Making Their Mark

ON THE FOREFRONT OF INDUSTRY INNOVATION
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As the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo returns to Atlanta this week, Multichannel News is again profiling a group of successful women who are playing key roles in the cable industry’s pursuit of new technologies and innovative products and services.

This year’s honorees are from cable operations at the national, regional and international levels; a programmer; a supplier; and a more general “up and comer.” They are, respectively: Alix Cottrell, group vice president of video, Time Warner Cable; Nancy Davoust, distinguished engineer, systems, and security architect, Comcast Cable; Cindy Varga, program manager — office of the CTO, Liberty Global; Jodi Robinson, vice president, Internet & interactive technology, Starz; Maria Popo, president and chief business officer, Ubee Interactive; and Kristin Gulasy, vice president, network platforms and services, Cablevision Systems.

They were interviewed by MCN technology editor Jeff Baumgartner and technology analyst Leslie Ellis.

CABLE OPERATOR: NATIONAL
ALIX COTTRELL

Group Vice President of Video, Time Warner Cable
You want platforms? Alix Cottrell’s got platforms. She’s smack in the middle of one of pay TV’s most prominent initiatives: TV Everywhere. She and Time Warner Cable, through the TWC TV app, have been out in front by delivering authenticated fare to a broad range of connected tablets, TVs, consoles and media streamers. And now she’s gearing up to take on the next big task: Unifying that experience.

MCN: First job out of school? First in cable?

Alix Cottrell: Out of school, I started out in commercial lending, which had absolutely nothing to do with media. I ended up working at AOL as a partner, and that’s how I got into the media business. I really enjoyed having the impact on such a big mass market. I saw an opportunity at Comcast to work in the programming group and lead their product team. It was such a similar audience that I’d be able to influence, so I found that really appealing.

MCN: Who’s your mentor?

AC: I’ve always worked for really strong women, at Comcast and here at Time Warner Cable. I’ve had the pleasure of working for Melinda Witmer [executive vice president and chief video and content officer]. Right now, she is absolutely my mentor and my inspiration.

MCN: What’s on top of your to-do list at TWC these days?

AC: We just launched on Xbox, Samsung Smart TV and the Roku — we have apps on all of those platforms. We’re working on bringing feature parity across all of those platforms by the end of the year … but we’re also focused on improving our classic [set-top] experience as well.

MCN: What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

AC: I love to play with my children; I have two. I’m an avid biker — not motorcycles, but road bikes. I’m on a tennis team as well. I try to be as active as I possibly can outside of the office. And I love to cook; that’s my hobby. They kind of go hand in hand.

MCN: What advice would you give to women who are working their way up?

AC: Whether you’re in the technology industry or in the cable industry, finding somebody who can give you feedback and help you navigate the way that you’re perceived throughout the organization in which you work. A lot of times women struggle to be heard in a way they intend.

MCN: What technology buzzword drives you nuts?

AC: All of the acronyms. Everything has an acronym. When you sit in a conversation, you hear about 10 different ones — the cable industry’s acronyms drive me bonkers.

— Jeff Baumgartner

CABLE OPERATOR: INTERNATIONAL
CINDY VARGA

Program Manager, Office of the CTO, Liberty Global
Cindy Varga isn’t a stranger to frequent-flyer miles. She spent half of September, for instance, in Amsterdam, prepping for the MSO’s annual Tech Summit. Liberty Global, which operates systems in 14 countries in Europe and Latin America, relies on Varga as its tech liaison between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Varga, known for her dry wit and determined persistence, is our pick because we just love her. Here’s why.

MCN: First job out of school? First job in cable?

Cindy Varga: It’s the same answer. After college, I worked as a receptionist for TCI’s Central Division office. I really wanted a job in cable. If you were living in Denver in the early ’90s, there were so many opportunities within the cable industry — more than a dozen MSOs were headquartered here. Once you got into a big company like TCI, you could go anywhere. Ultimately I got to work in almost every department within TCI.

MCN: Kids? Cats? Dogs?

CV: Yes, no, yes. Three kids, triplets, age 11. One girl, two boys. We’re now down to two dogs. I also work for two dog rescue organizations, so we frequently host foster dogs.

MCN: What do you like to do when you’re not at work (hobbies, passions etc.)?

CV: When I’m not at work, everything involves the kids right now. Either standing at the sidelines of a soccer game or in the car going to practice. Once winter starts, we’ll be up skiing a lot.

MCN: Who are the tech people you look up to?

