opinion/analysis Mike Quigley last week exited the role of NBN Co chief executive the way he held it: With a relentless, implacable dignity. But the executive will leave more behind him than just a memory; like Steve Jobs with Apple, Quigley’s legacy will be the company and project that grew from infancy around him. Australia’s greatest ever infrastructure rollout will forever bear his mark, and NBN Co’s culture will forever be coloured with his impeccable personal integrity.
I remember well the first time I laid eyes on the executive who would come to be the key pivotal figure turning Labor’s National Broadband Network dream into reality.
The date was 10 May, 2006; the occasion, one of those ritzy industry lunches which top-tier consulting and professional firm KPMG loves to throw regularly in the plush conference hall of its Sydney headquarters on Shelley Street, overlooking the water down near where some of Australia’s most expensive harbour cruising vessels are moored at King St Wharf.
The event would have represented the perfect confluence of circumstances in the mind of long-time KPMG partner for the digital economy, Malcolm Alder, who has set up quite a few similar shindigs over the years. It was the perfect time, as the nation’s telecommunications industry was fraught with debate, stirred up like an ant’s nest as the giant hob-kneeled boots of new Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo stomped up and down repeatedly on its previously stable regulatory framework. KPMG’s top-level connections ensured it was able to gather in the perfect audience; representatives from Australia’s largest telcos were in the room, as well as political figures, government bureaucrats, technology vendors, and even user groups.
The press, as is usual for that pack of mangy hounds scrounging for tidbits of controversy, had been given its own table at the back of the room; present, but not really participating. As a journalist, you always eat for free; but you shouldn’t expect to be treated as though you actually have any real power; at least not until you’re onto a hot scoop.
The timing was also perfect; although Labor wasn’t getting far under Kim Beazley, many, perhaps most Australians, had a feeling deep down that John Howard’s Coalition administration probably was at the end of its reign after a decade in power; surely, it was felt, Labor would shortly be carting in fresh air wholesale once it found the right leader.
And of course, KPMG was able to deliver the perfect speaker for the occasion: Mike Quigley, already one of Australia’s most celebrated technology executives, who had then risen to the lofty post of global president and chief operating officer of French networking vendor Alcatel. Erudite, internationally acclaimed; technically accomplished; an Australian son who had made it big in Europe yet maintained links to the mother country. Quigley was perfect for the job.
Of course, Quigley hadn’t flown in from Paris merely to take in the delectable gourmet dishes prepared by KPMG’s catering staff; in fact, this lunch was merely a convenient event which would allow the executive — and everyone else in the room — to press the flesh and start the sales pitch anew in comfortable surroundings.
We all know the game: The vendors would try and play buddy buddy with the telcos, the telcos would play nice with the user groups, the politicians would try and act as though they knew what everyone else was talking about, the bureaucrats would sagely gaze at the entire proceeding in a seemly manner, without taking any obvious side, and the presence of journalists would add a certain titillating flavour of sensationalism to the whole thing. For its own part, KPMG, of course, was hosting the event, as it does all such events, to try and ensure that when the big corporate contracts were signed, it would be around to take its proportionally small cut of each fat pie.
Such lunches are a basic responsibility for every executive, even if they usually turn into a chore after the first hour. But Quigley’s real reason for being in town at the time was actually much more important: Trying to save a billion-dollar contract for his company that would ensure its Australian division thrived for years to come.
In November 2005, Telstra had come to an understanding with Alcatel which was slated to boost the French vendor’s fortunes in Australia substantially. Alcatel was to supply Telstra with a slab of networking kit to help the telco partially upgrade its copper network to fibre to the node, while Telstra’s role was to pay Alcatel great wads of cash. However, Telstra was unable to gain the support of the then-Howard Government for what was, essentially, a plan to re-monopolise its fixed line telecommunications assets, and Alcatel was left on the sidelines pan-handling for spare pennies from other projects.
Quigley’s visit to Australia was at least partially to help Telstra push its pitch forward with the Federal Government once again, and it was a job that the then-Alcatel executive did well; at the KPMG event Quigley heavily criticised a rival proposal put up by Telstra’s major competitors.
