In an age of tremendous consolidation in the cable industry, perhaps no job function is in as enviable a position today as engineering.
While marketing executives, for example, seem to be constantly vying for any remaining seat in the MSO musical-chairs game of mergers and acquisitions, the need for qualified technicians continues to grow.
Even as the number of MSO players keeps shrinking, cable operators are deploying new services-such as digital cable, high-speed data and telephony-in ever-increasing numbers.
And as the need for skilled installers and engineers grows, so does the importance of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers.
"The critical path to the deployment of new services will be driven by the people quotient as much as by financing and funding," SCTE president John Clark said.
Clark-a former marketing executive with 20 years' experience in the cable and telecommunications industries-was appointed president nearly two years ago.
One new goal Clark has wanted to emphasize since he began his tenure is to accelerate the role of change, he said, adding, "Our business is far removed from the pace of business in the 1980s and 1990s."
Many of his initial goals still remain a priority, he said, including increasing the visibility of the SCTE to a broader base of the cable industry.
Engineers contacted for this story voiced loyalty and support for the SCTE. Indeed, its membership has increased to an all-time high of 17,000, Clark said.
But as a cable executive recruited from outside of the engineering community, Clark knew that it was not only the engineers that the SCTE needed to pitch. "The local general manager may decide how active his engineers are at the local SCTE chapters," he added.
In its earliest years as an organization, the SCTE-which dates back to 1969-had to sometimes fight to get cable operators to send their technicians to training sessions and educational conferences like the Cable-Tec Expo, scheduled for this week in Las Vegas.
"Some companies wondered if it was wise to lose all of their tech people for a few days, or they worried about them being recruited away by other companies," Prime Cable senior vice president of science and technology Dan Pike said. "I haven't seen that for many years."
Cox Communications Inc. executive vice president of engineering Alex Best said the MSO encourages its employees to go the Cable-Tec Expo. Regardless of the fear that other companies may try to hire good technicians away, he added, "You can't stick your head in the sand out of fear and leave your employees untrained."
Best said the SCTE has done "a tremendous job" under Clark's direction of helping the industry as MSOs transition from traditional cable providers to delivering Internet and telephone services.
"The industry is under a lot of pressure from competition, whether it's [direct-broadcast satellite] or [digital subscriber line]," Scientific-Atlanta Inc. vice president of marketing Perry Tanner said. "Continuing education is very important because technologies are changing so rapidly."
Like other manufacturers, S-A exhibits at the SCTE's national conferences. It also participates in local chapter events, Tanner said, and it invites nearby SCTE chapters to its Norcross, Ga., headquarters for hands-on new-product training.
Best emphasized the importance of maintaining strong local chapters. "To preach to the troops, you've got to go where the troops are," he added.
Reaching out to the local chapters was one of Clark's priorities when he joined the SCTE. Last March, the organization held its first leadership conference at its Exton, Pa., headquarters, hosting leaders from 50 local chapters across the country. Due to unanimous response from the attendees, the SCTE will make the leadership conference an annual event, Clark said, with the next one set for February 2001.
Along with standards setting, training and certification are the main missions of the SCTE.
Last summer, the organization hired a director of certification, and it has revamped most of its exams since then. Through the first four months of this year, the number of members certified has increased by 81 percent over the first four months of last year, Clark said.
As a certified standards-setting body, the SCTE turns new technologies created by Cable Television Laboratories Inc., for example, into standards that cable companies and affiliated industries-such as consumer electronics, computer, telephone and broadcasting-can follow.
In recent years, the SCTE has taken national prominence for its standards activities, Pike said. Supporting public-policy issues such as retail availability of consumer hardware requires intra-industry cooperation, he added.
Unlike other industry technical organizations, such as CableLabs, the SCTE standards work is open to any interested party. The organization currently has nine standards committees. Its most recent ones include the cable-applications platform committee and the PacketCable working group.
More than 700 people from 214 organizations actively participate in SCTE standards development, up from 120 people and 27 organizations as recently as 1996.
In setting the standards, the SCTE works closely with other cable trade groups, as well as with groups outside of the industry, Charter Communications Inc. vice president of engineering Larry Schutz said. "Its involvement with the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] is well known," he added.
According to Best, the SCTE, CableLabs and the National Cable Television Association all deal with cable-technology issues, but each has its own focus: CableLabs on developing new technology, the SCTE with setting standards and the NCTA with government- and policy-related issues. Together, all three organizations hold a weekly Monday-morning conference call with Best and other engineers, he added.
"We've made a conscious decision to reach out to other trade groups," Clark said. For example, SCTE director of standards Ted Woo will moderate a new-products panel at this July's CTAM Summit in Boston. The SCTE also regularly hosts technology panels at the Western Show, as well as the Texas and Atlantic cable shows.
In addition, the SCTE is a co-sponsor, with Women in Cable & Telecommunications, of the "Women in Technology" award.
Although the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing is boosting its emphasis on technology, CTAM does not work as closely with the SCTE as it does with CableLabs, CTAM president Char Beales said, adding that marketing wants to play a role in the new-product development CableLabs oversees.
The SCTE's missions-training, certification and standards-are not marketing-related, she added.
That's not likely to change despite Clark's marketing history. "We want to maintain a focused growth," Clark said. "We don't want to be all things to all people. If it involves technology and engineering by cable-television companies, it is on our radar screen."
Still, industry observers credited Clark's marketing skills with breathing new life into the SCTE.
"It's been a challenge for him being a nonengineer, but it's just what that group needed," Beales said. "We're starting to see his marks on the outward symbols of the SCTE. It was very 1950s. It was time to move into the new world."
"John brought a lot of marketing expertise," Best said. "Even the SCTE has to market itself to grow as an organization. He's done a tremendous job."
The organization continues to look at adding new services for its members. The group is discussing how to convert some of its training into online programs.
Clark was less optimistic about adding an online job bank. "We clearly today do not have a job bank, and that's by design," he said. "We don't want to seem like we're encouraging people to leave our member companies."
CTAM recently added a job bank after its board opposed the idea for 24 years, Beales said. "We felt that the world has changed," she added. "With all of the consolidation, our members are looking for that kind of help from us."
In the days of consolidation, certification may be even more valuable to cable engineers than job leads. "Certification becomes a clear career accomplishment that can be pointed out to new management," Clark said. "It's a clear member benefit."