It’s good to be Marwan Fawaz. Last week, Charter posted a healthy profit in its first-quarter earnings report, while Fawaz added the title of executive vice president of operations to his duties as the company’s chief technology officer.
On Thursday, Fawaz will receive a Vanguard Award for Science & Technology during the NCTA Vanguard Awards Lunch and Ceremony.
Fawaz’s cable career has arched across some of the better-known companies in the cable industry, including Continental Cablevision, MediaOne and Adelphia Communications, but his auspicious cable career got off to an inauspicious start when he left his homeland of Lebanon at the age of 16 to finish high school in Liberia. When he was 17, Fawaz came to the United States by himself to start college at Long Beach State.
Fawaz said he admired the entrepreneurial spirit of the cable industry in the early days of his career, and although he didn’t plan on staying in cable, it turned out that he was a perfect match for the industry.
CED: When did you learn you were a Vanguard Award winner? Were you surprised, or did you know you had been nominated?
Fawaz: I was very surprised because I didn’t know I had been nominated. I didn’t even think about it, and then I got a call in early March from [chairman of the NCTA Vanguard Awards Committee] Johnathan Rogers. He called to congratulate me, and I said, ‘Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.’ I asked him who the culprits were that nominated me, and I found that out later and thanked them. (Neil Smit, Charter’s former president and CEO, and Mike Lovett, Charter’s current president and CEO, nominated Fawaz.)
I’m very grateful for this industry. There’s no place I’d rather be than in this industry.
CED: What was your first job in cable, and what stands out from the first few years of your career?
Fawaz: My first job was as a design engineer right out of college for a cable company called Times Mirror Cable Television in Irvine, Calif. Although my title said design engineer, my first job was to write a software program to automate RF design. That was in 1985, and that was my first job in cable.
Early in my career, I started learning about cable, but it wasn’t something that I anticipated spending the rest of my life doing. Of course, now I enjoy it the most, and I wouldn’t go anywhere else.
When I joined the industry, I looked at it as an interim job because I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. I graduated mostly with a background in satellite communications and satellite design. I took a job in cable while I waited for the right opportunity in aerospace, and after a couple of years I decided this was the industry for me. It was intriguing, interesting and exciting to be in, even early on.
CED: What were your initial impressions in regard to the cable industry?
Fawaz: What struck me most was it was such an entrepreneurial-type industry. I think early on I realized that the opportunities were endless. It wasn’t very structured – it’s still not very structured – but that makes it fun and exciting to be in.
CED: What project comes to mind from your first few years in cable?
Fawaz: Two years into cable I had a project that really made me enjoy working in the industry. I was assigned the project of deploying standby power in the Phoenix Times Mirror system. It was a huge project, and it was my first major project in the industry.
I had to do a lot of standby power cable design evaluations, finding the right charging, the right architectures for standby power, and figuring out the right batteries that could withstand the heat in Phoenix. I spent about six months working on that, but I enjoyed it the most. It was a satisfying project just to go through it and learn more about the industry.
CED: With a career that spans Continental Cablevision, MediaOne, Adelphia and now Charter, what do you consider your biggest engineering achievement to date?
Fawaz: It’s relative to the job at that time. I think the challenges were different throughout my career, and there are so many things I’m proud of from my early days.
I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished at Charter, which was essentially preparing Charter for the future despite the limited resources over the last few years. That includes restructuring the company in order to give us the ability to continue upgrading our network platforms, upgrading our back office platforms to compete and providing the right mix of competitive products in the markets that we serve.
CED: With the backdrop of Charter’s bankruptcy, you’ve been busy with SDV, DOCSIS 3.0, the build-out of Charter’s own national backbone and adding to your commercial services portfolio. What is the key to keeping all of the engineering balls in the air?
Fawaz: The first thing I will tell you is surround yourself with very smart people. I would say that I’ve been lucky over the years to be able to work with talented staff and talented engineers that I’ve been able to recruit on my team. I think that’s No. 1.
The second one is there are so many initiatives, there are so many projects that sometimes challenge resources, that the mode of operation is to always have clear priorities. What are the top-five major priorities? We keep those visible throughout the organization and make sure everyone understands what they are. We check in on a quarterly and annual basis to decide how we change those priorities, but with the caveat that everyone needs to understand what they are.
That minimizes distractions because there are so many interesting and fascinating things to look at and try to do, so we emphasize those priorities by reminding people on almost a monthly basis what they are. It’s the best way to keep people focused on getting the job done.
CED: What’s on your current list of priorities?
Fawaz: You’ve pointed out some of them already. DOCSIS 3.0, switched digital video, and I would add commercial services expansion. There’s a lot happening under that umbrella. Those are the top three, then next migration from analog to digital and EBIF and tru2way as one bucket around set-top box priorities.
CED: Have you started the all-digital conversion?
Fawaz: We’re wrapping up our simulcast deployment, and that gives us the ability to push more digital products. We have a couple of pilot markets where we’re looking at all-digital solutions. Then we’ll decide how fast we’ll move set-top deployments to go all-digital. We haven’t finalized that, unlike Comcast’s Project Cavalry. We don’t have a Project Cavalry yet, but we’ll have something similar that will ramp up to an all-digital transition.
CED: Where are you in terms of offering a TV Everywhere-type service?
Fawaz: We’re collaborating with our programmers and with other MSOs, and we’ve got our Charter.net platform today where we’re providing content to our customers. We’re growing that platform with the backdrop of a lot of work that has happened in the industry with our programmers around authentication and single sign on-type of solutions.
CED: What person has been the most influential in your cable career?
Fawaz: There have been a lot of people who have been really influential in my cable career, and I’m really grateful to all of them. What’s so great about this industry is it’s such a collegial industry. If you’re new in the industry, people tend to bring you under their wings and help you grow.
Early in my career, I looked up to and tried to emulate Jim Chiddix. I got to know Jim later on, and he was such an influential person, not just for me individually, but also for the whole industry.
Later in my career, I think the person who was very intellectually stimulating in debate and vision was Paul Allen. Those are the two people I would mention, but there are many, many people out there, and they know who they are, that I learned a lot from working by their sides on a lot of projects.
CED: What kind of advice would you give to engineers starting out in the cable industry?
Fawaz: The one thing that I keep reminding young engineers in this industry about is to make sure that their knowledge, expertise and vision for the industry is well-rounded around business solutions and products, and not just technology. Understanding the business aspect of the cable industry is critical for their career path.
We’re all in the business of providing connectivity, entertainment and informational services to customers, but I think it’s very important in our business to always be looking at it from the customers’ perspective. What are the customers expecting and what are the trends we need to provide for? It’s really about aligning the technology and the vision with the business solutions and products.