Talking telecoms with Julie Agnew

Julie Agnew is Virgin Media’s Executive Director of Construction and Delivery. She’s responsible for growing Virgin Media’s HFC network and FTTP delivery for their residential customers. She’s also the president for Women in Cable and Telecoms (WICT).

Julie was kind enough to spare us a few moments for our #BalanceforBetter series in honour of International Women’s Day.

How long have you worked in the telecoms industry? What made you pursue a career in this area?

I have worked in Telecoms for 23 years. About 26 years ago I set up the first Call Centre in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (Dunoon) which was a direct marketing company.

I moved on from there to another Call Centre which was part of Scottish Telecom – later known as Thus – which is where I had my first dalliance with Telecoms. From there my career stayed within the telecommunications sector.

What’s your favourite thing being Virgin’s Director of Construction and Delivery and what does it involve? Is there such thing as ‘normal’ day?

My favourite thing about my role is to know that my team are out there physically building a fibre network – which takes fibre to the premise providing families/children/students/people with the ability to further educate themselves, entertain themselves – keep in touch with family and friends abroad – it’s such an exciting time in our industry!  In addition to that we have almost built 1.5m new premises to add to the Virgin Media Network.  Our purpose is “Building connections that really matter”

“Women need to step outside their comfort zones and push themselves forward for promotional roles.”

There is no normal day. Most weeks I am in London, where our HQ is based, attending meetings, or I can be in a Regional office (Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast, Hook). If I’m not there I can be out in the field with the Build Teams looking at the intricacies of our build out in the street, or even covering all three over a week.

My days are very rarely standard. I will generally be in the office just before 8am and there will be many webex/conf calls in the diary which I can do on the move with iphone/ipad and my day will generally finish between 6pm-7pm.  However, we live in an always switched on environment and I would rather deal with challenges and issues as they come in. I sleep better knowing I have dealt with my emails and I also do prep for my meetings the next day so sometimes my days don’t finish until 9/10pm.

Do you believe there is a gender imbalance in telecoms? And if so, why do you think that is and what can we do about it? Does it even matter? Has it ever held you back?

There is a gender imbalance in telecoms, however it depends what area of the company you look. The back office and call centres generally have more females than males, however in field operations, networks, planning, headends, build operations, provisioning and engineering all tend to be the more male dominated areas.

I started my early days in the Call Centre – but moved in Field Operations. I was the first female Field Operations Director in Telewest (later re-branded to Virgin Media) and continued from there to work in the more field based and technical areas.

“We need to reflect our customer base. This means we should be aiming for a 50:50 gender balance in the work place.”

What can we do about it? So, firstly I don’t agree with the victimisation calls from females or the “it’s not fair attitude”.  Women need to step outside their comfort zones and push themselves forward for promotional roles. However, to do this, we must support and develop them to be more confident, understand their own worth and help them raise their profiles through social media etc.

Research has shown that if a woman has an 80% skill set match they will be reluctant to apply for the role.  However, if a man has a 50% match of skills he will apply and be confident about being successful. Hence less women apply for promotional roles . We need to help encourage talented females to apply for roles.

Through Virgin Media’s own in-house research, we also looked in detail at job roles advertised and the wording used. These generally feature more field/civils technical terms rather than stating the actual requirement which is 3rd party management experience, influencing and relationship building skills, which we know women have. However, they may not have 10 years civils experience or be NRSWA accredited.  We also identified that when we interview women, we need to provide balance on the interview panel. In the past it was mostly all male interview panels which can be intimidating for women.

Finally, we know that men and women need flexibility to support their families, so we have adopted a flexible approach to start times where needed to help support women and men with their work/life balance.

“I’ve had some awesome, generally male, bosses who I learned what to do and say from, sometimes from their mistakes!”

Does it matter? Yes, very much so. Firstly as we know women make up 50% of the population, we need to reflect our customer base. This means we should be aiming for a 50:50 gender balance in the work place.

Secondly, we also know that women bring creativity, have more emotional intelligence and will deliver change faster into the business. Also, companies who have gender balance on their executive teams are much more profitable than all male executive teams.

Has it ever held me back? No, never. I have stepped out of my comfort zone many times, I don’t have an engineering background – nor did I attend University. I have always loved learning, I’ve had some awesome, generally male, bosses who I learned what to do and say from, sometimes from their mistakes! I enjoy working collaboratively across large organisations and stepping into under-performing areas, or ultimately areas that need full end to end transformation.

I am not afraid to stand my ground or give high challenge to my peers and upwards. I hold my own in many lively meetings!  I have worked across many areas in Virgin Media – call centres and back office support, field operations – installs, service & network operations – headend, Planning, business to business provisioning & delivery.  I spent a year as an HR Director which was really interesting! And of course finally where I am today, where I feel very honoured to lead the team that now build the network!

Has the sector changed over the course of your career? If so, in what way?

It’s changed massively. When I first joined Telewest back in 2001 we had dial up internet connectivity offering a top speed of 50kbs and had just launched digital TV.  We worked regionally across various services.

Now we’re national, offering broadband up to 300 Mgb and blow fibre to the premises. In fact broadband has probably become more important than basic utilities as opposed to back in 2001 when it was a ‘nice to have’.  It is also a very exciting sector to be involved in. We still have 5G to launch and what’s next!?

What piece of advice would you give to girls and women aspiring to have your job?

1. Know your worth and be prepared to negotiate to be paid your worth

2. Speak out – don’t be frightened to be heard in meetings

3. Step out of your comfort zone – apply for roles even though you are not 100% match

4. Tell your Line Manager where do you want to go in the organisation

5. Think outside of your own operation – understand other’s challenges

6. Champion and support other women

7. Get experience running a P&L – be commercially aware

 

Huge thank you to Julie sharing her experience as a leading figure in the telecoms sector, particularly for such actionable advice anyone in any sector could benefit from! If you’d like to keep up to date with Julie’s work creating better balance in telecoms, give Women in Cable Telecommunications a follow on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Keep your eyes peeled for more great interviews coming  up in our #BalanceforBetter series. We’re meeting women in all niches and levels of the Telecoms industry in honour of International Women’s Day 2019!