Tech Trailblazer

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Some people (including a certain former United States president whose son is currently in the White House) have been accused of being born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Scientific-Atlanta Inc. vice president and general manager of subscriber network services Sherita Ceasar is not one of those people.

In her case, the operative word may be "bootstrap."

As a woman—and a woman of color—Ceasar believes in self-reliance, empowerment and driving the action forward, and she uses all three traits in plentiful fashion at S-A. After more than six years with the Atlanta-based set-top converter and transmission-equipment vendor, the result has been solid financial performance for the subscriber network-services division and a new revenue stream in SciCare.

SciCare is the venture S-A created in 1998 to handle the outsourcing of services associated with deploying digital set-top boxes and services for cable operators. It began with 60 employees under Ceasar's oversight, and perhaps a faint glimmer of generating significant revenue.

Now—as 180 officials fan out around the country to supplement operators' deployment activities in such areas as field maintenance and churn-reduction tactics—the division is more than earning its keep. SciCare will pull in $20 million for all of 2001, S-A officials estimated, and Ceasar anticipates revenue will increase by 10 percent to 20 percent this year.

It doesn't take much to get her jazzed about the business and the SciCare staff.

"There's a passion for broadband in here, the passion of getting this service out to everyone possible," Ceasar said. "Everything is coming together in the home, and I want to be able to do it all as fast as I can: Have a networked home, chat while watching video, comment on the screen about the TV program I'm watching with friends.

"The excitement of the tech possibilities itself should be an excitement and motivation point itself. We're changing the TV viewing experience forever."

The hard part is turning that passion and excitement into outstanding sales and financial performance, said Ceasar. But if past is prologue, S-A need not worry.

In the eight years at Motorola Inc. that preceded her stint at S-A, Ceasar played a key role in paging operations, starting as manager of a Boynton Beach, Fla., pager factory. Paging revenues were $600 million per year when she was hired; they reached $3 billion when S-A approached with the role of chief quality officer.

S-A CEO James McDonald "did a good sales job on me," Ceasar said. "He talked about a future in cable that I never thought about. He personally made the commitment to have me do a quality job and do everything he could to drive a culture of delivering products which meet customer satisfaction standards."

Technology has been inseparable from Ceasar's career. Her educational background in mechanical engineering led to a job at Northrop Grumman Corp. in the 1980s, designing power supplies and microwave electronic circuits for the nation's defense system. At that point, most of her time was spent on classified projects. When Northrup went public with plans for the stealth bomber and other defense projects, Ceasar moved on to commercial or corporate assignments.

Cable is "well on the way" to becoming the fulcrum for integrating information, educational and entertainment services over various communication devices in that home, according to Ceasar.

In her view, that vision starts with the wide deployment of video-on-demand, subscription VOD and interactive TV, followed by home networking.

"The ability to have movies or library content at my fingertips over VOD, coupled with an information on-demand experience under interactive TV, is the short-term play," she said. "In the longer term, we figure out how to couple my PC experience and my TV experience with my lights and my utilities."

There's one area in which Ceasar feels cable-technology companies haven't gained much ground during her watch: the promotion of women—and women of color—to senior positions. When meeting with MSO senior managers, she said, "I'm the only woman and the only black in that room."

"I haven't seen a lot of improvement in that area, or diversity at the top of the house with both operators and vendors," she said. "The awareness of doing something about it is there, but I don't see new faces at the top of the house. Considering that cable as an industry supports a diverse population, there should be some reflection.

"Diversity doesn't happen because you dictate it. You really have to have the heart to want to create a diverse team with diverse opinions as an avenue for better business. Trying to dictate or legislate diversity, in my opinion, never works. Having people use it as a positive impact on business does."

Her advice to women who want a career in cable—especially in cable technology—is just as blunt and simple: Get results. Under her philosophy, a person's level of success is directly related to how well they understand a company's business, its customers and technologies that drive it.

"This is not about hoping and having people value you because you're a woman," she said. "This is about getting results. You move up the organization when you do, because moving the organization forward creates business opportunities.

"That goes without saying," she added. "But maybe it needs to be said."

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