Interviews Magazine

CONNECT Interview: David West – Helping Connect the R&E World

Left to right: Helga Spitaler, David West, Veronika di Luna

For almost two decades GÉANT’s David West has been helping shape the global R&E networking landscape by applying GÉANT’s experience to manage EU-funded networking projects for other world regions. In a role that needs a mix of business acumen, technical expertise and diplomacy, he has gained within our global community the reputation of being an influential and effective advocate of R&E networking. For his tireless efforts and achievements David was honoured by GÉANT’s CEO Erik Huizer at the TNC19 CEO dinner in Tallinn where he also announced his decision to scale back his work commitments. We met up with David to take stock of his career and find out about his plans for the future.

At the forefront of GÉANT’s international engagement since 2001… how did it all start?

Quite unpredictably actually. I had just joined what was then DANTE (before the merger to form GÉANT) after 15 years working for British Telecom’s international division; not quite sure what my new role was going to be. On my third day I accompanied Howard Davies, one of the General Managers, to a meeting in Brussels with the EC and NRENs from around the Mediterranean region about starting a project to set up a regional R&E network there, like a mini version of GÉANT. Discussions on the first day were quite acrimonious and ended without any agreement, and I remember thinking it would never get off the ground. However, to my surprise, the EC were very creative overnight and on the following day secured consensus for setting up this new project with EU funding. Thus, EUMEDCONNECT was conceived, I was made its project manager and started working closely with European and the beneficiary NREN partners to coordinate it, and it is still going!

And then?

Although EUMEDCONNECT faced a lot of challenges in its early days, it broke new ground and the EC sufficiently liked what it was achieving to fund similar projects in other world regions.

My colleague Cathrin Stover started up the ALICE project in Latin America, which paved the way for RedCLARA; and subsequently AfricaConnect. I took on additional regional projects serving the Asia-Pacific region (TEIN), which was successfully transferred on to TEIN*CC and became Asi@Connect, and then also for Central Asia (CAREN).

Culturally and politically the regional projects are of course extremely diverse, but they have all faced similar major challenges. I am thinking of things like having to secure and manage EU and partner co-funding, forging good working relationships between project partners and troubleshooting where necessary, building and operating high-quality regional R&E networks, and planning ahead for longer-term sustainability by nurturing regional partners, whilst at all times keeping within EU auditing, tendering and contracting rules.

As you might imagine, my role as project manager from the outset has been extremely varied and I can honestly say there has never been a dull or quiet moment!

What do you consider your biggest achievement over all those years?

It has to be the fact that the projects I have worked on have connected for the first time over 25 countries, many of them at early stages of their socio-economic development, to GÉANT and the global R&E community. Of course, all these projects are team efforts with many colleagues in GÉANT and the European and regional R&E communities, but I am proud of my personal contributions to them all.

Any regrets?

In these projects, where things are so uncharted, there is not always a right or wrong way of doing things, so rather than regret what I have done, I simply try to learn and move on. Over the years the most frustrating thing for me has been the slow pace of telecoms market change which has kept connectivity prices way too high for many of the developing countries in our projects, and the difficulties of persuading governments and others to provide their co-funding necessary for them to benefit.

Since August you have reduced your working hours, how is continuity being ensured?

I am fortunate in having excellent colleagues in GÉANT’s International Relations team who are taking over some of my project work. Veronika di Luna has taken on the CAREN project and she is already working closely with Eastern Partnership countries which share some similar challenges and she has the great advantage over me of speaking Russian fluently.

Helga Spitaler now manages EUMEDCONNECT and the North African part of AfricaConnect which she has been working with me on for several years, so is already very familiar with these projects. She and I will continue to work together with our Asia Pacific partners and to advise and support the Asi@Connect project run by TEIN*CC. All in all, I am confident ‘my’ projects remain in safe hands.

Needless to say, although I am going to work fewer hours in future, I remain a fully committed member of the GÉANT team.

How will you fill the extra time on your hands?

Although as project manager I have travelled to many countries, I rarely travel far beyond the airports and hotels, so I am looking forward to travelling at leisure to explore more of the world. At home I also plan to devote more time to my interests in walking, gardening and live music. And I have recently taken up the ancient sport of croquet and am already hooked.

As a Brighton resident, what is your message to prospective TNC20 attendees?

Don’t miss it! For those who haven’t been there, Brighton is a very exciting and ‘full-on’ city on the south coast of England, sometimes called ‘London by the Sea’ – it is going to make for a very lively backdrop for TNC20!


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