Interview Date: November 9, 2015
Interview Location: Denver, Colorado USA
Interviewer: Leslie Ellis
Collection: Oral and Video History Collection
Ellis: I’m Leslie Ellis and I’m here at the Cable Center in Denver, Colorado, to record a conversation with Charlotte Field as part of the Gus Hauser Oral and Video History Series. It is Monday, November 9, 2015, and Charlotte, I want to welcome you here first of all. And I want to give you a little intro of my own making which is that most of us who know you find it difficult to think about any element of a cable system, ecosystem that you haven’t worked on. You’re an engineer’s engineer; you have a EE from Michigan Technological College. Your father was a Bell Labs engineer. When I first met you fifteen or so years ago, you were talking about something hardly anyone talked about then, but everybody talks about now, which is continuous improvement and finding the right operational metrics to make a difference, finding problems before they become problems, putting the customer first. You’re the kind of engineer in my observation who can go super-wide and super-deep, super-fast on any topic. You can size up the trade-offs of a particular technology lickety-split on multiple levels, like Voice Over IP is the one I remember. You can communicate clearly about it from architecture to strategy to what vendors to use to what particular types of equipment they have and you know all these things plus you’re probably no more than two degrees of separation from any exact right person to inform that topic. Thank you for being here today, Charlotte. It is a true pleasure to have this conversation with you. Everyone who knows you is richer for it.
Field: Thank you.
Ellis: You’re welcome. All right. By several accounts, and long before multitasking became an everyday term, you were an accomplished multitasker. This I’ve heard from many people that you will be—and this is before digital—that you will be like monitoring a call about an outage, you’ll be sending an email about something else, you’ll have something going on on walkie-talkie back in the day. And you’ll have someone sitting in front of you having a conversation and everyone gets your full attention. I think that’s rather remarkable. I don’t know anyone who can do that. So I want to talk to you first about like, how do you do that? How does your brain work? You know what I’m talking about, right?
Field: Yes, I do. When I was a kid, my dad was an only child. Unfortunately, though, he grew up during the Depression and he lived with about nineteen other people in the apartment. So, very young, he had to listen to a lot of different conversations. So when he had all of us—I’m one of seven children—he basically said, “You need to understand and pay attention to a number of different things. So we always had the TV on, the radio on, people were playing their instruments, and we had multiple conversations occurring. And he would say, “You should be able to basically separate your thinking in multiple areas and you should be able to listen to what’s going on and as soon as it’s a clear indication if something comes up about a topic, you should be able to grasp it.” I mean, he taught us from a very young age. I don’t even think he was actually thinking about multitasking. He was just thinking about how the world has so many different things going on in it and you have to be paying attention to everything that’s happening.
Ellis: So are there dos and don’ts about how to be a good multitasker? What works and what doesn’t work when you have all these, like one is an outage call, one is a person wanting your opinion on something, like all these things are happening and you’re serving each one perfectly. What works and what doesn’t work?
Field: Well, you have to know when to do it and when not to do it. When you’re involved in a personnel situation as an example, you need to make sure that you’re paying absolute attention to the individual and you need to make sure that you have eye contact with them and that you’re empathetic and you’re not even looking at pieces of paper on your desk, etc. But I think one of the things you always have to remember is ensuring you understand which of the topics you’re involved in are the most important at that time. So if it’s the outage issue that’s going on and that is the most important at that time you need to have a keener ear to it versus the casual conversation that you’re engaged in. The second thing is you need to make sure that people understand that it isn’t a sign of disrespect. So I’m not disrespecting you by having a conversation with you and also listening to an outage call and maybe looking at email at the same time.
Ellis: So do you level-set that on the front end, like, I’m going to talk to you, I have this one thing going on that I kind of have to keep an ear open for.
Field: Yes, I always try to do that so that people understand that at a certain point in time I might say, “Pardon me one second.” Get off the mute button on the outage call and say, “Yep, I think—have you checked this? Have you checked that?” I think that becomes most important to make sure that people understand again that it’s not disrespectful, but that you do have the capability to listen to them. Sometimes what you have to also do, which is basically number three, is recite back to them, especially if you’re having a conversation with somebody while doing an email, while listening to an outage call. You need to make sure that you say, “Yes, and I heard you say this. Did I get that right?”
Ellis: Then you’d probably remember that later. Like I think you have some kind of photographic memory for listening. That’s my hunch about you.
Field: I have a really good memory and I usually don’t forget a lot of different things. I think one of the things you said about me is very true. I believe in large networks and I believe in understanding what people bring to the party. So I know that there are certain people that if I have an issue with this or I have a thought about that, that I can utilize them as people to either verify that I’m correct or basically say, “You know, have you thought about it this way instead of the way you’re thinking about it?” And you know, I embrace those kinds of relationships with individuals. I used to have a boss and he used to call it “the sandwich lady.” Everybody needs several sandwich ladies.
Ellis: What does a sandwich lady do?
Field: The sandwich lady or man is the person who’s listening in the background that may not necessarily feel all that comfortable telling you what’s on their mind, but you as an individual have to tell the sandwich lady or the sandwich man that you want them to share in confidence what’s going on. They may hear there’s a little bit of issue associated with this or that and by providing you input you may be able to deal with it prior to it becoming a larger issue for the organization. You may ask them “What is really happening from your perspective?” And you need to make them feel comfortable, you need to make sure that they understand if they want to stay in the background, they can stay in the background. But you use that network…
Ellis: Why are they called “sandwich?”
Field: Because when people are on a line, getting their sandwich, there were people in the background that nobody really paid attention to. But they heard about all the different things that were going on within a company.
Ellis: OK, excellent. Excellent advice, thank you. You also told me once if you walk into a room and you’re about to have a meeting with someone who disagrees with you or is angry at you—do you remember this? You said, sit next to them. Don’t sit across from them, because you take the tensions away…
Field: One of the things you always have to recognize is body language in a number of different ways. The worst thing you can do is sit across the table from someone and then push back from the table because it essentially says, I’m getting ready for the big fight. If you sit next to them and you talk to them, before the meeting starts, and even if you have a different opinion you basically cut the tension.
