Pragash Pillai matriculated into the University of Missouri-Columbia in the dead of winter 1996. The Midwestern cold was quite a difference from his native Malaysia, where the average winter low is 73 degrees.
He had traveled some 10,000 miles. But his luggage went a few thousand miles further — to Columbia, South America. Along the way, a power upconverter inside one of his locked bags raised an eyebrow. When the suitcase finally arrived in Missouri two weeks later, cut open and duct-taped back together, everything inside was sopping wet.
Pillai shrugs and smiles: “That’s the first time I saw a Wal-Mart.” As director of digital engineering for Charter Communications Inc., Pillai infuses a similar level of practicality, bulked with perseverance, into his work.
“He has this smile that puts you at ease right off the bat, but he understands our business from the base metal all the way to the operational issues,” says Charter chief technology officer Wayne Davis. “He doesn’t think about things in the traditional way — he cuts through all the clutter. We see a tremendous career in front of him. Quite honestly, I envy his vigor.”
Other colleagues describe him as the kind of guy who instinctively knows when to lead, and when to be part of a team. “I like to work with other groups — financial, operations,” the 31-year-old Pillai says. “I like to learn stuff. I want to know.”
He was among the first cable technologists to see the economic and operational savings in Gigabit Ethernet as a way to move video-on-demand content to and from servers. (Everybody does it now.)
Working with suppliers, Pillai helped analyze and deploy statistical multiplexers that can cram three HDTV channels (not two), into a 6-Megahertz channel. Both efforts helped to earn him last year’s Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers’ “Young Engineer of the Year” award.
“He gets the big picture and the little picture,” says Broadbus Inc. CTO Tom Jokerst, a former Charter colleague.
These days, Pillai spends most of his time on Charter’s widely-publicized “all-digital” project, in Long Beach, Calif. A series of tests are planned for the summer, to take multiple nodes to “really all digital” status. (The first phase of the project left existing analog channels intact.)
“A lot of things can be learned from the consumer side,” Pillai says of the project. “That’s when you really see the challenge of deploying any new service.”