Jeni Mundy FREng
Few professional sailors go on to run the technology side of a major company. Jeni Mundy’s interest in mobile communications started with onboard technology and has led to senior management positions at Vodafone. Michael Kenward OBE interviewed her at the company’s UK headquarters in Newbury.
Jeni Mundy has spent much of her working life running the engineering side of mobile telecoms businesses, but engineering was not an immediate career choice. She took her first degree in mathematics and philosophy and on graduation had little thought of settling down into a nine-to-five job.
Many new graduates take time off to travel; Mundy decided to sail and jumped at the opportunity to crew on a private yacht. “My drivers in my 20s were much more about pushing boundaries – mental, physical, emotional. I wanted to explore my boundaries, and the world’s boundaries, I guess.” Sailing provided plenty of opportunities for that. Mundy enjoyed life afloat so much that, for the next six years, she turned sailing into a profession. She is one of a handful of women who have competed twice in the Whitbread (now Volvo) round-the-world yacht race, first in 1989-90 on Maiden with an all-female crew and again in 1993-94 on Heineken.
Yachting was Mundy’s introduction to practical engineering. In long-distance racing, she says, it is up to the crew to keep the boat going at maximum capacity. “You can’t ring up and say, ‘my water-maker has broken, can you come and fix it?’.” One of her tasks was to keep the yacht’s electrics and electronics working. Even in the late 1980s, yachts carried sophisticated electronics, including global positioning systems (GPS) to assist navigation. “I got interested in what was going on in the black boxes.” Indeed, she was so interested that, six years after that first degree, Mundy went back to university and took a Master’s degree in electronic engineering at the University of Wales, Cardiff. Mundy insisted that the degree should have an emphasis not only on communications but on Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) too. GSM is the standard that enabled the rapid spread of mobile telecoms and this was the subject of her Master’s thesis. Through the course, she developed her interest in cellular technology.
The interest turned out to be lasting. Mundy recently became Director of Product Innovation for Vodafone’s global enterprise business. Before that, she spent five years as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the company’s UK operation. The role of the CTO depends on the nature of the organisation and its business, but, in Mundy’s case, she was responsible for the network’s architecture and operation, building the network and keeping it running.
Safaricom, Kenya’s leading mobile communications provider, launched M-PESA with Vodafone in 2007 – with initial sponsorship from the UK’s Department for International Development. The scheme enabled financial transactions in Kenya to be made using mobile phones. M-PESA (M for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money) had a successful launch and similar mobile money transfer services have now been rolled out in Afghanistan and Tanzania
South Pacific base
Mundy’s career in mobile operations actually started in New Zealand. Her fiancé Craig – a Kiwi, a yachtsman and a designer of masts and spars – had landed a good job back home. “We had both decided to move out of sailing and into real jobs,” says Mundy. “I knew that I wanted to work in the mobile industry so when Craig brought up the idea of moving to New Zealand, I went on the condition that I got a job with a cellular operator. Following my thesis I just thought cellular was fantastic, fascinating. It was the early 1990s and it was taking off everywhere.”
Mundy got a job as a radio engineer with BellSouth and rose rapidly up the company’s engineering hierarchy. Not only was the timing right, “I was very fortunate in that I had a couple of really good mentors, people who took risks with me and gave me enough rope to hurt myself, but not fatally.” Within seven years Mundy had become the CTO of Vodafone New Zealand, which had taken over BellSouth’s business in the country in 1998.
These were still relatively early days for the mobile sector. The company had about 17% of market share, and there were few mobile phones in New Zealand. Then the business took off, presenting Mundy with plenty of engineering challenges. “I did all sorts of different jobs across the engineering function.” By the time Mundy left New Zealand, Vodafone’s share of the market, had risen to over 50%.
As head of engineering, Mundy also took on the task of merging the company’s network and IT systems. While both are built around large computer systems, before then, networks and IT were very much separate entities. “Operators of cellular networks had a big engineering function which ran the cellular network and a big IT function to do things like billing, customer service, call-centre technologies, retail systems and so on.”
Mundy ran the cellular network’s engineering before the call came to merge the two sides. Back then, she says, this was a radical idea.
Much as Mundy enjoyed New Zealand, the next job offer proved to be too tempting to refuse. In 2005, Vodafone encouraged Mundy and the family – by then she had married Craig and had a young son – back to the UK where she became Director of Telecommunications Systems.
Within two years, and following the birth of a second son, Mundy became CTO for Vodafone UK. Mundy’s job was to ensure that the mobile telephone system performed to its maximum potential and grew to meet rapidly rising demand.
