Interview Date: November 29, 2016
Interview Location: New York City, NY USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Arenstein: Hello. I’m Seth Arenstein here for the Oral History Project at the Cable Center. We’re here in New York City at the end of November 2016. And I’m joined by Theresa Hennesy, who is the SVP and Group Technical Advisor at Comcast. Theresa, welcome.
Hennesy: Thank you.
Arenstein: We could have done this in Washington, DC, because that’s where we’re both from.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Hennesy: I was born in Winchester, Virginia, just outside of DC and I grew up in the Springfield/Burke, Virginia, area.
Arenstein: So suburban Washington.
Hennesy: Yes, Washington, DC. All through elementary school, graduated and decided to go to a local school, George Mason, at that time no one knew George Mason. But it turned into a really strong economics school for the DC area. Started in law school and being in the DC area, when I went out into the workforce, I started looking for different jobs. I wanted to work downtown because that was the hubbub of everything and I get excited around energetic areas. And I applied through the help of a friend with a company called Microwave Communications. Didn’t think much of it and got into the job as an entry level position and really rode an exciting 20-year transformation of communications business.
Arenstein: And what did you major in in college?
Hennesy: I was in physics. Not much physics comes in to this particular area, but I will tell you the concepts of physics from a strategic perspective, really do help me look at the broad view of businesses. And that’s really allowed me to move into some of the areas that were really new and groundbreaking, and be able, I think, to set the tone for me always looking at how change has to be incorporated into what you do. Nothing is ever the same. You’ve got to continue to think about how things are going to evolve and move forward.
Arenstein: So, tell me about being—let’s go back even before your first job. Let’s go back to school, college, being a woman at the time interested in science, as you were. What was that like? I don’t think you had a lot of compatriots there at that time.
Hennesy: No, and it was very different back then. Back then, in high school, girls and boys had common classes in the academic realm. But when it came to anything in the what I call the more physical hands-on, we had what we called Home Ec, which was where you learn to cook and stand and be polite. And the young men had shop class, you know. Motors and saws. When I went into high school, I didn’t want to do economics. Home economics, I knew how to sew, I knew how to cook. So I signed up for what was called the shop class at the time. The counselors came to me, “You can’t do that. You’ve got to take the home ec.” So I actually had to get my parents to agree and one thing I learned that was important is you also want to make sure that you have a buddy. So one of my good friends in school did it with me. We were the first two young girls to go into the all-boys shop class. And the teacher was the football coach, which was good for me because I was big into sports. I’m very much into team orientation, which is, I think, why management and leadership plays well for me. And he helped and encouraged us, both of us, to stand up and do what we wanted to do. You know, take the engine apart, build different bookcases, anything you could do at that time with your hands. Then I did that for every year through high school and I was finally his teacher’s aide. So I was actually teaching some of the classes on how the freshmen should use the table saw, or the bandsaw. So that might have been the setting for me, but there are times when you really want to just stand up for yourself and say, “No, I don’t want to do that. This is really of much more interest to me.” If you’re nervous about doing it, I always tell people, “Take a buddy. Find someone to go with you to help support you to the next step.” That’s been one area I always look back on fondly. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I look back on it. It’s kind of an interesting story as to how I got started down this path.
Arenstein: So that kind of, I guess, early confidence that you had in yourself and also having some good mentors and good supporters. It helped you, I guess, when you were in college. But again, you’re in physics. Again, I can’t imagine too many women were in your physics classes.
Hennesy: Not too many. Luckily, my brother was in my calculus class with me, which was interesting because he was very good at the calculus side. I was much better at the theory side. You get used to being the only one. When I was in high school, I did a sport that most girls didn’t want to do. I did shotput and discus. Which, back then, was a sport that wasn’t very sexy. It’s not like the beautiful, elegant run that someone might have. But it was a lot of fun because a lot of people were not doing it and it showed a lot of strength. You had to do a lot of strength and weight training. When I went into the physics class, I did enjoy being able to debate around how things should work. But my physics teacher in high school was really an excellent teacher, and really pushed me to not only take physics but also take advanced physics to be able to exercise the theories around it. And so, I had to give a lot of credit to him and my family, because being the youngest, my siblings always were encouraging me: “You can do that, you can do it.” And it did make me step out into areas that I know some of my friends would never have done.
Arenstein: I don’t want to jump ahead too far, but this all seems to me to dovetail into a lot of what you’re doing today in terms of WICT, in terms of women in cable. Technology, specifically. We’ll jump ahead. How did some of your early days and some of your early experiences translate into what you’re doing now?