However, what most impressed me about the man was not how well he pushed the joint message which Telstra and Alcatel were selling at the time, but the fact that there was an aura of honesty and integrity surrounding Quigley that was, and is, rare to find in high-level technology industry executives of any kind.
The executives who lead massive technology concerns tend to all be cut from the same cloth. In speech they are habitually vague; speaking grandiosely about the unlimited capacity of technology to solve all problems, but without getting bogged down in specifics or the annoying details of project governance. They love their creature comforts: Long lunches, expensive suits, the latest fashionable gadgets. And while they usually come from sales backgrounds and are well-versed in the nitty gritty of negotiating over the fine detail of contracts, in person they tend to affect an air of being above such mundane things. Their role is to govern, not to haggle; to oversee, not to do.
But with Quigley I saw something different. The executive came across as incredibly direct, transparent and honest. His criticism of the rival carriers’ proposal seemed, as incredibly as this may sound in today’s poisoned NBN debate, based not on the identity of those putting forward the proposal, but only on the quality of the ideas contained therein. Shocking, I know. And, viewed in the context of the current NBN project, his comments were oddly prescient; almost as though they were based on universal truths of project management and regulation in the global telecommunications sector. Quigley is an engineer by training, not a salesman, and this background came through in spades.
“It would be one hell of a job,” Quigley said, when asked about the rival pre-NBN proposal. “Networks are already exceedingly complex … services are too interwoven,” he continued. “To think that we could do this, fast, with a consortium of companies … it would be awfully difficult,” he said. “It’s not the way I’ve seen it done anywhere in the world.” Quigley added that it “was not simple and straightforward” to separate telcos’ wholesale and retail arms, as the then-Howard administration was attempting to do with Telstra, and as Labor is now attempting to use the NBN to do with … Telstra.
Today, as we look back upon four years’ of Quigley’s leadership of NBN Co, the company tasked with putting together the Government’s NBN vision, it’s impossible to disagree with the sentiment underlying these statements. Quigley was talking about a different project, with a number of different backers instead of just one, in a different era. But few would disagree that the process of constructing the NBN has, indeed, been “exceedingly complex” and “awfully difficult”; that there has been nothing “simple and straightforward” about the whole deal.
Over the four years since Quigley accepted the task of setting up NBN Co and getting Labor’s most ambitious policy off the ground, the executive has faced pretty much every challenge that professional life could throw at someone.
Perhaps the most obvious thing you could say about Quigley is that he was the first employee of NBN Co. The company was literally built around the executive personally from the ground up. Before there were senior executives like Kevin Brown, Gary McLaren, Robin Payne, John Simon and Ralph Steffens at NBN Co, forming the company’s leadership team, there was Mike Quigley. Before NBN Co had any kind of accounting or HR systems in place, there was Mike Quigley. Before the company had offices, IT equipment, a website, lawyers, coffee machines or literally anything at all, it had Mike Quigley. It had a budget, it had a set of loose goals from the Federal Government, it had a company registration document with ink that was still wet from the printer, and it had Mike Quigley. One man. Sitting at a desk, with a mandate to change Australia’s telecommunications landscape forever.
In my role as a reporter, I’ve watched a lot of technology startup companies formed. Typically they’re put together with two or three company founders, plus some early staff. As they grow, they add on headcount and gradually get processes in place to deal with key company processes such as HR, accounting, office management and so on. They always struggle with these issues in the first few years, because those processes take time to put in place.
But what I saw with NBN Co over the first several years of its life was something completely different.
It seemed as though within months of Quigley being appointed chief executive of the company, NBN Co already had a skeleton staff keeping the lights on and frantically hiring more. Within six months the company had already signed a number of key contracts that would fuel the next stage of its growth — contracts for IT systems, office space, basic equipment supply and so on.
