Interview Date: November 22, 2021
Interview Location: Denver, Colorado
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Project
STEWART SCHLEY: Welcome, greetings, salutations. It’s a crisp November morning, 2021, at the Cable Center’s Denver studios and I am thrilled to be sitting and talking with a gentleman whose career spans so many of the touchpoints of the modern cable evolution. His name is Marwan Fawaz, but everybody in the cable industry knows him just as Marwan. He is our only Marwan and we’re going to be able to talk for about an hour for this rendition of the Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Series about the industry, about your place in it, and about the ride all the way along. So good morning and welcome.
MARWAN FAWAZ: Thanks for having me.
SCHLEY: Thanks for being here. I have a dossier about many of your accomplishments, but I’m going to start with one that’s off the charts which is you have an interesting story about a song, a song by the Eagles called “Hotel California”. Tell me what role that song played in your life.
FAWAZ: So growing up in Lebanon you know you speak Arabic and French so you didn’t speak English until maybe I was 15, 16 years old started learning the language. But 12 years old I fell in love with the Eagles. “Hotel California” was my favorite song. Obviously, it’s in English. I memorized that whole song and used that song to help me learn English. So that was my way into getting to be part of a culture of American Californian culture. And I fell in love with that and instead of going to France to study my engineering degree I came to the US.
SCHLEY: So I’m pleased to know that the lyric “warm smell of colitas” found its way into your life as a youth. Had you ever heard at that time of this thing called cable television? I presume not.
FAWAZ: No, I had not. You heard of MTV when I was going to college. When I was going to college studying engineering I fell in love with satellite. Satellite communication was my thing. I took classes, wanted to learn about satellite engineering. And it was at the height of the Cold War and President Reagan at that time started investing in something called SDI.
SCHLEY: Strategic Defense Initiative.
FAWAZ: Yeah. But I was a foreign student at that time. I graduated. Couldn’t work in that industry because I didn’t have a security clearance so I applied, I remember, to a bunch of companies in California because I went to California State in Long Beach. Especially that area, there was a lot of companies that were recruiting. Lockheed, Rockwell International, Hughes at that time. Before Hughes, DIRECTV obviously. So one of the people who interviewed me said, “Look, you don’t have a security clearance. Until you get it you may want to go apply to work in the cable industry. Till you get your security clearance, become a citizen, there’s a lot of satellite communication in cable, you should learn about that. And then when you’re ready just come back and apply here.” Five years later the wall came later, there was no SDI, Reagan was gone, and for the next 27 years in stayed in the cable industry.
SCHLEY: What was it, Marwan, about satellite communications that was sort of transfixing for you just categorically?
FAWAZ: I remember when I was a kid watching on a black and white — this is like distinct memory — watching the Apollo moon landing. I remember watching also — this is growing up in Lebanon — there was an event where a US and a Soviet stations came together. I don’t remember, it was Soyuz and maybe another satellite vehicle that fused together as a way of promoting peace. And I remember that very well. So I was fascinated with satellites. How do you launch them to space, how do they stay up in space, how to communicate? And when I did engineering, I wanted to focus and learn so much, a lot about that.
SCHLEY: But you knew your path was going to be engineering at some level from an early age?
FAWAZ: I knew my path to be in engineering. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. I wanted to be an engineer. I left Lebanon when I was 16, just before 16 years old, because of the civil war in Lebanon. So I went to Africa, Liberia, to finish my high school. Imagine someone who didn’t speak English and went to Liberia thinking Liberia was French, but they spoke English. So I went to a high school that was actually an expat American high school. So I was learning English trying to — at night going to high school during the day. The counselor there encouraged me — he started seeing my grades in science and math, he’s like, “Hey, you should be an engineer. You should apply for engineering schools in the US.” And he asked me what states are you interested in? I said California.
SCHLEY: There we have it. The loop is closed.
FAWAZ: I told him California so I applied to go to school in California.
SCHLEY: I think your first job in the cable industry was Times Mirror company?
FAWAZ: Times Mirror Cable. I was a design engineer. I actually wrote the first software — I don’t know if it’s the first, maybe history can validate — I wrote the first software that helped automate RF design for cable. Because it was all manually done by calculators and —
SCHLEY: Oh, my gosh.
FAWAZ: So I said well, I knew how to do some programming, basic programming, Fortran programming, and my boss back then, he said, “We’ve got these Kaypro computers.” No one remembers Kaypro, but they were old.
SCHLEY: I remember the name, yeah.
FAWAZ: So I wrote a piece of software that calculated RF design for tabs, amplifiers, and all the other performance like signal to noise, triple beats, all that. I automated some of that.
SCHLEY: Did they say, “Marwan, please go do this” or was it something you sort of did on the side or how did it work?
FAWAZ: The software side was something I recommended. Working with Times Mirror, Times Mirror was expanding in southern California, Orange County, now Cox Communications, Orange County, San Diego. So I was helping doing a lot of that design. There’s a lot of similarity with satellite communication in calculating RF so it wasn’t hard to pick it up pretty quick. I said this is tedious, let me find a way to make this faster. And I happened to know how to code a little bit back then. So that was my first actual code development in cable.
SCHLEY: Times Mirror was interesting because at that time there were a number of print publishing companies, Time Inc. itself had a large cable company. Times Mirror was of course a well-known newspaper publisher controlled by the Chandler family and then there was sort of a series of divestitures and we don’t have that participation at this level today. But you went from Times Mirror to a company called Continental Cablevision. Just maybe talk through how that kind of happened and why it happened.