Hennesy: You said the word “confidence.” I think two things that I always believe in: you have to have confidence that you can at least try to do something. You may not be successful the first time, but at least try it. The first time I did a bandsaw, the first time I programmed a switch to be able to route calls. I wasn’t quite sure, but I tried it. Then it’s from a very physical, you know, person to learn. If you then learn it, and it’s something you want to do, persistence has to pay off because you can’t have one roadblock or one bump that prevents you from going down your path to move forward. You need to be able to say, “This is a bump in the road or it’s a deviation or a detour, but keep moving down.” I believe that life is like a sailboat where you tack back and forth. And you take short tacks to get where you want to go. So it’s not a straight line. Work with the challenges you have to be able to get back on path and don’t look at it as a failure, look at it as ‘this is the next step, what door am I going to be able to open now?’
From a leadership and management perspective, being able to work with people, whether it was in teacher’s advisor or captain of a team, you learn how to pull people together and just talk about, “What is it we’re trying to do collectively?” And that I know has always been part of how I like to work. I like to be working towards an objective that’s changing something, and when I entered MCI, that’s exactly what we were doing. We were the underdogs, we were changing communications, you couldn’t have been in a better, you know, or company in a better position to see how this great communications world opened up back in 1980. And completely transformed how people communicated, how we did business, how we engaged with each other in any other way. And being able to see that evolution over time, people entering this industry need to realize that that’s a continuation. It’s always going to happen, so be comfortable with constant change. Don’t think you’re doing the thing for life. What you’re doing is you’re living life and you’re adjusting to it as new technology comes in, as new behaviors of how people deal with things. Who knew that we’d be looking at a five-inch screen with full length movies? I would never have believed that.
Arenstein: Nor I.
Hennesy: I would never have believed that. But it’s now changed and the ability for us to communicate, not just locally, but nationally and globally, is huge. The implications of the global economy really exploded with the communications platforms that we’ve been able to build. And that is exhilarating. That is the most fun you can have, when you’re in a business that’s changing something that you can feel, your family can feel, your friends can feel and you can see the influence that you have because it’s not one person. It is a collection of people.
Arenstein: So, yes, you were in the middle of all this. I take from reading your background that communications is a big part of your life, not just the technology involved. You’ve talked about this in speeches and things like this. We’ll get to that later, but just refresh my memory and people who are watching this ten, twenty years from now who didn’t live through it. What were communications like in 1980 when you started working with MCI? I mean, we used the telephone, for example. We read newspapers. We sent letters. Keep going. What else?
Hennesy: Right. We wrote memos.
Arenstein: We wrote memos.
Hennesy: There was one telephone company back then. It was AT&T. My great communications turned into MCI. It started as a small company just trying to make some money and helping the truckers in their communications. Through that process, they ran into a fairly significant roadblock with AT&T in that there were some monopolistic capabilities in our ability to service customers through them, and it turned into probably the major breakthrough for communications in what many people either love or hate, which was the split-up of AT&T into several different regionals. That happened in, we called it the “Judge Green Judgement,” the MFJ, the major judgement that was moved forward and that was in June of 1980. And in that ruling, it gave companies, like the one I was with, the ability to have their own access to customers, to buy services from AT&T and their local divisions, whether back then it was Chesapeake & Pacific, or NYNEX, New Jersey Tel to service customers as an alternative. Which meant that we had to understand how to work with them. They needed to understand how to work with us. And it really emerged into a very new industry but by 1984, when the capabilities called “Equal Access” was out there. So that anyone who wanted to be able to have a different telephone provider than their local provider could have MCI and then other industries, other companies began to emerge to see the opportunity. And that really grew from 1984 into like 1990, with many, many different companies emerging, and creating a real competition. That then led into what I think happens in a lot of industries that emerge very quickly, have a lot of new entrants and then we had a big consolidation activity.
During all of that time, new technology was being created. When I started, we had all analog signaling. Very antiquated, there were still old stepper switches out there, and everything was manually programmed. I could tell you any area code, and where you lived just by your phone number because you had to key them, update them all into our switching and how the routing worked. When I first started, we didn’t have information about where different phone numbers went to, so we had a room about the size of this hotel room filled from ceiling to floor telephone books. So if someone called up and said, “I can’t get to this number,” we’d walk over there, look it up in the telephone books, like, “Oh, you have to dial +1.” Which meant we had to program it all in. From digital we did a big conversion across the industry from analog to digital. Then you had the emergence of data. Phone calls were one way, but now data was paramount. You had a business need to be able to pass data in large quantities. And being able to look at the frame relay emergence, which was the first big data meshed switching network outside of point-to-point, which was everything before that, really emerged to be able to start to drive data and then eventually into the IP protocol, and the Internet.
