Engineering Change at SCTE

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John Clark presides over a professional engineering organization, but he’s not the kind of guy who toted a slide rule through college. Before being named president of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers in 1998, Clark made his way though the cable industry from the vantage points of programming and marketing. A former executive vice president for the Tele-TV programming joint venture of Bell Atlantic, Nynex Corp. and Pacific Telesis Group, Clark also held senior vice president positions at the programming company Crown Media Holdings Inc. and the MSO Cencom Cable Associates. On the eve of the SCTE’s 35th anniversary, Clark sat down with Multichannel News contributing editor Stewart Schley to talk about the professional development mission of SCTE. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: What’s a marketing guy doing running a technology organization?

JOHN CLARK: That’s a funny question. I’m usually not speechless but you kind of caught me there. I would say this: When I interviewed with the board in 1998, as they were looking to take the SCTE to the next level, they placed a priority on marketing, public relations, and building the industry profile of SCTE.

There’s certainly a feeling that with all these thousands of engineers as members, that if there’s one discipline SCTE is steeped in, it’s in engineering. So the ’98-’99 board had marketing, PR and industry image building at the top of their priority list.

MCN: Was that in pursuit of membership, or more of a participation in the industry conversation?

CLARK: I think it’s really more of the latter. In today’s consolidated industry, for an association to thrive and survive, it requires broad industry support.

For example, one of the key differences between 1998 and now is the level of our standards activity. That needs support at the CEO level, the [chief financial officer] level, the [chief operating officer] level, as well as the [chief technology officer] level. So again, as there are many things in cable, I would call it a multi-level sale. When I was on the programming side of the business, it was great to get support selling in a new programming service at corporate headquarters, but to do a successful launch you also needed support out in the field.

MCN: As new entrants emerge, are you inviting other industry participants with open arms?

CLARK: We are an open organization, so we welcome members from many walks of life — and walks of career. But whenever we get to the question of who is our primary target as far as serving an industry, I always go back to our name: it’s cable telecommunications. If there are people who are entering and falling under that umbrella, then they are good prospects for membership and SCTE activities. If they’re not in cable telecommunications, then it may be a different question. We’ve got a pretty good fix, I think, on our target.

MCN: You recently formed an extensive alliance with the National Cable Training Institute, which some people saw as a competitor to SCTE. How did you come to do that?

CLARK: One of the reasons was confusion in the marketplace, and trying to avoid duplication. As we saw them, we thought there were more opportunities in partnering than competing. And I think for us it allows NCTI to play to their strengths, which is training at the installer and technician level, and let us concentrate on our strengths, which are professional-development programs for the manager on up — as well as certification across a broad range of potential topics, including a broadband premise specialist, which would be installers and technicians.

Also, we’re able to cross-promote each other. People who are going through their classes are excellent candidates for SCTE certification. And people who are interested in being certified and need additional training resources are natural candidates for their training programs.

MCN: Speaking of which, the craftsmanship and work demands of technicians and installers in this industry seem to have gotten a lot more complex.

CLARK: Yes. We completely redid our certification program in 2003, and we completely changed the categories of certification. And we also shifted to online testing. But there are [other] changes. In the old days, there was a kind of pecking order: going from installer to technician to line tech to headend tech.

In today’s world, we’ve moved away from that in that there are now parallel paths. And people may spend their entire career in the transport area. Or on the premises area. And that reflected a changing world created by digital technology. To remain relevant, you have to adapt to the new industry.

MCN: Why does certification matter?

CLARK: I would say simply as a universal recognition of competency. In a constantly changing industry, that’s really critical. Because [of the industry’s consolidation], we’ve had members who have worked for, in some cases, four different MSOs in five years without ever changing their physical location. You had Continental [Cablevision Inc.], U S West, MediaOne [Group Inc.], AT&T [Broadband], Comcast [Corp.], for example. [Continental was acquired U S West, which changed the name of its cable operations to MediaOne. In 2000, MediaOne was purchased by AT&T Broadband, which was bought by Comcast in 2002.] The advantage of third-party certification is universal recognition and portability.

MCN: In 1999, people said it was tough to find enough qualified professionals to effect the digital transition on a home-to-home basis. What’s the demand vs. supply of qualified professionals today?

CLARK: I think it’s still a major challenge. When we expanded our mission from certification and training and standards to professional development, information and standards, that really was a reflection that, in a more complicated industry, the professional development needs are greater and broader. And that we’re a natural funnel for that professional development activity.

MCN: How else does this human side of engineering affect the business?

CLARK: I think everyone has learned by now that new service deployment is a human issue as much as it is a technology issue. One of the things that has remained the same is often the primary in-person contact point with the end customer is the SCTE member. I think we’ve made the progress in lifting the recognition that this is a profession.

MCN: The SCTE Emerging Technologies conference in January has gone from a sort of an inner-circle geek gathering to an in-vogue conference. How so?

CLARK: What happened was we found there was a strong interest in a narrow member segment that’s involved in shaping the future.

The horizon for Emerging Technologies is really three to five years out. And although that member segment is narrow, [the interest of] those who are involved is very deep. So our measure of success for ET has never been attendance. It’s been attendee feedback on the quality of the program. Some of the things we do in keeping it so high level, in keeping it so focused on the future, in effect limits attendance. And we’re totally okay with that. It’s meant to be that unique event.

MCN: Cable marketing executives have frequently complained they wish they would have been more involved in decisions about products and technology in the drawing-board stage. What are your views on the input of marketing in the technology development process?

CLARK: I think it has changed dramatically. And I think one of the big changes is due to the fact that the profile of the CTO and technology group has gotten so much higher than it was in the analog world. I remember back in my MSO days, the easiest meeting for me the whole year was the capital budget meeting with our engineering group. It would be, 'We’re going to spend X dollars per sub on upgrades, and Y dollars per sub on new build,’ and that was it. There were formulas that could be used, and that was the end of the discussion.

Today, when the same people — the CTOs and engineering leaders — are in meetings talking about entering entirely new businesses — VoIP [voice-over-Internet protocol], data, wireless — the size of the capital budgets have risen so much that the visibility is much higher, and also the nature of the CTO job has changed significantly. It’s more public and visible, and it’s usually someone who’s a terrific businessperson with a technology and engineering understanding, as opposed to someone who may be a pure engineer. So we’ve had to be sensitive to those changes as they’ve occurred.

MCN: How has competition affected the role of the cable engineer?

CLARK: I think in a competitive world, it certainly puts greater focus on what I would describe as field deployment. It’s not just pure product and service attributes, it’s how well it’s deployed and how simple and seamlessly it’s deployed in the home.

That’s a very important competitive battleground, and that’s really where a lot of our professional development activities are focused. This focus and priority of field deployment is one of the strengths of Cable-Tec Expo. And one of the things that makes it stand out, and that it remains strong, we attribute to an equation that’s up on one of our boards here in this room: The combination of target audience and focus. And the target audience is primarily the field engineer.

Unlike ET, which is three to five years out, that focus is how can we do the best job of deployment today. We have a phrase that we use for Cable-Tec Expo. It’s not sexy, but it works: all engineering, all the time.

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