Ellis: Disarm them.
Field: Yes, basically you want to make that connection with the individual prior to dealing with a situation where the opinions may differ. You want them to understand that first there is the relationship and then there is business. I might have my opinion, you might have your opinion, let’s work together and see what the best answer is for the business based on what we are trying to optimize for.
Ellis: OK, let’s talk a lot about your storied and long career. By my math, you have 25 years on the telco side, and now about 13 years on the cable side.
Field: That’s about right.
Ellis: So you’re twice as long on the telco side. What do you see as the significant differences? These probably have changed over time but having done both sides for so long and so well…
Field: I think on the telco side, I would essentially say that their processes, procedures, etc., were very well-documented, from—you know, back in the 30’s and 40’s, and even the 50’s. Essentially they understood the value of quality, basically when they had a number of significant issues that occurred. Example is—many people may remember this but one of their key locations on Thomas Street basically had a bad situation where the battery plant didn’t…
Ellis: Thomas Street. Where is this?
Field: In New York City. It is a location that supported Wall Street and part of mid-town. The battery plant went awry due to lapse in maintenance and essentially impacted this critical part of NYC on a week day. They hadn’t really planned for the proper level of maintenance required.
Ellis: What year is this?
Field: It was probably in the mid-80’s, 1985, 1986, 1987, something like that. And ultimately that actually gave them another focus on quality. Focus on methods and procedures, focus on making sure you don’t save a dime, but then spend millions to resolve the issues or lose customers. So I think they were ahead on that from a technology perspective. I think they were a lot like many, many companies that they had people worrying about the future of technology but they were not necessarily as innovative as the cable space was/is. They didn’t really do the follow-through. As soon as something went a little bit awry, they didn’t really want to pursue it. So I think that was what was going on. And actually if you think about it, at Bell Labs, way back when, Bell Labs was a free-for-all. And a good free-for-all. They basically brought in the most intelligent people around the world, gave them a position, helped them get their Master’s, but they also did something else which basically gave people notions of what they might want to do. So I was mentioning to someone earlier today that my dad was in the Korean War and after he came back from the Korean War, he got married, had two kids, was going and getting his Bachelor’s and Master’s at Brooklyn Polytech. He started at Bell Labs and the first day they said to him, “well, we’re really interested in some new technologies here. We don’t know whether they have a place or not but one was basically a push-button telephone, and one was this thing that didn’t really have a name at the time. But wouldn’t it be cool if you could actually have the written word here and we could actually get it to there. And they said, go think about it.”
Ellis: Like Teletext?
Field: Like Facsimile
Ellis: Like FAX.
Field: So they basically said to him and a couple other folks that he was working with as a team, they said, “just go back and think about it”. And he told me, he said, “You know, I came home and I said to my wife, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t really have a job. I have to think about something.” And he told me, “Two years is not a problem.” He meant they expected it would take two or more years and they were fine with that. So he spent the next couple of years working on that with a couple of other people and he received a patent for some of that activity. So to me that was like the interesting part of AT&T, which was really Bell Laboratories, but clearly that all changed in the mid-80’s with what happened to AT&T, Bell Laboratories, everything being split, and in the past they were a resource for the universities sharing some of their basic and applied research. After 1984, they became much more focused on product delivery from a Bell Labs perspective whether AT&T Communications or the Western Electric group.
So when I came to cable, what was really interesting to me was…
Ellis: Let’s stop there. So what brought you over? Who brought you over?
Field: There was a guy named Frank Ianna who was running the network for AT&T Communications and he received a request from AT&T Broadband about who are some people who were really good in the network management area. And I just happened to be one of a cadre of names that were provided by AT&T Communications. At the time I was doing a number of other things out here in Denver and so my name was put up as well as a number of other people from the communications part of AT&T as well as a number of internal people. So that’s really how it started.
Ellis: This was at the time when cable was getting into circuit-switched and then IP telephony.
Field: Yes. They were into circuit-switched and also they were getting into IP telephony and they really didn’t have a concept of a national operations center, but they knew they needed something different than what they had for some of the new products, data and voice in particular…but really data and voice.
Ellis: Especially because 911, all of a sudden you were like—people could die.
Ellis: My view is, the telco side is generally those are people that go deep on a particular topic but not necessarily wide and cable is sort of the opposite. Have you found that to be true? A lot of generalists, but not the segmented jobs, at least not when you came and maybe more so now.
Field: I would essentially say that AT&T and the telecomm companies, the traditional telecomm companies, basically had two approaches. It was almost like the education system in England. They made a determination of whether you were really, really good at being specialized or whether or not you had the ability to rise in the company. That way, you actually were identified as an individual that could go wide. In fact they worked on getting you wide opportunities. I was an engineer, I worked on video, audio and technology for the broadcasters, then I went in on long range planning, then I went designing fiber optic systems, then they decided I was too much of an engineer so they sent me out to be an operations person in downtown Chicago. Then I was an outside plant person in Chicago and I had Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and then they decided they wanted to send me to school. So they sent me to school. And then when I got out of school, I did HR for six months.
Ellis: This is what I mean. You’ve done like every job!
Field: So they actually identified me and watched my career and gave me different opportunities and they would talk about you. But that was a very, very small cross-section. Everybody else basically grew, as you said, in a very siloed environment.
Ellis: So this year, 2015, started for you with a decision to join the fulltime team again after being a highly sought-after technology consultant. What made you decide to come back to the fulltime world with Charter?