And then things accelerated again. After only a year and a half of NBN Co being operational, the company started signing major contracts with network equipment manufacturers and then, a little later, construction companies. It started negotiating one of the most complex contracts ever seen in Australia to gain access to Telstra’s network infrastructure. It was working on a similar deal with Optus. Suddenly, NBN Co executives were everywhere. They were attending industry meetings. They were speaking at events at universities. They were constantly taking feedback, working everything out on the go, and taking that information back to NBN Co to be absorbed into the mothership.
Most startups spend the first several years of their life trying to get products out the door and to enough customers so that they can take the next step up in corporate life. But what we saw with the company that sprung directly from Quigley’s brain like the goddess Athena, fully formed and armed, was something dramatically different. NBN Co went from nothing to a fully functioning, competent company within an incredibly short time. It became a company that was capable of holding its own in complex negotiations against Telstra. A company which was filing incredibly complex regulatory documents with the Australian Consumer Commission. A company which was negotiating with virtually every major Australian telco and ISP simultaneously. A company which was also tendering multi-billion-dollar contracts in a variety of areas. A company which was setting up complex operational and telco billing systems from scratch.
Much of the speed of NBN Co’s development will be, and has been, attributed to the billions of dollars which Quigley had to play with, and the political support the executive enjoyed. Quigley’s role, in such a scenario, was to spend the Government’s money as quickly as possible to meet the policy goals of the NBN, while still ensuring NBN Co’s funding wasn’t wasted or thrown away frivolously.
But the availability of capital and the backing of the Federal Government doesn’t explain all about the formation of NBN Co in the company’s early days.
It doesn’t explain, for example, why so many of Australia’s top telecommunications executives left careers with a sure thing — Telstra, say, or Optus — to join with a fledgling startup company which everyone was aware could easily face oblivion at the 2010 Federal Election (and it almost did). NBN Co imported such talent in the hundreds in its early days, and many of those staff still remain with the company, despite its troubles. Many of them are die-hard NBN Co loyalists who I suspect will hang on to the company for dear life, come what may.
Nor does the support which the Federal Government has thrown at NBN Co explain the culture of the company. Uniquely amongst Australian telecommunications companies, by and large, NBN Co is an organisation almost entirely composed of engineers.
If you speak to staff who work at NBN Co (I know quite a few), from the bottom to the top, they pride themselves on the fact that NBN Co is a company which has less sales, administration, marketing, support and other forms of ancillary staff than other companies. Largely refugees from commercial telcos such as Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, Telecom New Zealand and so on, the engineering workforce of NBN Co, on the whole, finds the company to be a haven of rational and logical thinking, devoid of much of the hype and bluster that necessarily accompanies a commercial venture. It’s a company focused squarely on technical outcomes, rather than commercial ones.
NBN Co does have some degree of non-engineering staff. But even if you look at those, you’ll often find technical backgrounds. The company’s chief marketing officer Kieren Cooney, for example, has a Computer Science degree from Auckland University. Its head of quality, Mike Kaiser, a former political staffer in state governments, has an electrical engineering degree from the University of Queensland.
Nor does NBN Co’s financial and political support explain the credibility which so many observers allocated to NBN Co, right from its early days. You get a sense of that credibility from the impassioned speeches which emanated from independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor about the NBN in the aftermath of the August 2010 Federal Election. It’s hard to remember that Quigley was only appointed chief executive of NBN Co in July 2009, 12 months earlier. And yet even at that stage, a year after NBN Co had been formed, the two independent MPs credited NBN Co with enough capability that they were prepared to choose between Labor and the Coalition to form Government, based at least partly on the NBN vision and Quigley’s ability to execute it.
And finally, nor does NBN Co’s financial and political support explain why the company has, despite the regulatory landscape shifting under its feet courtesy of the Federal Government’s decision to hand it responsibility for greenfields estates, despite the delays caused by its protracted negotiations with Telstra, despite an ongoing series of issues with its construction contractors, been largely been able to keep the NBN project on track and not headed off the rails like so many other government technology projects in Australia.