FAWAZ: So I spent my first five years at Times Mirror. Actually, longer than that. I should say, no, first 10 years, I’m sorry. First 10 years at Times Mirror. And Times Mirror, the Times were a parent company, decided they were going to divest of Times Mirror Cable. Cox Communications acquired it. And I remember I was running engineering at that time, corporate engineering, for Times Mirror. And Alex Best tried to recruit me to go to Atlanta.
SCHLEY: Alex from Scientific Atlanta?
FAWAZ: No, from Cox Communications.
SCHLEY: Oh, from Cox at the time.
FAWAZ: So Alex was the CTO for Cox Communications. I remember him coming out and full court press, come out to Atlanta, run some engineering, part of my engineering team. I couldn’t convince my family to move to Atlanta. They wanted to stay in LA. And I got the call from Amos’s team. It was [Bill] Schleyer, Dave Fellows, and Ron Cooper. They said, “Hey, we’ve got this division in LA, why don’t you become the VP engineering there?” So I said oh, great. It’s only 45 minutes from where I live. I decided to go to Continental Cable.
SCHLEY: It sort of testifies, Marwan, to how the industry — I don’t want to use the word clubby, but it was a fairly small circle of people who knew people who knew people, right?
FAWAZ: Exactly. And it was an amazing industry when it comes to that. The people who knew people and it was a merit-based industry. If you did something, if you participated in industry events, if you contributed knowledge, if you shared your knowledge, you were well-known. I was lucky enough to be at the receiving end of that and also some of the giving end. So that’s how I got to know Dave Fellows, for example, when he was at Scientific Atlanta. So when Dave went to Continental after that he immediately called me when he knew I was available. He said, “Hey, you need to come work for us in LA.”
SCHLEY: What made a gentleman named Amos Hostetter special or unique in the cable industry?
FAWAZ: Amos was an amazing entrepreneur. Like most cable entrepreneurs. You know, you build your business from scratch. You have a vision, you have an idea. And Amos has built an incredible team around him of very capable, experienced, seasoned executives. So he knew how to build the right organizations, but he was also very visionary in a way like Continental was one of the early companies that invested in cable modem technologies and deployed cable modem technologies back in the mid-late ’90s. So he encouraged us engineers to look forward and be more visionary and things from the technology side.
SCHLEY: Which I think is interesting because that was that period where the industry did begin to sort of change its stripes a little bit. You started when it was a distribution mechanism for television signals, right? And then now we’re playing around with the internet. Interesting evolution.
FAWAZ: Yeah, I mean the cable network had great foundational characteristics. There could be more than just a one-way video distribution network. And most cable engineers knew that, but needed the investment, needed more innovations. And so that innovation investment helped transition it. And I think the other catalyst was there are more competition for video distribution. So Hughes, we’re talking back —
SCHLEY: Satellite, right.
FAWAZ: Satellite communications and SDI, Hughes was born out of that. So now you have digital video distribution, direct to home through satellite dishes. So cable had to reinvent itself, had to invest in the new business opportunities, and obviously the internet was just starting to become a thing back then and how do you deliver it into the home compared to a dialup AOL modem? Cable had the capability of doing that.
SCHLEY: And Marwan, a question that’s always puzzled me is did the engineers of the day, you were one of them, were you able to make that transition into a new technology and a new world, having come from an RF and analog kind of foundation? Did you all have to relearn fundamentals or was it sort of a natural progression, would you say?
FAWAZ: It was more natural progression. I mean it depends. There are engineers that studied digital, digitizations, it was a lot easier for them. But the RF characteristics did not change. It was a different modulation. Instead of modulating a signal that is in analog format, now you’re doing it in digital format. So the network itself wasn’t hard for engineers to manage.
SCHLEY: That’s a really good point.
FAWAZ: The end devices were different. So now we have digital cable set tops. Some of that was pioneered by companies like GI [General Instrument] at that time, Motorola, Scientific Atlanta. So you needed to learn what are the characteristics of digital distribution, how do you make a system two-way work with different modulations for carrying different content and different information. That wasn’t very hard. It was natural and it was also — it was challenging for maybe the work force, more challenging to the work force. This is the operational — the maintenance engineers, the service tech, and installation. So that’s where the biggest scale. So you need to retrain some of them what to look for, for digital, for two way, for cable modem signals, levels, etc.
SCHLEY: If I leapfrog a little bit from Continental and a successor, an affinity company called MediaOne, into your orbit comes a guy named Paul Allen, or you come into his orbit, but who was Paul and what was your relationship early on?
FAWAZ: So MediaOne, that was like another transition player. If I could talk about MediaOne a little bit.
SCHLEY: Totally, yeah.
FAWAZ: MediaOne was the first marriage of cable and telephony.
SCHLEY: Because go through the — can you explain the ownership of MediaOne?
FAWAZ: MediaOne was really US West.
SCHLEY: The phone company US West?
FAWAZ: There was a phone company, US West, was one of the RBOCs, regional Bell operating companies. US West acquired Continental.
SCHLEY: That’s what happened.
FAWAZ: And became MediaOne. And MediaOne was the brand of the subsidiary of US West. It was run by a different organization and the focus was okay, now you’ve got internet, now you’ve got digital, you’ve got to launch telephony to start competing with the RBOCs. So that was the marriage of telephony and cable started then. And there was another marriage happened with Time Warner and US West. If you recall, Time Warner, US West invested in Time Warner Cable at that time.
SCHLEY: That’s right.
