Toby Bargar: “Be technologically aware”

Firstly, be technologically aware. The communications industry is hugely diverse and constantly changing. Not all of us are going to become network engineers or need to take on the deep details of how everything works. But there is a pile of industry jargon spanning the breadth of the field and it will be enormously useful […]

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Firstly, be technologically aware. The communications industry is hugely diverse and constantly changing. Not all of us are going to become network engineers or need to take on the deep details of how everything works. But there is a pile of industry jargon spanning the breadth of the field and it will be enormously useful no matter what your role if you can be at least conversationally fluent in some of this language.

5G infrastructure is being installed around the world. At the same time, most people have not yet seen what 5G can offer. What exactly is 5G? How will it improve our lives? What are the concerns that need to be addressed before it is widely adopted?

In our series, called, How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives, we are talking to tech and telecom leaders who can share how 5G can impact and enhance our lives.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Toby Bargar.

Toby Bargar is a Senior Tax Strategist at Avalara. As part of Avalara’s Communications Business Unit, he has spent the last nineteen years assisting clients with their complex transaction tax issues, particularly in the field of communications tax and regulatory cost surcharges. In addition to consulting on challenging client-specific tax questions, Mr. Bargar assists in the training and set up of tax departments, the implementation and management of tax systems and is a frequent speaker on transaction tax and regulatory issues.

Mr. Bargar holds a Bachelor of Sciences degree from William Jewell College and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Kansas School of Law. Mr. Bargar is admitted to the practice of Law before the Supreme Court of Kansas.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Well, it would of course be a lie if I said I grew up dreaming of working in communications tax and regulatory work — what kind of weirdo kid does that? Like a lot of people, this career found me by happy accident. I went to law school envisioning a career in corporate or securities law. I had the “luck” to finish my JD at the peak fallout of the dot-com bubble collapse, which turned out to be an awful time for me and most of my classmates to find conventional law firm jobs. I had a family friend with a start-up tax technology business who offered me some temporary work while I waited for the legal job market to rebound.

Initially this was a huge emotional defeat: “tax automation? How am I going to explain what I am doing to my family and law school peers?” However, by the time the legal job market had recovered, my temporary refuge job had morphed into becoming senior corporate counsel at this exciting, growing, technology company. An amazing opportunity for someone in their twenties. Along the way I gained a lot of exposure to the legal issues our services address and migrated through various client and product roles.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You can only lose what you cling to.” — Buddha. At first this may not seem particularly relevant in the context of corporate leadership. Having worked in one business organization for most of my professional life, I have come to the realization that one of the biggest risks is allowing yourself to become wedded to established practices and orthodoxies. “We always do it this way and that is the best way”. I am by no means the sort of person who clamors for change for change’s sake — quite the opposite. But you absolutely must leave yourself open to the possibility that things can be improved upon, that something that did not work in the past might be able to be made to work in the future, and that something that has worked well for you over a long period of time may no longer be what you need to move forward.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

For me it really is a case of “it takes a village”. I have been blessed to have had a string of very good bosses over the years that have individually imparted a lot of great lessons at different stages in my career, and I consider all of them mentors. And, of course, I would be nowhere if it weren’t for the support of all of my parents, my family and my partner.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I feel one of the most undervalued traits in corporate leadership is patience in planning. Modern management trends put an extreme emphasis on bold, decisive actions. Over the years I have witnessed many new leaders take over business units with change mandates. In my experience the successful ones always take the time to learn what is going on with the unit, what is working and not working, who is delivering for the team and who is not. It may cost you a few months and you may not have a lot of exciting changes to report in the early going, but the plan and execution will likely be so much better in the end. Leaders that come in with a preconceived change plan before they have even seen the business almost always leave a bigger mess than they found.

I know it is a bit cliché, but I can not overstate the importance of adaptability. During my time working in this business, I have worn a lot of hats, including several I never trained or prepared for. There is no better way to establish your value to an organization than by going out of your comfort zone to take on a role that is a critical but unfilled need.

And last, never be afraid to have the wrong opinion on a decision. We have all found ourselves on the losing side of a workplace decision at some point. This does not need to be a personal affront. It does not have to define you moving forward. Make your case and say what you think needs to be heard, but if at the end of the day the decision goes the other way you need to be able to move forward and continue to support the mission.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! Communications technology has been continually evolving ever since the earliest days, but the dramatic challenges society has faced over the last year has pushed this evolution faster than ever before. The forced migration of work, school, and entertainment into our home via web-based technology solutions has created dozens of completely new communication service categories. At Avalara for Communications, we are laser focused on expanding and building support and tax content for companies selling these emerging service products, often in the face of great tax and regulatory uncertainty.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Like 4G, 5G has many different facets, and I’m sure many will approach this question differently. But for the benefit of our readers can you explain to us what 5G is? How is 5G different from its predecessor 4G?

5G is the latest protocol for wireless network architecture. If you live in an urban area, it is likely already being deployed around you by the major wireless carriers. In this initial stage, the significance of 5G to the consumer will look a lot like past generations: a good excuse to sell you an expensive new smartphone that will have a bit faster data speeds than the old one. So what — right?

The truly revolutionary effects of 5G deployment really will not have much to do with your phone at all. The key phrase is “Internet of Things” or IoT. IoT refers to the process of connecting all sorts of non-phone devices and sensors to the net: consumer devices, vehicles, industrial equipment, urban planning, limitless use cases really. 5G was principally engineered to support the need to connect trillions of smart devices and sensors to the net without overloading it. When people talk about 5G being revolutionary, it is really this IoT universe that they usually have in mind.