Arenstein: So it’s one thing to look at this from afar now, 20 years later, how it all grew and it all seems to make sense…
Hennesy: It seems like a path, but it wasn’t.
Arenstein: It wasn’t, right. So my question to you is, was there any point in this growth where you looked at the company you were working for and you said, “Oh, my. This is going to work? A) or B). Wow, we’re really at the forefront. I wonder if this is going to work.” Was there any point that you remember—
Hennesy: There were several times in different companies. When we started at MCI, there were many times I wondered, OK, maybe this is just until they go bankrupt.
Hennesy: And there were times when I was getting a paycheck on Friday and if you didn’t cash it before 11, you had to wait until Monday because there were no more funds left. So there were some struggles in that. But there were also times when you were looking at, are customers going to buy the products? Are they going to come and use the products? It sounds like great products. You know, using 1-800-PHONE-A-FRIEND. Will that catch on? Well, it does. And then there’s other ones that are a total flop until you have to be able to adjust not just the technology but how customers are adopting the products and realizing what it is they want. And that’s both for business customers as well as consumers at home that want to be able to move forward. And I have been in businesses that have gone bankrupt. That’s a whole different type of experience in being able to manage a business through bankruptcy, manage the employees through bankruptcy and keep your customers happy. And since we were a telecom company, we also had another leg to that, and that was the regulators. The regulators wanted to make sure we ensured that the customer service stayed where it needed to be. That the customers had the capabilities—so even through that process, you had to consider that as you made your decisions as to what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do the decommissions, and how you’re going to notify the customers moving forward. And that’s part of what’s exhilarating about this business, is it changes. There was an over-the-top provider I was with that, again, we were the underdogs, we had gone through some tough times, and we were working to reinvent ourselves. And through a single product that we worked to engineer across our network, work collaboratively with others, really was the turnaround for it. Within two to three years, we were able to move the stock price from cents into dollars. And really have an ability to offer some new products to customers that didn’t have a product and we filled it.
Arenstein: Can I ask you this question? Was there a time—I guess there were several times for you when there was a product that you introduced or that there was a product you were working on that you went, wow, this is amazing, this is really going to knock people out. I remember sort of my—not a product, but I was covering a cable trade show and somebody gave me something called a digital camera. They said, “Go take a picture of this booth and then come back and write the story.” And I took the picture, I brought it back to the editor and I remember before I got to my desk to sit down to write the story, they already had the picture in the imposition for the publication. I though, that’s amazing! I’d never seen anything like that.
Hennesy: Right. And the whole concept of how that happened, right, is just something that for you was probably, you know, how do we do that with everything, make it that simple? And move it forward.
Arenstein: So were there any products or were there any aha moments for you along the way?
Hennesy: For me, the aha moment came when customers came in and decided that, OK, we’re going to go with, you know—in this case, it was an over-the-top provider—for a service that was like, well, I’m not sure this is going to connect. So I got everything prepared and I was really blown away by the demand. It was an over-the-top provider offering very discounted rates for calls to India, and you know, we looked at the traffic all week long. It was just the same right after the announcement, and what I didn’t realize was the behavioral aspects of our customers that were buying the service. They called typically on the weekends when their families are available, and that would always be from like 11 until 1 in the morning, or very late at night. So the traffic patterns we were looking at were typical North American traffic patterns. We weren’t looking at the traffic patterns of our consumers that were going to be calling back to India. And it was such a dramatic increase, I would actually halt everything that I was doing on Saturday and Sunday just to monitor the volume to make sure we had enough capacity to get through. We actually had some fun activities within my team because we would predict each week we had a new peak. We were growing so fast week after week, that we would forecast what peak would we max out at. And what peak would we hit. And it came to be like a whole game. We got the CEO involved, but it turned into something that could be really strenuous, like how do we get the capacity up, how could we build it, into something that people enjoyed and had fun. We actually created this camaraderie around it that got the whole team behind us to move forward. That was a lot of fun. It wasn’t complicated, it wasn’t highly technical. It was offering something, and the customers really loving it. Very similar to the Comcast X1. X1, having customers out there, or sitting with my family members and then really loving it. You get so prideful in what your company is able to deliver. And to me, that really gets me excited and gets me energized for what I need to do next. And how we can move it forward.
Because technology is the one that’s going to make it easier for us not just to communicate, but to how we live our lives. You mentioned that communication’s important. It’s important about how we get things done, whether it’s health communications or it’s family communications, business communications, and then bringing back the interpersonal communications. That’s a big area that with some of our technology, we do less of interaction. I remember the days of you had to hand the person the memorandum, and they had to take it from you so there was some connection. And now that doesn’t happen. I feel like some people are losing that personal connection that I think is needed in business to be able to make that relationship more solid than what it is. And tighter than what it could be.
