Sean Curry: Manager, Infrastructure
Engineering Calpine Corporation; Recipient 2005 NPA International "Professional
Excellence and Innovation Award - Corporate Fortune X"
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an
exclusive interview with Sean Curry, recipient of the “2005 NPA International Professional
Excellence and Innovation Award – Corporate Fortune X” given out at the world’s
largest networking industry conference, Networld+Interop Las Vegas. The
Award is sponsored by the Network Professional Association with cooperation and
support including from Networld+Interop, Microsoft, Que/SAMS (Pearson
Technology Group Publishing), Network Computing Magazine, Network World
Magazine, Novell Canada, …
Sean is Manager of Infrastructure
Engineering at Calpine Corporation. Answering the corporate challenge to reduce
expenses, Calpine's Communication Engineering team developed and implemented a
Wide Area Network (WAN) optimization project that slashed operating costs by
75%, saving several million dollars per year. This communication network is
used 24x7x365 to help Calpine generate, deliver and liquidate its megawatts of electricity;
therefore, the cost reductions could not compromise network performance,
availability or reliability. Using forethought, creativity, and innovation, the
team was not only successful in achieving the objective but they also boosted
network performance by 250%.
Q: Sean: your career is hallmarked by a
list of notable successes. Congratulations on your fine achievement as the recipient
of the networking industry’s highest international professionalism award for Corporate
Fortune X, the prestigious 2005 NPA Professional Excellence and Innovation
Award. The award is particularly significant in the 21st century due
to the importance of the internet, networking, communications, and security in
what amounts to a trillion dollar industry touching every part of the world and
lives of 6.2 billion people.
What key career factors and life events led
up to this recognition from an international panel of judges?
A: The last several years I’ve spent with
Calpine have been critical in giving me the tools necessary to implement the
type of solutions that can provide real business value. Calpine offers an
entrepreneurial environment that is hard to find in most corporations. Here, if
you can show a real dollar savings and it makes sense from a business
standpoint, IT projects can move quickly. In other positions I’ve held, there
was the general position that any IT project is seen as overhead. Calpine sees
everything as an opportunity.
Hard working, well motivated, intelligent
people can accomplish a lot, if they’re allowed to.
Q: Can you detail the project and describe
how others can replicate the project success cited in your Award profile? What
processes did you use? What lessons can you pass onto others?
A: The project in question was originally
started as an effort to analyze areas of recurring cost to the company, and to develop
an internal list of alternatives that could reduce or eliminate these costs. To
get it done, I took my team at the time into a room, cleared their schedules
for two weeks, and explained what I saw as the options. I told them to go out
and bring me back details, including pro/con type information and what a
proposed design might be. We went through every iteration of what Calpine’s
Wide Area alternatives were and narrowed it down to a list of three.
During that effort, we had to challenge a lot
of our own assumptions and biases in order to come up with the solution that
best align the services of the network with the requirements of our business
I used the Socratic method in terms of
interacting with members of the team, and made sure they could dedicate their
time to this effort alone.
Once we had our top three solutions, we
brought in a myriad of vendors to explain their options, and built actual real
world lab environments that directly replicated the rollout we were about to
undertake. We made detailed notes about every issue we encountered, and created
an FAQ for issues we could use to aid the troubleshooting process. I also had
my team actually function in these lab environments for a period of a week, so
they could feel any pain our users would in the field.
We wrote detailed implementation
procedures, and used an engineer on site for every install, with a backend
engineer supporting him. The individual on-site would to the physical work,
bringing each component online, while the back-end individual did the actual
configuration and initial QA. All implementations were done overnight, and all
implementations had an engineer on site in the morning to deal with any issues.
At one point we did five installations a night, with the one backend engineer
supporting five installations at the same time. Time was money on this
projects. We completed the main body of the rollout in less than two months.
Q: What are top major challenges in your
current position and what processes, tools, and solutions do you use to resolve
A: I’d break this up into two categories,
management level challenges, and technical challenges for the project in
question. I have a very good team of technicians I work with, so the issues we
did find, we worked through them quickly.