Can you share three or four ways that 5G might improve our lives? If you can please share an example, for each.

Talking about IoT use cases is probably the most fun aspect of my job right now, because so much of it sounds like futurist fantasy, yet is often emerging into practical reality as we speak.

Drones are one of my favorite technology topics. There have been a lot of conversations about Amazon and others working on drone delivery technology, and sure, having your groceries or take out delivered through automation sounds cool. But imagine the life-changing potential of being able to deliver medicines quickly and easily to areas with no pharmacies, emergency supplies to an accident site, or fire suppression to a sparking wildfire. For drones to achieve these potentials and move beyond the human, line-of-sight control typically employed today, they will need connection to a command hub via a broadly deployed 5G network.

Perhaps some folks would be surprised to hear it, but agriculture is arguably one of the industries most ripe for IoT-based revolution. Companies are already working on sensors that can be deployed in row crop fields to report moisture, nutrient and other information at a very micro level, and thus allow the farm to apply irrigation, fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide on a more efficient, as-needed basis. There are even sensors designed to be ingested by livestock that can report health, location, and other useful data. All this data can then potentially be fed to autonomous field equipment to plant, spray, or harvest at exactly the right time without any need for downtime. Of course, none of that works unless the farm is bathed in a strong 5G data network.

And of course, it would be hard to have a conversation about IoT and 5G without mentioning autonomous vehicles. The potential revolution in personal transportation, freight delivery, and logistics has caught our collective eye. The important thing to understand is that almost any realization of the potential in this space will ultimately involve connecting vehicles to robust wireless data networks.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this 5G technology that people should think more deeply about?

Early skepticism about the emergence of IoT has mostly focused on security and privacy: “is my toaster spying on me?” and that sort of thing. And while I agree that these are serious concerns, I am reasonably confident that technology and policy will evolve to a point where we mostly feel comfortable on those fronts.

My bigger concern is for the long-term effects on society and the economy. For several years now we have been hearing forecasts of an “Automation Revolution” that compares to the Industrial Revolution in terms of the dramatic changes brought to the economy, and by extension, society. 5G/IoT are a very key component of advancing the lion’s share of those automation advances.

Self-driving smart trucks or automated drone deliveries may bring major efficiency gains, but this does come at the cost of employment and that is unfortunately predictable now in almost every field of work. I feel that attempts to stop or slow that effect are ultimately likely to be both futile and counterproductive. However, I am not sure that any political or economic system yet devised can deal with a reality in which more than half the population is not working. It’s not hard to look at where all of this could go in the future and see a dystopian plot line that might even be a bit too dark for “Black Mirror”.

Some have raised the question that 5G might widen the digital divide and leave poor people or marginalized people behind. From your perspective, what can be done to address and correct this concern?

When it comes to 5G and communications service in general there are at least two layers to this issue. The surface level question is whether people can afford the service but underneath that there is an even more fundamental question of whether it is even available where they live. My example earlier of the autonomous drone delivery of medicine to the hard-to-reach patient breaks down if there is no 5G network there to support it.

In the USA we have a collection of programs with roots back to the New Deal, referred to collectively as “Universal Service”, that support deployment, access, and affordability for communications services. These programs are funded through surcharges that wind up on our customer bills. However, there are major structural issues with the contribution model owing to failure to respond to changes in the market. We are now seeing surcharge rates over 33%, yet the programs struggle to deliver support at the level both politicians and the public seem to expect. For most of the two decades I have worked in this field, it has been common knowledge for those of us that work with these funds that an overhaul is necessary and inevitable. I am cautiously optimistic that we may be reaching a point where there is political and regulatory will to do it, maybe even on a bipartisan basis.

Excellent. We are nearly done. Let’s zoom out a bit and ask a more general question. Based on your experience and success, what are the 5 things you need to create a highly successful career in the telecommunication industry? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Firstly, be technologically aware. The communications industry is hugely diverse and constantly changing. Not all of us are going to become network engineers or need to take on the deep details of how everything works. But there is a pile of industry jargon spanning the breadth of the field and it will be enormously useful no matter what your role if you can be at least conversationally fluent in some of this language.

Second, in a related vein, it helps to have a thirst for knowledge. Communications business and technology are bottomless pits of information. I have been working in the industry for decades and I still learn something new nearly every day. Soak it up like a sponge — it will only make you more valuable.

Third, it’s true for most careers but perhaps doubly for telecom: network, network, network. Telecom is a community. A lot of us have been working in the industry most of our professional lives and people tend to know each other. Specifically in the realm of communications tax regulatory practice, it is virtually impossible that someone is going to land a high-quality job without being known in the community.

Fourth, be flexible. If you work in the telecom industry for long, at some point you are probably going to be asked to take on a role outside of what you signed up for. Embrace it. Helping the business through the challenge will make you a hero in your organization.

And last, a new one that I would probably not have included until recently: embrace your creative, entrepreneurial spirit. Increasingly, telecommunications is branching out into use cases none of us dreamed of before. Over the last year I have encountered creative new startups leveraging technology to deliver totally new ways of communicating, delivering content, sharing data, or providing information services to customers. Maybe you can come up with the next great tool.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to see us further harness the world of technology to bring educational advancement to as large a swath of society as possible. I believe education is the best, and in many cases only, tool to break cycles of poverty and inequality. Online education has been around for years now, but we have clearly not maximized the full potential to deliver educational content and opportunity in places it does not currently exist. That must change.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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