So being able to invite people to not just tell what you have to get done but explain it to people and what the benefits are. Whether you’re talking to a software engineer or an operations engineer, tell them why it’s important for them to get it done and the impact it’s having back to someone and they’ll see it. But years ago, we had a fun activity around this time which is now Christmas time. We had a line that we called the “Ho-ho-ho Hotline.” It was a business we supported; it went to an elder care home, and it was just up in the Wisconsin area, and we supported it. We always thought it was great that they have it, so we had their facilities set up every year for it. Well, one year it got on the Today show. And everyone at 3:00—our entire network lit up at 3:00. We were like, what, what just happened? And it was because of the Today show, parents wrote it down, the kids came home from school at 3:00 and everyone started calling. So that was one of those times we weren’t prepared, but we had to figure out how to be prepared to work it out.
That’s like a whole life event that people remember in how you interact, and that is part of what is exciting is the Internet brought hosting, which brought business simpler for people, whether they’re buying or they’re at home. You have the communications of email, you have the ability for SMS messaging, social media has taken on, not just the importance of glamorizing people, but social media is really important when you’re looking at events that take place. And being able to allow the police, the first responders to know what’s happening and educating them, and there’s a lot of importance around that, especially Wi-Fi. How do we make sure that we offer Wi-Fi so that in areas where you’ve had natural disasters, first responders and people in need can communicate? To me, that says a lot about what I find very satisfying in the businesses, is how it helps people, enables people to do things that they need to do, and really, I think, progresses our lives and businesses forward to where we need to go. But I always try and get people to come back to but you should go up and talk and network with people beyond a LinkedIn connect and beyond an email or voicemail. Invest in that communication.
Arenstein: And that’s coming from somebody who built that social communication, that allows you to bypass all the person-to-person stuff.
Hennesy: Yes, it is. But some of that is feed because you’re able to do things faster. But we shouldn’t discount the need of being able to realize that there are people or there are activities behind it. Whether you’re supporting a hospital, making sure you understand the need and the type of transmissions that are going back and forth with the hospital. Whether it’s a government location. And investing in knowing who they are. I have had customers walk right up into my office and be unhappy and sit there, and I’ll work with them to figure it out whatever it is to fix. But they wanted to make sure that I saw the face of their customer. And so we have to respect that because that’s who we’re serving. That’s who’s also benefitting from what we’re able to do.
Arenstein: By the same token, social media demands that companies be responsive now to a much greater extent than before.
You know what I wanted to ask you. A number of the things you were talking about triggered a thought. I know that cybersecurity is an important issue for you. Talk about what’s Comcast’s role in cybersecurity. I mean a lot of people don’t realize—most people still think, oh, Comcast’s a cable company. They have nothing to do with cybersecurity. What’s the truth?
Hennesy: Well, there’s a lot. Security, when people think of security, they think of locking or passwords, but cybersecurity is everything around ensuring the identity of who you are is secure. And what you’re doing, what you’re watching. And being able to make sure that as a consumer, a business customer, we are protecting everything about you. Your address, your locations, and that we’re not interfering with your ability to be able to use the services. Or we’re able to put up the appropriate, I would say, guardrails to prevent the dark side from coming in. We work 7×24 on cybersecurity because the black hats out there are working ten times harder. So every time we’re able to secure, we never let our guard down because we know that there is a lot of work that’s being done for people that want to find identities. Because they can use that as money. That’s monetary money on the dark side. And the ability for them to connect across this global Internet gives them a lot more capability of who to go after. And that’s why we always talk about if you have the opportunity to factor authentication, which means you have something that plugs in and says who you are and you have something like a password that you put in that authenticates you twice, that is much more secure than just having a single password. And changing your password. Because once they get one piece of information about you, they can look to replicate it. So if you have one password you use for all of your logins, they get that one password, they will try it on all of yours. So being able to identify those particular activities of intruders trying to do that is what we do constantly around cybersecurity. And protecting our company’s assets at the same time. So making sure that that is a holistic view is important. We’ve elevated cybersecurity to the enterprise level so that we have a strategy across all 53 Comcast entities. Then we’ve combined the development work for all of our products and security together so that we are starting security in the code itself at the very beginning.
