At some point, wireless technology ends up in a network of wires somewhere. ZenFi Networks leads the way in this crucial part of 5G development as a disruptive force in fiber deployment in New York City and New Jersey. Even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ZenFi team continues to tirelessly transform the metropolitan region’s connectivity landscape. Leading the charge in this massive undertaking is Pat O’Hare, the company’s Senior Vice President of Operations and Engineering. Joining Carrie Charles on the show, he speaks about the company’s phenomenal growth in 2020, its prospects for 2021, the team’s dynamics during remote work and social distancing, leadership challenges in the new normal, and ZenFi’s company culture. Join in and get a glimpse of the real work behind the future of connectivity.
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ZenFi Leading The Way In Fiber Deployment With Pat O’Hare
My guest is Pat O’Hare. He’s a good friend of mine and he’s also the Senior Vice President of Operations and Engineering at ZenFi. Pat, thanks for being on the show.
Thanks for having me, Carrie.
I love your background. Tell me about that.
It’s a picture of your typical manhole in New York City where we do a lot of our infrastructure work. I figured, why not keep the outside alive during COVID lockdown?
Talk to me about ZenFi.
ZenFi is a wireless infrastructure provider in the New York, New Jersey Metro area. We have a fiber infrastructure. We do wireless siting and network edge colocation. We own and operate our purpose-built network edge colos. We talk about the Horizontal Tower Model. It’s the model for our business. Our fiber infrastructure turns out to be the front volt fiber as if it was going up a tower but instead, it goes horizontally along the streets. We provide wireless siting solutions on public infrastructure. We are a mobile telecom franchise holder in New York City and top suppose kiosks, any type of street furniture that we can bring fiber and wireless siting to. We are the underlying network provider for Lincoln YC, the free public Wi-Fi service in New York City.
Let’s talk about New York, New Jersey and the growth there. What do you see as the future of fiber? What role is that going to play in a 5G deployment in New York City as well as New Jersey?
Without wires, there is no wireless. Eventually, everybody needs to know that wireless becomes wired somewhere. We’re building a new type of fiber infrastructure where traditional networks were 1 or 2 things. They’re either highly dense or highly accessible. Those legacy networks don’t fit the new 5G infrastructure. There needs to be highly accessible dense fiber because of the density of the siting for 5G. We are using innovative cable assemblies, putting in large count fiber cables all across the Metro region, and generally creating those network edge colos so that we can aggregate that traffic for our customers.
Tell me a little bit about your expansion.
Some would call it explosive growth for ZenFi. We’ve won several contracts with mobile carriers where we are doing large projects in both New York and New Jersey Metro areas where we’re building fiber and doing wireless siting. We are finishing up two of those network edge colos that I spoke about. One in Fairview, New Jersey, and one in Jersey City, New Jersey. In New York City, we’ve created two other hubs for one of our customers where we fully fiber it.
No matter how big your workspace is, the walls start closing in eventually if you don't get out and have some physical interaction.
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We’re building out almost 90 miles of a brand-new fiber in New Jersey for another large project. All things considered even during the pandemic, ZenFi continues to grow both steadily and some might say exponentially. We’ve brought on ten new hires during the COVID lockdown. We’re proud of the fact that our sales team and our wireless solutions team continue to engage our customers and are able to win the deals that keep that sustained growth going.
Let’s talk about COVID a little bit further. You said you had an increase in hiring in 2021 so far. Do you feel that COVID and the need for connection is fueling this explosive growth that you’re having? What’s fueling that?
It’s more of the rollout of 5G as the mobile carriers start to ramp up their deployments. Credit to the sales and wireless solutions teams, that fuels the operations team’s growth is winning those large projects. Two huge projects in New York and New Jersey that they’ve won coming into 2020 steadily increased the need for people in the operations and engineering team and also laying the groundwork for 2021. There’s going to be another reservation period for the New York City mobile telecom franchise. That’s a few of our growth as well. We have more infrastructure that’s going to need acquired for the mobile carriers.
Let’s talk about 2021 a little bit. I’m sure many people are wondering what does it look like. What’s ahead for us? I’m getting that question a lot from our clients. What do you see coming? Are you bullish? Is it going to be flat, the same, busier, crazy?
