Sree Kotay: Software Shaman

Comcast’s X1 Mastermind Brings Innovation to Top Op
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The cable industry is entering a software-centric chapter of continuous improvement, as engineering workforces build for viewer migration toward TV-everywhere models on connected screens that can access content in and out of the home. The editors of Multichannel News have tapped three executives who’ve played a vital role this year in that bandwidth-steeped sprint to the video applications consumers are clamoring for as Technology Executives of the Year. Their profiles follow.

Sree Kotay, the software shaman and impetus behind the strategy and technological underpinnings of Comcast’s Internet-protocol video rollout, can easily jam 60 minutes of discussion into a 30-minute window, firing off impressively nerdy gems like “it’s not really redundant if it’s sharing nothing,” and “end point consolidation” and “codified infrastructure limits.”

But it’s not for his verbal acuity alone that Kotay, chief software architect for the nation’s largest MSO, is this year’s Technology Executive of the Year in the service provider category. It’s also for his work to convince Comcast and the industry that product differentiation produces material results. “In 2012, TV was a thing you hung on the wall,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “In 2014, TV is a service for every screen in your life.

“If there’s something I’m proud of with X1, it’s that we really demonstrated that a focus on product experience can really move the needle” in terms of churn rate, attach rate of new products, and content monetization, Kotay said.

Other tech highlights of 2014, from Kotay’s perspective:

• A top-down push to focus on customer experience, “from marketing to messaging to care to products — to everything, packaging, the whole nine yards. I believe that a better customer experience starts with better products.”

Recent examples include “Track Your Tech,” an Uber-like way for customers to get a visual on the whereabouts of inbound service technicians; the upcoming XR5 “talking remote,” which enters the marketplace this month, with a microphone button for users to speak, rather than type, a desired TV element; and a significant push to improve accessibility for disabled customers, which launched two years before a federal mandate and includes features above and beyond the regulations.

• Reaching a No. 1 ranking for Comcast’s Xfinity video app, higher than OTT competitors including Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu. “The app moved from a 2.5-star to a 5-star rating. We’re pretty pleased with that.”

• Revamping the X1 installation process to make it as quick and intuitive as possible. “Now, if you get a self install kit for X1, you can plug it in and watch it on X1 faster than installing an Amazon Fire TV — it takes something like five minutes.”

THE 2015 AGENDA

A hyper-vigilant, company-wide focus on customer experience will remain the company’s No. 1 motivation next year, Kotay said, adding that Comcast wants customer service to be its best product. To help make that happen, Comcast recently named Charlie Herrin, who worked with Kotay and led the design team behind the development of X1, as senior vice president of the customer experience.

On the product-development front, the task involves applying what worked with X1 to other parts of the organization, to take the experience-centric mission wider. That means differentiating beyond the TV, especially in broadband services and home automation, “and just lots of domains that are adjacent to the product experience,” Kotay said.

Another priority: Streamlining the ways in which customers digitally engage with Comcast. One intention, which Kotay called “end point consolidation,” aims to lessen app clutter. The work of it involves finding ways to condense what are 20-plus Comcast-specific apps in various app stores.

“There’s a reason for all of them, but maybe not a good reason — we want to clean that up,” he said.

Comcast will also push for scale on X1 “so that we can get serious about what it means to be on a platform like that,” Kotay said. Example: Integration of things like the “If This Then That / IFTT,” a Web-based notification service that enables all manner of useful automations — get a text when the indoor or outdoor temperature hits a certain level, as one of thousands of examples. “From a platform perspective, there will be more and more of those types of opportunities — where it’s symbiotic and enhances another service or product.”

KOTAY CODES

Kotay, 42, is big into travel (“I hit five continents this year — my wife Marci hit six — I missed Africa”) and being with his kids (Nira, 13, and Shainee, 12) as they get old enough to hit the road with mom and dad.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, Kotay codes. “I love coding,” he said, going on to describe “a couple of little projects” that are used internally at Comcast. For example, “I wrote a little web server to do cross-platform debugging of RDK (Reference Design Kit) and HTML5 apps.” (Of course he did.) Speaking of debugging: “We really do still have miles to go and a lot of ground to cover” when it comes to changing perceptions about Comcast, Kotay said.

What makes it all work, Kotay emphasized, is the commitment from Comcast’s most senior leaders to the cultural shifts required for a company-wide concentration on continuous improvement.

“As long as we keep doing the stuff we’re doing, and as long as there’s a passion to keep pushing the boundaries, I’m in,” he said. “[CEO] Brian [Roberts] pushes this top-down, which is important — we need to have the confidence to make the leaps, but we also need to have the humility about how far to go.”

At seven years with Comcast (his longest run yet with any company), Kotay said he’s still fired up. “I still can’t believe I get paid for what I do.”

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