If you examine major technology projects which have been undertaken by Australian governments over the past several decades, what you will find is that they universally blow their budgets, take longer than expected and suffer a litany of woes of the kind that give auditors nightmares. I’ve read dozens of audit reports on government projects. And it’s always the same issue which comes up again and again: Project governance.
It would have been entirely reasonable to expect the same kind of issues with NBN Co. Politicians and commentators like to compare the NBN project to the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme or the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but the truth is that the complexity and scale of NBN Co dwarfs either of those two projects — a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand times over. This is a project which will touch every city, every suburb, every street, every premise, every square inch of Australia, and it’s a project which requires engagement with an incredibly entrenched existing set of infrastructure.
Incredibly, Quigley and his team have been able to keep that project largely on track, and certainly within the acceptable bounds of project governance for projects of this scale.
Not for the NBN the catastrophic technology disasters that state governments right around Australia have suffered over the past decade. The NBN is no Queensland Health payroll systems upgrade, nor is a Customs Integrated Cargo System. It has suffered substantial delays, but by and large the NBN is being rolled out within its original parameters, and not too far from its original business plan. It is currently in its ramp-up stage, and if things continue on as they are, in several years the company will be able to boast that it has covered a decent percentage of Australian premises with fibre cable — and a host more with satellite and wireless infrastructure.
What does explain all of these aspects of NBN Co is the personality and drive of Mike Quigley. Not the Government. Not its money. Quigley personally.
It was Quigley’s engineering background — he holds a Bachelor of Science (Mathematics and Physics) and a Bachelor of Engineering (Telecommunications) from the University of NSW, one of Australia’s finest engineering institutions — rather than his executive experience running Alcatel-Lucent, which came to the fore during the creation of NBN Co. During the reformation of Apple in the 1990’s and 2000’s, Steve Jobs liked to say that he would focus only hiring on ‘A’ team players. Well, Quigley knows a good technical professional when he sees one. Because of this, NBN Co sucked the best out of the telecommunications industry in its early years.
Many of those engineers had suffered for years at the hands of telcos focused primarily on making money, while underlying infrastructure languished without the necessary investment. They leapt at the chance to join a world-class Australian executive focusing on the engineering challenges of a massive infrastructure rollout. In Quigley they saw what they had rarely seen before: A chief executive who totally understood technology and put it front and centre in his company’s priorities.
Much of NBN Co’s credibility is underscored by Quigley’s own public manner.
If you’ve seen the executive in public situations, whether it’s a press conference, a video interview, a public speech, under fire in parliamentary hearings or even just one of those small local talks with technical students which Quigley gives from time to time, you’ll know that the man has a composure about him that is rarely seen elsewhere in Australian public life.
Executive such as Telstra CEO David Thodey and Optus leader Paul O’Sullivan have a warmth about them; they exude magnetism. You want to shake their hand and believe that they’re going to solve all of your problems. But Quigley’s very different. His is not the easy professional warmth of a career executive. Instead, he is quite cheery, in the manner of a man facing incredible challenges but determined to press on regardless. He will shake your hand and make a mild joke.
But Quigley’s true underlying personality is revealed when you start talking about the details of the NBN. Then he gets a slightly distracted air. I know this air well, because it’s the air of an engineer, and most of my friends are engineers of one kind or another. Quigley will cock his head and listen to what you have to say, then his eyes will go elsewhere for a second while he considers carefully what you have said and matches it to the objective reality he always holds within his mind. The actual state of the NBN. The actual state of its finances. The truth behind the latest media controversy. And when he responds, he will do so definitely. Concretely. Listening to Quigley, you believe what he’s saying, because you know he believes it. His manner is not the manner of an executive who is guessing. It is the manner of a highly competent technical person in full command of their faculties and their domain. He does not surmise. He knows.
This manner — which brooks no falsehood, no matter the convenience it may deliver — is one of the key factors which delivered NBN Co so much credibility in the minds of Australia’s telecommunications industry. The company’s reputation, early on, was Quigley’s reputation, and listening to Quigley talk, you could not help but believe him.
