• Ahead of the curve

    Signal distributor Sentech is on track to deliver multi-channel broadcast content services, says CEO Mlamli Booi

    Ahead of the curve

    When Mlamli Booi was appointed CEO and executive director of South African ICT company and broadcasting signal distributor, Sentech, in 2015, he stepped into the role with more than 20 years of experience in the ICT industry. And while that sounds impressive on paper, it’s even more impressive in the context of the massive technological changes that the industry has seen over those two decades. ‘When I started my career there were no cellphones,’ he says. ‘That tells you all you need to know about the evolution in technology we have seen. I started out in the telecoms space, working in telephone exchanges, and I saw how the industry moved from analogue to digital exchanges, and then to mobile telephony.

    ‘On the media and content side, meanwhile, I’ve seen technology move from a single-channel to a multi-channel distribution platform. Then we’ve had the evolution of broadband, together with the introduction of streaming services, which complement – and at times compete with – conventional broadcast services for content delivery.’

    Sentech itself has seen its share of changes over the years. The company began as a technical division of the national broadcaster, SABC, before it was established by an Act of Parliament into a separate public company responsible for providing broadcasting signal distribution services as a ‘common carrier’ to South Africa’s licensed television and radio broadcasters.

    As technologies change, so too do the demands of Sentech’s clients. ‘One of the challenges those broadcasters face is that their content is no longer only consumed via traditional, conventional broadcasting platforms,’ says Booi. ‘It’s now consumed via broadband streaming services too. That puts a lot of pressure on us to provide complementary services that allow our customers to provide content on what is called over-the-top – “OTT” – services. The cost of running a conventional broadcast network is still high, so our customers require us to be innovative, so that we can reduce the cost of service delivery while also providing reliable multi-channel content delivery services.’

    This forces Sentech’s leaders and engineers to – as Booi puts it – think outside of the traditional box of broadcast content delivery.

    ‘We must think about how we enable customers to access content in the cloud,’ he says. ‘It’s an interesting and exciting challenge for us as a technology company. We are building and enabling our platforms to cater for the needs of our customers. Remember, we don’t sell services directly to the end user; we provide a platform for broadcasters. That’s who we have to enable.

    ‘Being a state-owned enterprise [SOE] comes with its own challenges, while at the same time it provides us with the opportunity to deliver ICT services to government. Because we are not government funded, we run as a commercial entity. This means we have to be efficient and customer-focused, while delivering universal service for broadcasting and content delivery,’ says Booi. ‘That’s the balance we have to maintain.’

    Managing an entity under the Public Finance Management Act requires a lot of patience because government processes can also take their time – and time is a luxury that simply doesn’t exist in the rapidly changing world of tech.

    ‘As an SOE, we have processes that can unfortunately lead to slight delays in our responses to customers’ needs,’ he says.

    ‘For example, when we procure something, we have to follow the necessary Treasury regulations. We have to navigate it so that we don’t break the rules just because we want to respond speedily to customers. Any breach of rules and regulations and the law would not be acceptable to our board, shareholders and Parliament, to which we report. We’re striving to build a culture of excellence within an SOE, and I’m happy to say that we have managed to achieve most of our corporate goals for 2017/18. However, culture change is a long process but we are making progress.’

    In fact, Sentech has achieved clean audits (unqualified audit opinion) for the past five years in a row – achieving between 80% and 100% on all the key performance indicators to which the company has committed. That’s a remarkable accomplishment in any sector, let alone in the demanding field of the public sector and fast-paced technology sector. Much of this success is a result of a strong leadership team and dedicated staff, coupled with an enabling leadership style.

    ‘I’m focused on results but also on developing people,’ he says. ‘So I’m consultative but also firm when it comes to delivery. However, I do get impatient with poor performance.

    ‘I have a team of executives around me who are focused on the customer and on the long-term sustainability of the business. My vision is to build a learning, innovative and entrepreneurial organisation. When you look at the demands of the business, you have to ask yourself, “Do we have the knowledge capacity we need, and do we have the line leadership and management skills we need within our organisation?”. There is always a need for new skills in the technology space, so my leadership style is one that says, “Let’s build a learning and innovative organisation”.’

    Booi accepts that his vision comes with the constant challenge of keeping his team up to speed with the changes in the industry. ‘I expect my executives to be constantly learning new things about our industry, and to share what they’re learning so that we can bridge the gap between the cultures of the old analogue environment and the new digital [one]. We have to move with speed. There is no time to waste.’

    By Mark van Dijk