Interview Date: September 9, 2015
Interviewer: Jana Henthorn
Interview Location: Denver, CO USA
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Henthorn: It’s September 9, 2015. I’m Jana Henthorn, and I’m here with Leslie Ellis and we’re going to be doing her oral history. This is part of the Gus Hauser Oral and Video History Collection for the Cable Center.
Leslie, you are a long time friend of mine and I’m pretty excited to be able to do this oral history with you.
Ellis: I’ve known you for so long I don’t even remember when I met you.
Henthorn: Exactly. It’s been a long time. I’m looking forward to hearing more and getting this into the oral history archive for the Cable Center.
Ellis: I’m not used to be on this side of the questions, Jana.
Henthorn: We’ll talk about that.
You are a journalist, an author, an editor, a tech analyst, a tech advisor to CTOs, and a translator of all things cable related. You’re really one of the most well-rounded executives that I know of in the industry.
Ellis: I love what I do.
Henthorn: And you just turned fifty and you took up surfing.
Ellis: Well, I took up surfing three years ago…
Henthorn: It’s still admirable. And this is your thirtieth year in the cable industry. So to weave those things together, let’s talk about the waves of your cable career in the industry.
Ellis: I can tell you that I can stay on those waves much longer than I can stay on an actual wave. So yes, let’s talk about those things, those waves.
Henthorn: You’re from Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Ellis: Doylestown, yes.
Henthorn: Tell me about those formative years and how that prepared you for your eventual career in the cable industry.
Ellis: We’ll start with Mom and Dad. My dad worked for La-Z-Boy in the days of the Joe Namath commercials and the giving of La-Z-Boys to Superbowl champs who won. When I got older and got into cable, he used to love telling his friends, “It was natural. I’m in the recliner business; she’s in the cable business.” So there was that although I don’t really think that had anything to do with it. He actually didn’t talk like that either. And my mother was a court reporter. So she would drive down into Philadelphia and tape record usually reverse discrimination hearings for the Navy and then she would bring all these tapes home. She would sit there and write down the first name, like who was talking, and the first few words they said. She would bring the tapes home and our whole living room was set up with work stations with a typewriter and then a tape recorder on the floor that you could control—the fast forward and pause and everything—with your feet. And she would pass ten cents a page to help her transcribe all these tapes, which was a lot of money at the time. So it encouraged you to become a better and faster typist.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen me take notes in our industry, but I take verbatim notes and it helps me in many, many ways but mostly so I never misquote people and I can always tell what the context of a conversation was even if it’s thirty years later because that’s how far back my notes go.
Henthorn: You are a darn hard worker, I know that. Were there other things you did growing up that added to your cable career? Lots of jobs?
Ellis: I always worked lots of jobs because I always needed money for something. I needed money for a car, I needed money for college or I needed money for books for college. I like working. I like hard work. I like physical work and I always had two or three jobs at a time. I was one of those people.
Henthorn: And where did you go to college?
Ellis: I started out at Temple University and then finished up at Shippensburg University, at the time Shippensburg State Teacher’s College. But it is now and it was when I graduated, a university in south central Pennsylvania.
Henthorn: So everybody has a story about how they fell into the industry. And mine involves volleyball. What’s yours?
Ellis: Well, tell me yours first.
Henthorn: I was refereeing a volleyball match and one of the players said, “Hey, you did a great job doing that. Do you have a graduate degree?” And there I was. ATC.
Henthorn: Pete Gatseos.
Ellis: Mine was far simpler than that. I had gotten out of college; I was dating this guy who worked for a company that sold all the things that you needed at the time to build a cable system. This was in the heyday of all the big builds. So that company, which was called Jerry Conn Associates, had a sister company called Telecommunications Products Corp—TPC—and they were early pioneers in the landscape of ad insertion equipment. So they needed somebody to come in and write their hardware and software manuals for this stuff. This guy I was dating said, “You should go and take that job.” I said, “I don’t know anything about that.” He said, “You’re a good writer. Everybody tells you you’re a good writer, you can do it. Go, do it. Do it.”
So I did. And here I still am.
Henthorn: So you started in ad insertion.
Ellis: I did.
Henthorn: And then you moved on to the magazine business.