This manner, this extreme focus on technical outcomes and facts, also generates a slight naivity, which has not always been advantageous to NBN Co.
If you watch Quigley’s performance in parliamentary hearings or press conferences, what you’ll see is that there often appears to be two wildly different narratives going on at the same time. Coalition politicians and journalists will pressurise Quigley incredibly with respect to the NBN rollout. But it’s often apparent that the questions the executive fields are not serious ones. Instead, they attempt to score political points, to find damning news angles in everything Quigley says.
In response, Quigley always sticks to the facts that he knows about the NBN; nothing more, nothing less. The man’s patience is endless. No matter what poisonous barbs he is thrown, I’ve never seen Quigley respond with anything less than a politely worded factual answer. It is always apparent that the executive fundamentally believes in the rightness of what he is doing, and that those questioning him have fundamentally good intentions.
This has created somewhat of a comical effect at times.
Nowhere was this effect more evident than in the most high-profile confrontation between Quigley and Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull on 16 May 2011. The occasion was the regular hearing of the Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network; the topic was the allegations that Quigley had knowledge of corruption in the Costa Rican division of his former employer Alcatel-Lucent, a key supplier to the NBN.
Quigley attempted to forestall questions on the issue by reading a statement. But Turnbull barrelled the NBN Co executive down for the duration of the questioning period. At times, Quigley was barely able to get an answer in edgewise, as is clear from the Hansard transcript. But the answers he did give were telling of the executive’s humility. At one point Turnbull tells Quigley that nobody is making any allegations against him, a fact which was patently untrue, given that the Liberal MP had dragged Quigley’s name through the mud publicly on the issue for months, in a process which some referred to as a “witch-hunt”.
The mild-mannered Quigley replied only: “I appreciate that.”
Turnbull must have viewed the entire conversation as damning, given that Quigley had acknowledged that some of his previous statements on the affair had been wrong. And much of the media certainly did; at the time, The Australian published an article heavily criticising Quigley, attached to a photo of the NBN Co chief throwing up his hands, in what appeared to be an attempt to make Quigley look stupid.
But to many in the technology sector, it had the opposite effect: It showcased Quigley’s integrity.
The executive proved himself willing and able to stand up to the harshest scrutiny of his character, to public implications that he was corrupt and to still get on with the job of explaining the current status of the NBN rollout, despite a barrage of mud piled onto his head from some of the most powerful politicians and media players in Australia.
To me, the photo published of Quigley that day was extremely symbolic. It says, as Quigley said in his testimony, that he couldn’t comment on issues that he didn’t know the truth about. In Turnbull’s mind, and the mind of much of the media, this must have represented complicity. But in the minds of much of Australia’s technology community, many of whom rallied behind Quigley, it showed that a man of high integrity would not be swayed by baseless character attacks; that he would stand firm behind the truth as a defence, come what may — and then he would get on with the job he had been given. There can be no greater praise of an Australian technologist — that they will ignore irrelevant issues swirling around their role, and just get on with the job.
Now, I don’t want to be too kind to Quigley. It’s also true that the executive’s relentless focus on the business of building the NBN, and the company culture he created at NBN Co, has also imbued the company with a kind of naivity which hasn’t always aided it in its work.
NBN Co’s communications strategy; its method of dealing with the media, is appallingly naive. The company is under constant and acknowledged attack from elements of the mainstream media which are openly, and blatantly hostile to its mission. You all know what I’m talking about here. The conservative radio shockjocks, who barely understand what broadband is, are the worst of it, but NBN Co has also come to expect daily attacks from most of Australia’s major newspapers, and often the large television networks. And yet the company’s reaction to these attacks has been to give its antagonists fuel to pile on their fire; pitch to build flaming torches with. Quigley’s transparent and open response to all attackers has not always been a good one.
Witness the release several weeks ago of a media release by NBN Co noting that it had successfully met its rollout targets for the year ending 30 June. What should have been a success story turned into a travesty, as NBN Co included in the media release information which called into question the veracity of its own statistics. The result? Even journalists broadly favourable to the NBN project, or those who attempt to be objective, found themselves forced to criticise it, and all of NBN Co’s rollout accomplishments became as nothing.
