Women in leadership: Jayne Stowell

Strategic Negotiator, Global Infrastructure, Google
Jayne Has Had An Illustrious Career In The Subsea And Telecommunications Industry Spanning Over 25 Years. She Currently Oversees The Construction Of Google’s Undersea Cable Projects. Jayne Is Also The Executive Director Of Suboptic.

Can you share with us the most notable milestones that punctuate your journey in this industry?

The most significant milestone really was the opportunity to build a submarine cable. Just like several things in my life, in my career when I’ve been faced with challenges, those have come with great opportunities that I hadn’t expected. This all started in 1995 when I joined MFS Communications in London. At the time, they had just acquired UUNET, one of the first of the start-up Internet companies. We were a big data-driven company, delivering data rather than voice. So, I joined the company in absolute serendipity, although I had no intention of joining them. I had been given a very attractive job offer at BT, and I knew the person who had previously held that job. This is one of the things I want to come back to; this is important.  

 I want to give a message to women in business—always do your research, do your homework. I took the opportunity at BT very seriously, and I did my homework to understand what the job would entail and also found the person who had previously held it. After I reached out to him, he invited me for a cup of coffee. What I deemed as a half an hour chat, turned out to be four hours of debating the pros and cons of the job. At the end of the long discussion he affirmed, “I don’t think you will be happy at the BT job”. While I was reassessing the BT offer, he said, “How about taking half of my desk?” He was the CEO at the time of MFS International. To my inquiry about what my role would enlist, he added, “All of the things that I don’t have anyone to do, why don’t you take over that?” So, here was an opportunity that came out of a lot of research about what would have otherwise been a mundane, boring job. But now, I was given an absolute green field.

During my tenure, one of the things I did was looked at the combination of the trans-Atlantic capacity requirements needed at MFS International along with the capacity needs at UUNET. A very simple spreadsheet showed my analysis: In 18 months not only would MFS International run out of capacity, but the Atlantic would too. I subsequently presented this wonderful study, this startling revelation to my boss. “What are we going to do,” he said. My solution was “if you can’t buy it, you build it.” He agreed. But I knew it wasn’t that simple from what I understood about submarine cables. “I have never built a submarine cable, and moreover we need something in 18 months. I think it takes 4-5 years to put a consortium together, and to build something like this it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” I contextualized him about the situation at hand. My boss went on to reaffirm me that no one here had built one either, so “all the better reason for you to figure out how to do it if we have to get it done quickly. I think you are an innovator.” And that’s how I set about building a submarine cable with no background in having done it, and with very limited contacts in the industry. But the contacts I had were all good people, ones I had known from previous life. And this is the second message I want to come back to, for people who are starting out in the industry. Develop a good network of people who are brighter and more knowledgeable than you.

I started reaching out to some of the contacts I had and then started the mammoth task of building a submarine cable by myself. Soon enough I realized that this was much bigger than a one-woman job. I went on to recruit a project manager to work alongside me, and slowly started pulling in all the resources. Having a small team had its advantages. In the first six months, I was the laughing stock of the traditional industry—the BTs, MCI, AT&T—who all talked about me and wondered how Jayne could build a submarine cable. Eighteen months later, when I brought about a lot of innovation—in structure, in doing things in parallel and a very successful implementation—I was the heroine of the industry, one who had redefined the industry. That was an absolute pivotal point in my career. Post this, I went on to build a trans-Pacific cable from Japan to US; I had put together a consortium for that. I have been building submarine cables ever since.

The next really interesting opportunity that came to me in 2007. It was a chance phone call from an executive recruiter who mentioned Google wanted to build a trans-Pacific cable and was looking for somebody who had done it before. Since I was the only person who had led such an endeavour before, they requested for a meeting with the team at Google. I was running a consulting business at that time and flew out to California thinking it would be a consulting opportunity. After I got interviewed by eight people is when I realized that they were trying to recruit me. I ended up going to work for Google in 2007, built a trans-Pacific and a trans-Asia cable. We now have 13 cables—one is still in the process, Dunant. It has been quite a journey, one that I had not planned. But when opportunity fell in my lap, I grasped it. In many ways, I have changed how Google looks at international capacity, and certainly Google was far, far in advance of any other content company even thinking to build cables. 

The subsea industry is going through an unprecedented resurgence. Looking ahead, do you think this new capacity is going to be sufficient for future connectivity requirements in years to come?

It’s never enough. First of all, technology allows us to be a lot more creative and get more capacity, but our business models are growing even faster. Google is now a major player in the Cloud business. Five years ago, we weren’t in the business. Today, Cloud is driving a substantial part of our capacity requirements, as it is for many other companies in the industry in that space. The products and services are becoming very bandwidth hungry. Machine-to-machine communications and artificial intelligence are all embedded in new products and services. The applications are also very bandwidth hungry, not just for Google but across the industry. So, we will need more and more capacity, particularly on the main routes, the trunk routes—trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific, North/ South America, increasingly Africa—and in turn, need more and more cables in my view.

