Visiting the Mothership


Oh, France. At one point in this week, Neelay accused me of being biased towards the French.

“Tell me one thing you don’t like about being here!” It took me a good minute. I finally came up with “Everything’s really expensive!”

Then again, not much beats France in the summer. Winter is a different beast of course, but I have never liked winter. I suppose when I lived in Berkeley I didn’t mind because that  climate is so mild, and the city (that would be San Francisco, which you would not ever call by name and certainly not “San Fran!!”) so cold that I honestly didn’t notice. The changing of the seasons was one of the things that I missed from where I grew up, and one of the factors that spurred me to move back to the east coast.

Boston, and the New England winters, were fun for a few years. The snow is great! The warm fires, and red wine by the fire, and roasted poultry, and winter squash and kale, and the whole seasonality of it, followed by the spring bursting into bloom, I loved. After six months of no leaves on the trees, spring is really something amazing, and something to cherish. The trees in spring have as many colours as they do in autumn but within a more subtle colour palette.

But six months with no leaves on the trees. That got to me. The stark beauty and bitter cold is just that. That may be of me, and I may be of that, but I’m no more a winter girl than I am a country girl.

The Seine at sunset. How exquisite!! City girl indeed!

The Seine at sunset. How exquisite!! City girl indeed!

As a city girl who loves energy and movement, I love Joburg; but Joburg does have one big knock against it: the sun sets an hour earlier than in Cape Town, because all of South Africa is one time zone and we are further north and east. Which I suppose means the sun will also rise at 4am in the summer; that should be fun…

So, France in the summer: the sun sets at something like 10:30pm. I’m not actually sure. It was late. It’s crazy what daylight does to your body clock; we wouldn’t normally sit down to eat until 8:30pm or later. Paris nights are short, and especially so when you’re busy from 8-8 or so with work, and then trying to catch up on all the various things requiring attention back home: the first night I was up until 1am writing a document that was due the next day; the second night I was up until 1am writing a partnership outline, etc. By the end of the week, I was pretty properly tired.

We arrived in Paris on a Monday afternoon, and had dinner with the management team of our Nomotech/Nomosphere partners. It was the first time that I’d met the head of marketing & sales in person, and the first time we’d all been together (I’d met the guys in South Africa, and they had separately met Neelay). One of the things that most stood out from the dinner was the surprise that I was able to correctly pronounce some of the menu items: “Oh! You speak French!” (not really, my comprehension is better than my composition), and our comparison of fibre backhaul prices. The train station we’d just come from, Saint-Lazare, had gigabit fibre. That’s significantly more capacity into a single building than you will commonly find in South Africa, I can tell you that much, and for a price that’s less than what we would pay for a 20Mbps fibre link. Amazing.

Many thanks to Orange for my SIM card aka Orange cocaine

Many thanks to Orange for my SIM card aka Orange cocaine

Ours is a different market: our backhaul is much more expensive, and our customers much less willing to pay for hardware. The cost is in U.S. dollars regardless of if you’re selling in Paris or Rwanda. Nothing we didn’t already know, but just a reminder for all of us that in South Africa, you’ve got to have your business model sorted out. No Boingo or Gowex models will work, at least not for long.

Tuesday we woke up early and drove to the corporate HQ in Poilley, which is in Normandy. This is about 3.5 hours from Paris, to the west. Our biggest surprise in arriving? It was cold! English summer weather. The mothership had a big warehouse where we got to see lots of cool toys including chipsets used also in military drones, and a NOC, and a squash court. I think the story with this was that they decided, while out drinking, that it would be a good idea to build a squash court, and then they did. I said to Neelay, ‘Ah, good, we have joined the French version of Afrihost!’ Confirmed when we had two bottles of wine with lunch, and then I was so sleepy I was having a very difficult time following all the layer 2 tunnelling conversations going on in the afternoon.

Some L2TP talk going on. Quite absorbing!

Some L2TP talk going on. Quite absorbing!

That day I also had a drama in the morning and a bit of a political blowup in the afternoon back home, the former of which didn’t bother me but the latter got me more riled up than I can remember being. It really bugs me when people do things for personal gains and aren’t even up front about it. Like expensing personal plane trips to a company and making a short business-related activity to justify the expense. Or … never mind. Anyway, Neelay had also never seen me get so riled up about anything and I told him this is my Kryptonite: taking advantage. Especially if you’re going to be disingenuous about it.

Well, I give people chances. Usually too many. But when they blow it, they blow it, and when I lose respect, it’s gone. I honestly can’t think of a time when I’ve lost a great deal of respect for someone and they’ve managed to regain it. It just doesn’t happen.

