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Man of the Year: Tony Werner

Sun, 12/31/2006 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor-in-Chief; and Leslie Ellis, Independent Analyst and CED Contributing Editor

To say that Tony Werner had a momentous 2006 would be an understatement.

For him, the year was filled with milestones and life-altering events. He got married in July, turned 50 in November, and then, in mid-December–just as CED's deadline approached on this issue–Werner hit the trifecta of change by accepting an offer to become the chief technology officer of Comcast Corp., considered one of the most important and influential positions in the cable industry.

Outgoing CTO Dave Fellows will remain involved via a consulting arrangement for an unspecified amount of time (see "Executive," p. 24).

Before joining Comcast late last year, Werner was the CTO of Liberty Global, overseeing the technical strategy and direction of cable systems serving 13 million customers in 17 countries, including Japan, Puerto Rico, Chile, Australia and several in Europe.

And staying on top of the technical needs and drivers in such a variety of markets required special traits. Werner "is an information freak with boundless energy," says Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries. "In other words, he can process and organize tons of data while running for an airplane with a Blackberry pasted to his head. And he is obsessed with getting it right. That's probably his greatest asset."

"We hate like hell to lose him," Liberty Media Corp. Chairman John Malone adds. "But we understand that he's going, in one respect, to the top job in the industry for a technical guy. With [Comcast's] scale, they have an ability to cause things to be developed and vendors to do things that some of the rest of the players don't," he adds.

At Comcast, Werner will guide long-term technology strategy, including next-generation architectures, security, advertising methods, and associated components.

Malone believes Werner's international experience will pay dividends for Comcast, particularly when it comes to creating technology strategies designed to combat myriad forms of competition.

"There are some things going on around the world, some of which are leading indicators of what the U.S. [cable] industry is going to face in terms of opportunities or challenges," Malone says, pointing to areas such as IP video and "ultra-high speed services."

Despite his recent move to Comcast, Werner had already been paving the way toward increased influence on the domestic cable engineering sector, including taking the helm of the DOCSIS business team and, in general, taking a heavier leadership role at CableLabs.

It's a confluence of his achievements in the past, present, and now equally bright future as CTO of Comcast, that contributed to CED's honoring of Werner as its Man of the Year.

It started in Silsbee

Werner "is a guy who goes back to climbing poles and fixing amps on the bench long before fiber, and long before digital, and back into the roots of the business," says Jim Chiddix, presently the chairman & CEO of OpenTV Corp, and the CTO of Time Warner Cable during Werner's tenure as CTO of Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI).

A "very good technical thinker," Werner "is also a quick study and stays up with the changes and plays a leadership role with all of these technologies," Chiddix adds.

But long before he developed those traits and embarked on what would become a successful cable career, Werner's first stop in the working world was the corn fields in Minnesota, at the age of 14.

Then, like many other budding engineers, Werner's interest in technology started with tinkering–with televisions, in this case. He later purchased a set of tools, teamed up with a friend who owned a TV shop, and earned money that way through his senior year of high school and through college. He also started working on cars, as well, during his college days.

It was also about this time that some friends first mentioned cable television as being the "next big thing."

"I even did some installs on the side one summer, up in northern Minnesota," Werner remembers.

Then, when he was 21, he happened upon an opportunity to work in cable full-time, and repair cars and TVs on the side.

It's fair to say that Werner's first full-time cable job–as general manager and chief tech–was with a small operator. That operator, Silsbee Cablevision, based outside of Beaumont, Texas, had about 1,000 subs.

Werner, who was single then, loaded his trailer and left for Texas to take what would be the first steps toward a long, fruitful career in the cable industry.

But at Silsbee Cablevision, Werner was a jack-of-all-trades, handling everything from collections to new construction.

Werner's career took a turn when he attended the National Show in Chicago and learned about WGN, which, at the time, was complementing its programming business with cable system ambitions.

WGN was Werner's next stop–in Albuquerque as an engineering manager, tasked with handling the network design of a brand new system that was built out to about 300 MHz.

Werner spent the better part of three years there, where, "I learned a ton about RF engineering and network design and network performance. It was a real building block for me."

Following a stint at RCA, Werner returned to the operator's role.

It was Nick Hamilton-Piercy, then CTO of Rogers Cable, who hired Tony into what became a fast-track technical career. At the time, Rogers owned the Minneapolis, Minn. system, and viewed it as a flagship for advanced services. From there, Werner ultimately moved to the corporate engineering group at Rogers–which is and was widely regarded as top-notch.

"From the very beginning, Tony's 'can-do' attitude was clear," Hamilton-Piercy says. "No matter what it is, he gets it done."

Rogers later sold its U.S. assets, and Werner, following eight years with the MSO, was offered his first international opportunity–in Hong Kong as a chief engineer at a cable joint venture with US West that quickly dissolved.

Rogers then offered Werner a job in Canada, and Werner again worked directly with Hamilton-Piercy.

The environment and people of Rogers served as a "great school for me," Werner remembers.