You’ll have slower growth but there will still be growth. Hopefully, if we can come out of the other side of the pandemic either with a vaccine, slowing or curtailing of this where we can get back to some of the in-person collaboration that happens in a normal operating environment. The need for conductivity has exacerbated the need for talent. The mobile network telecom franchise reservation period, that’s going to be the growth there. The New York City franchise has a reservation period which we expect will at the beginning of 2021. That’s another project for all the franchise holders. The assets have to be split up between the franchise holders so the carriers have to come and make deals with us.
That’s good news. Is your whole team working remotely?
The whole team is working remotely. The last time that we were in the office was March 13th, 2020.
As a leader, what have you done differently? How have you engaged in a remote workforce? Have you done anything interesting and fun that we can learn from?
Zoom all day, Zoom all night. The interaction is important for the team. Zoom rooms and things like that are helping out to stay engaged. Bringing people together on those Zooms, at the beginning it was fun and games, but we’ve all settled into the fact that this is the normal operating environment. It’s going to be engaging people via video conference. We’ve embraced that. It’s fueled some of the things that we were doing already with rolling out Microsoft Teams and creating collaboration environments on Microsoft Teams. It’s given us a little bit of a shove towards trying new things.
When they work out showing that they’re increasing productivity even though you can’t be in the same space. We did take advantage of the nice weather, being outdoors, and still being able to socially distance. My team having some tailgate meetings which is exactly as it’s described. Make-believe you go into a football game, take your chair out of the trunk of your car, let’s sit around and have an individually wrapped sandwich so nobody’s touching anything of each other.
Sit around for a couple of hours, talk about work and get your collaboration time in there. Even though socially distant, you’re physically in that person’s presence. It makes a little bit of a difference because no matter how big or small your workspace is, the walls start closing in eventually if you don’t get out and have some of that interaction. We were fortunate that we’ve got some opportunities to get together in a socially distant manner and suddenly see each other.
That’s smart. How do you feel that the workforce is going to change because of 5G? Are there going to be new skills that are needed or other types of skilled labor? What are your thoughts there?
I don’t know if necessarily there’s going to need to be new types of skilled labor. I think telecommunications, wireless, and anything that those terms encompass. This is still an industry where you can learn on the job. There are some programs now where you can go to college and get your Telecommunications degree. For the most part, the folks in this industry are self-taught or trained via on the job and its experiential training.
I still think that the most important skills for anybody to be successful in this is be smart, have a sense of urgency, be willing to learn, and network with folks. You can be successful especially here at ZenFi with the entrepreneurs that founded both our team, the ZenFi team proper and Cross River Fiber who we merged in 2018. This is an environment where people are willing to take on new folks and teach them.
That’s an important aspect of growing any team. You can bring on people with experience or no experience but you have to, as a manager, take that time out of your day which you may think is busy but it’s important to train those folks. To let them go on their own and give them some responsibility and course correct in that manner. You don’t want to bring people on to do work, check it, and not spend the time to develop on them. That’s still an important aspect of what we do.
That’s crucial training and development. It’s something that many times we’re too busy to do. Many leaders want the plug and play. They want people to come ready to work. I agree with that but at the same time, you’ve got to develop your workforce.
It’s difficult. Everybody and every company have a certain type of culture. If somebody is ready to plug and play at one company, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready to plug and play. They may have the basis of RF engineering, outside plant, fiber engineering or node construction but you might have a different flavor of how you do that and manage by which you execute that.
Talk about culture at ZenFi. What is it like to work there?
I’ve been here since the beginning. The founders of both companies, Cross River Fiber, and ZenFi are entrepreneurial. We are all roll up our sleeves. You can go on our website and look at the executive team and they don’t act like executives. They work on a daily basis and alongside us. They have their own things that they’re doing that they are responsible for but they are responsible for things other than, “I tell people what to do. That’s my job.” Nobody has that job here at ZenFi.