Moving on: by the corporate headquarters is a very famous place in France called Mont Saint-Michel. It looked like something out of a Disney movie; I’d seen photos of it online a few months back. I remember showing them to some folks in my office at Skyrove. Never did I imagine I’d be there in these circumstances. Tourist, sure.

Like something out of a movie. Really.

Like something out of a movie. Really.

I even got to drive on the way back into town as our host was flat exhausted and I thought it would be good practice for my driving in Paris a few days later.

The next morning we were late to a vendor training because we seriously underestimated the amount of time the Metro would take (rookie mistake), but the product intro was very interesting. It also taught me one thing very clearly, and that is the advantage of working with a shareholder partner that is also an operator. Service providers understand vendors and the industry in a very different way from others, and sometimes a complementary view is a good thing, but especially in a complex ecosystem like telecoms that context is key. Nomosphere in France has good relationships with some good vendors. I was impressed. Well, we’ve chosen well.

With our Parisian counterparts during one of the trainings

With our Parisian counterparts during one of the trainings

There was at least one very clever thing that I learned from my counterpart, Philippe, as well. We see things very similarly, I believe, but I’m a bit more risk-averse.

But I’ve nearly forgotten: Paris!

What a fantastic city! The Haussmannian architecture; the typical cafes with their red wicker chairs, the general elegance and cleanliness. Especially in the summer when the trees are bright green, the skies are blue with puffy clouds, but it’s not outrageously hot like in Rome. I imagine, like Boston, Paris can be a bit dreary in the winter, City of Light or not. Apparently it rains all the time.

But for me, Paris lives in my memories as it has been on each of my visits: sunny, beautiful, and much more friendly than its reputation.

Picture. Perfect.

Picture. Perfect.

Our final few days were taken up with customer visits ranging from a school (we even got to eat cafeteria lunch, including salmon and cheese soufflé!) to the Grand Palais to the City of Paris, and a boat cruise on the Seine, in which I got to practice my French comprehension and …. Just enjoy. What a beautiful city for a boat cruise! Stunning; just like the bay cruises in the Bay Area.

Thanks to a SIM card from Orange, I was connected to the best mobile network in the country. The data speed was impressive, but what was really impressive? The voice quality. I was on conference calls to South Africa and the sound was more clear than on my Vodacom back home. I was even able to attend a conference call that I started while underground in the Metro!! No degradation in voice quality, let alone a dropped call. Nice one, guys.

You don't see this every day. Unless you live in Paris, I guess!

You don’t see this every day. Unless you live in Paris, I guess!

We ended the week with our heads full of ideas, and definitely a warm fuzzy feeling from the team in France.

Honeymoons don’t last forever, nor am I saying things are perfect, because they are not. But I’d say we’ve kicked off a very nice long-term relationship, and one that’s based on respect and understanding. Because those are the key things: if you lose respect, or you lose (or never had!) common ground, you’re in for trouble. It’s just a matter of when.

It’s true. I probably am a bit biased towards the French. The culture is refined, the food is good, the culture is relationship-oriented, and the business approach is a nice line between flexible and opportunistic, and measured and pedantic. Too slow for the Americans, too disorganised for the Germans. Kind of like Goldilocks.

  • “Thank you! I could never have figured that out without you.” “Yeah. I know.” – airport lady & me (the user journey was abominable….!)
  • “They have spectrum in the – oh I thought those were real cows.” – Ellie
  • “But he said Ellie before he said Skyrove.” – Philippe
  • “Yeah but I don’t want to watch this channel. I don’t care about cockatoos. I want to watch the football.” – Ellie
  • “I was talking to Cisco and- do you see that castle over there?” – Ellie
  • “Fate.” – Marnus
  • “For all this part, it’s not my problem. I just put one LAC box.” – Philippe
  • “It depends if they do a layer 2 or layer 3 connection.” “No. You will see.” – Neelay & Philippe
  • “There’s nothing better than a Mac.” “Can we please talk about Wifimax provisioning process?” – Neelay & Ellie
  • “Internal politics can be fun. J” “LOL!!!!!! That’s especially funny coming from you!” – Ellie (I actually did burst out laughing; Neelay had not seen me laugh so hard at anything, ever!)
  • “I agreed with 95% of his position. The other 5% is that you don’t SAY IT!” – Ellie
  • “It’s like I said last night. This is as big as we want it to be.” – Neelay
  • “If we set the agenda, we win.” – Perry
  • “We cannot create bandwidth.” “What? You’re not magic?” – Francois & Ellie
  • “The way things are going, the next few weeks, I won’t have time to think.” – Neelay
  • “Coffee and crossiants. What else do you need?” “Patrick.” – Ellie & Nicolas
  • “Will there be enough space in the venue?” – Dominic

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