In this Digital CxO Leadership Insights Series video interview, Mike Vizard talks to Craig Williams, vice president and CIO for Ciena, about why organizations need to start making plans to exploit the metaverse today.
Mike Vizard: Hello, and welcome to the latest edition of the Digital CxO Leadership Insights video series. I’m your host, Mike Vizard. Today we’re with Craig Williams. He’s the vice president and chief information officer for Ciena. And we’re talking about a study that they put together on the metaverse. Craig, welcome to the show.
Craig Williams: Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me here.
Mike Vizard: The survey kind of shows a very strong interest in using the metaverse for business purposes, so from your perspective how realistic is that? What’s driving that? And are we ever going to experience that? Because a lot of folks are skeptical.
Craig Williams: Yeah, for sure. I think if we had maybe done a study prior to the pandemic we might have maybe gotten some different results, but the pandemic was largely a forcing function and I think it opened the minds of people to how they can collaborate better together. So, I think there’s a lot of openness now to try new things and new collaboration tools, and really even extending it beyond just the collaboration tools that we’re using today. So, I think the concept of the metaverse, while it’s still kind of evolving, I think people are becoming open more to the fact that there is something behind just what we’re doing today and it may be even better.
Mike Vizard: Are people going to have to wear glasses to participate in the metaverse forever? It seems that that’s one of the things that people have, and the glasses are somewhat expensive. But do you think we’ll be having something that feels like a metaverse that doesn’t feel like glasses, or we’ll just find less expensive glasses to use?
Craig Williams: Yeah. I hope not. I hope we don’t have to. I think there’s certain use cases for those, but a lot of this stuff can also be done via platforms and being in the virtual world. You might not have the goggles to go with it but you can certainly use a Web browser or a gaming console or something to that effect But certainly, there is a place for the headsets too, especially as you have to get more immersed and working together or collaborating on something. So, I think there is a use case for it but it’s not always.
Mike Vizard: Do you think this may wind up being a generational thing where the 20-somethings and 30-somethings are more inclined to do it versus folks who are in their 50s and 60s?
Craig Williams: Yeah. Great point. If you look at the technology today, largely the tech is there. I mean, the gaming world has been doing this stuff for years, right? And we know the DoD environment has, and there have been a lot of use cases and marketing things that we’ve seen happen. And it’s just a matter of applying the stuff that’s working and applying it to the business world. And yeah, I think the younger generations are coming up through the gaming industry and they’ll see this as not so much a big pivot as to maybe some of us who have been around for a while, because it – the tech just has to apply to the business.
Mike Vizard: What does it take to kind of create a metaverse these days? I think some organizations have it in their heads that this is something that a Meta can do or a Disney can do, but is this something that the average organization can participate in? And what’s required?
Craig Williams: Yeah. I think it just requires some experimentation. At Ciena we started playing with the different tools out there right as the pandemic was happening. We just had a good timing event for us to experiment in this space and we quickly found that we had some ability to apply it to manufacturing and just being able to walk up and down the shop floor looking at how people were working and asking them questions, and it’s like a “See what I see” environment. But you can quickly pivot that into “Oh, let me see that line card that you’re working on” and we can throw that up on the wall and that’s a virtual instance of it. But then, you can have an interactive discussion through it. And the only way we started to explore this type of world is just getting dirty with the tech and trying some things. And before you know it, we had a couple of the use cases that we thought through.
Mike Vizard: Do we have the network bandwidth to support all this? Because the compute horsepower that goes with this is not inconsequential and people are accessing it remotely, so what will be the downstream impact?
Craig Williams: Well, I think it’s better equipped now in general in the world. We have fiber to many homes. We have fiber across the world in many companies. Edge computing is very important, trying to get all the computing power to the local user as fast as you can, or as close to the user as you possibly can. And of course, we have 5G. And all of these technologies, I think, will start to serve as the baseline foundational layer, really, for the consumers to start playing on top of. And it’s always going to be a question: Do we have enough bandwidth? And if not, then we have to go address that. But I would say this would not have been possible ten years ago, whereas now we don’t have as many of these bandwidth latency problems as we used to. You just – you have to make sure your compute environments are as close to the consumer as you can possibly can, and those are just network pivots that companies have to make and consider.
Mike Vizard: Right. But the important thing about all that is it’s not all happening in the cloud. It seems like we’re going to have to put compute resources close to where things are being consumed and created.
Craig Williams: Yeah. And the cloud providers themselves have to not just have them in one cloud location in some foreign environment. They have to make sure that part of their architecture considers their local users. And so, a lot of them are also pivoting too and making these almost mini data centers across the world.
Mike Vizard: What’s your best advice to your fellow CIOs? Should they go out and get a pair of glasses and start hanging out in the metaverse? Or – what should they be going to get ready for all of this?