If you’re still into rolling up your sleeves, getting to work, and having your responsibilities, giving people the opportunity to be accountable for themselves, we don’t have a lot of checks the checker, handholding, or administrative folks. Everybody has responsibilities. That’s rewarding for people who work here like, “I’m responsible for this. I’m going to be held responsible for it.” We also have the confidence in you that we’ve hired you, we’ve tried to develop you, we work along with you and we’re going to allow you to do your job.
What is wonderful about your team is diversity. We’ve talked about this a lot and we’ve staffed for you for years. You’re definitely one of our favorite clients. You have many women on your team but they’re in non-traditional roles. ZenFi also has women in leadership, I believe. Victoria Lamberth won the Top Woman in Network Orchestration at the Global Women in Tech and Telco Awards. Talk about how you have achieved this diversity because it is something that many leaders, especially in tech and telecom, want to do and want to know how to do it.
It’s opening up the non-traditional roles to everybody and picking the best person for the job, male or female. I know that people say that but it’s not trite. Here is who is the best person for the job and also giving people the opportunity in roles that may be more technical. On my team alone, we have eleven women. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back. It’s that those were the best people for the roles that interviewed for the job.
What percentage is that of your total team?
I’m bad with math but I have 11 out of 25. Take your calculator out. A little less than half but we have women in leadership on my team. You mentioned Victoria Lamberth, she’s a champion of diversity here, and not only of gender diversity but cultural diversity as well. We have people from many diverse backgrounds. We’re a small company but we still have Women of ZenFi Forum for the women that work here to get together and talk about what’s going on so they know that they’re supported. That’s important. There are a lot of companies out there. We want to be one of them that is supporting the growth of women in the industry.
The other thing you do well is you create an environment for your contractors where they feel included and you keep them engaged. Tell me how do you do this. You can give some tips as well to other leaders.
We’re thinking about when we bring contractors into the business. It’s with the foresight of I want to get a contractor in here and I want to continue to make sure that they feel they’re a part of the team. They’re not Joe Contractor or Mary Contractor. We include them in everything that we do. The idea is that after a certain amount of time, we want them to become members of the team, full-time employees here at ZenFi. Kudos to the sales and the wireless solutions team that we continue to win business that allows us to not necessarily bring on a contractor for a project, the project is done, thank you if we get another project. We’ve been able to have this steady growth where, so far, every contractor that’s come on board after the appropriate amount of time and we continue to have the business to support them, we’ve turned into a full-time employee.
Our track record speaks for itself in the industry. Understand the belief in the wireless sector of telecom. It’s been that way. There are a lot of people out there that are contractors and they move from project-to-project and company-to-company and more power to people. Some people enjoy doing that and some do that only because it’s who’s winning the deal. We’ve been able to win enough deals to keep that steady influx of talent and develop it. We look at it. We’ve invested six months in this person teaching them the way to do this. We should keep them on board. That’s all based on the work that we continue to get.
There is no such thing as a plug and play employee. Leaders need to take the time to develop the people in their team.
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Tell me a little bit about who you’re hiring. For those people who are excited about it and say, “I’d love to work there.” What roles are you hiring for?
I would continue to say exponential growth in 5G and small cells. We have over 5,000 wireless sites under contract with options for more that’ll take up over 7,000. Our projects in New Jersey are over 600 sites. Our projects in New York that we’re working on are over 500 sites. Your typical project management coordinators, construction management, plant managers and construction managers, anything wireless infrastructure we’re doing it. Even to the point where we’re coming online, our 2nd and 3rd purpose-built, fully-owned, edge colocation facilities. We’re in the HVAC business, the power distribution and meet me rooms, etc. All those things that come along with the facility are in our network edge colocation.
Congratulations on your growth. Most of all, the way that you built your team and the type of company that you are. Many times when you grow and you’re focused on the revenue, the focus is not on the people and the development of people in diversity. It’s amazing to see a company like ZenFi that has it all. Congratulations to you.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
How can we reach you? What is your website?
Pat, I do appreciate you coming on the show. It’s been fun. Hopefully, I’ll be able to see you in person at some point soon. I’d love that.
Back on the conference circuit. Let’s hope.
It sounds good. You take care.
Have a good one.
About Pat O’Hare
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