FAWAZ: So that was, you know, cable and telephony, telephone companies starting to get closer, and the triple play was born out of that. Charter, Paul Allen — so MediaOne was acquired at that time by AT&T. And then it became AT&T Broadband. I left after that.
SCHLEY: Were you in Denver with MediaOne?
FAWAZ: No, I was in Atlanta. So AT&T acquires — you know, I’ve seen enough of the telephony companies, I need to try something different. There’s another —
SCHLEY: You’re being diplomatic.
FAWAZ: Yeah. (laughter) I need to try something different. So I tried to go out on my own back then, but then I got the call to go work for Charter Communications. It was a brief stint. We moved to the northwest and there was an opportunity to leave Charter and actually go work for Vulcan. So I ended up working for Paul directly just by complete coincidence. Paul wanted technology engineering expertise on his team, not necessarily within Charter, so I was one of the engineers. Somehow someone reached out to me, you should go work for Vulcan, and I happened to be in the northwest, didn’t have to move. So got to know Paul, got to work for Paul. Sadly, we lost him two years ago, too early. Just an incredible man. Incredible visionary obviously.
SCHLEY: Paul, I should just explain, was famously a cofounder of Microsoft Corporation?
FAWAZ: Yes, Paul and Bill Gates founded Microsoft. Paul was the developer, the engineer, Bill was the businessman. Great biography on Paul called The Idea Man. All the ideas at Microsoft came from Paul and obviously subsequent to that there was a lot of other ideas from Paul. So Paul had a vision. He saw the cable industry, it has a great potential, and he had this vision called the wired world. And so if you remember it was his vision. So he acquired Charter, acquired part of RCN. I guess RCN, the name is still there. Called Astound right now.
SCHLEY: It’s owned by a company that goes under Astound, yeah.
FAWAZ: It’s called Astound. So he acquired that and he wanted to build product and solutions for cable from digital streaming services — Paul was five, 10 years ahead of his time on that.
SCHLEY: I was going to say, Marwan, this is 2001-ish, 2002 maybe? Early 2000s?
FAWAZ: This is 2001, 2002. I was in Seattle working for Paul. He had at that time an idea about Vizio which was the first DVR product deployed in cable. It was competing with a TiVo-like product at that time. There were two DVR products. So this is local storage on devices for those of you who don’t know what DVR is. But most people know what DVR is. So DVR, streaming, app-based video product within digital. That was Paul’s vision. That was in 2002. It didn’t come into fruition until maybe 10 years later, 10, 15 years later.
SCHLEY: That’s the thing. Today, maybe to this audience, that sounds quaint, but think of the time and none of this existed and so Paul was one of those rare individuals who had the creative temperament but also the capital to make stuff happen. Right?
FAWAZ: Exactly. He invested a lot. Now, some of it obviously didn’t pan out financially for him because he didn’t get the traction, but he was the first pioneer. He was truly a pioneer in some of those areas, around those ideas, around DVR, about app-based, about video streaming. At that time, he was also looking at wireless which was something that the cable industry didn’t have — when I was working at Vulcan the first wireless auction —
SCHLEY: Spectrum auction.
FAWAZ: Spectrum auction, Paul was one of the early recipients of those auctions. And you own spectrum — I think years later he sold it to, I believe, AT&T, but he was looking at the wireless world as well with its own capabilities.
SCHLEY: I can’t let you talk about Paul Allen without you talking about briefly music, which is what we started out with. But what people don’t know, that he could shred. He was a heck of a guitar player, right?
FAWAZ: Yeah. He was an incredible musician. Wrote music, composed music, played guitar extremely well, loved rock and roll. You know, he grew up in Seattle so there’s a lot of influence of rock and roll in Seattle. He idolized Jimi Hendrix and he built this Experience the Music Project Museum in Seattle in honor of Jimi Hendrix and got all the memorabilia of Jimi Hendrix into that museum.
SCHLEY: You told me he purchased, I think at auction, a lot of the guitars.
FAWAZ: Yeah, he purchased all of these guitars that were lost or acquired when Jimi died. So he bought them all back and brought them to the museum, put them in the museum. I was at a concert one time that Paul, at Vulcan, and Carlos Santana is on the stage, incredible guitarist, legendary, and Carlos is doing a riff, I forget what the song was, Paul was on stage with his guitar so Carlos does his riff and he finishes the riff and looks at Paul, like he’s turning it over to Paul, and I’m in the audience like oh —
SCHLEY: No pressure.
FAWAZ: Oh, crap, Paul, I hope you can keep up with this. And he kept up with it and he was really a good guitar player. Not as good as Carlos —
SCHLEY: Well, who is, right? But I heard him play and it was amazing. Before we talk about the next chapter, as your career progressed you became involved not purely just in engineering disciplines but in corporate management and strategy and even, I think, some financial acumen found its way into you. Why was that? What were you trying to accomplish?