Craig Williams: Definitely experiment. And we have experimented with just I don’t know how many different types of headsets and types of things, but also work with companies who are in this space and see where they’re going, because there are these companies that are popping up that have a very focused direction on this space, making this virtual world more of a way of working. And the best thing you can do, really, is just to jump right in and create a small POC team and try some things out. And I think what you’ll find is, oh, you learn through failure and then you figure out that there are some opportunities therein to experiment more and to try some real things to move the ball. I will say for IT we used to fly people across the world to do upgrades to our core infrastructure environments, and we have many offices across the world, so you can imagine having to fly all these people to upgrade and do all these things. And we’re not unique to that. All of our customers have to do things like that too. But if you have these goggles at the end of your location or you ship them out, you can instruct anyone to go do these upgrades. You don’t have to send your high-prized employee to these sites anymore. And so, these things start to pop up once you start to play with the technology, and you’ll soon find these opportunities open up.
Mike Vizard: Are we a little too narrow in our thinking as – maybe as a consumer platform and not thinking through the B2B applications per se? Because what you just described is some of those things that we’ve been calling digital twins, but they’ve been expensive to build, so does the metaverse kind of open up that whole conversation to a broader future?
Craig Williams: I think it could. Yeah. Yeah. The concepts of metaverses, it’s – a lot of people think it’s Meta and the social platform, and certainly that’s the case there for what Meta is doing. But “metaverse” has just become more of a term, and how we apply it really is not defined quite yet because it’s so brand new. And you think about all the markets that this could effect, whether it’s entertainment or learning and development, shopping – having a new experience on shopping would be really cool, where you don’t have to leave your house but you could just shop your house via Amazon with goggles on or something. All of those are going to be huge, huge market transformations for those particular industries. We just have to open up our minds to the tech and how to apply it to those.
Mike Vizard: It seems like the folks who are most engaged in this are the marketing folks in organizations. So, should IT leaders be more involved with the marketing people in kind of having this conversation? And for that matter, what’s the state of the relationship between IT and marketing these days?
Craig Williams: Yeah, never better. I love our marketing team. Our CMO is the best. And there is something to be said about that, I agree. As a company that is working to solve end user problems for our customers and help them be successful, we have to explore ways of working different. And we have to also tout that we’re thinking about these things so that we can bring a certain image and quality to the product that we need for our customers. And so, the marketing aspect of it is true. We certainly work close with them and we are doing some internal what we might call our Cienaverse, an internal reality, virtual and augmented reality environment for ourselves to help better partner with our customers. But we also have to talk about this in general and talk about what we’re experimenting with because we also need that type of feedback from our customers so that our products will be better in the same. So, it’s a very tight relationship we have with our marketing team right now.
Mike Vizard: Do you think business leaders have the patience for these kinds of investments? Because in the current economic climate there’s always a rush to “What can you do for me this quarter” kind of mindset, and this is going to take more than one quarter, so do you think we need to have a conversation with the business about “Hey, guys, this is where it’s going but it’s not exactly something that we can just turn on a dime; we need to invest and take the long view”?
Craig Williams: Yeah, great point. I certainly think that’s the case for some companies for sure. And every company is at a different spot and in different economic times, but I truly believe that if you don’t experiment, you don’t innovate, then you’ll end up having a very tough time in the future because your peers will. And I think you have to have a position on where these technologies would fit for your company. And so, it might not be that you brand your company and reinvent it altogether quite yet, but I do think you have to create some POCs and get very opinionated and educated on where these would fit because you might find that they might disrupt your market that you’re in, or it might complement your market and help you be more – bring more of a competitive advantage.
Mike Vizard: All right. Last question: Avatar is the popular movie of the moment, and of course we may all have multiple avatars in the metaverse and different personalities associated with different use cases, so are we all in danger of digital schizophrenia?
Craig Williams: Yes. [Laughs] I hope not. But yes, I think that’s a possibility. And it’s funny because when we went through the whole “Let’s work collaboratively over tools like Zoom” people had a hard time putting their camera on. And I would always chastise some people and say, “Look, would I close my eyes if I was in the same room with you? All right, turn your camera on. You’re fine.” And we get through that kind of idea of the mindset. But that pivot into avatars, I’m not so sure in the business world we’ll be quite excited about it, but it certainly would have certain use cases for some environments. But I think in this business world it’s going to be a lot more real than it is in the gaming world that we play and work through today.
Mike Vizard: All right. Hey, Craig, thanks for being on the show.
Craig Williams: A pleasure, Mike. Thank you.
Mike Vizard: And thank you all for watching this latest episode of the Digital CxO Leadership Insights series. You can find this one and all the other ones on the Digital CxO website. We invite you to check them all out and download. And thanks again for watching.