Akram Atallah Interview
13 September 2010
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your background?
I was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, a vibrant and cosmopolitan city where Arabic culture meets Western influence.
I studied in a bilingual (French and Arabic, English was a third language) school all the way through high school. At that time the civil war was raging. Deciding to leave the turmoil of violence behind, I came to the United States where I attended the University of Colorado and received my Bachelor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Master in Electrical Engineering. After college I started working in the storage industry; mostly in engineering, first in development, then later in management. During that period we worked on some products that were later cancelled or substantially changed. I grew increasingly frustrated with the product decisions made by the business team. So I took that frustration and went back to the University of Colorado, taking night classes to get my MBA so I could be involved in the business decisions.
Soon after, I had the opportunity to go to California to work for Rockwell Semiconductor Systems where I moved towards communications technology and the business operations side of the company. It was a funny story that initially convinced me to make the move to Rockwell Semiconductor. In my interview with them, they told me that in the gold rush the people that made the most money were not the ones looking for gold; rather it was the people selling the shovels! During the Internet boom, when everyone was jumping on the bandwagon to create online businesses, Rockwell was the number one company making modems enabling people to get on the Internet…they were selling the shovels. That's where I wanted to be.
This was the start of my second career. I went into product marketing and did that for about 10 years, growing from Product Manager all the way to General Manger and Senior Vice President. During that time Rockwell spun off the semiconductor business into a separate company, Conexant Systems.
In 2004 Conexant bought GlobespanVirata, a DSL company located in NJ. Later on I was asked to run the new business. So I moved my family to the East Coast to start this new business challenge – the restructuring of a large business entity.
After turning this failing business into a major competitor on the market, I moved on to CoreObjects Software, another restructuring project of a struggling business. I worked on that for the past 1.5 years, cleaning it up, installing new processes and implementing structure, and got it healthy so it could be sold. We actually just closed on that sale last week.
And here I am embarking on a new adventure! It's a similar technology environment but now with a nonprofit organization. This is something I've never done before and I am very excited to get on board and dive in!
What attracted you to ICANN?
ICANN is very interesting!!! It is an organization that is always in the back of your mind yet you don't even know who it is. Someone is managing the DNS but most of us don't ever give a second thought to who that is. It was intriguing to research and the more I learned about what it did, the more interested I became.
I was very intrigued when I met Rod and heard about his vision for ICANN and the challenges the organization is up to. You can tell from my past that I like challenges as long as I can create positive changes. ICANN gives me the opportunity to make a difference in our world; making it a better place. And what better way to do that, than being a part of an organization that is at the very heart of the most important communication and information system man has ever created ?
What do you feel you bring to the position of COO? What do you want to accomplish?
My multicultural upbringing and international exposure make me more aware of the global environment without missing on the sensitivities and peculiarities of each culture. I also have strong experience in creating structure and in executing on plans in both big and small companies. I think I can help focus the organization in the right areas while learning how to work in a nonprofit organization.
What challenges do you see?
From what I can tell so far, there are two main challenges:
One…there are so many constituents with different needs and the team can only do so much. Keeping everyone happy is hard. This may take a change in the way we think as an organization in what it takes to keep a large constituent base happy. But I feel that can be managed by setting the right expectations upfront. This is easier said than done, expectations can be set but the trick is to stick to them when other community requests and priorities come up. We must be disciplined in setting the right priorities and delivering on schedule. When taking on new requirements we have to make the right tradeoffs and reset the expectations.
In a service organization like ICANN saying no is not good customer service. So learning to keep the customer happy without taking on every request will require some changes in how we define success. We must find balance between the needs of the community and our delivery capabilities in order to set the right expectations.
The second challenge I see is that ICANN has grown up from a very small team to what it is today and the organization is not necessarily coherent. I believe in simple, easy to understand organizations and processes. I think this eliminates duplication of efforts and increases productivity. It will make our strengths and limitations more transparent to the community we are serving which in turn helps set the right expectations.
What is your first priority in your new position?
It is tough to know before actually getting into the job. But it is safe to say that my first priority will simply be to learn from the team. There is such a rich base of experience and knowledge the team holds and it is important that I roll up my sleeves and understand everyone's perspective. I hope to learn from everyone - mining the vast knowledge that currently exists within the organization.