FAWAZ: I wanted to learn the business holistically. I was fascinated with the cable business. I mean we were spending a lot of capital and I was an engineer that you spend a lot of capital you’re going to understand what is the return on the capital. And so you have to — when you go to your boss and ask, “Okay, we need to build this fiber, this fiber run from here to here and that’s how we’re going to do it.” And your boss, your CEO at that time would challenge you. It’s like, “Okay, tell me what’s the return on that?” And as an engineer if you don’t have a good answer for that you normally don’t get the traction you need to do. So I took it up on myself to understand the business holistically from a financial balance sheet, return on investment. So I sought out education in that space. I sought out people who could mentor me, help me in that space. You know, CFOs at different companies that I worked with. So learn how to build a business model, learn how to manage a P&L, how to develop a P&L. So my recommendation to engineers I mentor, and I speak to a lot of early young engineers, is in addition to your engineering talent you have to understand the whole business model if you want to continue. You know, if even you have to build or start your own company, understand the business side of things to the details so you can be very conversant with investors, internal, external, raising money, justification. And that’s the progression you have to go through. The other part that I wanted to understand is the operational part of the business. I purposely took one or two operational roles, running call centers —
FAWAZ: And this was in Atlanta actually. So when MediaOne asked me to go move to Atlanta they said, “You want to be the VP of engineering, we want you in Atlanta.” And I said, “I’m doing that here. Why would I move? If you want to give me an operation let me run the operation as well as engineering so I can understand the operation, happy to move to Atlanta.” So I moved to Atlanta. Alex Best will not forgive me because I turned him down.
FAWAZ: So I moved to Atlanta and I ran operations. So I had to understand how contact centers, call centers, work. The field work force, installations, maintenance, service, really understand what that’s like. And that is the hardest part of our business.
FAWAZ: The people part of our business is the hardest part of our business. I knew that when you started running and managing operations.
SCHLEY: And especially I would say at the call center, the contact center level, a really good rep, an agent, is gold, right?
FAWAZ: It is gold. And you know, you challenge those agents. And even when my — and I saw that in my current roles at Google is we have call centers, we have contact centers, you challenge these reps to learn an incredible amount of expertise around each product and the products are complex.
SCHLEY: It’s not selling HBO anymore.
FAWAZ: I’m always amazed and it’s something that I’ve wanted to solve and we solved some of it in my current roles, I’m always amazed watching these reps switch from 10 different screens. Imagine you’re a customer calling, but this rep has to know why is my cable modem is not ranging, why is my digital picture is pixelating. They have to switch between five to 10 different screens to troubleshoot and understand things and they do it seamlessly. And I look at this like we need to make their jobs easier. We have to make their jobs a lot more intuitive. I think sometimes the frustration happens because you don’t give the answer immediately to the consumer who’s waiting on the phone. I mean the cable industry was selling three or four or five products, different products, at that time and then supporting that. You know, most service industries are investing a lot in AI and machine learning and developing solutions to make it easier and more predictive of how do you support consumers.
SCHLEY: Was it frustrating personally because the cable industry at large — there are exceptions — had generally poor to middling consumer — customer service rankings? It was always an industry that got criticized a lot. As did airlines, as did banks, as did a lot. But was that —
FAWAZ: The industry was a victim of its own success, that you had so many products and you launched new products so quickly, especially from like ’95 to 2010. You added so many products on top of that. And you’re a pioneer in an industry like cable that is so innovative and moves so fast on the technology side, but the operation piece was trying to keep up with that. I learned that when I started running operations. Like the operation — the tools were not there to support that. And that’s the challenge. I don’t think — the perception is cable did not invest in that. That wasn’t really true. It was more that the industry moved so fast and so quick and so many products that the operations were always trying to keep up. I not sure that’s the case today. I think it’s different today. And I think a lot of that — there’s a lot of new tools and automation that helps that.
SCHLEY: I want to get back to Marwan because the story of Adelphia is almost Shakespearean. This is a company that was run by a revered gentleman. In 2004 the SEC charged Adelphia was two very serious malfeasances around misuse of corporate funds, financial reporting. Now this is a large prominent cable company and it’s in the news for all the wrong reasons, but there was still a big operating and engineering demand to be resolved. Why did you take the job you took with Adelphia at that time?
FAWAZ: I was working for Paul Allen at that time. I was in Seattle having fun, but it was mostly around being an advisor. I was itching to get back and to run something. I wanted — selfishly, one of the biggest reason I joined Vulcan, going back to your question, I wanted to understand the investment part of things. Paul was investing in a lot of companies and I wanted to get exposure, you know, how do you build a term sheet and how do you invest in new startups. So that was one of them and at the same time obviously I was that cable engineering operation advisor to Paul. So I was itching to get back. And going back to Continental, Schleyer and Ron Cooper, who were running Continental, and they left after MediaOne. And so the banks hired Ron and Bill to run —
FAWAZ: Adelphia in chapter 11. Ron called me, hey — and I wanted to become a CTO. It was the first CTO opportunity.
FAWAZ: It was my first CTO opportunity and it was Denver. You know, great place to live and have my — stabilize my family. The kids were middle school, high school age. So I decided to take that role and become the CTO. Paul wasn’t happy that I left, but we stayed in contact at that time. So we — yeah, sadly, it was a situation where this incredible family that started this company wasn’t able to make the transition from private company to public company. And that is what they’re guilty of. They never made the transition. And that’s the piece that the SEC and the DOJ had to charge that family with. But so we were able — and keep in mind that was in 2003, 2004, 2005 and the industry was just evolving into some incredible triple play, a lot of product and services, and Adelphia was in chapter 11 and it was five million subs at that time, I think. So it needed good stewards to run the company, invest in the engineering. So we did that. We invested in the company while it’s in chapter 11, we stabilize the company, operationally, engineering, technology, kept up with the rest of the industry and it became a great asset that both Comcast and Time Warner acquired Adelphia at that time, coming out of bankruptcy.
SCHLEY: What would you say to people who are involved in what we would call a distressed or a turnaround situation? What kind of kept you going during that period? It was a rough environment, I think.
FAWAZ: It was a rough environment, but you also had specific rules and that is the rules around that’s how much you can spend, that’s how much you can invest and that’s what you need to do to stabilize the operation. So you did — so you work with those envelopes, with the investment envelopes, what’s available to you. You couldn’t be visionary.