Field: Well, it was interesting because I was really enjoying consulting and I was working with a number of people and a number of companies I really liked. And I thought, well, shoot, an opportunity came up and somebody asked me to do some consulting for Charter. A couple of guys at Charter said, “Hey, if she’s interested in doing some consulting for us, let us talk to her about a fulltime opportunity.” And they had been talking to me previously. And so I talked to them and I said, “Well, what are you thinking about? Are you thinking about things that quite candidly I have a huge amount of background in, whether it be network, whether it be voice…”
Field: “Whether it would be applications, etc.” And they said, “We have a need to really get somebody who really understands how to get things done from an operations standpoint, but we already have somebody on the voice side. And we already have somebody doing some of the network things but we have a significant number of applications including video that we really need a lot of help on, both for the current technology, the near future technology and the way future technology.” So they gave me a group which includes a number of different disparate functions. I have network security, video applications both new and sustained, email, DNS and regional data centers. So it’s a wide distribution but they are areas I’ve worked on before. It’s pretty impressive that you can come into work every day and impact five, six, ten, twenty things each day, including people, which I really love—working with people.
Ellis: I remember you telling the story about how you had a co-worker who went skydiving and broke every bone in his body and you stood by him until he could actually walk back into work.
Field: That’s true.
Ellis: Great commitment to your employees.
So as fulltime Senior VP of Application Platform Operations, give us a snapshot of the kinds of things you’re working on right now.
Field: We’re working a lot on things like hardening our DNS structure even further than it’s been hardened in the past.
Ellis: OK, let’s stop on DNS. Domain name…
Field: Servers. That basically is…
Ellis: Your web stuff.
Field: Yes. Well, basically everything. Almost everything needs to be routed. The domain name servers are really saying where are you wanting to take that action and where are you going to route it to? So they’re really, really important and if a DNS server gets in trouble, as an example, it not only impacts what you think about, like webpages, but your voice, video and data infrastructure is dependent on DNS. So that’s super-important. We have a number of locations that are up and we are continuously looking at how we can make it better, more resilient, capable of withstanding any issue that may come. We do more than 25 trillion views on DNSs each year and that’s only going to grow. So to us that’s pretty important. We have an email platform and we manage the vendor who provides the back end of the platform and also we manage the operations of the portal which integrates into the backend and also provides linkages to company information and the ability to link to videos. We work with the software engineering team that is accountable for developing the software associated with the front end. They give us code and we stage it and push it to production and manage ongoing operations. Security is always an interesting area because there are always changes happening due to known and unknown threats.
Ellis: Security like conditional access and DRM or beyond that?
Field: Beyond that. So if you think about it, every person on any network can be a target. In some cases we may have a Charter subscriber who has been targeted and in some cases a bad actor may want to use our customer computers who have been infected through botnets to attack a person, a website, a DNS infrastructure etc. In some cases, you could have a bad actor that just wants to try and disrupt or gain inappropriate access to your network. Network security is all that and more. …
Ellis: Denial of Service?
Field: Denial of Service. So we have threat mitigation techniques that we use not only on the individual but also to protect our network and we’re continuously looking at it. One of the things—and I try to be very proactive—the discussion I always have with the security people is, whether it be on the engineering side or the operations side, is I want to get more proactive. I want to understand what’s coming before it comes. We utilize a lot of resources to get ahead of issues but are always looking at ways to figure out where the bad actors might try and do something. We react very quickly when there is an issue but our focus in the future is how do we understand what those issues could be even before they hit you.
Ellis: That could be a product differentiator, too, if you become the company that customers trust to keep them safe from cyber threats.
Ellis: And pay extra for that.
Field: Right. And ultimately I think a lot of ISP’s such as ourselves are really trying to protect the mom or pop who may not know that other people are trying to attack their computers. This is one of the reasons that we offer a security suite to our customers.
Ellis: That’s definitely my mom and pop.
Field: Malware and things of that nature. In some cases, we’re constantly looking at ways to understand the malware out there and what we are going to do about it. The industry is looking at that in total as well as the government. Obama has a very key focus on cyber security and how to protect the infrastructure.
Ellis: You mentioned data centers, too. It seems like a lot of things like the action right now is more so the data center than the traditional headend. So what’s happening in the data center? Is that synonymous with where the cloud is? Or what are your views on what’s happening based on the fullness of time, what you’ve seen in data centers over the years?
Field: Back in the mid-80’s, people used to call it network computing.
Ellis: Right. “The network is the computer.” Scott McNealy.
Field: Exactly, exactly. My take on it—I just was talking to somebody the other day and they said, “I didn’t really understand that the cloud was stuff that wasn’t really, really close to the person but was actually providing the capability and that you could have that capability internally. You could have that capability externally or you could have a hybrid or an internal cloud.” So if you actually look at a number of things that are going on, there are more and more things that are being pushed out of a traditional headend into a cloud-based solution which may have components that are close to the market or further up in a hierarchy.
Ellis: Or a set-top.
Field: Absolutely. Right…..even for set-top capabilities. You could have a dumb machine and more capabilities that are further in the network. So if you actually think about a video when you think about content distribution networks and the ability to access huge amounts of libraries, that’s really in the cloud. When you think about the guide, instead of having all the guide content pushed down to the set-top box, you have an interaction between the set-top box and an interactive guide, so you might have a very thin guide at the set-top box but a highly interactive guide further up in the network in the cloud. And then you really have this notion of hierarchies of data centers. Because essentially there’s some that you actually only want to have a few of, which might be a…
Ellis: Like archival.
Field: Like an archival, a super-capability. The first time somebody asks for the brand new James Bond movie after it’s been released, it may go up all the way to that main data center or multiple main data centers and then pull down, and then basically based on the viewing patterns of the individual or individuals, actually be kept closer to the customer base in a regional data center, etc. So that’s one example. Voice is another example. I mean, the bottom line is you can essentially have a dumb box in your home and you can do all of the capabilities that you want to do back in the network, in the cloud. Whether it is for business services such as cloud based voice services or whether it is for residential services. A lot of people don’t necessarily think about that—because they have a device in the home—about how cloud computing is actually helping them. So to me, cloud is just further on into the network that things are happening instead of actually being physical entities in the home. And cloud based systems utilize a lot of virtualized servers.