CV: Charlotte Field, for her complete willingness to give of her herself, and to help anyone in the industry, man or woman. Also, Yvette Kanouff [executive vice president of engineering and software design at Cablevision Systems]. I heard her speak once at a WICT event. She was talking about how she works with girls to get them excited about math. I love that she’s wicked smart and beautiful at the same time.

MCN: What drives you most crazy about tech-side people?

CV: Sometimes they don’t communicate well with the outside world. And they assume that everybody is as tech-savvy as they are.

MCN: Any advice for women considering a career in a cable technology-related field?

CV: If you’re looking for nonverbal nerdy men, this is the place to be! No really. I’d say — ask as many questions as you can, from everyone you meet. And find a mentor.

MCN: What technology buzzword drives you nuts?

CV: It’s not a tech word, but everyone is using it and it’s driving me crazy: “twerking.” I was on a call this week, and instead of saying “we have to tweak this,” they said “we have to twerk this.” No, no, no. You don’t have to be obnoxious with your hips. Please, no.

— Leslie Ellis

CABLE OPERATOR: REGIONAL
NANCY DAVOUST

Distinguished Engineer, Systems, and Security Architect, Comcast
Nancy Davoust may be regional in the sense that she is based in Colorado, but much of her work has national implications for the Philadelphia-based operator. That includes spawning the ecosystem, business model and tech deals for Project Cavalry, Comcast’s monster analog reclamation project that leaned heavily on digital transport adapters, a class of box that will end up having more legs than some might have imagined early on.

MCN: Tell us about your approach to engineering and how that factors into cable’s all-IP future.

Nancy Davoust: When I think of engineering, I think of it more from the strategic perspective on what we need to do to not only solve this particular problem, but [how it’s] going to help make it be a viable play for the industry for the long term.

Back when we started talking about DTAs, we didn’t want to do DTAs either … The other operators are now seeing that what we did has worked, since we’re all-digital now. It’s extremely difficult to get to an all-IP platform, which is the Holy Grail right now in the cable industry. You can’t be all-IP unless you gut your network and start over, [and] no one has the resources to do that. Or you go down some other path where you cannibalize your existing subscriber base. Or you do DTAs, which is a step that empowers you to build your IP platform. It’s been a necessary evil, but it’s been a very good project at Comcast so we can build that IP network.

MCN: What was your first job in cable?

ND: At CableLabs, leading the security and electronics-surveillance efforts for PacketCable and also working on the architecture team for PacketCable.

MCN: Who’s your mentor?

ND: If I had to pick one, I’d pick my current boss, [Comcast fellow] Kevin Taylor. He is the most knowledgeable person that I know on video in the entire industry.

MCN: What’s on top of your priority list these days?

ND: Comcast is starting to deploy with CCAP [converged cable access platform]. When we architected CCAP five years ago, with Jorge Salinger heading up the whole program, it was meant to be voice, video and data all combined into one edge. Right now we’ve got the CMTS piece in play already, but we have yet to get the video pieces moving into the architecture. That’s one of the things I’m working on now.

MCN: What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

ND: I love to cook. I spend countless hours on the weekend baking and cooking. I love to ski, although I’m not very good at skiing. But it’s super fun.

— Jeff Baumgartner

PROGRAMMER
JODI ROBINSON

Vice President, Internet & Interactive Technology, Starz
Jodi Robinson’s got her finger on the pulse of TV Everywhere, getting Starz Play, Encore Play and Movieplex Play lit up on several platforms while also being careful about picking the right platforms to target out of the chute. And that’s just part of the job — she’s also spearheading Starz’s broader interactive-TV and advanced-services development efforts.

MCN: What was first job out of school?

Jodi Robinson: First off , you’re never really done with school. I moved out from the Bay Area to Colorado specifically for my job at Level 3 Communications. I worked for Sun [Microsystems] for a few years while I was in school. But Level 3 was, technically, where it all got started.

MCN: Who’s your mentor?

JR: Ryc Brownrigg [the lead technologist on Starz’s original Vongo project; now with Liberty Global] was a big part of what steered my career in the direction of cable. He was a big part of taking me from that software engineer architect level to more of an executive mindset and thinking more of the business side. I really value his influence on my career.

MCN: What’s a top priority for you at Starz these days?

JR: Getting our subscription packages distributed as widely as possible over the Internet. That goes back to the pillars of TV Everywhere — getting content on all devices across all networks to our subscribers for no additional cost. We’re striving to find the right balance between whether we can build to every device in the world or can we target eight or ten devices, or the right number of devices that works well with our budgetary constraints.