Ellis: Getting back to ad insertion, I also would go then and install the equipment to the smaller operators that are literally in the field where you show up at the small headends and you practically push a cow out of the way, although that actually never happened to me. Then you get in there and it’s like and it’s like these big ¾ inch Sony VTRs and I’m muscling them in the door and they’re like, “Who are you with, little lady?”
“Just me.” I’m pulling sub-carrier audio cables down because that was back in the days that when the television show went to commercial, you’d hear that “Diddly-dit.” Then, “Kush-kush.” And then the local ad would switch in in those days. So it was fun, it was fun. I met lots of wonderful people.
Henthorn: Then you did go on to the magazine business, to the CED Magazine business…
Ellis: “Communications, Engineering and Design.”
Henthorn: Tell me how you got that job.
Ellis: There are two stories. I had always as a child wanted to live in the great state of Colorado, which is where CED was at the time—when I moved out here in 1990, there was like seventeen or eighteen cable companies headquartered here. This was the cable capital of the United States. To get back to the very beginning: my parents divorced when I was super-young and so the normal for me was that Dad would come pick us up and take us somewhere for a couple weeks every year. One year, I was seven or eight, he comes and picks up my brother and I in an RV filled with recliners.
Ellis: La-Z-Boy recliners. And his parents, my paternal grandparents, we’re like, “Yeah! Road trip!” So we were going to drive from Pennsylvania to Yellowstone and ultimately drop these recliners off in Billings, Montana. So we’re somewhere on that journey and I’m in the back of the RV, all the way back in a recliner, tipped back, looking out the back window and it was one of those perfect Colorado blue sky days. The sky was the color of your shirt and these beautiful white perfect clouds and like, “Dad! Where are we right now?” And he said, “Colorado, honey.” And I said, “I’m going to live here someday!” So when I learned that CED was looking for a managing editor and it was in Colorado, I was like, “Oh. I’m interested.” I already had a relationship with them because this little company that made ad insertion equipment, I was also in charge of buying the ad space in the magazines. One night we all went out to dinner, Roger Brown and Rob Stuehrk and a few other people. We were all about the same age. We were telling stories about things and I told them that story because it’s a good one. Things you think are normal when you’re eight: La-Z-Boy recliners.
Henthorn: You set the intention early.
Ellis: Yes. And I said, “I want to live here someday. So if anything ever opens up, I’m your man.” And it did, so I out here for a two-week install in Thornton and started interviewing with Roger and Rob and ultimately got that job.
Henthorn: Anything more about that job interview?
Ellis: This is when you learn whether or not you’re pushy or you really want something.
Henthorn: Great salesperson.
Ellis: But I’d had two or three interviews with them and we all got along great. We were friends. So it was like the third interview, it was a Friday, I had the weekend to find an apartment and then I had to go back to Pennsylvania, so I was like, “OK. I think this all is going really well. And I really want this job. Could you hire me? Could you hire me during this meeting because I only have this weekend to find an apartment?” They look at each other like, “OK, OK.” And they hired me. They took a big risk on me. I didn’t have a journalism degree, I don’t have a EE. I have a BS/BA with an emphasis on computer science, which was very different at the time.” So that was that; that’s how I got here.” Talked my way into the job.
Henthorn: And still doing that, I imagine.
Ellis: I love the work, and I still love the work. So it was good for everybody, I think.
Henthorn: Roger Brown was a great mentor of yours, wasn’t he?
Ellis: Mine and many other people, yes. He died in 2005 of melanoma cancer and it was a huge blow to many of us because he was very young.
He was that guy who, you would go into this office and he would put his things away and look at you and have a conversation. He never multi-tasked. He was the guy that we would walk around the trade shows and there was one instance where we were looking at some new amplifier development, very hot at the time, Jana, and I said something like, “What makes it different than the way it was before?” And he was like, “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.” Roger went off on this guy. And I feel like I have a big brother in this industry. And I did. We miss Roger very much.
Henthorn: Many people do…
Ellis: Yes, they do. He had a huge following.
Henthorn: So your first NCTA show, or your first cable show was in 1990. What was that like at your first show?
Ellis: That was like one week on the job and they said, “Come on, we’re going, have to do a daily.” What’s the daily? It was the thing they slide under people’s hotel room doors at the show. Oh, OK. So we get there and Roger divvying up what tech sessions are happening here and who was having a press conference. So he was like, “OK, Leslie, here’s your worksheet for today. Go.” “OK, So then what do I do? What happens?” He said, “Take really good notes and come back. We have to go to press around five. So come back; I need you to write these things up as little items for tomorrow’s daily.”
