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Getting the best out of the team to build agile and scaleable networks

Published on Saturday, 04 May 2019

For Rick Seeto, the first priority in his role as Ciena’s Vice President and General Manager, Asia Pacific and Japan is to help major telecom firms and internet content players build open, agile and scaleable networks, which take full advantage of the latest innovations and technology.

As such, he talks to them about everything from programmable infrastructure and the value of data analytics to DCI (data centre interconnect) developments and the measures needed to anticipate possible problems and maintain “network health”.

It is a fast-moving business, with constant pressure to find new customers and expand market share, while also paving the way for the introduction of 5G technology, more network automation, and new business metrics.

To keep it all on track, Seeto can draw on decades of experience in the industry. But, as importantly, he also applies a personal philosophy which recognises the need for rhythm and balance to make the most of one’s own talent and get the best out of the team.

“You have to love what you’re doing otherwise it is a very difficult job,” says Singapore-based Seeto. “I’ve got much better at figuring out the balance in a role like this. The trick is to build a team you trust and to give people the capability to make decisions and run their part of the business.”

“Over the years, you also learn to build a cadence in the financial year. As a leader, my job is to offer support and to set context and some aspirational goals. You can’t micromanage and you have to put some kind of caveat on your availability.”

The third of four boys, Seeto grew up in a farming district of around 3,000 people in the “bush country” of northwest New South Wales. His father ran a dry cleaning business and his mother worked as a seamstress and ran a happy household where the emphasis was on outdoor activity and playing any sport going.

After achieving satisfactory marks at the local school, Seeto was offered a university place, but simply felt that was not the right path for him at the time.

“Instead, I fell into telecoms and IT, joining what is now Telstra as an apprentice technician in April 1977,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do, but I needed a job to pay the rent and had previously sat and passed the company’s recruitment exam. I moved to Sydney and was posted out to a depot, doing an outdoor type job fixing phones and installing PABX systems. It was a good grounding; I met some great people and really fell in love with that sort of work.”

However, getting married at the age of 21, with the attendant responsibilities of a mortgage and building a life together, added a different dimension. Accordingly, Seeto signed on for evening classes at the Sydney TAFE, which offers more vocational courses, and over the next four years took certificates in electronics and communications in a bid to improve his career prospects.

Promotion duly followed and, subsequently, he also completed a three-year business management course. But realising the company was very hierarchical, which would limit the speed of future progress, he decided to go into the private sector and joined the Australian arm of Nortel Networks in 1989.

“I started as project manager, but it was a very small outfit, so I also got involved in sales, engineering and working with customers on implementation and rollout,” Seeto says. “It introduced me to the ways of a North American technology company and how they operate as a meritocracy.”

He was to stick with them for the next 20-odd years, a period marked by rapid corporate expansion and many different opportunities whether that meant fixing a problem, starting new ventures, running product and enterprise groups, or taking on overseas assignments.

“My approach was quite simple; I’d just say yes to whatever the challenge might be,” says Seeto, whose first Asia-Pacific role was to expand the Nortel intranet and proved a real eye-opener to the opportunities and complexities of working in the region. “We had decided to have a home base in Sydney until our youngest daughter went off to university, but then we were ready to try to somewhere new.”

He did stints in Beijing and Singapore running partner programmes and becoming Asia-Pacific CIO and, later, chief marketing officer for the region up until 2009 when the firm faced hard times.

The fallout saw Seeto moving with the enterprise business to Avaya, where he was a senior director responsible for Asia-Pacific channel business and marketing before switching to Citrix in 2013 to run regional sales and services for their mobile data optimisation platform from Singapore.

“I like challenges, and every role had good aspects,” he says. “But by then I’d been working for nearly 40 years and my wife said we were in a position to retire.”

So, in 2016, he headed back to Australia, did various home renovation projects, played golf, travelled, and took a week-long company directors’ course with a possible view to helping non-profits.

Something, though, was missing in terms of “brain stimulus”, so when Ciena called to discuss a role expanding their business in Asia, it didn’t take long to agree terms.

“The strategy they laid out is turning out to be successful,” Seeto says. “Right now, the three main challenges are how to prioritise opportunities, because we can’t chase after everything; how quickly can we move the organisation; and how to develop people and skills.”

Both a keen surfer and an accomplished musician, Seeto went to classical piano lessons from the age of seven, but later discovered the guitar sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Cream.

“I was mesmerised and worked the summer in a roadside service station and washing dishes to earn the money for my first guitar,” he says. “Now, whenever possible, I jam with local blues bands in Singapore.”

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