Ellis: Virtual—another big term now.
Field: Another very big term. So virtualization allows you to more efficiently not only utilize the capacity of the servers but also allows you to do things like energy management. If your server isn’t fully loaded, there are technologies that allow you to basically…
Ellis: Spin it down.
Field: Spin it down which is pretty cool.
Ellis: Is there a rule of thumb in terms of how you think through what is best local and what is best—what is best to keep local versus put in the cloud? Because it probably depends on the situation.
Field: I think it’s dependent on the specific application but I think it’s basically how do you keep the things that are in the home that you have to upgrade 18 million of them at a minimum versus basically being able to take care of it further up in the environment so you’ll have reduced issues associated with distribution.
Ellis: Easier troubleshooting.
Field: You think about it, like set-top boxes. Many of us have been involved in many downloads that have occurred where all of a sudden all the set-top boxes might go, “One moment please.”
Ellis: It’s a brick.
Field: And it becomes a brick so if you can actually…
Ellis: I’ve never had that happen.
Field: If you can actually have an agent on a set top box which effectively communicates with the cloud based solution, knows how to respond, keeps statistics if the company wants them etc. I think that can be a much more desirable environment. Hence, the heavy lifting is further up in the network and minimizes the number of places that the code needs to be upgraded for performance improvement, additional functionality etc. But the more you use cloud the more you need to think about resiliency in the environment. So you need to make sure you don’t have just one center that basically is serving, let’s say, Denver. You need to make sure that one center is backed up with a second center which is backed up with a third center and you can seamlessly go to any of those locations without interruption from a customer perspective. I think that’s one of the things that we as an industry, since I’ve been here, have really been focusing on. Things such as in-service upgrades that are not customer-impacting or seamlessly transferring a customer’s service from one environment to the next without the customer seeing any issue so how do we get better delivering services to our customers 99.9999% of the time? And if we have a problem, they don’t know we have a problem.
Ellis: Continuous improvement.
Field: Continuous improvement.
Ellis: So when I think about you, or when we think about you as Senior VP of Application Platforms, it’s not necessarily applications like solitaire, Crossy Road, things that—my nephew’s favorite game. It’s more like the business becomes a series of applications.
Field: If you think about it, video is a multitude of applications because essentially…
Ellis: Everything is in that sense.
Field: Because essentially we’re delivering video via charter.net, we’re delivering video on our TVA application, we’re delivering video on TV, you’re delivering video on Roku, but every single one of them is an application. Even in the most standard way that you deliver linear video today, you still are reliant on a number of applications that sit at the controller environment to deliver those services to our customers.
Ellis: So what is the biggest challenge in managing all of that?
Field: The biggest challenge I think is letting people know that change is going to be continual and they have to adapt.
Ellis: Key people and employees?
Ellis: So are you doing the whole Agile DevOps moving to working at mobile speed, web speed?
Field: We are continuously evaluating that. So DevOps to me has both a positive and negative reputation based on how it has been interpreted and implemented by different organizations.
Ellis: Because you’re an ops person. So operations people say DevOps is a jam down, and DevOps people say DevOps is great, because they kind of get to call the shots.
Field: Well, I think it’s actually interesting. I just listened to Gene Kim talk about DevOps and there were a whole bunch of people from the development organization as well as the operations organization in this group that was listening to Gene Kim.
Ellis: I don’t know who Gene Kim is.
Field: He’s a guru for DevOps.
Ellis: For Charter.
Field: No. He’s the guy in the industry who talks about the good, bad and ugly of DevOps implementations. He’s written a number of different books and one of the things I think a lot of people assume is DevOps is about pushing it and then basically dealing with the issues that come out. Very quickly, hopefully versus basically one of the things that he said is that DevOps is really about ensuring that you have the right hooks, the right metrics in place, the right “how are we doing with this?” in place. So that you know right away if there’s an issue or a problem. One of the things that I think people found really interesting—he was talking about a specific company—and he said, “How many times do you think they pull back their code?” People were going like ten times, fifteen times. He said, “No, this company pulled it back 2,500 times…”
Ellis: Per what?
Field: In a year.
Ellis: So that’s like you’re about to send something out, but you know it’s going to potentially throw a wrench into ops so you say, reset and go back…
Field: Well, you have the measures in the code so when you put it out there, it’s not responding the way you thought.
Ellis: So you pull it back.
Field: You understand exactly how it is supposed to respond and when it doesn’t, you pull it back. And then you basically say, what did I miss in this scenario, what’s happening?” I think the other challenge for development to seamless production is to ensure that all the environments are the same, which is a continual problem, where you have the development environment and then development has a testing environment and then you have a staging environment, you have a production environment. One of the biggest issues that the industry has to ensure that we deal with is basically ensuring that all of those environments look the same. So what comes out of code is tested and implemented in an absolute like environment to eliminate surprises.
Ellis: So it really is a partnership between development and operations.
Field: I think in some cases, the other thing you need to understand is when you push something, you have to say, what is the customer impact? If the customer impact is very, very minimal or there’s a way to deal around it—like, as an example, with virtualized servers, if you have a disruption associated with—you know, you’re seeing a certain command not happening as quickly as possible or not clearing as quickly as possible, you can scale horizontally. And you can deal with the situation by giving it more capacity so it’s not customer impacting. In that scenario, then you can work on the customer’s problem or deal with code that isn’t working as effectively as one thought it should. So that’s an example that we actually used last week where I said, “Can we scale horizontally to get us out of trouble on this particular piece of the code?” The developers and my people said, “Yes, we could do that.” And I said, “Yes, we should do it.” A virtualized environment allows us to spin up servers almost instantaneously.
Ellis: Right, right. That’s the whole point of it.