“OK, got it.” So I go to the first one and it’s like this dark room with this engineer standing in the front of the room talking about—I have no idea what he was talking about. And the conditions were like, I hadn’t eaten, I was starting to feel like I was going to fall asleep. So I thought, you know how to stay awake, you know how to take really good notes. So I cranked up my portable computer. At the time they were like thirty-five pounds and more like luggable and I cracked it open and started doing the notes thing. Have I told you about the hyper-listening thing that happens with verbatim notes?
Henthorn: No, what’s that?
Ellis: I just learned this over the years because I still take notes this way. A connection happens between your fingers, your ears and your brain such that you can’t not focus, even if you want to. Your brain will not let you get to, “Oh, what should I get for dinner tonight? I need to make an appointment to take the dog to the vet.” You’re so locked into what that person is saying that you’re just totally focused on it. So I love that part because I am very easily distracted.
So I went in and started taking verbatim notes and then was able to go back to the press room and look at the notes and pick through it and find the lead and write a couple of pieces for the next day’s daily and I loved it. It was really fun. It still is.
Henthorn: Now that your court reporting, a dime a page, that came back. A dime a page, it came back, and you change that into hyper-listening.
Ellis: I still do.
Henthorn: That’s neat.
Ellis: It’s a great skill.
Henthorn: Now you told me earlier when we were talking about some things that you had a great story you told me about Jim Chiddix. Can you tell me…?
Ellis: What happens when you don’t have the ability to take verbatim notes is you used the reporter’s notebook, a little—with a thing on the top. So I had to interview Jim Chiddix about something and I had such a platonic crush on him because that year, right around that time, he had been named “CED Man of the Year.” You know, he has that very statuesque way of speaking and uses the pause very well. I was kind of petrified to interview him but it was my assignment to go so I go to talk to him. And I’m kind of mesmerized by his speech and everything and I’m writing and I think I’m writing and I think I’m writing and I get back to the press room and my notes say, “And the most important thing is…”
Henthorn: That was it?
Ellis: That was it. So it was kind of a problem. That’s one of many Jim Chiddix stories. I also have the first…
Henthorn: Please tell the Post-It…
Ellis: The “While You Were Out” –remember the pink “While You Were Out” messages?
Henthorn: I still have them.
Ellis: One day I came back from lunch and there was, “Leslie, while you were out, Jim Chiddix called.”
“For me?” So I framed it. I still have it. It’s not pink anymore. It has faded over the years but I still have the first “While You Were Out” phone message I ever got from Jim Chiddix.
Henthorn: That’s great. And you also worked for Paul Kagan.
Ellis: I did.
Henthorn: That was after the CED?
Ellis: CED and then Multichannel News was where I learned news writing and also very fun. And then I wanted to learn how to do financial analysis and that whole side of the world, so I was lucky to be picked up by Paul Kagan, who I think is one of the industry’s greatest storytellers of all time. A lovely, lovely man.
Henthorn: And then you started your own company. “Ellis Edits.”
Ellis: “Ellis Edits, EE.” I started that—I think this year I found out from LinkedIn that this year is my fifteenth anniversary of that. I start getting all these “Congratulations, congratulations!”
“Oh, thank you, I had forgotten.” But it was right around this time in whatever year that was, 1999 or 2000.
Henthorn: What do you do at Ellis Edits?
Ellis: It started out that I wanted to do—fifteen years ago, my rules of engagement (and I’m sorry I am going to say a curse word now), but my rules of engagement were interesting work for people who aren’t assholes. You try to stay true to that. Usually, you fall down on the interesting work part because you become friends with everyone and they need you to do things that aren’t always interesting. But I wanted to do that. I wanted to help people to understand things that can be ridiculously complicated. And I wanted them to understand technology even if they didn’t have as much interest as an engineer. That’s where I live, that’s what I do.
So I started out with a column and I’m still writing for CED. I went through my actual Rolodex and picked out the cards of the people who I had really enjoyed working with over the years and called them and said, “I’m on my own now and this is what I want to do. Is there any way—do you need anything like that?” And the first one was Ray Katz at Bear Stearns. He and I had always helped each other because he didn’t understand some of the stuff in tech and I didn’t understand the stuff of Wall Street. So I called him and he was like, “I think that’s a great idea.” So he was my first really big client for a long time until the end of them—that was a very sad day.