Security years ago—when I was at Verisign—security was all about creating barriers around what you don’t want people to protect. So you’ve heard of a lot of firewalls, and those are still used today. But now it’s all about how do you create secure code in all the software that you’re building to prevent someone from if they do get in, preventing them from being able to get to anything, to secure databases all the way through. And that’s a big initiative not just at Comcast but across the industry. It is. And it’s a really great opportunity for the youth to come in and learn from the very beginning. Because they’re learning it now in college, and to incorporate that into everything they do. Whether they do the mechanical engineering for our data centers, whether they do the software design for our products or our systems—as a company, we have to make sure we stay ahead of it. As an employee and someone in the communications industry, I think it’s a great opportunity to understand how it works. Because in any business, in any job you’re going to go into in the future for the next ten, fifteen years, has to have that security attribute to it. And understanding what you are doing, what effect are you having, and how can you improve it. Because quality is what keep companies moving forward and simple, easy products is what keeps people using them. So how do we make it so that they feel comfortable, secure and connected? We also work very diligently across the MSOs and sharing information that we find out what’s happening to ensure that if there’s something happening that we can share that can help them, we’ll do that.
It’s an area that, I think, is exciting because you’re kind of wearing this white hat, right? And defending against the dark side for, not just your company, but your customers and eventually yourself.
Arenstein: And I would assume this means that there’s a tremendous amount of employment possibilities for people.
Hennesy: Yes, yes. There’s at least a quarter of a million open jobs. So now it’s a matter of how do you get the workforce educated. We can’t have all new, we can’t have all new hires coming in for security. So upskilling our current employees is really important. And how do we get them to understand how to adjust their processes, their codes, to incorporate security into what they’re looking at but they’re thinking about.
Arenstein: How do you do that? What are some of the things you do?
Hennesy: Well, there are some training classes you have you go through. We just finished a significant awareness of all the employees. Having role models, role playing. What does it mean to be able to write secure code? What are the tools you can use to test your code before you deploy? And it educates the developers, it educates the engineers as to how they can change it. And it gives them the responsibility rather than having a secondary security team watching them. The security team wants to be watching the bad guys, not our team. So in developing and creating these opportunities for people to learn how to change the way they’re doing the coding, or modify the way they’re doing the coding, makes our products that much more secure and capable. Allowing the security teams to focus in on what could be dangerous activity that they see outside.
Arenstein: It seems to me, looking at your career, and we’ll get to some of this stops that you made along the way toward Comcast, that learning, constant learning has to be a big part of what’s driven you.
Hennesy: Curiosity and relentless learning. I keep on telling everyone, just learn as much as you can as you go. Even if you’re not in a particular organization, but they’re doing something new. Just reach out and ask them. You know, how does that work? What does it look like? What’s the importance? How do you see the product moving forward? Because that is where the business is going. So if you know what you’re doing, I always think it’s important to expand beyond that. Sometimes it’s getting out of your comfort zone and figuring out, well, what else can we do? Where can we go? In my own career, I was in a position—I’d been there for a long, long time, same department, loved it and I was the director of the position. A VP role came open and I asked and said, “I’d like to apply for it.” He said, “No, I’m not so sure you’d be the right person.” I’m like, “Well, why?” He said, “Because this is all you know.” I only knew that one department. They wanted someone that had a broader business perspective. Which makes sense because I would make choices only by what I had learned about what I thought was important, rather than the broader business. It really made me think about, OK, well, I’ve got to get out of where I’m at. And look to rotate into other jobs. And I think the same thing’s true with the security. It will provide people an opportunity to enhance their current job and find other opportunities that they may want to go into. They can be really strong in security and that could be a different path for them to take now moving forward. And if people can keep that peripheral vision open, as they take these classes, they can move into different areas and actually take a completely different career path.
Arenstein: So let me ask you about your career path from MCI all the way to Comcast. We were joking before the taping that you said, “Wow, I was looking at this—oh, you’re going to think I’m a ‘job-hopper.’” Well, you have been at a lot of different companies, a lot of different jobs. What was your philosophy? Again, we’re looking at this years later and it looks like the path to Comcast. But it wasn’t. How did you structure you career, did you think of it as a path, did you just make decisions one on one? How did you do it? Was there a philosophy?
Hennesy: There wasn’t a philosophy, and it’s definitely not planned. But it was intentional. That sounds like a little bit of a conflict. So I didn’t sit there in my first job and say, “I want to be able to do this particular role.” At certain points, in every job I came to a decision of what’s next? What do I want to do next? What is the step I need to be able to take? And each one is different. Because a lot of different things happened in this 30-year timespan. Early on, it was easy for me to move around. It was just me, single, I loved working hard, we’d do long hours. But then when you get married, you adjust a little bit and so I took some different jobs. When I had children, I was working in operations in a 7×24 organization and I thought, I don’t want to be up all the time, so I took a different job which was very similar, but it was more on business continuity and building the plant rather than running the operations. When the kids got older, I went back into the engineering and operations group that was 7×24. Working with the engineering teams that built and designed some of our networks and me being the recipient of having to run them, you learn things you’d like to have changed. So I moved into an area that could help influence how we built the network around processes and systems. And how we need to get more things done upfront rather than an afterthought.