SCHLEY: You could not be visionary?
FAWAZ: Could not be visionary. You could not plan for five, 10 years like most companies.
FAWAZ: You had to focus on the next 12 to 24 months. And so that is the key to really turn around and stabilize the organization. The second part of this is you still have five million subscribers to take care of and you have to provide the right service. You have to make sure — then there was competition at that time intensifying. So you had to make sure that you are taking care of your customers. So we stayed true to the form, that is support the customers, do the right — provide the right services, the right quality, invest in the operation. And we’re also investing enough products that you could continue to compete in your area. So that’s — so work with the means that you have, focus on your core business, take care of your existing customer base, and I think the rest of the structural balance sheet challenges will work itself eventually.
SCHLEY: And it was always assumed that the company would then be subsumed by another cable operator, right? Which is what happened.
FAWAZ: We had two choices. One choice is we take it out of bankruptcy and spin it out as a separate company and the other choice is to sell it. And I think selling at that time, it was the right decision. Because you have Comcast, Time Warner really speeding ahead with so much investment, with so many different capabilities and scale. Scale was important. So Adelphia was disadvantaged if it became an independent on its own. So the right business decisions for the owners at that time who were the banks and the bond holders is to maximize the return by selling the company.
SCHLEY: One of the prominent everlasting technology suppliers to this industry has been, well, originally, I think General Instrument and then ultimately became the company — I remember sitting at my desk one day and a press release comes across that they’ve named a new CEO for the Motorola Home division, I think?
SCHLEY: And it’s this man here. So what happened there?
FAWAZ: That was pure coincidence actually. That was not planned. So I worked for this great guy, his name was Neil Smit at Charter. And so we both worked for Paul Allen. So Neil decided to move on to bigger and better things at Comcast so he left Charter. And so I decided it’s time for me to make a change. So at that time, I left Charter. I left Charter and said okay, I want to take a break actually. I want to take a break, I want to see what I want to do. Do I want to continue being this cable exec? And a few months later I got this call from a friend of mine who was at Google, Jonathan Rosenberg and Jonathan called me and said, “Hey, we just bought this company called Motorola and we bought it from Mobility where folks” — so Google was launching Android and a really core part of the acquisition is about Mobility. So there were two divisions. There was a Mobility division which is the handset division and there was the Home division. And he said, “We got this Home division. We don’t know what to do with it.”
SCHLEY: Home was digital set tops?
FAWAZ: It was all of the GI set tops, network equipment, cable modems, even DSL products. It was a big business. I think at that time it was three and a half, $4 billion business. Yeah, I mean the Horsham [PA] cable, I mean there’s so much history there.
SCHLEY: Totally. Legendary.
FAWAZ: I’m sure there are a couple of interviews with somebody —
SCHLEY: I believe so.
FAWAZ: Yeah, I don’t know. So I had a dream was one of the CTO. It was — so Jonathan called me, said, “Hey, we don’t know what to do with this. Can you help us figure it out?” So they actually hired me as a consultant. So I went in and I’m almost — this is my first six days with Google. I went in and I started working on it and I made some specific recommendation and I remember just being in a meeting with the founders on these recommendations.
SCHLEY: The Google founders?
FAWAZ: Google founders. At the end of the meeting Jonathan took me aside and also Dennis Woodside, he said, “We want you to go run this company. We like your recommendations, like what you want to do with it.” And my recommendation was that this company does not fit within Google. My recommendation is keep supporting your most important customers. At that time, Time Warner Cable, keep supporting Comcast. Verizon was also a large customer. So you should figure out a way how to spin it off. And so I was executing on that. So they named me — that was my recommendation. They named me as a CEO. For a year and a half, I was executing on the plan. I called Bob Stanzione. I said, “Bob, we’re — I think we want to go through a process. ARRIS should acquire Motorola.”
SCHLEY: Bob was the CEO of ARRIS.
FAWAZ: Of ARRIS. So Bob and I sat down and put a deal together for him to acquire Motorola Home and it was, you know, it ended up being in great hands. And also the clients at that time were happy. Google was happy. They got something out of that business. And everybody —
SCHLEY: You make it sound so easy. I don’t think it was that easy.
FAWAZ: It wasn’t easy. It was very complex. You try to balance Google needs, cable industry needs, telco needs, and where that fits. And it turned out to be a great outcome for the cable industry.
SCHLEY: Definitely so and I think it was an interesting chapter, but I always wonder, when you take a role like that what’s the first thing you do? They probably hook up the phone, you’ve got a computer, you’ve got an office, where do you start, you know?
FAWAZ: As a CEO and a —
SCHLEY: That’s correct.
FAWAZ: In this particular situation I knew a lot about the company because I was a client and a customer of the company for such a long time.
FAWAZ: I knew a lot of people there. I do get asked that question quite a lot because I’ve moved a lot. You know, I focus on three things. I focus on people, I focus on products, and processes.
SCHLEY: Good advice.
FAWAZ: Those are three things I’ve taken on, especially in areas where there’s an established business, possibly a turnaround situation or trying to preserve the value, create more value. Those are the three things I focus a lot on. When I did that at Motorola Home, even at Google, when I ran Nest, that was my — the first 90 days I met as many people as I can, I try to understand every single product —
SCHLEY: You’re literally sitting down with people on your team talking?
FAWAZ: One on ones, big meetings, town halls, traveling to every office. And I did that at Motorola and I did that at Nest where I made sure I visited every single office we have globally.
