks have been rolled out primarily to cater for the increased demand by consumers and their smart phones for data services. Most LTE networks are still only able to support data and cannot handle voice calls – instead the user is transferred to a legacy 2G/3G network to make a voice call, so for many, the call quality has not improved.  With VoLTE this will improve dramatically, but at what cost?

There are several options dedicated to keeping VoLTE rollout costs in perspective while having a manageable increase in site volumes and reducing dependency on legacy 2G voice systems. These include re-farming of spectrum and doubling site sectors in urban areas, but it seems what many operators favour is an integrated LTE and WiFi-based solution for all 4G rollouts using small cells.

These are still early days for the technology, and the business case is still to be proven – but as was the case with 3G, with new technology comes innovation. It might take a while to recoup the initial costs of LTE and VoLTE, but who could have predicted the explosion in data and bandwidth requirements we have today? And with the recently announced iPhone 6 having support for VoLTE technology history might be about to repeat itself.

Q7: Finally, how about an interesting non-work fact about yourself?

Being a qualified Yacht Master I enjoy sailing whenever I get the chance, but nowadays I tend to be more of a fair weather yachtsman. I also try to go skiing every season even though my kids are getting better at it than me now, but my ultimate boys’ toy is my a tractor, and I’m not talking ride on mower here, but a ‘real’ green and yellow John Deere tractor.

Many would disagree and say a digger is the ultimate boys’ toy, but I am sorry in my view a tractor beats it hands down.  A digger is just a digger, but with a tractor you can get digger attachments and so much more!  After an intensive week in the high-tech world of telecoms, big data and real-time cutting edge technology, I find it a real escape to get on my tractor and mow grass, trim hedges or split logs (did I mention I have a chainsaw as well?).

Music is another passion of mine. I collect all sorts of musical instruments, many of which I can’t play, including a very old set of bagpipes that come out once a year to pipe in the haggis on Burns Night, which ‘after a wee dram’ I attempt to play very badly; but I do have full set of drums that I can play, and thrash regularly as another great form of escapism and relaxation – so it is probably just as well I do live in the middle of nowhere on the edge of Dartmoor.