Then I wanted to be able to broaden what I was looking at. So going into Verisign was eight different companies that we merged onto one network, anywhere from a messaging company to a security business to a telecom business. And that was a lot of fun because it’s different products people use differently and sell differently. And that was interesting, almost a little chaotic because the products go across your network in a different way, and through that effort, you’re trying to manage a single focus. Then I moved into what was I would consider an underdog. So all of those choices were paths to the company before Comcast. That was an underdog. I really do like the David and Goliath; that’s where I guess I started. It was just a single product, though, but we had a lot of opportunity to grow and build. And we did that. We grew and built, and for the three years I was there, we were able to do some significant turnarounds with it.
By the end of that job, I was just a little tired of just doing engineering and operations. And I really enjoyed working with Capital Venture, with our executives, with the board. So I went to go interview at a job with Comcast; a headhunter had contacted me for a job over the network engineering group, the SVP of network engineering. And I thought, it’s probably not exactly but it’s always good to interview. I always suggest to people, take the interview and get out there. So I went into the job interview. I kind of knew I was a diverse candidate, as the female candidate. And I started my interview, the first one, with our chief network officer, which was John Schanz. And he was talking about their network and got right down into the details of the technology and I gave him some background on our technology and we were talking on. About ten minutes into the conversation, I said, “John, can I stop you right there?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “Let me just assess our conversation. If you’re looking for someone that will go toe-to-toe with you on the engineering attributes of how you want to run BGP or IS-IS on your IP backbone, I’m probably not the girl for you. If you want someone to take a team of technologists and move them into a high-performing organization, I might be the person. I totally understand if you don’t want to continue the conversation, but I wanted to make sure that the outcome’s good for you and me.” So he sat back, and “Hmm. Well, let’s continue talking.” So, we continued talking, and I went through all my interviews and ended the day, and really thought, OK, well, I’m probably not going to get that job. Three months later, I got a call from his office. “John would like to talk to you.” And so we just talked about business, what was happening in the industry. Three months later, he said he would like to have me come in and he said, “I was very impressed with the conversation we had.” And he had a new opening that was a role around getting his team, his direct reports, to work collaboratively together on many of the enterprise programs. So that job was very different and the one I have now is very different than all the others. So I didn’t have the engineering team. I didn’t own the 7×24 organization. I had to get everything done through influencing my peers, which was a stretch. It’s very different. You know, you’re used to doing it when you have an organization because you’ll say, this is my group, we’re never going to do this. You have to deliver it to me this way. But this was a lot more fun because I had to work with them to get them to move on programs John wanted to have me report. And it taught me a lot about how to influence people, how to talk to people. Communications is an important part of it. What’s in it for them? What’s in it for the business? And really keeping the business objectives in the forefront, not just how much work they have to do, or how much they have to give up. But we’re doing it to be able to achieve this particular result. And listening to them talk about what their challenges are and figuring out how do you make those shifts with people so you can become aligned. They’ll never become completely aligned, but you’ve got to be able to accommodate any differences that may be there through communications or through some other method.
But that’s the real difference: one, I think that it’s shifted, and the decisions were at that time based on my life, what was happening, life events, based on the satisfaction of the job, and then based on being able to have a broader portfolio. The other thing Comcast had is these wonderful products. Great, multiple products across a large network that was transforming. That was a lot of fun.
Arenstein: What possessed you to stop that interview, and talk to him like that, pose that conundrum—what possessed you to do that?
Hennesy: I definitely wanted to make sure I got into a job that was something I wanted. And I probably could have pulled off the other job, but it would have been a lot more work and not as much fun. And I think I had nothing to lose. You know, you’re just being open and honest, I was polite and respectful, but I was confident that even if I didn’t get the job, I’d be OK. And that makes a big difference. When you’re younger, you don’t always have that confidence. You think, oh, boy, they don’t like me or whatever. I was like, I’m OK, I’m OK. If I don’t get this job—but you want to have your voice out there. Because the more you talk about what you want to do, the more the other person is going to understand it. And if they don’t want you, then that’s probably good for you. Right? But if they do, you’re probably going to become more aligned and the job satisfaction on both sides is going to only increase. It’s easy to say and sometimes tough to do…
Arenstein: Pardon me for saying this, but looking at your background, I guess I would characterize you as a “phone person” coming to cable. Is that fair?