FAWAZ: It was a lot more harder at Nest because we had offices in every —
FAWAZ: Everywhere around the continent. So those are the things I focus on and trying to relate as much as possible to current challenges, to the operations, to the leaders in the organization, and start making tough decisions sometimes, not too popular decisions. You have to make the right business decisions and you also have to make decisions that are the best interest to the investors.
SCHLEY: But my guess is, correct me if I’m wrong, that if you don’t do the work with Paul Allen and Vulcan and understanding investment aspects of the business you probably don’t take on this role.
FAWAZ: Absolutely not.
SCHLEY: There’s a line between those two.
FAWAZ: There’s a line. I think understanding the investment side I was — when you sit in front of Google founders, you sit in front of — I think you need to relate and not just in a technology sense. I think they expect you to be a great technologist and engineer. They also expect you to —
SCHLEY: That’s your table stakes though.
FAWAZ: That’s your table stakes. They expect you to understand the business part of things. You know, how do you scale a business, how do you transform a business even though you focus on what are the markets, what are the addressable opportunities, and how do you create the right return on that business?
SCHLEY: You offered our audience great advice just now with the three Ps, the people, the product, the processes, but another related question, in your career as you’ve made decisions to take or accept job opportunities or not what have — beyond the paycheck what have been some of your considerations about is this the proper thing to do for my path, you know?
FAWAZ: It’s mostly around — I make decisions, am I going to be challenged? Am I going to be challenged to do the right things? Am I going to make a difference? Later on in my career I asked those questions a lot more than I did early on in the career because you were thinking more about the role, the scope, the composition, but later on in your career is are you making a difference, are you doing the right things, is it an area that you can be helpful in, and will you be happy doing it? So same thing when I did Motorola, at Google, at Nest, and my current role, those are the things I ask myself quite often. Am I making a difference in areas that I care so much about, have a lot of passion?
SCHLEY: Because I think people need to have a purpose, a sense of purpose, right? So this was sort of aligned with your sense of purpose.
FAWAZ: It is. It’s a purpose. Especially with Nest. Nest had an incredible purpose around making the home safer, making the home more efficient, making the home more — a better environment to live in. That’s the mission and it was a great mission and I love that mission and that was one of the reasons I decided to take that role.
SCHLEY: You became CEO of Nest 2016, I think.
SCHLEY: And then this, I presume, happened because of your relationship with the Google brass.
FAWAZ: Founders, yes.
SCHLEY: What — how was that presented to you and what was your reaction?
FAWAZ: I got a similar call where, “Hey, we love what you did with Motorola Home and it was a great outcome from everyone. We just acquired this company called Nest.” The founder of Nest and Google were not completely on the same page so the founder of Nest decided to leave and they called me and said, “Would you be interested in running that?” It was a very quick conversation.
SCHLEY: You were into it?
FAWAZ: It was a quick conversation. I saw Nest and I knew of Nest before I took the role and I loved the area and I wanted to learn a new area. In addition to my cable background, my media, cable, telecom, engineering background, I wanted to learn the home, the automations of the home. So yeah, I immediately said yes to the opportunity. And it was an acquisition they did so we had to start scanning the company, launching more product and businesses, and we became successful and large enough that Google — it was part of Alphabet. Google decided that they should merge it inside of its own divisions.
SCHLEY: And was there ever a time, Marwan, during this consideration of what to do next that you thought maybe I’m done, maybe I’ll just — I don’t know if you play golf. Maybe I’ll learn to play guitar like Paul Allen, right?
FAWAZ: I would love to learn. I do play golf. No, I think I’m at a stage in my life right now that part of me giving back is around mentoring. So I do quite a bit of mentoring. Right now, with my current role at Google I do quite a bit of mentoring for outside of that to new entrepreneurs or startups. I was at the receiving end of being mentored throughout most of my career, especially at cable. I had a lot of mentors. Jim Chiddix, Trey Smith, a lot of mentors that helped me — Dave Fellows — that helped me along the way. And I didn’t realize how important that is until later in my career.
SCHLEY: Oh, yeah.
FAWAZ: So giving back and helping new generations understand the ethics of business, the working ethics, being visionary, being thoughtful, being helpful in the areas that you care so much about.
SCHLEY: For sort of the next generation or the up-and-coming generation, whether you’re coming to this business — I don’t know what this business is. Telecommunications, right? From an engineering standpoint or a financial or an operating standpoint, what do you look for? What would be some attributes or skills or knowledge that would serve you well as a 23-year-old graduate student, for instance?
FAWAZ: The first thing I look for when we hire engineers, are they passionate on the areas? Do they love the area they’re going to work in?
SCHLEY: I knew you were going to say that.
FAWAZ: Yeah, love the area that they work in. A lot of tech companies hire on that. Obviously, there are minimum requirements that you have to meet and skills you have to meet. What makes the difference is were you really committed to make a change. We hire engineers at Nest that they wanted to find a way how they could cut power consumptions in the home by 50%, how to tie that — So that’s the visionary piece that’s important to look for. And I look for that also in the entrepreneurs who are trying to start their own businesses. The second part is, is this something that you care and you’re happy about, that you enjoy doing? And that’s really important. I think we’re at the stage of Covid that going through this pandemic in the last 18 months a lot of people are self-reflecting at all ages, you know, from —
SCHLEY: A lot.
FAWAZ: The self-reflection, people are starting to think what do I want to do in my life? Do I want to make a change? Do I want to make a difference in certain areas? That’s why we see this — it’s not the mass resignation, by the way. It’s the mass migrations. People are changing jobs quite often.
