In-house interview: Network experience – Fred Linker at Ciena

Catering to the cutting-edge internet cable needs of the likes of BT and C&W, and taking on heavyweights for consortia tenders is all in a day’s work for Ciena’s Fred Linker

Next time you send an email to a client overseas spare a thought for the technology enabling it and the sheer distance it has to travel to take your words to their receiver.

The telecoms network specialist Ciena’s Asia Pacific legal head Fred Linker shares an appreciation for the epic journeys of digital data. He says that for an email sent from the UK to reach Australia it has to travel to Marseilles and then pass Alexandria prior to dropping in at Mumbai and Singapore before it finally reaches its destination. The 9,500-mile trip is mainly accomplished via submarine fibreoptic cables – and it’s all done in a spilt second.

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“To transport internet data traffic from continent to continent, in addition to the basic submarine cable infrastructure, telecoms carriers need sophisticated technologies to  correctly route the data packets,” says Linker.

As there is a vast and complex network of submarine cables which are often cut or snapped, internet services are always at risk of being interrupted or slowed. One of Ciena’s technologies enables intelligent switching, which means it helps data packages choose the best path and reroute automatically when interruptions occur. It also offers technologies to help cable networks increase their capacity.

While sophisticated technology works its magic in keeping the increasingly information-rich, internet-oriented world connected, Linker’s key task is to ensure Ciena’s cutting-edge technologies are a hit with its customers, mainly telecoms services providers such as BT, AT&T, Cable & Wireless Worldwide, CenturyLink, NTT Communications, PCCW, SoftBank Telecom, Telecom NZ, Singtel, Optus and Vodafone.

Collaboration 

Linker has been working in this field for nearly 15 years. He was previously Nortel’s head legal counsel for Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, and for its Asia enterprise solutions division. He joined Ciena in 2010 when the US-based company bought the optical networking and ethernet business from Nortel for $774m (£463m).

Through the Nortel acquisition Ciena not only doubled in size, but also significantly expanded its business in Asia Pacific. Linker was among the 100 or so engineers, technicians and administrative staff that transferred to Ciena across the region.

Nearly four years later, Ciena’s Asia Pacific in-house legal capacity has grown from one to four, a team Linker describes as “lean and highly efficient”. Linker and a paralegal are based in Sydney, while there is one in-house counsel each in India and Hong Kong. The Asia Pacific team also works closely with the company headquarters in Maryland and is an integral part of the global legal team.

“The legacy Nortel business in Asia Pacific was larger than Ciena’s at the time and the acquired technology and business was complementary,” says Linker. ”The integration process was excellent. The two sides came together as equals to share industry and legal knowledge. There was a collaborative approach from the start.”

Talks can last a year

Although small in size, the Asia Pacific legal team’s responsibility is wide-ranging and covers the full range of business-as-usual legal support such as employment law, leasing, contract review and negotiation, tenders and procurement, drafting technology agreements and regulatory compliance.

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The most important task for Linker is securing core commercial contracts between Ciena as the technology vendor and its telecoms carrier customers. These contracts are usually valued at between $10m and $100m, and are often with consortia of carriers.

A highlight of the core contracts that Linker has helped Ciena negotiate and win is the South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 4 (SEA-ME-WE 4) transaction. In 2011 Ciena and Alcatel-Lucent won a hotly contested tender to help the 16 co-owners of the 20,000km submarine cable system increase cap-acity with technology upgrades.

The SEA-ME-WE 4 is the primary internet backbone between Asia, Middle East and Europe. The consortium consisted of 16 telecoms  companies including Bharti Infotel, France Telecom, SingTel, Saudi Telecom, Telecom Egypt, Telekom Malaysia and Tata Communications.

“It was a breakthrough for Ciena,” says Linker. ”The Asia Pacific team spearheaded the transaction and led the company into the new market space of submarine cable upgrades and working with consortia.”

Negotiations with consortia and projects of this size can be complex. In some cases, Linker says, the process can last a year.

“We can encounter an imbalance of resources when sitting opposite a procurement team from a large group of big telecoms players with their teams of in-house and external counsel,” says Linker. “But when the deal is done, it’s rewarding.”

When carriers are looking to engage a technology vendor for a large project they have enormous bargaining power. Negotiating and working with them is a skill in itself, and comes with time and practice.

“The in-house teams for technology vendors that are trying to win the tender or secure the opportunity hone their negotiating skills working in this environment, seeking to moderate requested terms and conditions, and coming to an understanding,” says Linker.

These large contracts are strategically important and core to the company’s business. The skills and internal knowledge required are scarce among law firms so all the negotiating and legal work is handled in-house.

Linker says the cross-cultural nature of international consortia transactions adds another layer of complexity to negotiations.

“Members of a consortium often come from a range of countries and cultural backgrounds,” he says. “Sitting in the negotiating room can be like being at the UN. It’s critical to have good communication skills and cultural awareness.”

Linker enjoys the international aspect of his job.

“We travel the globe to secure business and work with clients in various countries,” he enthuses. “That’s much more interesting than  working in a single territory.”

Recently, Linker spent months negotiating a big contract with a consortium at a beach retreat in Hawaii. Clearly, working for a big technology company requires many qualities, among them the ability to be a keen globetrotter.

Fred Linker
Ciena

Position: Asia Pacific head of legal and associate general counsel

Reporting to: Senior vice-president and general counsel David Rothenstein

Industry: IT/telecoms

Global revenue: $2.1bn (2013)

Legal capacity (Asia Pacific): Four

Legal budget (Asia Pacific):  Depends on level of non-core legal activity, such as M&A and litigation

Main external law firms (Asia Pacific): Baker & McKenzie, Hogan Lovells, Kim Chang & Lee, Kochhar & Co, Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu, Thomsons Lawyers