Field: That’s the whole plan. So I think we have a long ways to go associated with—we’re developing a lot of code, and we’re doing really good at it, but we have a long ways to go to ensure that we have the right mechanisms in place to ensure that our code is absolutely solid or that it’s in trouble very quickly on, right? Which is one of the reasons we have implemented a stage environment to catch it prior to any true customer impact
Ellis: OK. Let’s talk about the early days of you, starting from the very beginning. What did you want to be when you grew up and when did you know you were meant to be in technology?
Field: Initially when I was a little kid, I knew my dad was an engineer, but my only concept of an engineer was really a train engineer and I thought that was pretty cool.
Ellis: Get the little hat.
Field: So I thought about doing that for awhile. To help myself get through school I also sang in bars, which I always thought that was a lot of fun.
Ellis: What did you sing?
Field: A little rock and roll.
Ellis: I didn’t know you were a singer.
Field: Well, not anymore. My voice is probably dead now. But then what happened was…
Ellis: So you paid your way through school?
Field: I paid my way through school.
Ellis: I did, too.
Field: Essentially when I was in high school, I decided to finish high school in three years, which I did. I went to work for actually an insurance company. Prior to that when I was in my sophomore and my junior year I worked at a furniture factory, so I can tell good furniture by the way because I sewed the cushions and the backs and the skirts. But after that, I finished high school and I went to work for MetLife…
Ellis: Where were we now?
Field: I was in Illinois. I had several promotions and one of the women who was the highest level female person in MetLife, she was a manager by the way, she said to me, “Charlotte, you need to quit this stuff and go back to school.” I said, “That was my plan—to go to school.” And she said, “Not part-time, go fulltime.” She said, “I’ve been here for thirty years and this is as far as I’m going to get. I’m the number one manager… I’ve trained every single person that’s at a higher level than me.” So I ended up going back to school and initially I thought I wanted to be a biomedical engineer actually. So I took a lot of biology, a lot of science, etc. But the problem was that was a commitment not only for a Bachelor’s but a Master’s and clearly I didn’t want to go into a lot of debt. I had worked at the school and I basically really liked electrical engineering, especially transmission engineering. I had a professor that—I worked actually in the engineering department as well as a cook as my side job…
Ellis: Singer, cook, engineer.
Field: Whatever came along to pay the bills? This professor really got me interested in transmission engineering and he was actually doing a lot of projects with radar and sonar and with sonograms, and he was a very interesting guy talking about what you could accomplish with sounds and what you could see in the body and understand what was happening with the soft structures within the body And he said, “You know what? Complete your Bachelor’s in electrical engineering and you could always come back.” I never really did come back to biomedical but I still read a lot about medicine as a spectator.
Ellis: So, if I may and I’ll go first, mine was $114.68. How much was your student loan payment every month for the rest of your life it seemed like at the time?
Field: It was around the same; it was about $109.00 and I paid a lot because I was working about sixty hours a week while I was going to school but I enjoyed it.
Ellis: Goes back to the multitasking thing.
So we’ve talked before but I want to hear your story about your first job out of college, out of Michigan Technological University with your EE. I’m remembering the story about the ladder and the dress. Was that your first job…?
Field: That was my first job.
Ellis: What was your job? Then we’ll get to the ladder.
Field: So I was working for AT&T—specifically General Departments which was a unit and…
Ellis: So you moved to New Jersey.
Field: I moved to New Jersey. And I was working for a person named Nino Caserta and Nino was an ex-New York Tel guy. He said, “Look, we’re going to work on video/audio technology so I think it’s a good thing we go in and see the broadcasters.” So we went to see ABC, CBS and NBC. And he said, “I also think it would be really cool to see the control room.” At that point in time in my life, if you were a woman, pants were not OK…
Ellis: This was the late 70’s.
Field: Late 70’s. Pants were not OK, you had to wear a skirt, you had to wear high heels, etc.
Ellis: My God.
Field: So I took the train in, met Nino downtown New York City and he said, “Well, we’re going to 32 Avenue of the Americas,” which was the corporate headquarters of AT&T Long Lines. The control room was on a specific floor but the antennas were on top of the building. So he said—it was a beautiful, beautiful summer day—and he said, “We’re going to go see the antennas. “ And I go like, “OK. How do we get there?” And the guy goes to the ladder and says, “Ladies first.” I said, “No, after you.” I said, “I’m not going up first.”
Ellis: He probably never even thought of it until later.
Field: I didn’t think of it?
Ellis: He didn’t. It probably never occurred to him what happens when a woman in a skirt goes up the ladder…
Field: It definitely could have been that. I was kind of angry with Nino. I said, “If you told me I was going to climb ladders, I would have worn a pair of pants.” So all the guys went up and I went up last and of course, I went down first and the rest of the guys went down after me. And my boss was like, “Oh, my God, I didn’t realize this, I didn’t realize this.” Then he said, “I should have realized it because every single one of the antennas, we have to climb a ladder because we also have antennas on top of the Empire State Building.” [I saw them] at a different point in time. So that was almost my first day at work, it was within the first week.
Ellis: Within the first week. OK. What prompted the MBA in finance in 1986 from Fairleigh Dickinson University?
Field: Well, as I was looking around…
Ellis: Still at AT&T?
Field: I’m still at AT&T and I was looking around and I thought, I want to be that person. And that person—if you looked at the credentials of the people that were leading a large part of the business, you have two types. You had really, really good engineers who AT&T helped develop and secondly, you had some finance people. So I essentially said, “You know what? In the school I went to we had to take a couple of liberal arts classes like sociology, psychology, etc., but there was never actually an option for finance.” So I said, “You know, I think it would be a good thing for me to understand a little bit about finance.” It was also the same point in time that my dad, who had many, many degrees, he decided to go back and take the CPA exam. And he said, “You know, it’s always good to …”
Field: He was an overachiever and so he said, “Understanding money is a good thing.” So I went to Fairleigh Dickinson and got my MBA in finance and I learned a lot.