By the time she left the UK CTO’s job, Mundy managed a team of around 1,000 people, mostly engineers ensuring that Vodafone systems were always reliable. She refers back to her sailing days for pointers on how she acquired the skills to manage the large teams needed to carry out such complex tasks. “You learn a lot about teams when you’re sailing and that translates very well into business life. I am a part of a team and I lead teams.”
The teamwork came into play when Mundy set about achieving the same merger of network and IT that she had managed in New Zealand. This time, though, the network was much bigger.
Mobile communications had changed, blurring the boundaries between what the two sides did. ‘Mobile’ needed IT which was itself increasingly called to meet the needs of mobile clients. “When you look at the engineering side and the IT side, the middle ground is the growing area,” says Mundy. “Sure, you have got radio at one end and IT at the other, but certainly the middle ground is growing.” This is where operators provide new services to customers.
Anyone in information and communications technologies (ICT) will have noticed the rise of cloud computing, the shift of computing away from the desktop, or even the company IT system, to remote data centres. Clouds now feature in services sold to consumers. “The cloud enables businesses to outsource their communications needs and deliver flexible services to employees.”
Cloud computing reinforces the general blurring of IT and communications. It provides access to data and services wherever you are which puts it firmly in Vodafone’s domain. “Mobility is our heartland,” says Mundy. “That is where we go out from. But mobility is more than ‘Would you like a mobile phone and a bundle of minutes?’”
The world of apps and a growing armoury of mobile devices, including tablet computers, such as Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle, add to the repertoire of network-centred activities. Mundy’s company not only markets these to consumers, but also recognises that its business customers need support in working out how to use these newer systems. “Everyone wants a tablet,” says Mundy, “but do you, as a business, let staff have one? How safe is your data on them?” These are the sorts of issues that Vodafone finds itself tackling on behalf of customers. The challenge isn’t just to enable people to use their devices on a company’s network, but to work out how to tap into the new ways of doing things that the technology could enable.
Companies also want help with the bigger issues in their communications strategies. Here, says Mundy, the talk is of “unified communications”, another area where she has led Vodafone’s engineering developments.
Many companies have separate fixed and mobile telecoms systems, often with separate bills. The challenge, says Mundy, is to provide a way to manage fixed phones and mobile phones as a single system. The aim is to have just one phone number, and one voicemail system, that people can pick up wherever they are. The question, says Mundy, is “How do you connect the whole thing up so that you have got one solution?”
Exploiting mobile technology
Mundy may have moved on to looking at the bigger picture in mobile telecoms, but she retains a passion for technology, not for its own sake but for what it can do for people and businesses. She feels that technology really can change the ways in which people live and work for the better. In Kenya, for example, the company developed M-PESA, a financial system that lets people send each other money using mobile phones. “They don’t have a banking infrastructure as we know it,” says Mundy. “So M-PESA helps the whole economy to leapfrog technologies and to leapfrog generations that mature markets have gone through. It is really brilliant.”
This is one of many new services that ride on the back of mobile technology. Mundy expects many more ideas to come along and change how we live and work. Her new job puts her firmly in the vanguard of these developments. “To head up the product and innovation side is just a fantastic opportunity to be front and centre on that.”
Mundy has not, though, lost her passion for technology itself. For example, apart from being keen on her own tablet computer – or rather the iPad she shares with her son – she is a keen promoter of femtocell technology (see Femtocells explained article in Ingenia 44).
In her new post, Mundy has moved on from overseeing the network’s underlying technology, and introducing technologies such as femtocells, to dealing with changes in how large multinational organisations manage and develop services on their communications systems. It helps that Vodafone itself is a large multinational company that has tried many of the new ideas in its own operations. Its Newbury campus, for example, uses new ways of working, such as hotdesks with people clustered in teams rather than at desks of their own.
Mundy also sees new opportunities in areas such as health care and telematics, the use of computing and communications in transport. Vodafone has its own testbed in telematics. As a sponsor of Formula 1 motor racing, it provides telematics for the McClaren team.
Another opportunity in Mundy’s sights is the growing interest in “the machine-to-machine space” where everything from a refrigerator upwards can connect to the global network. Look out for rapid growth in machine-to-machine communications, says Mundy. “It is something that we have been working on and for many years. We have got some well-established technology that we have put in place globally.” The company has worked with Centrica on smart metering technology that provides consumers with detailed information on their energy use and can even control that use.
Such applications take mobile communications a long way from the simple voice and text messaging that made up the network’s traffic when Mundy entered the business. She has been in mobile telecoms since its beginning as a mass market consumer technology rather than an expensive service that required users to carry around a receiver the size of a brick. In that time, the world has changed completely. “I stand back sometimes and can’t imagine life without my mobile. It must be the same for most people. It influences and significantly impacts on both my working life and my home life.”