Retraining and reskilling your workforce is daunting – even for a startup with a handful of employees. When you’re a nearly 140-year old company with more than 280,000 employees globally, it can seem impossible.

But we can – and often need to – do things that seem impossible. Time and technology wait for no one. So at AT&T, we knew we wanted to pivot to a software-centric network. And we knew that meant reorienting our workers for software-centric careers.

But before we get into that, what is a software-centric network? We’ve talked about it quite a bit on this blog. (Check out Andre Fuetsch’s update on network demand trends and updates in our software journey at this year’s Mobile World Congress.)  In short: it’s the future. Back when network traffic increased slowly and predictably – mostly voice calls – you built your network on hardware. You sent out trucks and technicians to install new gear, like appliances, routers and switches.  The appliance and equipment makers built that stuff to last years… even decades.

We don’t have that luxury anymore. Demand for network capacity is booming. So we’re turning network hardware appliances into software apps. It’s similar to how you’ve probably swapped a separate camcorder, alarm clock or CD player for apps on your smartphone.

When you move a network into the cloud, you need workers with very specific skills to make it happen. We’ve set an ambitious goal of moving 75% of our network into software by 2020. We hit 5.7% in 2015. We’re accelerating and plan to hit 30% by end of this year. But we can only keep up that pace if we help our employees learn the skills they need. We need them to be software-centric.

We need experts in a variety of software specialties. These include network function virtualization, software defined networking, security, data analytics and the Internet of Things. Many of these technologies will be running on open source software. We even need our non-technical workers to be versed in those areas. Our salespeople, lawyers, accountants, recruiters, marketing experts and more also need to understand where we’re going.

We know what we need. Rather than wholesale hiring of new talent from outside, we chose to place a bet on reskilling our people. Our Human Resource experts have outlined the plan. They’re continuing to drive our effort to help employees expand or learn skills for the future. Some of that training is internal at AT&T. But we knew we also needed some outside help. We’re joining forces with organizations like Georgia Tech, Udacity, the University of Oklahoma, Pace University, Champlain College and others. Furthermore, AT&T provides targeted tuition discounts to 32 universities like Stanford, Boston University and NYU-Poly.

We know we’re going to need more data scientists over the next few years. (Interested? Great! Give us a call.) But in reality, we’ll have more slots than there will be folks in the job market to fill. Plus, there’s a tremendous benefit to take someone that knows the AT&T culture and heritage. Our employees can view the hiring trend for this job and link directly to Data Science certification training. They can take the steps to transform themselves into data scientists. Depending on their current skillset, this could mean securing specialized credentials called Nanodegrees, which can take 4-9 months to complete. We’ve even collaborated with Georgia Tech and Udacity to create the first-ever massive online open course platform-based Masters of Computer Science. Both let students learn at their own pace. And both programs are open to students beyond AT&T.

We’re supporting these programs through AT&T Aspire, our ongoing commitment to prepare learners for success in school and the 21st Century workforce. We’re using the power of our network to build a better tomorrow. We’re using innovative solutions to widen, develop and diversify the talent pipeline to address the shortage of current and future technology experts.

We’re not aware of any other company retraining its workforce on such a grand scale. We know we’re asking a lot of our employees. But we think the opportunities for them are great, too. And there are some inspiring stories coming from our employees going through this skills pivot. Look out for some of them on this blog.

I’m frequently asked if it’s really possible for all our workers to make this pivot. The truth is, it will take us years to complete this transformation. We’ll have legacy systems we need to maintain in the interim. But this is clearly where we need to go. We think it’s where the industry needs to go. And we want to help our employees get there, too.

John Donovan - Chief Strategy Officer and Group President – AT&T Technology and Operations 

John Donovan
John Donovan CEO – AT&T Communications