From professor to CTO

As announced by Nokia on Thursday 22 September 2011, Henry Tirri had been appointed Chief Technology Officer at Nokia and Executive Vice President of the Nokia Leadership Team, effective from that date. According to the bulletin, ‘As Chief Technology Officer, Tirri assumes responsibility for the CTO organization, charged with setting Nokia's technology agenda both now and in the future, and driving core innovation to enable business development opportunities.”


This is no small feat, but then the man is no small fry, either. Henry completed his Candidate degree in computer science at the University of Helsinki in 1982 and his PhD degree in 1997. Just like other very successful students, Henry was already recruited to the department during his basic module, in 1980. He went through the whole usual academic career development, starting as an assistant and ending up as an appointed professor in 1998. At that time, thanks to the field set for his professorship, Henry was known at the department as its only intelligent professor. Somewhat surprisingly, Henry left the department at the height of his academic career in 2004, and switched to Nokia for a new career there. He eventually resigned from his professorship in 2008.

According to Henry, his main reason for changing jobs was that he was exhausted with the non-stop red tape with all its reporting duties that projects at the department bring with them, and wanted to be able to carry out real research again. Anyone familiar with the duties of a professor knows very well that they may indeed have a better chance of doing research in the industries than at any university, and it worked out for Henry, too, when he became a research fellow at the Nokia Research Center.

However, Henry’s cushy research-fellow stint ended up shorter than expected when the NRC reorganised again in 2004. The former director of the NRC, Tero Ojanperä, had been exchanged for the American Bob Iannucci, who wanted to make the NRC more international by expanding its work in his own country. Iannucci persuaded Henry to be one of the driving forces of the internationalisation process; thanks to his research visits during his academic life, Henry had networked with such places as the leading universities in Silicon Valley (Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley). Henry consented to working as R&D sparring partner at the Palo Alto NRC unit, without manager or reporting duties as such.

Once he had got off to a good start, Iannucci carried out an even bigger reorganisation in 2006, when he divided the research at NRC into two separate units. Petteri Alanikula was appointed director of the Core Technology Research unit, and Iannucci wanted Henry to head the System Research unit. Since this was a ‘kind offer that he couldn’t refuse,’ Henry accepted the position after a period of reflection. This meant he went back to managerial duties from the freedom of research work. The decision was made easier by the fact that Henry’s new duties did not consist of commerce or (merely) paperwork; while the work of the Core Technology Research unit was closely tied to the corporate side of Nokia, the System Research unit was expected to concentrate on creative innovations.

Iannucci, who had advanced to CTO at Nokia, resigned in 2008. This meant that NRC needed a new director, and the leadership of Nokia wisely chose the best man for the job, i.e. Henry, who had proved his worth in the innovation department. When Richard Green, who had succeeded Iannucci as CTO of Nokia, resigned in 2011, Henry's phone rang again. His new job description was consolidated in the autumn, as the news bulletin states.

Henry has advanced at Nokia through his own work and not through politics. He says that his academic background and research experience have only been useful to him in his different duties at Nokia. The innovation work at NRC is very similar to scientific research and its management, and university professors have not been considered strange or suspicious at Nokia. Rather, the status of professor has given Henry more street credibility in a community of experts carrying out research. Besides, Henry is by no means the first professor to advance to the leadership of Nokia; for over 10 years, Yrjö Neuvo, professor of digital signal processing at Tampere University of Technology, was one of the key actors when Nokia conquered the world.

In his own words, Henry feels ‘like Alice in Wonderland’ in the innovation unit at Nokia; he is constantly confronted with the new, the wonderful, and the interesting. One more bonus with his current position is that he has greater influence now than in his previous postings. One drawback is that he no longer has time for his own research, which he originally left the university to pursue at Nokia. However, he still actively follows the world of science, regularly visiting conferences, and not just as a member of the audience, but giving invited talks ('from memory' at AI conferences).

The concept of so-called open innovations has brought universities and high-tech companies closer together. Nokia has always participated actively in collaborations between universities and the industries, where the topics of data communication and signal processing have been especially important to Nokia. Among the department’s research fields, Henry mentions networks and GPS as examples of areas that are connected with Nokia's innovation work. There are also differences in carrying out research at a university and in a corporate environment. While the standard and effectiveness of academic research is measured through publications, citation indexes and impact factors, the industries rather use patents as gauges.

There is a difference in work cultures, as well. Primarily, industrial leadership is taken much more seriously than in an academic environment. Though Henry believed himself to be quite an experienced leader when he arrived at Nokia, he’s had to admit to being a mere apprentice and had to learn lots of new skills. The leaders of academic units, groups and projects get away much more easily than industrial leaders, since they have no real ‘result or out’ responsibility. This means that industrial leaders have to be able to take much more insecurity and stress than academic ones. On the other hand, industrial leaders – at least at NRC – are helped by the fact that their workers are usually more committed than academic ones, some of whom are just hanging around at the university. Henry has also noticed that it is easier for large units at Nokia to cooperate than at the universities, where there are too many smaller cliques that are in competition with each other.

Henry does see some good in the academic world in contrast with the corporate world: the students. Henry admits that the thing he misses most about the department is teaching and the challenge thrown to a professor by ‘a young postgraduate feeling his strength.’ Will Henry’s stint as technological leader at Nokia be too easy after all, since he seems to miss the harder intellectual challenges and challengers?

To the emerging young generation at the department, Henry wants to say that they should do what they really want, not what a ready-made career plan tells them to do. In general, it is a good idea to do things differently once in a while, as this can lead to those very coveted ‘innovations.’ Henry does not regard the older folks at the department to be completely out of the loop, either; he believes the more advanced academics may also achieve a new learning curve.

Due to the international nature of his duties, Henry spends about half his time in Sunnyvale, California, and half in Helsinki. Surprisingly, he still hasn’t started playing golf. From a cold Finnish perspective, it seems quite unbelievable; the eternally warm California houses no less than 1,140 golf courses, and Henry lives practically next door to Cypress Point Club, ranked the fifth best course in the US, and Pebble Beach Golf Links, ranked at number six. All the big leaders play golf, so Henry will have an easy choice for the next step on his leadership career ladder.

Editor: Jukka Paakki

Translation: Marina Kurtén


Created date

18.11.2011 - 10:30

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