Henthorn: And you’ve also authored books. How many?
Ellis: I don’t know. Three or four. They are not like book-books. They are not like—what’s the one we just read—Bill Bryson, actual books. But they’re kind of like textbooks. I’ve done two illustrated dictionaries with the fabulous Stewart Schley. Stewart Schley—there are few people who are more fun to work with than Stewart Schley. We also did a field guide to broadband. So it’s those kind of like illustrated dictionaries of tech stuff that are fun to do. I think those are the only books I’ve written; maybe there’s more, I don’t know.
Henthorn: You’re also a speechwriter, both for yourself—and we’ll talk about your public speaking later—but both for yourself and form others. Allow me to tell the Jim Blackley story, just from this year because it’s so great. Jim Blackley won a Vanguard Award, the CTO of Charter.
Henthorn: He got up and started to speak and did the usual, “I’m petrified of public speaking.” And it turned out to be the funniest speech…
Ellis: I’m so proud of him…
Henthorn: He even upstaged Josh Sapan and I was listening to him and I thought, “Oh yes, indeed.” And I thought, “Bet that just has a hint of Leslie.” So I texted you and said, “Did you have anything to do with Blackley’s speech?” And you texted me back and said, “Yep. I helped him write it.”
Ellis: He wrote it. I just kind of added some special sauce.
Henthorn: But you are a fabulous speechwriter. That was a great story. And you’re also a much sought-after public speaker. In fact to the point where, when the NCTA Show schedule comes out, I kind of groan inwardly if I have my panel at the same time as yours. “Not again.” How many panels have you moderated, Leslie?
Ellis: Somebody asked me that last year and the number as of the middle of last year was over 200. But you know, moderating one-on-one Q&A’s, video interviews, all that’s up there. I like doing it.
Henthorn: What tips do you have for me?
Ellis: About moderating? How much time do you have? So first of all, people who say, “I’m just the moderator” should be removed from that position immediately, because you know a panel that has a weak moderator, it’s a role that is important to the conversation. Never read someone’s bio; you’re just wasting time. Everyone has the bio in their books. If someone is talking too much, tell them. “Harry, you’re talking too much.” You have to stop them. Or “Stop. Stop.”
Henthorn: You taught me that once.
Ellis: “Stop. You’re talking too much; you need to let somebody else talk.” Those are three; you want more? You go where the conversation is going. You have your questions, make sure they’re really good questions, and then if somebody goes somewhere else, go with them because they might be even more interesting than your really interesting question.
Henthorn: Good tips, thank you.
Ellis: You’re welcome.
Henthorn: And you have some rock star folks that you emulate when you moderate.
Ellis: Whose styles do I try to incorporate? I do.
Henthorn: Thank you for re-doing that question for me. Charlie Rose.
Ellis: Ellen DeGeneres. Jon Stewart. And Terry Gross from Fresh Air on NPR. I’m also a big fan now of what’s-her-name, the funniest lady on television? Amy Schumer. National Treasure. Jimmy Fallon. I kind of cleave towards funny things but I also really like how Charlie and Terry interview. They just have a way of making people feel comfortable and they do the research such that they lead the conversation gently and I think masterfully. So I study interviewing and I think it’s an art and a science and a talent…
Henthorn: I would say that you’ve mastered it, too.
Ellis: Trying. It’s great.
Henthorn: You also write and I think you mentioned it before—you write a very popular column for the industry called “Translation, Please.”
Ellis: Yes, which is now in its more or less fifteenth year.
Henthorn: Right, right. Do you have a favorite column?
Ellis: I don’t know that I have a favorite column. I have a favorite topic, which is—all the CTO’s or technology people watching this who know me, know what it is, it’s the “Upstream Path.” So the upstream path of any cable system is 5% or less of their total available capacity. It used to be not a big deal because you click your mouse to go get a webpage but the bulk of it is the webpage coming back. Your part of the telephone call coming out of your house is not a big deal because voice is small. But not when you think about, “I’m going to attach my webcam to—“My assistant, Sarah, did this last week, she attached her webcam through her WiFi to her chicken incubator so that we could all watch chickens hatch. That’s video, that’s big and it’s coming out of the upstream path. So I spend a lot of time fussing and fretting and worrying about the state of the cable industry’s upstream path to the point where the CTO’s are like, “Give it a rest, OK? Let it go, let it go.”