Ellis: Does it help you to this day?
Ellis: Like you’re reading a balance sheet and all that stuff?
Field: That and also it’s amazing how many engineers don’t understand accruals. They don’t understand the purpose of accruals. They don’t understand the whole notion of controls, like financial controls of systems.
Ellis: What should engineers know about accruals? I’m only asking because I don’t know so I’m pretending like…
Field: Well, as an example, I can buy something today with my 2015 budget money, OK? And even if I get it in, but the payment terms don’t call for it to be paid in 2016 I accrue for it since the obligation was in 2015…so it goes against 2015 dollars and our 2015 financial statements. So you really want to understand exactly when the purchase is, when you receive the goods what the terms of the payment are and things of that nature. I mean, I was just talking to a very, very brilliant young man the other day and he said, “What is FOB?” And I said, “Oh, my gosh.” So I took time with him and I explained it to him and he said, “Why would a vendor ever do FOB?” I said, “Because they want to get it out of their hands so they can do revenue recognition.” So he says, “What is revenue recognition?” I’m thinking, “Oh, my goodness.” I actually have a director, a brand-new director on my team, we promoted him about six months ago, and I asked him some finance questions and he didn’t know any of them and I said, “Wouldn’t it be really cool if you worked with the finance team on how to do Finance 101 for new directors?” So he did that and took me through it and I said, “What about this? What about that?” And he goes, “Oh, I didn’t think about that, I didn’t think about that.” I said, “OK, now we are going to review it with the finance guys.” But I think in a lot of cases, an engineer or computer scientist, they don’t necessarily learn that until they’re further up in the company and they really should learn it at a lower level. Which is why, when I was on University of Colorado’s engineering board and also Michigan Tech’s engineering board we discussed the need for engineers to understand business at some level and why universities have pursued interdisciplinary programs that foster cross disciplinary learning. From my perspective, engineers that have a holistic view of the business will be more successful in their careers.
Ellis: You’re also on the FCC Technical Advisory Board. What happens there? When was the last time you met? How often do you meet?
Field: Well, they meet several times a year. I’m no longer on it right now but I was on it for about six years. It’s a really interesting group to be part of. It’s really led by someone who’s appointed by the FCC Commissioner to look at a number of technology issues and problems that may exist with a whole host of people from various technology firms, the services and also a number of venture capitalists. So, as an example, when I first got on it, one of the big things was IPv6. What are we doing as an overall industry relative to IPv6? And do we understand what’s the so-what of IPv6? What it means, if a company isn’t ready, etc.—it was really interesting on that particular one because there was a lot of…
Ellis: Especially in that timeframe because there was “The v4 is running out, we’re all going to die!”
Field: But there were companies that basically said there isn’t a v4 problem. Some of those are companies that you know that you go, like, whoa…
Ellis: Starts with the letter “A”…
Ellis: You used to work for them.
Field: Yes, like that one. Of course it wasn’t a near term problem for them because they had a slew of v4 addresses. But also you had to bring in the consumer electronics industry, you had to bring in the small ISPs, other industries, everybody. So we did a lot of studies associated with what was going to be the impact of the Internet of Things. And we talked to a lot of industries. And when you actually talk to those industries and you saw what was coming downstream, you said, “Oh, my gosh, this is even more important.” Then also we looked at government webpages and found out that whitehouse.gov was also not IPv6-enabled. Ultimately they did get IPv6-enabled. So we looked at things like that. Other teams were looking at things like what happens with analog plant. What causes the death of analog or are rural areas going to continue to develop much slower than the rest of the country? How are you going to provide different levels of services to the rural areas so they can participate in the digital world and have their businesses excel? One team spent time on spectrum utilization and what should be available to various industries. So the FCC Technology Advisory Committee would meet four times a year and then there were these subgroups that would actually take a subject and then go out and make recommendations associated with what might happen with things like spectrum. Power: there was also a lot about power…
Ellis: You mean like energy effectiveness?
Field: Energy effectiveness and also…
Field: What happens with the infrastructure? If you recall, the hurricanes that hit the East Coast, Sandy, basically the wireless infrastructure was decimated in a number of areas because in a lot of cases, people said, “If I don’t have this tower, I have microcells and I’m not too far from the next connectivity point.” But if none of the towers or microcells have power backup, and you’re dependent on power for transmit and receive, you’re in trouble, right?
So some companies were hit much harder than others and then there was one company, a very large wireless player that had made a decision that they were going to have power backup. And even though they’re very prevalent on the East Coast, they didn’t have the same problems as the other people in that particular industry. So then the FCC basically said, “.. is that something we should study? Backup power and what happens with backup power?”
Ellis: OK. Let’s talk about your life of awards and acknowledgements, lots of them. The Electrical Engineering Hall of Fame from the Michigan Technological Institute in 1998; Tech Woman of the Year, regional and national; Multichannel News Wonder Woman; national SCTE Board; the FCC Tech Advisory Board. That’s a partial list. Any particular standouts? Like for me, mine was when I got the award here and I made everyone wear taped nerd glasses.
Field: Clearly I was very, very honored and the first large award I received—and this was an interesting story—was the Electrical Engineering Award at Michigan Tech. I was a really excellent student even though I was working a lot. I probably over studied since I believed I had to have one step up every single time…
Ellis: Were you that girl that was always in the library?