Curie cable went live from Chile to LA and Dunant cable is under development from France to Virginia, both as wholly-owned private cables by Google. You are the pioneer of setting this trend in the industry. What were the key factors that led to this model, and do you see this trend continuing?

It is a model very well-known to me, as the first cable I ever built for MFS International was a private one and in a time when consortia was the only model for building a cable. The real advantages are the same ones I had in the 90s when building Gemini—speed to market and building it exactly the way you want and need it. We have gone through a whole joint-build, co-build consortium model but Google’s needs are growing enough that we can support and sustain our own builds, plus we can get to market much more rapidly. To give you an example, when we built the Monet cable from Florida to Brazil, which was a consortium cable with four other parties, it took us more than five years to put the consortium together, negotiate all the agreements. Plus, we had to do everything by a committee.

The Curie cable that we landed in April this year, took just over 18 months from the time we put the contract in place to landing the completed cable. Now, we can deploy cables much more rapidly with the innovations in technology, rather than being pulled into the lowest common denominator of some other parties’ needs. There are always different risk profiles and risk appetites when you are dealing with other companies. In dealing with a consortium model you are pulled to being very risk averse, often using old-fashioned technology and practices. So yes, I believe Google private cables, especially on main routes like North/South America, trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific, will be a major focus of ours. It is not to say that we won’t do consortium cables in certain parts of the world. Intra-Asia is a good example where it makes sense to do a consortium cable but the private model suits Google’s needs, and particularly, the needs for innovation, timely delivery and flexibility.

Jayne with the first bouy floating the Curie cable from CS Durable to shore

You have held several executive management roles in your career. Can you share a learning in life with the young women exploring this industry?

I’ve touched upon a couple of aspects earlier, like the importance of networking and developing good contacts and relationships. But one of the principles that I’ve always held on to and has always helped me is that always seek out colleagues and people who know more than you do, who are smarter than you and surround yourself with good people. But that is not enough in and of itself. You need to be a good listener to learn. Don’t just listen actively but also attentively, and ask questions. Refrain from making decisions unless you understand every aspect of a situation. It is important to understand what the other people are thinking, their views, and how does that fit in with what you are trying to achieve. Active listening skill is one that I don’t see enough in people. Most people, on the other hand, constantly think about what to say next. They are not listening deeply to what the other person is saying. That is one key skill that I think is important.

The next is having strong moral values of your own, and an ethical base as well as adherence to those high standards of principles. You should not compromise on your core ethical values for short term expediency. One of the things that resonated with me when Google wanted to recruit me was the company’s core ethical principle: “Don’t be Evil”. People here actively acknowledge the importance of a sound ethical approach when dealing with issues, people and problems. It was one of the reasons I came to Google. It’s been 12 years for me now at Google, and I attribute Google’s incredibly strong culture to value and adhere to high standards of ethics that has played a big part for me.

How is working in this industry different today for women, than from the time when you joined the industry many years ago?

Jasmine, I’m aware you were at the SubOptic conference in New Orleans in April this year, and you observed the disproportionate number of men compared to the women in the industry. There are certainly more women in the fraternity today than the time when I first joined this industry. But of course, this number is still not enough. I serve on the Executive Committee of International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC). In the 61-year of ICPC history, I am the first woman to be elected on to the Executive Committee. Despite that, I’ve never felt to be a minority. When you are working in a relatively small industry, when you know most of the people, most know you. I’ve never been treated with anything other than respect and collegiality by people in the industry. I don’t think of us as men and women but as colleagues trying to accomplish something together. So, it’s a great industry for women to work in. I think most women just don’t know about it.

What are your passions beyond work life? How do you balance work and personal life?

I have four key pillars in my life, I call them my ‘four Hs’: my horses, my hounds, my husband and my home. My home, in the Grantham community in the county of Lincolnshire has enabled me to have seven horses and seven dogs. One comment about my husband, I am really fortunate to have him in my life. He’s my best friend, someone who has always absolutely believed in me and believes that I can do anything I put my mind to. When you have someone who believes so much in you, it gives you a lot of strength and self-belief. Riding my horses and going to events with my competitive horses is my idea of relaxation. Several of my horses are home-bred horses, and they have completely transformed me. I have seven dogs, all again that I’ve bred at home. With my big four-legged family, it is easy to step away from work and balance social as well as professional life. My husband works from home, so he helps look after that four-legged family of ours.