Edmund Tam, Head Conference Technology Support Divsion
Why did you join ITU?
I started my career as a system and network engineer for the IBM mainframe, providing centralized computing services to UN organizations. The communication links at that time were based on network protocols such as IBM’s System Network Architecture and CCITT’s X.25, using network interfaces (connectors) based on the V.24 and V.35 standards that were defined again by CCITT.
CCITT - Comité Consultatif International Téléphonique et Télégraphique - is the predecessor of ITU-T and a standardization body for postal service, telegraphy, telephone and telecommunications dating back to 1865.
As an engineer, one of my dreams had always been to work in the place where these standards were defined. In 2001, ITU was looking for somebody to manage the ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) to Gigabit Ethernet network migration project. I applied for the job without hesitation!
What is your profession and what is your academic background?
Today, I am Head of Conference Technology Support Division, responsible for providing the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and AV (audiovisual) services necessary for all conferences, meetings and events held by the ITU in Geneva and abroad. During my secondary school years, I had been studying towards a career in the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, I was admitted in the Faculty of Science for Biochemistry at the University of Glasgow. However, prior to entering the university, I took a gap year and worked as a Computer Operator for the ICL mainframe out of curiosity and found that computing is my real interest. On the day of enrollment to the Faculty of Science at the University of Glasgow, I enrolled to the field of Computing Science instead and graduated there with a First Class Honours degree.
Can you describe your work and the competencies required?
My work is twofold. My first role is managing the ITU network infrastructure. Since the migration of the network from ATM to Gigabit Ethernet and later on the installation of one of the first wireless networks in Geneva in the early 2000s, I have been responsible for the management, development and evolution of the ITU network infrastructure. My particular interest in the IT field is due to its continuous innovation and challenges. When I started my career, I was using SNA and X.25 protocols and managing token-ring and FDDI networks. Today, I am using TCP/IP protocols and managing Gigabit Ethernet networks. By second quarter of next year, we will have 10 Gigabit Ethernet for the network backbone. Our wireless network started with only 802.11b back in the early 2000, then 802.11a and g came into play, today we support 802.11n as well. I have also introduced the Storage Area Network (SAN) to ITU in 2004, next year we will see the merging of the SAN and LAN. At the moment, we are implementing Unified Communications based on VoIP; merging voice, video, mail, fax, instant messaging and presence in one platform. The innovation and challenges are endless!
My second role is managing the ICT and AV services for all the ITU events. ITU is the place where telecommunication treaties, resolutions and agreements are established. These events may be held at ITU, or Member States may invite us to hold the events in their countries. During the last couple of years, I have managed events held in many countries, which include South Africa, Belarus, Tunisia, Colombia, Mexico, Portugal, Rwanda and India; soon there will be events in Qatar, Panama, UAE and the Republic of Korea. In some cases, the existing ICT and AV infrastructure at the event venue satisfies less than 20% of our requirements, the rest has to be built from scratch. My job starts with defining the technical specifications of all ICT and AV material to be installed and putting together the network design. It is then followed by site visits to perform gap analysis and to work together with the Government representatives to finalize the Host Country Agreement and coordinate the preparatory work. Finally, one to two weeks before the event, the ITU Information Services (IS) team will be onsite, working with the local team to complete the installation of the entire infrastructure and providing support throughout the event. For events such as the Plenipotentiary Conference with over 2000 participants for a duration of three weeks, I manage a team of more than a hundred personnel.
Concerning the competencies required for the job – as seen from the above examples, it is the ability of continuous learning and the ability of managing changes that I find most important for this job. The job can be very demanding, when we have over two thousand participants relying on our services and meetings are becoming more and more paperless, failure of the infrastructure is simply unacceptable! Unfortunately equipment will fail and software will never be faultless, so we have to exercise the correct judgments to ensure continuity of services. When implementing solutions, quite often the most academically sound solution may not be the most appropriate; sometimes budgetary constraint gets in the way. In both cases, we have to accept compromises and without sacrificing any business requirements. There are times when we need to take risks, but always keep a plan “B” ready in case things do not turn out the way we had anticipated. Last but not least, learn how to manage and trust our team. During the build-up phase of a conference, there are easily ten or more tasks that are going on in parallel. It is virtually impossible to follow up on every single task, I have to rely on my team members – I have to plan in advance and give them clear instructions. Each member understands precisely what needs to be done and then they can work independently and yet in a coordinated manner.
What are you most proud of in your work?
I take pride in several aspects of my work, including:
Leading a team that performs well – my staff come up with ideas and often I manage to provide suggestions to improve on the solution; other times I help them to explore other paths that have not been thought of;
Providing new solutions, sometimes unorthodox to ITU that resulted in improved services at lower cost of ownership;
I feel privileged to work in the multicultural and somewhat political environment of the UN, and I am happy to have always maintained good working relationships with my colleagues.
What motivates you to continuously contribute to ITU’s mission?
It is the recognition from my colleagues, management and delegates from our member states. Historically, business requirements led to technology changes. Today, I see the opposite in many cases. It is technology that is now driving the changes in how ITU is performing its business. Recently ITU introduced Remote Participation in ITU meetings. Even though it is still a pilot, it was used during Council 2011, where a key delegate presented remotely from Mexico. It was a live audiovisual session with questions and answers across the Atlantic, with simultaneous interpretation in six languages. The remote delegate was well integrated with the rest of the delegates inside the physical room at ITU and the meeting was concluded successfully. As meeting procedures were established with the assumption that all participants would be, physically, in one room, now studies are being made to determine what revisions to the ITU legal framework will be required, to define the legal status of remote participants. Remote participation will reduce the cost of the meetings for member states; it also helps in reducing green-house gas emissions. These are some of the compelling reasons for ITU to look into changes in how meetings can be conducted in a more cost effective and environmentally-friendly manner.
I do believe the work of ITU helps to improve the world, either directly or indirectly; and being part of it is what I find the most rewarding of all!
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