An apprentice turned CEO: How Tony Simonsen rose to the top

Avaya's Tony Simonsen discusses how he moved from being a fitter apprentice to heading up top positions with some of the industry's largest companies.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are just the beginning of a list of influential people who have proven that a university degree is not essential to head up a large enterprise in the industry.

One other person who shares this same attribute is Tony Simonsen, who was appointed earlier this year as the managing director of Avaya Australia and New Zealand. While Simonsen may not share the same calibre of international success, he has still made an impression on the tech industry within the Asia-Pacific circuit, holding leading positions with some of the best, including EMC, Cisco, and Equinix.

Simonsen, though, never even pictured himself working in the field. In fact, he entered working life by taking on an apprenticeship as a fitter and machinist at the age of 15.

"To be honest, I thought computers were for nerds and geeks," he admitted.

Although, given that he always found an interest in being practical and hands-on, it was enough for him to take up a job with Wang Computers in 1989 — a role that kick-started his career in IT and was "fortuitously" offered to him by his neighbour at the time, who was working at the company.

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Image: Supplied

During his time at Wang, Simonsen was responsible for fixing "old green screen" monochrome monitors, dot matrix printers, and daisy wheel printers, before moving within the company for eight years as an engineer, fixing mini and mainframe computers, providing software support, and eventually running a professional services organisation.

"Back in the old days, computers and technology were sort of electro-mechanical, and I was a guy who liked to pull things apart, fix them, and put them back together — and that's essentially what I did. The logical side of me said, 'If that's broken, pull it apart, look at what's wrong with it, and put it together again'," he said.

"I fell in love with the information flow, and how it all worked; it intrigued me."

Simonsen landed his first leadership role at the age of 28, when he was head hunted to join Cisco as the company's first Asia-Pacific manager for professional services.

At the time, Cisco had acquired technology that allowed it to enter the service provider marketplace, and Simonsen became responsible for building the network for its service provider unit. Back then, Cisco was also a young company, which meant that Simonsen was given the opportunity to work in various roles during the seven years that he was there.

"Cisco at the time — around 1997 — was growing remarkably. We were growing probably 30 or 40 percent year on year. You did a role for about 12 to 18 months, and you went and did something else. So you just moved because the company was growing fast. So I did a lot of roles from services roles, channels roles, and business development roles," he said.

However, the pressure of balancing travel and family life for a solid three years while he headed up advanced services for Asia-Pacific with Cisco forced Simonsen to make one of his toughest career decisions: To leave Cisco. As part of the role, Simonsen was travelling to different parts of Asia every week from Monday to Thursday, after turning down the opportunity to relocate to Hong Kong.

"I had been there for seven years and I thought I was doing pretty well, but I wasn't seeing my family. I was travelling to Asia every week, so Monday morning I'd fly somewhere and I'd come back on Thursday night and get in on Friday," he said.

"So when my then-three-year-old son told me 'Don't go'; I made the decision to never put career ahead of family."

There have also been other challenges Simonsen has had to face, including dealing with the prejudice associated with being an executive without a university degree.

"I was actually in an interview once with a guy — a director of a company on the board of directors — who said to me 'How are you going to lead people who are more intelligent than you?', and I said 'What do you mean?' and he said 'Well you don't have a degree and the people who'll be working for you do, so therefore they must be more intelligent, how are you going to lead them?'

"I always research companies so I knew other members of that board didn't have any degrees and some of them were in the room, and I looked them directly at them and said 'You don't have a degree, do you?' and 'You don't have a degree, either' and they said 'No', and I said 'You've done alright, haven't you?', and that was enough. That's a prejudice that exists today."

Currently, Simonsen is finishing up his Masters of Business Administration at the University of New England, and has previously enrolled himself into a range of strategic leadership programs at Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales, as well as leadership programs and courses around business development and alliances with every job he has taken up.

