The rise and rise of Peter Cochrane
Former BT CTO gives forth
TechScape Peter Cochrane started out digging ditches for a living, before what could be described as a meteoric rise to CTO of BT.
Born in 1946, in Nottinghamshire, Dr Cochrane left school with what he terms "little education" and started digging ditches for the Post Office.
From the age of 11 he admits to "a green-fingered interest in electronics, building amplifiers and radios". He even turned the garden shed into a "radio shack".
While at the Post Office, Cochrane "started getting into telephone exchanges". This spurred him to attend technical college, followed by embarking on a university degree.
Though he returned for a brief stint at the Post Office, Cochrane then joined BT, before another period of study where he completed a Masters degree and PhD. His PhD, in radio systems, wire-line systems and the social consequences of technology, was under the mentorship of Essex telecommunications professor Ken Cattermore, who set up the world's first MSc in Telecommunications.
The focus of Cochrane's PhD work was the long-distance transmission of data over coaxial cables - "a course so specific and obscure, nobody taught it". He had to do all his research independently. "My PhD said to BT, "stop investing in copper, stop laying copper wires and get into fiber optic lines".
At that time (1979), Cochrane had befriended BT chairman Sir George Jefferson. "One afternoon over coffee, he made the decision to do it," he says.
BT's network consisted of a repeater station every 40km then a repeater in the ground every 2.2km - requiring huge amounts of staff to check, operate and maintain.
The continued cost of copper was something no organisation could bear: BT was spending more than £1bn per year in installing copper into its network, Cochrane says, and the £6bn cost of installing a fiber optic network was the most sensible long-term business option.
"BT was the first in the world to start this massive infrastructure changeover. Six years later we had put fiber throughout the BT network, quite an accomplishment; however, 80,000 people retired early and/or moved on."
He says the downsizing was "one of the most successful in history". When BT started it had more than 242,000 employees; afterwards, it levelled off at 110,000.
Dr Cochrane was also involved in another monumental initiative around this period - BT's decision to link London, Paris and New York by direct fiber cable in 1980. "We had no fibers, no lasers, no ICs, no detectors...nothing. It was like the JFK decision to put a man on the moon."
BT finished the link in about four years. Cochrane, who was an engineer on the bench, group manager and section manager on the project, said: "We had 1GHz chips when PCs where only running at 6MHz."
When he became BT research director in 1991, he got another plum assignment - to build an ecology or life form inside a computer which would be self-replicating, a similar exercise to that of Cyberdyne Systems from the Terminator films. Later, his team shipped software to MCI which doubled the capacity of the MCI network and "only involved the cost of the software".
In 2000, Cochrane embarked on the first of his entrepreneurial ideas and started Concept Labs because, as he says, "software development was one unholy mess. The people in the industry at that time had little education in software development or systems thinking". Shortly thereafter, he was involved with US start-up Knowledge Vector, which extended automated decision making into the defence industry.
So how and why did he leave BT?
The impetus started, he said, when 3G was being mooted. "Up until that time, I would've put BT up against any organisation in the world. We had the best leadership and best organisation. A certain type of hubris set in; an arrogance that drove an entire industry to believe we were going to make a lot of money out of 3G. I was saying it would be a lot more difficult - it was simple - people were not going out to make more money to buy a mobile phone. This was one of several factors that were responsible for my leaving BT."
By 1999, Cochrane "saw the dot-com debacle coming". "The whole telecoms industry lost touch with reality and was going forward with plans that didn't make any economic or technical sense - the whole mobile and broadband strategy wouldn't hold water. Companies across the planet all decided to do the same thing: follow 3G."
He says 3G will keep "limping" in the future. "The license fees will never be recovered and that the replacement will be Wi-Fi everywhere. The competition will come thick and fast and the number of Wi-Fi and WiMax companies and devices will skyrocket - wholesale carnage and a big shake-out."
The problem with 3G, he says, is that no one is asking what the customer actually wants.
Today, Dr Cochrane is still the man at the helm of Concept Labs, is embarking on a business venture with wife Jane, and has a hectic schedule of speaking appointments on the future of technology.
Bill Robinson may be reached at: [email protected]