Technical (project focused):
1) Circuit provisioning with the carriers – Always an issue, and any
large scale WAN installation is going to have problems here. We brought in an
individual and dedicated him to helping with installation scheduling and
circuit delivery, and also dedicated a project engineer to the effort who did
all of the schedule coordinating and inventory tracking necessary.
TCP MSS – We used a GRE tunnel
over a VPN tunnel to keep our dynamic routing available, so the overhead for
some large TCP based transfers presented exceeded the max value on occasion. By
adjusting the max negotiated sequence size on the routers ingress at the remote
sites, we were able to keep the packets small enough to allow for the overhead
of the IPSEC and GRE.
Throughput – IPSEC encryption chews up a fair portion of the
available capacity, so in order to provide a more throughput, we investigated
compression and control technologies (Peribit/Expand were the finalists; ended
up picking Peribit because of their centralized configuration management and
simplicity of installation).
4) Application Issues – with any large WAN change, application groups
are going to be prone to look to the network for any issues in their applications.
Calpine deployed netscout probes at every single site to give more information
for troubleshooting remote site issues, which have proven to be a tremendous
1) Time – with so many opportunities, and the burden of trying to be
thorough about research into all of them, the number of hours in a day turn out
to be my biggest headache. I have a tendency of working the long hours in order
to get a project completed, and expect the same of my team. When failure isn’t
an option, burning the candle at both ends is inevitable. In order to help with
keeping myself and my staff sane, I’ve adopted a “flex-time” schedule and allow
up to 50% of an employees week to be spent telecommuting. Good people will end
up doing more work from home in my opinion, and for me, it’s the work product
I’m interested in, not how you get there.
2) Priorities – This has been an ongoing issue for me, everyone wants
their project or their effort to be the one getting my teams immediate
attention, and that isn’t possible with the small number of people involved. To
help with this, I adopted the practice of recording the list of my teams
projects and requested research efforts, and assigning them a numerical value
for criticality. I post this information for Calpine Management to review, and
ask them to identify efforts that they would like more attention paid to.
Having that work log has helped many understand the workload, and prevented
some of the frivolous efforts that have no value.
3) Last minute critical efforts – are going to happen in any company,
so planning around resource issues is difficult. Calpine’s IS management has
allowed us to adopt a flexible sourcing model to help accomplish
these types of tasks, that has
proven very successful, of late, in meeting short lead-time business goals.
– This is an issue for any innovator. There will always be those in any
organization who are resistant to change, who are not capable of explaining
their rationale and will make the implementation of any new system difficult.
It’s difficult to stay focused in dealing with them, so I try to remember the
quote from Teddy Roosevelt:
"It is not
the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled,
or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the
man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat
and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who
knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy
cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and
who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his
place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory
We also used a double blind implementation practice, where we slated sites with
personnel known for being negative about the effort for transition and then did
nothing on the scheduled night for installation. When the personnel called to
complain about performance the next day for the new solution, we told them we
hadn’t changed anything, and included their management in that communication.
Word got around pretty quick, that unless you actually had an issue, then you
were going to look silly. You’d be amazed how well that worked.
Q: Amongst IT Pros, what ten factors
contribute to professional success?
1) Work Ethic
Attention to detail
Strong supporting team
Broad knowledge of solution options
Ability to deal with change
Knowledge of the business environment
Partnerships with management
Knowing when to ask for help
Keeping the big picture in mind
10) Vendor relationships
Q: What do you still hope to accomplish and
how will you realize your goals?
A: I’m in the process of further
negotiating savings for Calpine’s WAN in preparation for a mass VOIP rollout.
Other larger projects are datacenter server and storage consolidation to help
right size that environment, and the tuning and installation of enterprise
identity management systems.
Q: Describe Calpine and how IT is essential
to the corporation’s success and sustaining competitive advantage. Can you
demonstrate by example and case study how this is done?
A: Calpine has traditionally been one of
the first companies to become active in market regions, largely due to the
abilities provided by the IS group. Business opportunities present themselves
continually through the acquisition and divestiture process, and the IS group
has been actively analyzing business cases for automation where it can save the
Q: How do you encourage diversity in the
A: In terms of what I look for, I hire the
best person for the job, period. I don’t care if that person is blue or green
or red, it really doesn’t matter to me. During the interview process, I give
specific instructions to make the interviews as technical as is reasonable, to
include lab and real-life scenarios to get a feel for a persons ability for
problem solving. This method of hiring has gotten me a team that is ethnically
very diverse and has proven successful.