Henthorn: But what you do with all these is you make the cable technology understandable for the lay person.
Ellis: I say for people with less of a natural interest than engineers…here’s what it is, here’s why it matters, here’s what doesn’t matter, here’s how much it costs, whatever the theme is of that.
Henthorn: I’ll look out for your next Upstream Path.
Ellis: I’ve done so many of them.
Henthorn: They’re all online now, too.
Ellis: Oh, yes, “translation-please.com.”
Henthorn: So you also changed gears just a little bit. You are a prolific volunteer and fundraiser both in the industry and out of the industry. Do you want to talk to me about a couple of those fundraising pitches?
Ellis: I don’t know I fell into fundraising…Colleen Abdoulah would say, “Here’s what I bring to the table: fundraising…” I started with the Avon breast cancer stuff and in two years I was with the Safe Second Base team for several years. In the last year that they had it, I was personally number one in the Rocky Mountain Region and the team was number two. Then, when Roger died, he had four kids who were about to be of college age and so I put together a cable team called “Run for Roger” and we raised $10,000 for each of the four kids for their college, which really helped them a lot.
Henthorn: That’s amazing.
Ellis: I’m doing one right now called “Healthy Bee, Be Healthy” that is to raise money for the biggest convention for beekeepers west of the Mississippi in early October.
Henthorn: Great. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve done to bring women into the technical side of the industry? You’ve been a speaker, you’ve been a fundraiser, you’ve volunteered.
Ellis: So it’s mostly through—there’s a wonderful group of women in the industry who are all recipients of the SCTE and WICT annual technology woman of the year. Nomi Bergman is one of them and every year she organizes this dinner at the SCTE. Every year it gets one person bigger. And we talk…about how to fix the top and the bottom of the problem. So the bottom of the problem is still on our watch fewer and fewer young girls are interested in sciences and technology, so we’re trying to work that, which I can tell you about. And then on the top side, the numbers show that if you have more of a 50-50 blend of women and men on boards of directors, you have better financial results, but it’s still kind of an uphill battle. As a group of women, we try to work the top and the bottom of those two problems actively.
Henthorn: Tell me a little more about what the programs are for bringing people in to…
Ellis: One I’m most involved with is one that Daniel Howard of SCTE and Sherita Caesar and I dreamed up at one of the National Shows; three or four years ago, we were saying, “We’re starting to do a better job as an industry at throwing money at this entity called ‘FIRST.’” And I can never remember what it stands for, but it’s the robotics program that’s now global for high school students to get them involved and interested in the sciences and technology. She’s like, “We can give them money, but every cable operator is in-market, we have feet on the street, why are we not helping with people to…?” So we’ve started this entity that is still very new but it’s called “Cable First” and the idea is to get more of the industry in more markets with their own people in the teams mentoring the kids—like the engineering side doing the actual build—and then the rest of it. They all have a website, they need to be doing fundraising, they need to do marketing, business plan, all that stuff still needs to happen as part of that experience. So we’re trying to build that out.
Henthorn: I believe that you’re instrumental in the huge success of the Rocky Mountain “Tech It Out” project. And that’s a national model for WICT.
Ellis: I can’t take credit for that. That was Rebecca Rusk Lim’s baby. She’s the one who took it and said, “Why are we just doing an hour? Let’s do it all day, let’s blow it out!” So she set the bar really high and we’ve tried to match her at really high every year since. Last year we had at a new place and we had to program all the screens around the wall and it was quite a to-do. It was fun.
Henthorn: Great opportunity. And there are high school students that come to that as well as young women in the industry who are reaching out not only to women already in the industry but to the next generation. The next generation, women in high school who we hope will be into the cable product. Exactly.
“Denver Loves Cable.” I still have my button that says, “Denver Loves Cable,” and you were instrumental in that, too.