At the same time, Simonsen believes that developing a strong network of people within the industry has helped him push forward his career from being given the opportunity to become CEO before the age of 40 at Allied Technologies — just two weeks after taking on the chief operating officer role with the company — to joining EMC firstly as technology solutions director, and then moving within the company to the role of director of global services ANZ. He also worked as the managing director for Pitney Bowes Australia for just under four years, before being head hunted to run Equinix, which he described as a "massive change" from working in core IT areas such as computing, networking, and storage.

"Equinix was the datacentre world. It was all about everything that I had been previously involved in lived within a datacentre. That was a massive change. Effectively, what Equinix does is provide real estate for a lot of different types of customers, and it was really enjoyable to understand that part of the business," he said.

"Before, you'd treat the datacentre like a place where everything got installed and you wouldn't worry about it, but it was actually a very important part of the IT world, and the datacentre is becoming more and more important every day."

While many would perceive Simonsen's career as one that has been partially luck-driven, he modestly attributes that the sheer luck has been influenced by several role models, including Michael Lappan at Wang Computers; Gary Jackson, Terry Walsh, and Ross Fowler at Cisco; Ray Doak of Allied Technologies; David Webster at EMC; Eric Mahe at Pitney Bowes; and Doug Oaks and Steve Smith of Equinix.

"I have learned something unique with every single company and I have worked with really good leaders who, I think, have shaped me in that respect," he said.

"What I find myself doing that is really interesting is, as you have conversations with people, sometimes you hear yourself say the things your mentor have said to you in the past and it starts to come out. One thing I make sure is to ring them and say, 'Guess what? I channelled you in this conversation'," he said.

On the topic of his 20-years-plus long career, Simonsen reflected on how fast the industry has been changing, with the belief that it all really "kicked off in earnest" when the internet was introduced, which he argued "profoundly changed" the way the industry works.

"If you think about the cloud and how it hangs together, internet protocol is one of the big foundations around that," he said.

"If you think about cloud, it is a delivery model that is becoming the norm today. In 2001, we had a concept called applications service providers, and today, that's what we call cloud providers. The challenge though back then was the infrastructure they were trying to deploy for their application just wasn't ready for it yet. It was a fantastic concept, just the wrong time. And when the dotcom crash happened, it all fell to bits. But the concept of cloud has been there for a while."

He even believes that the role of the chief information officer has changed over time, too.

"In 1989, they were called management information systems manager, and it was about managing information systems such as ERP.

"But now, the role of the CIO has become so strategic to a business. It has to understand marketing, business, and I think it is one of the roles that has changed so much. We've also created new roles like chief security officer, but the person who deals with information has had to be very adaptable."

Growing up in the south-western suburbs of Sydney in Belmore and attending a school that was over 95 percent multicultural also influenced Simonsen's outlook on how he runs his ship.

"Growing up in Belmore was pretty tough; it's a working-class suburb. My father drove a truck for 30 years, and my mother helped him. These values are pretty much what has shaped me."

But even with all the experience under his belt, Simonsen said he still doesn't have a career plan, or not one for his existing IT career, at least.

"My only goal career is to run a non-profit organisation that will help educate kids make better life decisions. Ultimately, that's where I see myself, but that's probably going to be my twilight years.

"I don't think I'm ever going to retire. I just think I'm going to do less of stuff, and I think that's going to be one of the things I do. It's an important one for me, coming from the background I did; we had nothing at all. I see a lot of kids who don't make the best decisions, and you wonder if we could help them, educate them, to make better decisions so their life might turn out differently.

"I also want to help the homeless people: Young, old, male, female. You look at the weather outside, and you think about the people who live on the street, and that's very unfortunate. If I can do something, a little bit, that can help that, then I'm going to do that."

But for now, the focus is on Avaya, and around four key target areas of achieving revenue objectives, customer satisfaction, channel partner satisfaction, and employee engagement.

"Those are the things I look at really closely. How we get the revenue for us, how we can be more relevant, and how to help our customers make that transition and begin their journey to the cloud. I think the mid-market will play a very important role, and I think there are some emerging areas for us that you'll see place a lot of emphasis on technology.

"I focus on doing a small number of things and do them really well, rather than doing too many things and not doing well."