Interview with Adil Mehmood – Global Internet Engineer
April 17, 2009 Leave a comment
“Hey Adil, I need some help getting a LAN installation done – you up for a month or so worth of consultant gig?”
“Sure, where is the job, and are there any special problems?”
“Well, it is in Mongolia…”
“Mongolia? Are there any real issues with the customer?”
“Well, it is at a new gold mining operation. Location is about 300km from the nearest city, no electricity, no telecom infrastructure in place, and the temperature gets down to about -45c at night. All they need from you to design and implement a fiber optic LAN system within the 150 sqkm campus, and then build a VoIP architecture to bring their communications back to Canada and the capital city (Ulaanbaatar) of Mongolia. Guess you will have to use VSAT (satellite) to someplace like HongKong or California to make the connections.”
“Cool, when would you like me to be there?”
Adil Mehmood is what real engineers aspire to become. With the tacit knowledge gained from more than 20 years in the telecom engineering and operations business, there is literally no job too large or difficult for him to engage. He has specialized in implementing telecom systems and basic telecom infrastructure in developing countries throughout his career – one of those unknown professionals who actually have the privilege of going to sleep at night knowing he has made a huge, positive impact on the future of millions of people.
Part of the Internet tech community hangs out at conferences and parties, others roll up their sleeves and apply their energy and experience to real projects, in countries and locations most of us may not even be able to find on a map. Adil Mehomood is one of those people, and unsung hero of the Internet community.
I recently caught up with Adil as he was passing through Los Angeles on his way back to Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, or wherever his trail currently heads.
John – Adil, what are you doing these days?
Adil – Well, after spending time back in the UK trying to settle down into the domestic life with my family, I quickly realized I was getting bored . I wanted to be out dealing with challenges, and this meant working as an expatriate again in a developing country. Over the past few years I worked on a large rural VoIP project in Mongolia (first of it’s type) and just ended up staying in North Asia!
John – You are known in the telecom community as one of the more creative network design engineers. How did you get into that level of engineering?
Adil – I think one of my inspiring moments was in 1995, I had just landed in Beijing on a look-see trip for a 2-year contract with Sprint China. I ended up at the Beijing Telecom data centre the same afternoon, helping some engineers from the Beijing Telecom Authority to upgrade their initial Internet connection to 256Kbps. This was back in the days ChinaNet had only two 64Kbps satellite links to California serving the entire public Internet in China. I never looked back, and ended up working with some really talented folks in Beijing, who are still friends and colleagues.
Later in 1998 I ended up working with a group of hard-core network systems engineers , based in Reston (Virginia, USA) as the Director of IT Products for Global One, and we created the first global IP VPN (Internet Protocol – virtual private network)backbone.
John – What made you decide to break from the large, corporate environment and strike out on your own?
Adil – I got tempted by the Internet boom. We had taken the Global One product team to its limit, and I wanted to participate on a more creative level as the Internet was really catching some good traction as global infrastructure. I went to work for a startup VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) carrier, based out of Hong Kong as the head of product development. We did some amazing technical innovations, but got caught when the Internet bubble burst. That’s when I decided to go on my own and moved back to the UK to build my own network consultancy.
John – How important is innovation, first mover status, and taking technical risk? What would you advise IT managers or engineers to consider in their own companies?
Adil – I always use the term “… working right at the edge of the envelope…,” meaning the best place to be is absolute first mover status. As a startup, you must always consider maximizing new technology and innovation, with of course proper risk management. My advice to IT managers and lead engineers would be a “Calculated Offense” is your best defense. As a small company or startup company without innovation and managed risk, you put your existing services at company at a disadvantage. You must be able to discriminate yourself from the pack.
John – You’ve been with the Internet since the beginning, and lived each step of the evolution up till today. Are you comfortable with how the Internet has evolved? Mistakes made? Concerns with the current state of the ‘net? Happy with the Internet as it is today?
Adil – When I first got involved with rolling out the Internet into the Middle-East (NOTE: Adil was part of the telecom reconstruction team that went into Kuwait following the first Gulf War), Europe, and Asia it was exciting. I learned very quickly what a huge impact the Internet and Internet technology was going to have on people’s lives.
The evolution (of the Internet) was incredibly fast. And while I think along the way we could have done things more tactfully and strategically, my only regret is that in the early days the global carrier I worked for (Global One/Sprint International) didn’t fully commit to the Internet wave. We helped influence and change that later when I headed the product management, but global commercialization of the Internet had already taken off by the time my company fully engaged in building their network and product lines to meet customer and market expectations.
John – Where would you like to take the Internet, or more importantly, what does the world need from Internet and communications engineers to get where we should be in 15 years?
Adil – Back when I worked in Beijing and we built our first company Intranet using the IP protocol, we let everyone in the company go nuts with creativity and freedom of thought. It was a wonderful period, with a group of very talented and innovative Chinese engineers. We had not only the approval of our local and regional management, but also full support from the Chinese government which funded much of our lab work. I remember some other big corporations doing the same, and we called it the “chaos phase of the Internet.”
This is where we are again today with the Internet. In my opinion, Internet development now needs a bit more direction. In 15 years we shouldn’t have to work out how to plug into it (the Internet), it should be integrated and seamless anywhere. Connectivity and access to the global Internet should no longer be a burden, it should be a basic right of all persons in all countries.
Once we have cracked the nut of access, we will need to further force the IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) into the network, and better understand how to not only increase bandwidth in an affordable model, but also build in better efficiencies to eliminate bottlenecks. Only then can we really concentrate on encouraging open and creative development of applications that will bring our communities – regardless of geography and political controls – into the next generation of social and economic globalization.
John – You’ve always been a visionary, as well as an engineer. What do you think is the most important problem we have to solve with networks over the next 10~15 years, both technical and political?
Adil – Thanks for the complement! Technically our networks use similar components but work in very different ways, i.e. unique to the programming of hundreds and thousands of interconnected networks. The Internet was founded by establishing common ground rules, however we seem to have drifted away from some of the ground rules, and the processes in place to control the chaos of the Internet.
Those rules need to be re-established, but this is likely to be a political nightmare as governments struggle to gain greater control over both the Internet and people who are using the Internet. I do believe that from this period of chaos there will be a solution. The Internet itself is inherently self-healing, and from the chaos will emerge a stronger Internet.
John – What effect did your days in China, Kuwait, and other developing countries have on your desire to continue working in the developing economies of the world?
Adil – Working in developing countries I have the ability to leapfrog established thinking and technologies, and truly be involved in innovation. I can continue to be an engineer at heart and yet still drive technology, educate, create. All the things that help me maintain the “…edge of the envelope…” philosophy.
John – Where do you go from here?
Adil - Continue working with other visionaries and apply the results to real projects. I want to continue to contribute to the global community in any way possible. I is fun to actually see the results of your effort helping make people’s lives and futures more attainable. One of the marketing lines I used some years ago was “… I’m still working on a simple particle transportation platform…’ I think the future is going to be an exciting place. I have some ideas on what I might do next – still under wraps though…!
During his 20 year career, Adil Mehmood has served a wide range of senior roles in Global Telecomms with Tier-1 and Tier-2 telecommunications carriers, VoIP Carriers, Internet Service Providers and various specialist consultancies. He has worked in several international locations, and currently resides in Mongolia working for a Global Mining Company as their Enterprise IT Director.
Adil Mehmood holds a B.Eng (Hons) in Electronic Systems Engineering from Kingston University in the United Kingdom.