Ellis: That was another one with Rebecca and Marwan and (I’ll see if I can remember), Don Dulchinos and Mike Hayashi and me. Denver cable used to be a really big thing, like I told you. Sixteen or seventeen companies headquartered here and then one by one, consolidation; everyone kind of moved east. The SCTE was here one year and we wanted to have a party but we couldn’t figure out how to do it. So we were like, let’s form a little company called “Denver Loves Cable LLC,” and that way we were able to find sponsorships and throw a cable party like the good old days with the ten or so sponsors and it was great. So we still had this informal group called Denver Loves Cable that is the core Denver cable community.
You’re part of it, Jana.
Henthorn: Thank you, thank you.
Ellis: All of us here are. And you don’t have to be in Denver to be in Denver Loves Cable.
Henthorn: I’m a button-wearing member of Denver Loves Cable.
Again, this is a little bit outside of your industry career, but you also co-founded a wonderful book club called the “Literati Sisters.” I’ve been a member of that for—
Ellis: Since the very beginning.
Henthorn: Since the very beginning.
Ellis: I don’t remember when that was…
Henthorn: It was 1988-1989?
Ellis: I wasn’t even here yet.
Ellis: Yes. Let’s go ten years. Susan Marshall, Ruth Warren and I—I don’t know why or how it was started but Ruth was leaving Jones at the time. I don’t know, we just decided to start a book club and here we are that many years later, the literatisisters.net.
Henthorn: What’s our next book?
Ellis: I knew you were going to ask me about that. It’s the one about the French deaf girl and the German little boy. Supposed to be great, like if you did a piece, it’s great (?)
Henthorn: Leslie, you are just garden variety-type A.
Ellis: You think so?
Henthorn: Yes, yes. Overachieving personality and you said to me…
Ellis: Do I have the personality that goes with it?
Henthorn: No, you’re a nice person.
Ellis: Thank you.
Henthorn: In my opinion.
You told me that you like to be involved in causes where you think you can make a difference.
Ellis: I don’t have any time, right?
Henthorn: Exactly. And you mentioned your fundraising for bees before, but you’re also a beekeeper, you made a documentary about the plight of the bee population. Why? Why bees?
Ellis: So, my little speech. One out of three things on your plate wouldn’t be there without the honeybee. They’re the world’s number one pollinator. Everything from apples to zucchini are pollinated by honeybees and they are dying at a rate of 50-60% per year every year since 2008. Nobody knows why. There are lots of theories. Every week I get ten different Facebook posts of new theories of why the bees are dying. So I was reading about it and decided in 2011—I became a beekeeper. And then in that same year I got into it so big time that I called a friend of mine who I had done a cable documentary about that I had filmed here, Jana—“Cable at 60”—and we had never met, David Knappe, we had never met before that day, before we did all that shooting. And I loved working with him. So I called him up and said, “I’m doing this crazy beekeeping thing and the people are really weird, like our kind of weird. I think we should do something, like we should do a movie or something.” And the one takeaway that the movie hopefully dispensed—the movie is called “Bee People”—is that we need more backyard beekeepers because if we can get a beehive every two miles, there’s a shot at sustainable pollination, because bees pollinate within a two to three mile radius of their beehive. So we made this kind of series of vignettes about weirdo beekeepers and strange things that have happened.
Henthorn: I’ve seen it; it’s great.
Ellis: Thank you. That was the point of it, a beehive every two miles. One way you can make a difference is to encourage more people to become backyard beekeepers towards this end…
Henthorn: Which you are.
Ellis: Which I am. I’m a fifth-year beekeeper. We just did our honey harvest last weekend.
Henthorn: So that’s someplace that you can make a difference. What else are you passionate about and put your energy into?
Ellis: I know where you’re going with this. So we were talking at lunch today about all the things that are happening on the news with gun control and police officers being shot and this horrible story after horrible story. And what I noticed about it is that whatever side you’re on—and I’m not really on either side—but they’re mad as hell. No matter if it’s the NRA side or the gun control moms’ side—mad as hell. So whenever I get drawn into that kind of conversation, my response is to say, “I will have this conversation with you when you can recite to me the four basic rules of gun safety in order.” Because they’re so simple and I think if everybody knew them the same way they knew the alphabet, rote: stop, drop and roll, whatever your thing is, you’ll never forget it, we would have far fewer gun accidents.
Henthorn: Tell me the four.
Ellis: Let me tell you the four. One is treat every gun like it’s always loaded. It’s a deadly weapon. Don’t fool around.
Number two is never point a gun at something you do not intend to destroy, which builds on the first one.