Hennesy: That’s very fair.
Arenstein: OK. So now that you’re in cable, and you’ve been with cable for a while, what are the differences and what are the similarities that you see?
Hennesy: It was so much fun coming into cable because in the telecom companies, it’s very competitive. So I was always poised and ready for the competitive attributes that come with it. You know, you’re careful about what you say, you kind of play a cat-and-mouse game with the other companies, you try and find out what their positions are, you don’t want to let anything out of the bag. When I first came to cable and went to my first big SCTE meeting, I didn’t know what to expect. So, I came in, sat down, and noticed that the atmosphere was really very different. Because typically the atmosphere in industry rooms is you do the nice handshake and you get your cup of coffee and you say, “I haven’t seen you in a while.” When I walked into the SCTE meeting, people were hugging and showing family pictures. I was sitting next to Barbara Jaffe, Leslie Ellis was there, and you know I had to reset my mind into how cable works. The exchange of information around technology and the collaboration really fits, I think, my style. They’re very open around “we can do more together than we can do separately.” DOCSIS is a great example of that. That technology was a large collaboration across the industry that has really paid off for us and made us very competitive within the industry in being able to provide the speeds our customers are looking at, and competitive against some of the other services that are out there. Without that, no one company really could have done it. And the ability for us to forge that together, even though we have our own business entities, I think it’s has really carried people moving forward.
The X1 syndication, I think, is another example of it. Being able to allow the other cable companies to have the X1 experience for their customers. It’s syndicated underneath the Cox brand, and the Shaw brand. And that provides them the ability for their customers to have this great experience, but not have to have this duplicate work that is being done across the video platform. And that is unique to the cable industry. It could change in the next five years; it could change, I don’t really know. I think the recent consolidations have caused some ruffling of those feathers, but I still think they depend heavily on each other. We have several different initiatives moving forward of all IP. We still have a lot of ground plant that’s out there, so we still need the ability for the technicians to be ubiquitous in how they service single-voiced to vendors to able to move forward. And I think that ability is going to allow the cable companies to continue to make strides where some of the competitive companies are not going to be there.
But the new entrance is what’s key for us. So that’s the big key for us, is while we look over at what AT&T is doing, and what Verizon is, it’s really the Googles, the Amazons, it’s the Apples—how are they changing what they’re doing. And changing not just what they’re delivering, but how people are looking at their products. And comparing their products to ours. And that’s the entrance that we really have to be able to be competitive with. Because cable customers don’t want to be tethered any longer. They want to take everything. It’s like lunch to go. They want to take their TV to go, they want to be able to see it anywhere they can, they want to be able to see it in the hotel, so this ubiquitous capability now has to be part of how we look at our consumers. It’s no longer an address, it’s now, who is Seth, and where is Seth. And how do we serve Seth to be able to move that forward. That’s very similar to what, you know, the application owners like Google and Apple are all doing. They have very big networks, and customers can access them anywhere they want and that gives them that freedom, being able to stay on top of that freedom that individuals are looking for is really important.
But the cable industry’s collaboration, I think, is great around SCTE and being able to make sure we have these engineering standards. There isn’t another organization like the Women in Cable and Telecommunications. It is a premier organization that helps cable women progress professionally. Moving forward through their companies, between companies. It’s a significant investment to ensure that they are bringing women into the cable industry. And that’s to me is a really important area that I think is key is ensuring that not just new Millennials are coming in, and that we have an ability for STEM students to come in, but women in particular. Just to be able to be sure we keep diversity as part of what we’re looking to do. So, the cable industry does a lot to be able to support their members through engineering education, through WICT professional education and then through NAMIC. And those are ones that you just don’t see in the telecom industry because there is no collaboration. You have plenty of individual ones, but none that are really sponsored by those companies.
Arenstein: So that was a big change when you got into cable.
Hennesy: I love it. Absolutely love it. Any friend that came in, I encouraged them to join, become part of it, share the experiences. It naturally plays to my desire to be part of a team. And being able to use those capabilities and ask questions about how did it work for you, or why did you guys take that path, without a confrontational conversation, was really pleasant. And nice to see. We’ll see where it goes from here, but right now it’s, I think, a great working environment with a lot of knowledge sharing that goes on.
Arenstein: Great. So I was going to ask you some legacy questions. You kind of touched on that. What about the future for cable, and what about the future for Comcast? Third question; what about the future for women in technology and cable technology?
