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Kevin Hart: Building Agility at Cox

CTO Driving Launch of 18 Products, Enhancements Annually 12/09/2012 7:00 PM Eastern

In the rapidly evolving technology world, leadership counts. The editors of Multichannel News are recognizing a pair of chief technology officers — Cox Communications executive vice president and CTO Kevin Hart, representing the operator community, and Turner Broadcasting System EVP, CTO and chief digital strategy officer Scott Teissler, representing programmers — for demonstrating excellence in supporting their companies’ 2012 business objectives.

When Kevin Hart signed on as CTO of Cox Communications a year and a half ago, he focused first on things that are not necessarily high on the “sexy tech” scale, but critical to the company’s mission of moving more products to market more quickly.

He keyed on things that take time, like back-office procedures and organizational processes; things that are “the rest of the story” when it comes to technological leadership.

“Half of technology is probably anything but technology,” Hart explained. “It’s about business goals, processes, customer experiences and the development process — it’s not only technological product road maps, but everything else.”

As a direct result, Atlanta-based Cox is breaking away from the industry norm of “one product every 18 months.” Instead, the No. 5 U.S. MSO, with some 4.7 million subscribers, will launch 18 (or more) “new products or enhancements” per year.

AGILE MANAGEMENT

Industrially, it’s part of a five-year technological transformation plan around “agile development,” which necessarily requires careful pacing and risk management.

“These kinds of processes are things that the industry historically isn’t really good at — to be able to deploy a service in a consistent and reliable way,” Ralph Brown, chief technology officer of CableLabs, said. “Kevin’s really starting to solve how to position Cox and the industry such that we’re not in a position where every new service is a one-off .”

Cox president Pat Esser said: “Kevin possesses a personal sense of urgency, which has helped drive our methodical approach to improve our speed to market. He expects and personally embraces accountability: He listens, clarifies, participates, owns and follows through.”

Brown credits Hart for helping CableLabs build an industrial foundation for backoffice informational models — meaning the types of metadata that are used to describe services and resources in a network. “He’s a leader — he knows what he’s talking about,” Brown said.

“Kevin is an action-oriented CTO,” Daniel Howard, CTO of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers, said. For instance, when Hart first learned of the SCTE, “he joined before I even made it to the elevator,” Howard recalled. Next year, Hart will serve as program chair of the annual Cable-Tec Expo, and will keynote the association’s “SEMI” (Smart Energy Management Initiative) Forum.

He spends part of his Tuesdays and all day on Thursdays with the company’s heads of marketing, strategy, product and operations to review readiness checklists, prioritize resources and liaison with call centers. (“Tuesdays are like an appetizer for Thursday,” he quipped.)

The first half of each Thursday focuses on “launch readiness — making sure the technologies are right, but also making sure technicians and call-center representatives are trained, and that there are online tutorial videos around new products,” Hart noted. The second half of the day examines individual products, in terms of business case, requirements and quality assurance.

If a product or service isn’t panning out, the Thursday team may halt it mid-flight so as to apply those resources elsewhere. The dollars saved in stopping a project before it flops in the field could be “in the millions,” Hart said.

“We’re pretty prudent about it, because there are hidden costs, too — project costs, call-center costs, field costs,” he said.

Hart also partnered internally to initiate a Cox technology “incubator,” to vet products and services with consumers before launching. “Hopefully the innovation is going to pick up big time in the next year,” because of the new organizational structure.

When he’s not working, Hart is a distance runner, with 10 marathons completed. He finds that the running analogy applies well, when talking about the cultural shift toward agile product development — and specifically about the need for pace when making big changes.

“It’s inadvisable to run a marathon at a sprint pace, and that applies to this shift, too,” Hart noted. “We started at a sprint, with a lot of activity going on. We have to really pace the amount of change” so as not to burn people out, he said.

Hart said he admires CTOs who know how to simultaneously be strategic, tactical and practical. “There’s always contention around tradeoffs and frictions,” he said. “Some teams are incented to go fast, sell, move, shake. Others are incented to focus on high quality. For a CTO, its always that balance of time, cost and quality.”

Less important for a CTO, according to Hart, is the need to know everything about everything. “You have to be comfortable not knowing the answer to every question. Sometimes technical folks feel like they need to know everything. I know I can’t know everything. It’s all about team-building.”

COMPETITIVE SPIRIT

Esser points out that while not many people know it, Hart was the captain of the University of Tulsa’s soccer team, initiating a 39-game winning streak and making the school an NCAA Division I powerhouse. “It demonstrates that Kevin knows how to be part of a team, accepts ‘areas of improvement’ and works on them, has an incredible work ethic — and is very competitive,” Esser said.

When not at work, Hart enjoys spending time with his wife of 14 years, Sheri (chair of Swim Across America-Atlanta, a fundraiser for children’s cancer research), and three daughters. He sets out for a 15- to 20-mile run many weekends for exercise and head-clearing.

A thoughtful CTO, Hart appreciates the importance of listening.

“He tends to be pretty quiet, but when he does interject an opinion, it’s a well thought out, very considered opinion,” CableLabs’ Brown said. “When he speaks up, you really want to pay attention.”

AT A GLANCE

Name: Kevin Hart

Age: 45

Title: CTO

Company: Cox Communications

Prior jobs: Clearwire, Level 3, Capgemini, SBC

Telling quote: “Half of technology is probably anything but technology.”