2020 FierceTelecom Rising Star — Windstream's Art Nichols

The FierceTelecom editorial team is proud to announce our second annual Rising Stars series, in which we’re profiling up-and-coming executives in the telecom industry. We’ve selected a slate of executives whom we think are on the rise in 2020. We're doling out the names of our winners so that our readers have the time to enjoy reading their profiles. And next week, we’ll post a Rising Stars poll, giving everyone the opportunity to vote for their favorite top executive to watch in the FierceTelecom ecosystem. We hope you enjoy the series!

Many people will tell you that their first job out of college had little to do with their current career, but Art Nichols is not one of them. In 2000, the new Clemson graduate thought working for a CLEC sounded like a cool job. Deregulation was driving money and talent into the space, and Nichols joined a local carrier. "I got attracted to the really fast-paced startup environment," he remembers.

Twenty years later, he's still moving fast. In addition to his role as Windstream's VP of Network Architecture and Technology, Nichols is an active member of the FCC's Technical Advisory Committee. He's spent most of his career working with cutting edge technologies, even though he never left the first company he joined. By the time Windstream bought that company in 2009, Nichols already had experience with packet switching, VoIP and cloud-based security, all of which were relatively new technologies then.

By 2009 Nichols had worked in fulfillment, assurance, planning and architectural engineering, and had found his niche in "go-forward architecture and technology."  When he and his colleagues became part of Windstream, they were seen as the cool new kids on the block, Nichols said. "I think we were given maybe an outsize voice in trying to help drive some technology evolution and product evolution," he said. "So that set me up well to take on larger roles and get more exposure and involvement with a lot of other technologies." He's since been involved in broadband, packet optical, long haul transport and software.

"I've always had a particular interest and focus in software," Nichols said. "I've tried to progress the company's SDN and virtualization goals."  He's been able to work closely with product teams, both as an evangelist for new technologies and as a researcher learning about what the market wants.

RELATED: Windstream powers up live 400 GbE service with Everstream

Nichols devotes a significant amount of time to the FCC's Technical Advisory Committee, which advises the commissioners on issues ranging from spectrum to AI to drones. "It's important to give back in some sense to the larger industry, and try to share some of the knowledge that we have," Nichols said. "And there's some value that we derive as well in getting plugged into some of those industry leaders and understanding where things are headed."

Where things are headed now is the cloud, Nichols said, and he intends to help Windstream stay ahead of the curve. "We are no longer content to be a fast follower," he said. "We are trying to be more aggressive where technology is concerned. We are looking to be a software powerhouse and have taken steps to enable ourselves."

Nichols said Windstream's upcoming exit from bankruptcy will enable the company to devote even more resources to its technology initiatives.

RELATED: Windstream builds new board ahead of exit from Chapter 11

Nichols has risen to the top of his field without ever leaving his South Carolina community. He is involved in several philanthropic organizations in the Greenville, S.C. area, and he and his wife have been foster parents for nine years. 

Nichols said the key to staying challenged at one company is to keep learning. "You can't learn everything from people that are doing the exact same thing you are," he said. "We do spend time with people in Silicon Valley on a regular basis and try to understand how they're approaching things differently."