Or the incredible act of NBN Co calling a press conference during Labor’s March quasi-leadership spill — during the actual hour in which it took place — to outline a substantial downgrade in its targets, an act which took place just weeks after Quigley had fronted Parliament and assured the nation’s politicians that the rollout was on track. Who could possibly believe the timing was coincidental, or that Quigley had only just found out that the rollout was significantly behind? I pushed Quigley hard on this issue, and while I don’t believe he was playing politics, I also believe that the executive trusted NBN Co’s contractors too much. A dose more suspicion might have served Quigley well in his role, over the years.
We may also remember Quigley’s botched attempts to enter the political arena through, during the 2010 Federal Election, providing technical information about the NBN, and earlier this year, publicly discussing the merits of the various rollout technologies, including the Coalition’s preferred style, fibre to the node. Quigley’s political naivity meant both events went over poorly. Quigley’s olive branches to politicians have usually been ignored or thrown back in his face.
Then, too, not everything has gone well for the NBN. It has substantial problems with its rollout, a fraught relationship with many of its contractors, an executive turnover problem, a running dogfight with local councils over planning rights, problems with asbestos in Telstra’s ducts, and so on. We all know the problems, and they’re not going away.
But it’s very hard not to argue that Quigley hasn’t given it his absolute damndest with the NBN over its first four years of life. And it’s also very hard not to argue — considering the unbelievable complexity of his task — that Quigley has done an amazing, superhuman job, with little complaint, and bearing all the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune has slung at him.
Quigley’s approach has been, consistently, to make the right choice, in every decision he’s made, for the long-term future of this massive infrastructure project. Every path the NBN has taken has been conservative, looking to the long-term, trying to keep things on track, doing things the safe way, the right way, the way that a quality engineer would do things.
And Australia’s technology industry has recognised this.
iiNet chief executive Michael Malone — another engineer turned chief executive — went so far as to issue a media release saluting Quigley, upon hearing of the executive’s retirement.
“As founding CEO of one Australia’s largest and complex infrastructure projects, Mike has shown passion for his role and a clear vision to build a first-class communications network from scratch,” Malone said. “I have the upmost respect for Mike Quigley and his team. He was approachable, accessible and always had an open door to his many customers and stakeholders.”
“Unlike the overseas experience, this crucial national project has been sadly politicised from the start and Mike has shown a strong resolve in both the media and political spotlight. No one can underestimate the pressure that Mike was under and I salute him for his service to the industry. Mike Quigley has a lot to be proud of in building the foundations for a new broadband network. We look forward to working with his successor on ensuring the NBN can be accessed by as many Australians as possible.”
Similar sentiments were expressed across the industry. Vodafone chief executive Bill Morrow said he had “enormous respect” for Quigley, while Telstra chief executive David Thodey said he respected his “tough and principled” approach.
It’s clear that the future of the NBN and of NBN Co itself will continue to be rocky. The project may shortly come under the control of its harshest critic, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, after the upcoming Federal Election. And even if it remains in Labor’s hands, it will continue to suffer setbacks. NBN Co’s staff still has a huge amount of effort ahead of it.
However, I would argue, and I’m not alone, that if it were not for Mike Quigley, the project would not have come anywhere near like this far. What the executive has accomplished with the NBN is close to being unprecedented in Australia’s history, and there are very few executives of any kind who could have pulled it off under the conditions he did.
Australia’s National Broadband Network project is not fixed in stone. It will change, develop, grow, and, in a decade, may be close to unrecognisable compared with how we think of it now. But ultimately, this most ambitious infrastructure project will always be Quigley’s child. The NBN, and particularly NBN Co, was founded on Quigley’s integrity, dignity and focus and will always retain those aspects of Quigley at its core. And if that isn’t a fitting legacy for a man who will be remembered as one of Australia’s greatest technologists, then I don’t know what is.