SCHLEY: They’re not quitting outright.
FAWAZ: Not quitting. They’re just changing jobs. They are changing jobs from one place to another because they are starting — and I’m finding people that I know that said — this director of engineering that she has been working in engineering, now she decides she wants to go build a product that she cares so much about. That she doesn’t want to be director of engineering anymore. And those are the kind of things that I’ve seen a lot more these days than I have ever had in my career.
SCHLEY: Do you have faith in technology? You’ve seen so much technology evolution from 35 channel cable systems and trying to keep the signal alive on a Tuesday night to automating the home. Like that’s a pretty big run. Do you have faith in technology as the servant of humankind? I mean do you think we’re doing the right things with technology?
FAWAZ: I do. I think when we develop technology to make our lives better, to make us healthier, to make us safer, to preserve environments around us, to make sure that we are being very resourceful, and those are the right things that technology are used for. But we also understand that technology could be used in a really bad way, in a way that is not conducive to decent —
SCHLEY: We see it.
FAWAZ: Decency. We see it, whether it’s when the caveman invented fire so they can protect themselves from animals, now —
SCHLEY: Guess what?
FAWAZ: Fire now has become a war, you know, a weapon that you use against your enemies. So there’s always going to be that. Even nuclear energy, there was reason for nuclear energy that could be efficient, cleaner. Now you have AI and ML. As long as we have the right balance around innovations and rules and regulations what could be used. I mean those are the right things — the balance is — it’s up to us as humans to just decide what the right balance is. But I think the good will always prevail. Decency and the right things always prevail, no matter how you had setbacks in so many different ways and so many different aspects.
SCHLEY: It’s not linear necessarily.
FAWAZ: It’s not linear. And you learn, you adjust. And our lives are changing. There’s a lot of things that happened in biotech that will change the way we live. You know, 50 years from now. Are we going to achieve singularity, meaning will compute capabilities become as fast as a human brain? I think we’re going to get there. How do we use it? That will be interesting. I don’t know if in our lifetimes, you and I, but it’s getting there. I think the biggest existential threat we have is around our resources and environment. In fact, if you listen to the CEO and chairman of Google, you know our biggest moonshot is to be carbon, zero carbon emissions —
SCHLEY: I did not know that.
FAWAZ: — by 2030. That’s a huge —
SCHLEY: That’s ambitious.
FAWAZ: That’s a moonshot. That’s a big moonshot to get there. So those are the things that it’s important for the environments around us to focus on.
SCHLEY: I was not meaning to be glib when I said I didn’t know what to call this business because it has morphed and converged and — but how would you advise the cable industry, what we still think of as the cable industry, the Comcasts and the Charters and the Coxes of the world, to distinguish themselves in a marketplace where things seem to be more lookalike than they used to be? At least that’s my contention.
FAWAZ: I mean each company is different. And I’m obviously still in contact with a lot of my former colleagues from the cable industry and Google does a lot of business with the cable industry too so I spend a lot of time on that. You know, each company is different. I think, and I’m glad to see the cable industry is moving into the wireless side. I think it’s absolutely the right move. I think there’s a lot of success. You see it at Charter, you see it at Comcast. I’m glad to see that. I think this convergence of wired and wireless networks is happening in front of us. Where what each company’s strategy and differentiating themselves, you know, do you want to get more aggressive, do you want to expand beyond your footprint? Either domestically or internationally I would encourage that. The video business is different today than it was —
SCHLEY: Very much.
FAWAZ: It’s a completely different video business. Consumption is different than we’ve ever seen it. I think adjusting to that. I’m glad to see all of the alliances that cable has with streaming services including ours. So that’s the adjustment that’s happening. So in adjusting the business, realizing the investment in new opportunities that can help grow the business and I think we see — I see that in some companies, not all of them, but some companies.
SCHLEY: What is your role now with Google? What role are you playing there?
FAWAZ: So I spend a lot of time on strategy, development, on partnerships. I spend a lot of time on global partnerships mostly around telco, media, and cable area. Comfort zone for me obviously. I also advise our investment organizations like Capital G, Google Ventures, a lot of startups. Involved in some of the —
SCHLEY: Which is probably fun. I mean you get to see new stuff.
FAWAZ: Very fun cool job. It’s not running operations or developing something, but it’s a cool fun job. And I’ve been very grateful for Google and the opportunities there.
SCHLEY: And I’ve known you through this path here and there and you’ve always had this sort of calm demeanor. Is that a fair way to — like in the heat of the moment I think you’ve probably brought a steadying presence to a lot of these companies. Is that a fair evaluation?
FAWAZ: Yeah. You try to stay calm and not to show your emotions, but I think as a leader you have to show stability. You have to show your organization how to help preserve, and how to react and how to do that. I think I’ve learned that early on. I learned that when I first started running an engineering group and I think there were some people that helped me get there. And the joke I have is I’m like this duck in the water. You think it’s so calm, but watch their feet in the water, they move so fast.
SCHLEY: You hide it well.
FAWAZ: Hide it really well, but I think just that stability, the ability to convey that is really important.
SCHLEY: And then what you said about making yourself visible through all the branch offices, for instance, not every CEO abides by that principle.
FAWAZ: Yeah, I’m not sure why, but I think relating to the organization — to motivate an organization you have to listen. One of the things I try to teach my kids, people that I mentor, is the most important skill you develop is your listening skills. Listen.
SCHLEY: Well put.