MCN: When are your passions and hobbies?

JR: My latest venture is with the local Lab rescue. I spend some of my time fostering dogs and ensuring that they get into the right homes on the Front Range. It’s quite a miracle, what goes on with it, and I’ve become very inspired.

MCN: Any advice you’d give to women working their way up in the cable tech arena or considering it as a career path?

JR: Accept no limits. The world is ready to close doors for you, and it’s up to you to keep those doors open for yourself.

MCN: What technology buzzword drives you nuts?

JR: Cloud.

— Jeff Baumgartner

VENDOR
MARIA POPO

President and Chief Business Officer, Ubee Interactive
In addition to speaking the language of business, Maria Popo must also be conversant in engineering and technology as she heads up a company that is laser-focused on some of the industry’s key initiatives, including DOCSIS 3.1 and Wi-Fi. Ubee is a supplier of cable modems, gateways and “small cell” Wi-Fi gear, and is now setting its cable video strategy.

MCN: What was your first job out of school?

Maria Popo: Out of school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. And being in the ’80s and having an Italian mom, she said, “A girl like [you] should get a nice job as a secretary.” That was basically my first job. And that was when I discovered I didn’t like being told what to do. That job only lasted 30 days. I applied for a different job within the same company, which was 3M, and I moved into customer service.

MCN: What drew you to the cable industry?

MP: When I was at 3M, they relocated me to Austin, Texas, from New Jersey. My mentor, Chuck Racine, drew me to the industry. I was at 3M and they had products like strand-mount fiber enclosures, but no cable business. So he told me it was my chance to break into a new business and learn some new skills and make a name for myself .

MCN: What’s on top of your to-do list these days?

MP: My first priority has been integrating our global management and the global team. I’ll also be looking at potential M&A and trying to determine for Ubee where we fit in.

MCN: What challenge is on the horizon for you?

MP: Video, and which product to bring to market. We’ve recently invested millions of dollars into video and the challenge is bringing the right product in at the right time.

MCN: What do you like to do when not at work?

MP: Running, for sure. I tell people I solve the world’s problems with my headphones and sneakers on.

MCN: What advice would you give to women who are working their way up in cable technology?

MP: Whether they’re an engineer or working on the business side of technology, it’s developing relationships that are critical to their success. A lot of women take a heads-down approach and focus on impressing through their work. But while they’re doing that, their competition is having a beer with a decision maker. All things being equal, people want to give opportunities to people they like. All things being unequal, people still want to give opportunities to the people they like.

— Jeff Baumgartner

UP AND COMER
KRISTIN GULASY

Vice President, Network Platforms and Services, Cablevision Systems
Kristin Gulasy is a 30-year Cablevision Systems vet, but she’s an up-and-comer with respect to her newest role, and it’s a biggie — heading the deployment, management and operation of systems and applications, and maintaining superb customer experience across the Optimum product line. Given her history at Cablevision, it’s clear her career knows just one direction: Up.

MCN: What was your first job out of school? First in cable?

Kristin Gulasy: My first job in cable was while I was still going to school. I started at Cablevision part time as a telemarking sales rep while I was still going to school, and then stayed on board after I finished my degree. After that, I worked in customer service and then I worked in IT, working full time at night while finishing my degree.

MCN: Who’s your mentor?

KG: I’ve never had an official mentor here, but there have been a number of people who have influenced me in different ways. Within the industry, I’ve always admired Wilt Hildenbrand [senior adviser, customer care, technology and network] for his innovative spirit, and I’ve worked very closely with Al Azralon [senior vice president, back-end software and systems integration], who has helped me walk the fine line between engineering and operations. Most recently, Yvette Kanouff [executive vice president, corporate engineering and technology] has been really pushing me outside my comfort zone, and I’m really thankful for that.

MCN: What do you like to do when you’re not at work (hobbies, passions etc.)?

KG: I am an avid snowboarder. When I am not at work I’d much rather be flying down mountains somewhere, which people laugh at because everybody is trying to go the warmer climates while I spend the majority of my vacations in the cold. I also love the beach, so my ultimate goal would be to split my time between the mountains and the ocean.

MCN: What advice would you give to women who are working their way up in cable technology or considering it as a career path?

KG: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable … [and] don’t be afraid to ask for help.

— Jeff Baumgartner

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