Tony & Laurel 'swimming with sharks'
Tony and his new bride, Laurel,
literally swim with the sharks.
At the time, operators were building to about 550 MHz and just beginning to place fiber. Werner was also part of a team at Rogers in the early 1990s that built what ended up being a massive optical network that connected all the systems.

Although Werner had a tremendous fondness for the people of Rogers and the organization itself, he was interested in returning to the U.S.

It was south of the Canadian border where TCI was evolving into a large MSO and asserting industry leadership. However, TCI, at the time, was comprised of a disjointed collection of big and small systems, all doing their own thing.

Tom Elliot, a veteran industry engineer, hired Werner, finding him through a headhunter.

As for the job itself, Werner's group was tasked with developing a uniform network and engineering approach for TCI's systems. The work completed during those days laid the foundation for TCI's high-speed data and digital video services.

AT&T later stepped in to purchase TCI, closing the deal in 1999. Werner remained with the company until he left voluntarily in October 2000.

Werner then found himself on the other side of the table–as a vendor–when he was appointed CEO of Aurora Networks, a move that essentially put the optical network equipment supplier on the map.

In an interview with CED at the time, Werner said he was "ready for a change." Although he had other opportunities at the time, "ultimately, I decided that Aurora had the best product, business plan, group of people, and niche, for what I wanted to do."

Werner says he was not treated differently as a vendor than he was with the nation's largest MSO. "I was always trying to be considerate of people," Werner says of his time as an operator, and that personal approach paid off later at Aurora. Although acknowledging that "nobody wants to be hit with a product pitch," other operators were always willing to return his calls.

After helping Aurora secure some key funding, Werner then got an unexpected chance to leave cable altogether, and was convinced to return to Denver to work for an industry competitor–Qwest Communications.

Qwest, fresh off a merger with US West, was flying high at the time, and starting to dabble in advanced technologies such as VDSL. The opportunity was great enough that Werner joined Qwest in mid-2001 as executive vice president of strategic technology.

"I wanted to see if I could do well in a technical role outside my comfort zone," Werner recalls. "It was a pretty short stint, but [the job] did help me to get a real understanding of how tricky twisted pair networks are."

Werner also discovered that the job "was as manic as any I'd ever worked."

How so?

"Manic in the fact that when my alarm went off at 5:30 [a.m.], my pulse rate and blood pressure climbed higher and higher as I got into the car and drove downtown," Werner says.

"People [at Qwest] were feverish about everything," he adds, noting that the heated environment at the time was driven by a combination of internal politics and wide ranging company initiatives. "It was just high intensity. I like high intensity when it's unified–when you have a goal, and it's clear, and everyone is aiming for it together."

The situation there made his next decision–to rejoin John Malone at Liberty Media, which was in the process of re-entering the cable systems business–an easy one.

When asked if he would be interested in joining Liberty, "it didn't take me more than about five nanoseconds to say, 'Yes'," says Werner, who officially joined Liberty as CTO in August 2001.

What's next?

Werner will likely remember 2006 as the year he labored over whether to go to Comcast as CTO. Dave Fellows announced his transition to a part-time role in June; an executive search immediately latched on to Tony's name.

What made it so hard: He loves Colorado, where he met his new bride, Laurel. He liked his Liberty Global job. He has a daughter in high-school. Philadelphia . . . isn't Denver.

"It is incredibly hard for me to leave Liberty," Werner said, "but the attraction and challenge of working for the largest MSO in the world is something I can't pass up at this point in my career."

Tony and Laurel pose with Taser
Tony and Laurel pose with
“Taser,” a German Shepherd that’s
undergoing Schutzhund training.
The transition between CTOs is more a baton passing than a flash cut, both men say.

"One of the great things about Tony being my successor is, no one can argue with it," says Fellows, adding: "There's no one who thinks they're better than Tony. I don't think I'm better than Tony."

Werner and Fellows share a long history of technical collaboration through CableLabs and other industry activities. "We've worked together a lot over the years–defining network architectures, developing powering architectures for telephone service," Werner says. "I've grown to have a deep respect for Dave's intellectual capacity over the past several years, so much so that I asked him to serve on LGI's technology board."

A communicator at heart

Colleagues widely acknowledge Werner as a clear and thorough communicator, with strong technical and financial knowledge.

"Tony's strength is that he learns the technical, legal, and financial aspects of everything, and commits those learnings to the industry," says Dan Pike, CTO of GCI Cable, and a frequent co-author of technical papers with Werner.

Others also point to Werner's human side, and how it always interacts with his business side.

"What sets Tony apart is that he would always give you the time and listen," says Guy Sucharczuk, president and CEO of Aurora Networks.

During Werner's days as CEO of Aurora, he would always give attention to a steady stream of people, including those from the VC world who would put forth some "interesting ideas" they hoped to hook into cable, Sucharczuk recalls. "Tony wouldn't throw anything out of hand; he wouldn't shatter the dream, but [listen] to see if there was a piece of the story that made any sense that could be developed."