FAWAZ: Listen. I know each one of you is incredibly bright and smart and talented. People know that. You don’t have to let them know that you know that. I think sit back and listen.
SCHLEY: That’s a good line.
FAWAZ: Understand that. So when I visited offices, whether it’s Motorola or Google Nest, I sat down and I listened and I wrote and I asked everyone to tell me what they think.
SCHLEY: You bring a notepad along?
FAWAZ: Notepad. You write, take a lot of notes. Mentally and you write them down. I think listening skills is one of the underrated skills that leadership should have, is listening.
SCHLEY: Marwan, you’ve mentioned a lot of people, Bill Schleyer, Amos Hostetter, James Smith, Dave Fellows. A lot of people have touched your career and influenced your career. To put you on the spot a little bit, but who rises — who made it so that your life became different because of their impact and influence on you?
FAWAZ: I have to say Paul Allen. In working for about a year and a half directly for him, indirectly as board member, as a friend, I mean I really — I’ve had exposure to a lot of pioneers in my life from Amos to a lot of people in the cable industry, obviously Paul, founders of Google. Paul stands out because he had this incredible way of balancing his life around understanding the engineering part of it, technology as well as art, music. He was so conversant in art and music. Giving back as a human being and he did it so quietly. Not a lot of people —
FAWAZ: Not a lot of people knew that. And he’s done so much. His brain institute. A lot of medical — universities. They’ve tried to map literally our brains. And so he’s done quite a bit a lot. Certainly, he’s able to synthesize ideas into something that okay, yeah, I could do that. He was also someone that you could challenge. Not a lot of people that I worked who pioneered, who were pioneers, could take a challenge, but I remember challenging Paul in some areas and —
SCHLEY: He had an open brain. He had the open mind.
FAWAZ: He would listen.
SCHLEY: Marwan, you’ve talked more than once about collaboration and kind of relationships and how the industry kind of feeds off — the cable industry has fed off itself. And there are a couple of organizations that have been essential to your life and your career. Here in Colorado, CableLabs, the research and development arm of the cable industry. And you talked about training and technicians and they make that adjustment from analog to digital. The SCTE [Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers] has been an enormously important figure. Who am I talking about? What have they done for us?
FAWAZ: The SCTE and CableLabs, especially the SCTE, have been incredible in helping the work force in the cable industry, engineers, at all levels really. The exposure, the camaraderie, the learnings, sharing across different best practices. I remember my first engineering industry speech I’ve ever given. It was in SCTE. We were just deploying fiber — this is at Times Mirror. We were just deploying fiber. We were replacing microwave links and I think Times Mirror along with Time Warner Cable was — the early fiber deployment happened in those companies. And so I had to go get up in front of — the Western Cable Shows, you remember that?
SCHLEY: Anaheim, California.
FAWAZ: In Anaheim, California. To give my first speech. It was an SCTE event and like how did I design and build a fiber link in Ohio from this point to that point, and how do you apply it into design. I remember giving that speech. I was terrified. It was my first cable speech. And the SCTE was just incredibly welcoming, warming. A funny story from there. Somebody when I was giving that speech, either at the introduction or at the end, and they misspelled my name. Instead of Marwan it was Moron. (laughter)
SCHLEY: Okay, welcome.
FAWAZ: “Here’s Moron Fawaz.” I was like, “It’s Marwan, dude.” I think Mark Dzuban has done an incredible job. And all of Mark’s predecessors at the SCTE. I was involved, chaired a lot of committees. Same thing at CableLabs. I think CableLabs is another organization that has contributed so much to the cable industry, as well as the Cable Center. From the history — providing history for the cable. But yeah, very engaged, very involved, until obviously I left to go to work for Google. I haven’t been as involved, but obviously I stay close with a lot of my friends in those organizations.
SCHLEY: I think it was — at one time I had a chance to interview John Malone and he talked about CableLabs as an accelerant. He said, “Some of this technology development might have happened without, but probably not as fast.”
FAWAZ: I mean the standardization was really important. I mean the cable — we’re talking about LANcity and deploying that [internet] at Continental.
SCHLEY: The early cable modem company.
FAWAZ: Early cable modem, Rouzbeh’s cable modem. We deployed that at Continental and they were $500-600 a cable modem. So God bless Rouzbeh [Yassini] and helped contribute some of his intellectual property to the standardization, the DOCSIS standardization, and that’s when the scale of broadband cable internet took off, is when you had standardization of DOCSIS. And you could use that example for a lot of stuff, Packet Cable and a lot of initiatives. That was CableLabs. That was CableLabs. CableLabs really shepherded that and helped drive it and helped really manage a lot of egos. We all have egos in the cable industry. Bringing all that together to the —
SCHLEY: Welcome to the human race, right?
FAWAZ: — betterment of the technology and also for consumers.
SCHLEY: It’s been delightful to talk to you because I think when we talk, we get this compact history of this business and how much has changed in such a short amount of time.
FAWAZ: I’ve been lucky and grateful in my career that I ended up in certain areas. I got associated with incredible people, visionary and that changed our lives from cable to technology. So I feel very fortunate and happy to be in the right time in the right place and hope I —
SCHLEY: And making the most of it.
FAWAZ: Capitalized on those opportunities.
SCHLEY: Here’s a pro tip. Marwan did mention a gentleman named Ed Breen and we did interview Ed in this very seat, so if you want to dive a little deeper into the oral history series he’s there. I want to thank Marwan for adding richly to that oral history series. This has been a great, great conversation. Hope you have enjoyed it and signing off for the Cable Center, I’m Stewart Schley.
END OF INTERVIEW