Number three in my opinion is the most important one. If you could produce a genie out of a bottle who said, “You could have one of these but not all three and I will blink my eyes and everyone in the world will know this one basic rule: it is, never put your finger on the trigger until you’re on target and ready to fire.” Which if everybody knew that—so you put your finger out like this, on the side of the thing…so if everybody did that, if we could do that, that one thing, just think of the number of unfortunate accidents we could prevent at discotheques involving the male reproductive organs. Happens all the time, Jana. Never put your finger…
Henthorn: There’s number four, too.
Ellis: Number four is look at your target and beyond because bullets go through things. Now don’t you think that if everyone knew those four things—you don’t even have to handle a gun to know those four things—
Henthorn: They would make a difference.
Ellis: I think it would make a big difference. So memorize those and I will ask you in a few months’ time.
Henthorn: I will work on that. I just got stop, drop and roll from second grade.
You have been honored by the industry for your expertise and your executive presence. You’ve gotten a bunch of awards. Let me see: you’ve gotten Vanguard in 2005, WICT Rocky Mountain Women in Technology in 2007 and then you were the Technology Woman of the Year for SCTE and WICT, right? And Technology Communications Magazine.
A couple of favorite experiences from being on the stage?
Ellis: It’s just weird to like to sit here and “Yes, I was, yes, I was.” It’s an honor and I’m surprised every time and I’m deeply grateful to everyone who made that happen. Do I have a favorite moment? Yes, I do. The one that happened here, the WICT Tech Woman of the Year, I went to Target beforehand and bought all these little sunglasses, little glasses, and I put tape on the nose, then I gave them out to everybody in the audience who was tech so that when I got up, they all kind of stood and they had their nerd glasses on and then I went up and said, “I don’t know if you know what happens when you win an award like this, but here’s what happens. They put you in a room and they put lots of makeup on your face and they make up your hair and they put a bright light on you, and then they ask you questions so complicated that you realize that you haven’t had a deep thought in a really long time.” For example. And this is true. I mean, this really happened. One of the questions was, “Have you ever used your morals, ethics or convictions to solve a business problem?” To which I said, “ I was never convicted.” Got a good laugh.
Henthorn: That’s a good one.
Ellis: That’s my favorite of all time.
Henthorn: That’s good. That’s a good one. Now you have a tech lab in your house, I know…at your office, right. Not at your house, at your office. I’ve read your columns about that. What a great service for those of us not in the technology sector. How did you get that tech lab started?
Ellis: Here’s why. I come from a long line of gifted worriers. Every few years in this industry, starting with microwave, something comes along—microwave—that’s going to kill the cable industry. Then it was telco video; it’s going to kill the cable industry. Then it was satellite; it’s going to kill the cable industry. Oh, my God, every time it happens, oh, no! So then this over the top video started to happen and you didn’t need a microwave antenna in your back bedroom and you didn’t need a satellite dish, you didn’t need telco whatever. You could go buy these things; they’re like 99 bucks. So my assistant Sara—the lovely Sara Dirske and I went out. Actually before that, another friend’s daughter, who was interning—Kirsten Hull Nicholas—helped me build it. Sara runs it, and the idea was let’s just see. Is it really better? Is this going to kill the cable industry? We’ve been looking at this stuff for four or five years now and last year with the Google Chromecast, the Kindle Firestick, there’s such a profusion now of $50-99 streaming sticks that we kind of declare the hardware side of it “game over,” and we’re shifting our focuses now onto the Internet of Things and we’re looking at it because it’s such a high B category of things that are Internet-connected and are speaking to each other. We decided we would look at it through two prisms. One is: that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, some really funny ones like the “selfie sombrero.”
Henthorn: Wait, wait, wait. The selfie sombrero?
Ellis: Oh, yes, it’s this bright pink sparkly huge sombrero that was designed for Lady Gaga and it has this dropdown bright pink sparkly thing that holds an Acer tablet so it’s already attached to your hat. Clever.
Then we also look at things that are plausible, like “I would do that.” That’s how we’re slicing it. It’s fun.
Henthorn: It’s again great for your tech translation work.
Ellis: Yes, it is. It all feeds together.
Henthorn: So what do you see as a lasting legacy of the cable industry or the legacy of the cable industry?