Gadget head

Among his friends and peers, Werner is one of those guys who's always first to own or know about the latest gear, from high science to geeky gadgetry.

At a keynote speech last year, for instance, Werner's list of current events included perpendicular magnetic recording ("which gets you up to 240 Megabytes per square inch of disc platter") and invisibility cloaks ("which would be great at trade shows").

For his 50th birthday, in November, Werner's friends (who showed up at his surprise party in full '60s garb) delivered well. One favorite: A cube-shaped laser that beams a keyboard onto a flat surface. "You kind of type into the lighted boxes," Werner says. "It's real accurate."

The gadget he uses the most? "My iPod," Werner says. "I hook it up in my car to an FM transmitter. In the morning I download that day's Wall Street Journal and listen to it on my drive to work."

Of course he does.

Future visions

As crystal balls go, Werner points out that it's easy to over-predict the short-term, and under-predict the long-term. Still, he says, today's trends are reasonably easy to see. On video, it's the ability for consumers to randomly access stored or streamed shows.

On voice, it's sustained growth: "We see parts of the world where we have 50 percent penetration," he says. "I see no reason why (U.S.) cable companies can't split the market."

And the real action will grow out of the Web, Werner says, "which will continue to be more and more dynamic, and will continue to accelerate." That means more video on the Web, for sure, including self-published material–but even so, "the only real killer app on the Web right now, in a real killer form, is search. Everything else, video, cross-

platform stuff, is interesting, but it's hard to know which one could surpass search."

Werner picks the network as the place where video content should be formatted (or reformatted) for delivery over varying transport protocols (IP, MPEG) to devices with differing compression methods (MPEG-2, H.264). The set-top isn't the place, because doing so paints you into a corner, as far as keeping up with the newest transport and compression methods. "You don't want them to not be able to do a more popular algorithm," he explains.

"I prefer an architecture that does trans-coding at a point in the network, probably at a super-hub," Werner continues. "Do the transcoding and protocol conversion in the network. Keep Moore's Law in the hub." n

 

'Tonyisms'–Werner on . . .

. . . the pervasiveness of Internet Protocol: "Anything that can go IP, will. All services will migrate to IP. Everything from door locks to appliances to automobiles will ultimately have an IP address."

. . . storage trends part 1: "If you went back to 1956, hard drives cost $10,000 per Megabyte. My latest MP3 player would be worth just over a half a billion dollars, just on the drive alone."

. . . storage trends part 2: "By 2010, high-end home PCs will have 60 terabyte drives."

. . . paranoia: "That's the challenge, in capital-intensive businesses: How do we make sure we're not the one being rendered obsolete?"

. . . his CTO-ship at Qwest in 2001: "I'd tend to start any conversation by going to my reference point, which is HFC. Every time I did, they'd all start drooling and say, 'Gosh, yeah, that is a lot better.' So I have no worries about telcos being better."

. . . Apple's iTV and devices that distribute video wirelessly around a home: "Never say never, but, it just isn't that perfect, it isn't that easy, and you're not going to do HD, or trick mode, for a long, long, long time."

Executive Fellow Fellows

David Fellows
It was exactly 10 years ago that Dave Fellows accepted his Man of the Year recognition. If that doesn't sound like so long ago, let's set the WayBack Machine to 1997:

  • He was VP/Engineering at Continental Cablevision, then the number-three MSO, which had just merged with US West.
  • He was helping to develop the MCNS spec that ultimately became DOCSIS.
  • He was getting ready to contract with TCI's "HITS" service, in anticipation of "being ready to deploy digital everywhere in 1997."
  • On the network side, his focus was on "getting the 750 MHz upgrades done, and the return path activated." At the time, the plant he managed was 40 percent 750, 20 percent two-way activated.

Then, US West became MediaOne. MediaOne became AT&T Broadband. AT&T Broadband became Comcast. All the while, Fellows remained "personally headquartered" in Beverley, Mass., commuting to work.

Five years of commuting weekly to Philadelphia, from Boston, got old. In June of this year, he asked and received a transition to a part-time post as "executive fellow."

Back in '97, when then-editor Roger Brown was gathering information for the Man of the Year story, Fellows said that he tends to synthesize information in the way a sculptor creates a sculpture: "You just chip away everything you don't need . . . I take ideas from everybody and everywhere, and retain those that fit my vision of the future."

At Comcast, Fellows is most widely known for his work to chip away at the impediments to cross-platform services, under a program code-named "Bedrock," and for building a national fiber backbone.

"Bedrock is now processing over a million transactions a day," Fellows says. The backbone, which stretches 19,000 miles, drops into another Fellows initiative: The "CRAN," or "Converged Regional Area Network," which "really does deliver honest-to-God converged services."

As Executive Fellow Fellows, Dave will remain on-board at Comcast, working with Werner, on a part-time basis. "Tony is in charge. The baton has been passed. It couldn't have worked out any better."–LE

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