Field: Yes. I was probably in the library, working with my work team or working to pay my bills. When I won that award, it was very interesting because there was one professor who, when I was interviewing for companies—now you have to understand where Michigan Tech is. It’s in the U.P., it’s around seven hours outside of Chicago, and there are two planes that come in a day, max, sometimes one. It’s hard to fly in, fly out on Monday and come back on Tuesday. I mean almost everything is a two-day trip. So when you’re interviewing with IBM and you’re interviewing with AT&T and you’re interviewing with GE and you’re interviewing with Motorola, it’s hard to fly out Monday afternoon and get back by Wednesday morning. I had one professor who basically held that against me. He said, “I only had one interview when I was in college and so every time you miss a class, I am going to deduct credits from you.” And it was funny, because he came up to me at the award ceremony and said, “Oh, my gosh, you were such a wonderful student.” Instead of saying, “But you’re the sucker who gave me a C. I didn’t get a C because of my grades, I got a C because you deducted points because I missed your class for interviews.” I said, ‘ “Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.” And he said, “How’s your work going?” That one actually stuck out because it was actually interesting. A lot of the professors that basically, they knew how well I did, but a couple of the guys that were in that presentation said, “You know, we always thought you sat in the back because you didn’t know what was going on until you took the tests.” And I said, “No, I sat in the back because it was a sea of guys. So I could see all the guys in front of me.”
Ellis: Speaking of sea of guys, so you’re fond of—you and I, we do a lot of things together with women in tech and robotics and all that. From that I know you are fond of quoting Madeleine Albright, who said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t look after other women.” How are we doing on that front?
Field: I think there are a number of things that are very good. I think the WICT Rocky Mountain mentorship program that really actually started here and now has gone out to a number of the other chapters—I think that’s fantastic. I think you and I are both involved in a WICT Women in Technology mentoring program. I think that’s a very good program. It links women from various companies with current and former winners of the WICT Women In Technology award.
Ellis: You get a lot more back than you put in, in my experience.
Field: You get a lot more back because you learn a lot about people and then you get to see people grow a lot. I would say the prominence of senior women who donate time to either be an official mentor or a non-official mentor makes women in cable better as a whole. It also shows other women that we are willing to give of ourselves and model the behavior we would like to continue within our industry. But I think part of it is how you start at a young age and realize you can learn from others’ experiences. Usually, a person has to self-anoint themself or they have to have a boss who essentially says, “I think this might be a good thing for you to participate in.” I think some of the colleges are trying to get more focus on young women and their capabilities. I mean again, University of Colorado and Michigan Tech both have programs to bring in high school students at a very young age to explain what the heck is engineering. What are the kinds of things that are happening? I think we are seeing some real benefits associated with it, like Michigan Tech, more than 50% of the environmental engineering class are women. Electrical engineering has improved and one of the things that we did in a number of those colleges is we said, “You can’t have all men professors. You have to have somebody that somebody says, ‘I could be like that person.’” So a lot of universities have tried to solicit qualified women in those roles and that has changed the dynamics within the universities and between professors and students in my opinion. I think robotics is a great opportunity because again it’s actually focused on young kids and I know Doug is very involved in that and that’s actually been a great opportunity for students—my daughter actually participated in robotics here at University of Denver. So I think all of those things are really good, but I think we have to figure out how when you get women first into cable, how you provide that support before they find WICT, as an example.
Ellis: Right, right. How to encourage more young women to come in and to encourage the women who are here to stay.
Ellis: That is the dual-pronged mission.
So all of us know you as Charlotte. But your siblings and family know you as “Iola.” Tell me about that. Doug calls you Iola.
Field: So I’m actually the fifth Charlotte Iola in my family.
Ellis: So you’re the fifth of seven children?
Field: No, I’m the fifth Charlotte Iola. So there’s me, there’s my mother, there’s my grandmother, there’s my great-grandmother, there’s my great-great-grandmother.
Field: Holy-shmoly. Then we have Corinne, the same thing. There’s Corinne, Corinne, Corinne, and Corinne. My great aunt, aunt, cousin and cousin. There are four. Anyway, so when my grandmother was Charlotte, my mom was “Big I,” actually.
Ellis: They called her Big I?
Field: Big I. And everybody…
Ellis: I’m picturing a Cyclops.
Field: Half of my younger cousins call me “Little I.” Which is amazing! They weren’t even born when I was “Little I”. Some of my cousins still call me Charlotte because they like it…
Ellis: How many cousins do you have?
Field: I don’t know, seventy?
Ellis: Wow. So what is your birth rank of the seven children?
Field: I am the “Irish twin” of my brother. He’s the older one…
Ellis: You’re a twin.
Field: Irish twin.
Ellis: What does that mean, “Irish twin?”
Field: Two children born within twelve months.
Ellis: Oh, I see. OK. Never heard that before.
Field: You learn something new everyday. So I’m an Irish twin.
Ellis: What do you do when you’re not on the clock? I know you still have a place in Michigan, right? You have a place here in Colorado. Do you still have your place in Philly?
Field: I sold my place in Philly, although it was a beautiful location and we liked Philly food, etc. I think our heart was in Colorado so we like property so we buy property. We bought a cabin up in Golden Gate Canyon and we are working on it. It’s about 45 acres so we’ve been building a lot of trails and things like that up there. My daughter about two years ago told me, she said, “Once upon a time, you know you told Dad liked stained glass.” And he did. He does it and he’s really good at it. So my daughter said to me, “I’m going to a quilting club and I’d like you to come with me.” So we started quilting. Now she’s really, really good, but one of the things I learned is that I can quilt as wll. It actually utilizes a lot of math skills because of the geometric proportions and things like that. So in this quilting bee, it’s actually interesting; we only meet once a month and I work on projects for my nieces and nephews that are graduating college and high school and things of that nature. We have a rocket scientist; we have an EPA cleanup person…
Ellis: All females or males and females?
Field: There’s one male, sometimes two.
Ellis: Is the rocket scientist a female?
Field: Female. And EPA cleanup person is a female who’s running the entire cleanup for a massive project in Montana. We have basically a math professor. We have a couple of writers that are there. We have a number of people that are entrepreneurs in that particular space. They do a lot of craftsy activity. We have a woman who basically takes quilting around the world to various clubs, which is pretty cool. And we have a woman who is really, really good at math and she’ll take any pattern and if you want to make it instead of 60×60, you want to make it 45×45, or 40×20, etc., she’ll exchange those proportions. It’s a lot of fun for her. So I do that. I like to walk. I like to do Orange Fitness although probably not as much as you.