Ellis: You and I have talked about this before because you’re very involved with the people around the customer care side of things. You have your cable life and then you have your non-cable life and usually the people in your non-cable life hate cable in some way, right? We are living in the era of—
Ellis: Right. I get so tired of it. So the nice thing is the work I’m doing now inside some of the operators, I truly believe—like it would be very hard to convince me otherwise—that it’s going to get a lot better. Thank God, right? I hope that the legacy is that in some period of time, ten, twenty years, people don’t—or maybe they remember laughingly how bad it used to be but our industry gets much, much better at care and user experience. It seems like it’s inevitable based on the work I see happening by so many people, but the chasm between the two is still very large and disappointing.
Henthorn: I would agree with you, Leslie. I know a lot of people are working hard…really hard…
Ellis: They mean it. It’s not just a job.
Henthorn: What do you see as cable’s impact on society? Or what impact has cable had on society? That’s a big question.
Ellis: It is and I’ll hone in on one side of it. I think the biggest thing that’s happened since I’ve been in cable is high speed data/broadband. So that when happens, I mean Doug put in the first cable modem in the United States in 1994 or something like that. At that time, this is at Viacom Cable they were doing focus groups and people were saying things like—especially people who were finally able to use their broadband connection to speak to their family halfway around the globe, saying things like you’ll have to pry it out of my dead fingers. So I think that broadband pervasive connectivity, which has given rise to so many other industries and companies—Netflix wouldn’t exist without broadband. I think that’s the big one for me.
Henthorn: OK. Let’s talk about you personally and legacy. What would you—I know you’re only fifty, so you have lots and lots of time left. What would you like your legacy to be in the cable industry?
Ellis: That’s a hard question. I want people to know that I help people to understand complicated stuff. I don’t know. “Oh, she made me understand.” Like one time, Glenn Britt, dearly departed Glenn Britt, told me that he had gone into a meeting after having read one of my columns and the meeting was about how to expand their VOD offering and how many Qua modulators they were going to need. “Just read your article. Thank God. I understood what was happening in the meeting.” That was awesome. That kind of thing.
However you put that in a few words, that’s what I want my legacy to be.
Henthorn: What is it that you think that people in the general public—Jane Q. Public—what do they not know about the cable industry?
Ellis: You know what astounds me the most is that people don’t know that cable operators have to pay the programmers for the content. Like when all the scuffles happen: “We’re taking X channel off the air.” It’s like when you talk to taxicab drivers sometimes, they have no idea. So that’s one. The care is going to get better is another. People from outside the industry who want to be part of the industry kind of snark on us that we’re too chummy and too clubby. That’s not intentional; that’s because the operators never have competed with one another. They chased franchises state by state, city by city, town by town. So as a direct result, especially on the engineering side, they split the load of the work. So like Cablevision went first with network DVR. Comcast went first with DOCSIS 3. Time Warner went first with switched digital video. And they come together and because they’re not competitors, they say, “Well, here’s what worked with that and here’s what didn’t work.” So they’re able to share the load of what needs to be learned and experienced and put into action, and I think that’s pretty cool. And I hope it stays that way.
Henthorn: You make more innovation that way.
Ellis: And sharing with you. We don’t even know how long we’ve known each other. It’s the same faces but it’s not like anyone wants to be exclusionary. It’s just I’ve now seen you here every year for thirty years. We’ve become friends or whatever it is.
Henthorn: That’s right. So what haven’t you done yet? What’s your next big dream?
Ellis: Well, Jana, my next big dream is to be on the Jimmy Fallon Show.
Henthorn: The tech translator?
Ellis: I don’t know. I am a huge fan of Jimmy Fallon and lots of comedians and I just have a hankering to do comedy. I also don’t have the guts to do it so that and the surfing go together.
Henthorn: Exactly. What do they call that? BHAG? Big, hairy, audacious goal?
Ellis: That’s one. That’s good, except I heard it as BEE. And I am a Bee-hag.
Henthorn: But Leslie, if not you, then who, right?
Henthorn: That’s a great dream. Leslie, it’s been great to talk to you today. Thanks so much for coming to the Cable Center and doing your oral history as part of the Gus Hauser Oral and Video History Project.
Ellis: Thank you for having me, Jana, and having any interest at all in hearing my weird little journey through the industry we call cable.
Henthorn: My pleasure. It was fun.
END OF INTERVIEW