Q: In general, women are underrepresented
in the IT field. How can this be corrected?
A: In my opinion, women are
underrepresented in technical fields across the board. I think that may be
changing though, in the past few years, I’ve seen more female technicians
coming into entry level positions. Calpine is actually odd in this case, as the
two VP’s in IS are both women.
Q: What the biggest technical obstacles for
IT Pros and how can these obstacles be overcome?
A: The largest challenges I see don’t come
technically; technical challenges are the fun ones, the ones that we all look
forward to getting into and resolving. Most of the vendors are coming around to
using a more standards based approach to their systems, which can help resolve
some of the most major problems we’ve seen in the past with inter-operability
of systems and applications.
Cutting through the hype cycle of
technology is always challenging, as effective marketing gets us all ramped up
and ready to go to do the latest and greatest thing. Slowing that down and
making good decisions about what are going to help the mission of your business
is what’s going to buy the trust necessary to survive in the future.
Outsourcing is always a risk as well, as more and more systems become
standardized, IT becomes a commodity, that in the eyes of most executives, can
be serviced by anyone.
Q: What are your tips for effective
A: To take a page from the Marine Corps
1) know yourself and seek self-improvement.
2) be technically and tactically proficient.
3) develop a sense of responsibility among your
4) make sound and timely decisions.
5) set the example.
6) know your marines and look out for their welfare.
7) keep your marines informed.
8) seek responsibility and take responsibility for your
9) ensure assigned tasks are understood, supervised, and
10) train your marines as a team.
11) employ your command in accordance with its
Q: What are you most proud of and why?
A: Professionally, I’m most proud of the
team I’d built at Calpine and their ability to perform. The key members of that
group will go on to do great things, and it was a pleasure working with them.
I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years, but the group of technicians
that made up that team combined to make the best network engineering group I’d
Q: What does professionalism mean to you? How
do further plan to make a difference in your workplace, and community, and in
academia, industry, and government?
A: I don’t think I agree with the conventional way it’s interpreted
in corporate America. To me, its more than just how an individual dresses, where he went
to school, or how he speaks. It’s also more than being technically proficient
(we all know people who are very good technically, but lack something). To me,
in practice, professionalism means coming to work and making good and difficult
decisions. It means using reason and attempting to understand all of the facets
of an argument before jumping to a conclusion. It’s an internalization of the
premise that your work does represent you, and it shows in everything you do.
I intend to continue to try to help the company I work for succeed
through the application of good technology.
Q: Can you share with us any case studies
that illustrate the work of your team?
A: We’ve had several articles published,
but the most interesting and applicable examples of our work all include the
same efforts I’ve talked about. Taking a problem, applying a strong set of technical
knowledge, and helping come up with solutions.
Q: What are your top resources for IT Pros in your profession?
A: I’d say the top resources for network
1) Google (ya gotta love google)
2) CCO (I do think this used to be a better source of information)
4) Network World
5) Packet magazine
6) Network Computing
7) Information WeekCIO magazine (I know, it sounds strange, but if you
read this, you can be prepared for what your CIO is going to ask of you)
Q: You have been quoted extensively in the
media due to your elite standing and expertise. What is going to happen in the
IT industry in five-to-ten years? What should businesses be looking for? What
pitfalls should they avoid? Where should they be steering their IT teams?
A: I think we are going to see a big move
in the networking business to consolidated platforms for all network systems.
I’d say having a single device at a remote site that is everything isn’t that
far off. It could be the router, the switch, the IPS, the content filter, the
file server, the compression engine… you get the idea. I also see more of the
common services in both security and infrastructure moving to more of a simple
sourcing model, with MPLS providing transports to vendors that provide these
types of services. NSM and MSSP services are already starting to see allot of
play, and the option to outsource email filtering and backups will become more
and more common, and the grid notions of using computing capacity outside the
datacenter will see more use by mid-sized IT/IS shops.
Sean, thank you for taking time out of
your busy schedule to do this interview and sharing your valued global