Ellis: I only go on Saturdays.
Field: I go once a week usually, sometimes twice a week. I like to bike quite a bit. I’m kind of getting ready for the snow. I ski. And then I like old movies.
Ellis: Those are good answers. We’ll get that snow tomorrow, I’m hearing.
Who are the people in this industry who influenced you the most?
Field: I would say I am really always inspired by Tony Werner. I worked for Tony when I first came into the industry and I just thought he was a super well-balanced individual…
Ellis: He’s an excellent leader.
Field: Wonderful leader and just a great sense of humor as well. Such a fast thinker….
I think someone that inspired me and some people may say it’s a negative inspiration but it was Mike Tallent, who was the CFO of Comcast when I first joined. What I learned from him was to understand the rhythm of the numbers, make sure that you can defend them. And my second introduction to him was when I was going in to my review session on my budget dollars and I was working for Brad Dusto and Brad was asked by Steve Burke, “Did you help Charlotte do this?” And he said, “No, I haven’t seen the numbers yet. I’m waiting to see them. She told me they were good.” And Mike Tallent said to me, “I’ve already reviewed your numbers, Charlotte.” He had a big Southern drawl. He said, “I’m not going to waste any time lookin’ at your numbers. I’m perfectly fine with what you did last year and what you’re doing this year.” He said, “I need a haircut. So I’ll see you later.” So basically his influence on me was very much like again, understand the rhythm of your numbers, understand exactly what your numbers are saying, make sure you have all the questions answered that you think might get asked. And if you don’t have the answer, tell somebody you don’t have the answer.
Ellis: I want you to teach me the rhythm of numbers but not right now.
Field: I would say Mike LaJoie on the time I was on the SCTE board. I appreciated him. Tom Gorman also on the SCTE board was another individual who I appreciated. Working with the team who was doing the @home transition from @home—which we accomplished in about twelve days—to AT&T Broadband…we worked as a team with a singular focus…that team inspired me.
Ellis: I remember. It was quite an accomplishment.
Field: I remember…
Ellis: Quite a fireball!
Field: Fireball, yes. I had to work with AT&T, specifically with Hossein Eslambolchi and I remember getting…
Ellis: This was like that around-the-clock-switch-it-over.
Field: Absolutely. Take all those CMTS’s, we’re building a parallel infrastructure, now we’re moving the customers over and trying to ensure we didn’t drop a customer.
Ellis: Very exciting.
Field: One of the things I realize is that I had a couple people in my bullpen that were letting me do what I thought was right. So maybe because I didn’t really know all the consequences of what the team was doing since no one had ever done something like this before in the time we had allotted but they let me and the team do it and basically said, “Damn the torpedoes! Let’s get it done before @Home can negatively impact our customers.”
Ellis: Nobody knew what they were doing. You were feeling your way around and it worked.
Field: But when I escalated to Hossein, who was an officer of AT&T, because his guys didn’t want to work through Christmas—we were having lots of problems…I got his support to address a few of the peering issues we had…
Ellis: It was right after the Western Show when that happened.
Field: Yes. And we still had blocking on the peering points. And his guys said, “Well, we’re going to take two weeks off for vacation.” I said, “No, you’re not. We have customer issues.” And I went to Hossein and then Hossein said, “Well, Charlotte, usually an officer of AT&T Broadband would be calling me in.” I said, “Hossein, you’ve known me for years. We need to fix the damn problem.” And then he got his guys in gear. That was good.
And my team behind me was working for Greg Braden, all of those guys basically said, “Whatever you need, just tell us.”
Ellis: I remember that period.
What do you hope your personal legacy in this industry will be? I realize that’s a difficult question.
Field: The thing that I really think is valuable from my perspective is helping the industry move ahead to get better and better through people.
Field: Through people. Continuous improvement is really big on my mind and one of the things, if you go back to some of the Japanese thought processes about quality, quality is a never-ending journey. Once you figure out how to get better there are still other things you can continuously improve. I think getting people to think about not the status quo, but what’s different, how do you ask questions, how do we move the ball forward, what if. Put out an idea even though it may not be an idea that has any legs. But if you restrict your thinking, you’re never going to be able to move ahead in the business. So I think mostly getting that culture more as part of everything and every person that I work with is most important to me.
Ellis: Last question. What do you think the enduring legacy of the cable industry or the industry we used to call cable will be?
Field: I think it will be providing solutions to people for anything that they want to do. And I also think that one of the things that is going to happen, my perspective is we are going to open up our environment even further than it’s been opened up to allow people to get into the power of the cable industry.
Ellis: So you mean like open-sourcing things and getting a bigger development community around it?
Field: A bigger development community, yes, I do believe that. Now you’ve got to have the controls on there. That’s the big part about it. That’s something that Apple does very well, Android does, but to me that’s going to be the next big thing that essentially says, it’s really about, do you need a home automation system from Comcast or do you need a home automation system as an example from five different people that do something in particular? You can purchase this particular piece from charter.net or Charter but you might be able to do this from somebody else because you’re allowing certain ties and you’re expanding your development community as you said, so that it’s a much richer experience for people. I think that’s really where the cable industry is going to head. It may take us a while to get there but—and it’s interesting because if you look at a number of solutions on home automation, many of the cable companies are basically opening up their environment ……
Ellis:…..it used to be anathema. It used to be, none of that open stuff for me. Someone could harm the network.
Field: Somebody could harm the network. You may have to again have the security precautions to ensure that nobody does any harm. You will do that because again you are the person that’s providing those capabilities, but I think that’s where the future is.
Ellis: All right. We’ll leave that as your last word. Thank you, Charlotte.
Field: Thank you. Take care.
END OF INTERVIEW