Hennesy: I think the future is all about being able to have the identity. So wireless, the ability for you to move forward—we’ll be getting into the Internet of things—and that can be any wide variety of things in your home, the driverless cars. So companies like Comcast are going to have to have the ecosystem to be able to make that possible. So that we have seamless handoffs for our services from the dedicated home into the wireless, into the car, the networking in the car, and its connections. And then the authentication. All of that has to be secured and wrapped in a strong authentication end to end. And that’s where it’s going to go. How much people adopt the various Internet things to simplify their life; you already see the smart home, smart cars come in—of course, everyone’s talking about the smart trucks. It’s going to be a lot simpler, but people will have to understand the technology, and the technology has to be simple when they’re doing the work on it because it’s got to be as simple as a two or three-year old now can look at your iPad. Otherwise, people won’t adopt it. And adoption in our business is everything to be able to move that forward.
So I find that really interesting. On the flip side of it, the technology, it’s all going to be moving on to IP. I think that there will probably be some work that it will have to be done around how you look at the traffic that’s going across your home network, and how do you manage that. How do we help our customers manage that in our business, so they can get the most efficiency out of it? I think for Comcast, I think we’re going down the right path. The X1 is this great integrated platform, so it’s not a product, it’s really a platform that we put products on top of. So it creates this ecosystem of being able to take a product like Netflix, and plug it in. And take a product around voice and plug it in. I think that the ability for us to continue to innovate to make it simpler for people to find what they want to watch. The voice remote. It’s great. You talk into the voice remote and you say a particular line well-known from a movie, and out comes the movie. Out comes other suggestions of movies or TV shows. And it also helps with accessibility. We’ve had family members that have had disabilities and those type of services really help them in being able to enjoy what many of us enjoy naturally. So I think that’s an important area for us to continue to move in and to enhance upon.
For the industry, I do always go back to getting students in STEM interested in coming into our industry. That to me is important. Changing our image from the “Cable Guy” into a technology. So how do we show them that we have the cutting edge tools, we have the cutting edge software to report, how do we get them interested so that when they come out of school, they come to us and they don’t go to the others.
Hennesy: So that’s a whole branding and imaging, getting out and talking to students, bringing them in for a shadow or intern or co-op. For young girls getting them interested in STEM, keeping them connected, and then bringing them on board. It’s kind of a sad story: when I came in in the 80s, it was about 15-20% women. I saw it grow because I used to keep track of it in my own organizations. It was up at 35-37%. And then I was at a conference in early 2003, and I saw a chart that was presented of women in technology and it showed a decline from about 2000, and I just projected out my theoretical retirement year, and if nothing was done, I could actually leave the business at a time when there would be less women in technology. So, I saw that as a rallying cry, so being able to invest in working with young girls starting in high school or younger, keeping them interested. When they get into college, supporting them and talking about what the career choices are. Getting them on board. And then once women are on board, really being able to ensure that you can connect with them and inspire them to stay in jobs that can be very difficult. Or in jobs they don’t know how to get out of. So a young woman could go in and work in a 7×24 organization, get married and then regret, how do I get out? So some of us have experiences where we can say, here are ways you can do it. Here are ways we can help you. So I always try and tell people, if you see a woman struggling in a job, go talk to her and ask her how you can help. Because many times, we don’t ask for the help. We figure we have to figure it out, find our way, and sometimes we can help. And we should. Because the more women that come in and then leave, makes the numbers just stay neutral and don’t increase. So we do a lot of mentorship, we do a lot of promotion, we do a lot of work trying to bring young girls in. And making sure that they can see the opportunities. Because if you can see it, you can be it. In looking at that. Einstein always had this great quote around, “If you tell a fish it has to climb a tree and it can’t, it’ll think it’s stupid all its life.” So you have to be able to tell people that you can do it. And take the opportunity and try it. If you make it, we’ll follow it through, and see what can happen next.
I was told that at one of my jobs that I wasn’t fit for that particular role. Luckily, I was already hired. They took me through a bunch of different, I would say, psychological tests, and I didn’t fit their corporate profile as an executive. So they were questioning like, “Well, we’re not really sure you’re going to be capable or successful in this job.” At first I thought, wow. Boy, I made a big mistake in taking this job. What was I thinking? Luckily, five minutes later, I knocked myself in the head and said, “Wait a minute. If I’ve been doing it already for two months, then why can’t I do it?” But you’ve got to be able to have the confidence in yourself or go to someone that can help you talk it through. That’s why I think women in particular run into challenges, is we’re not always speaking up, we’re not always talking, and just giving people helpful hints in how they can work through their business meetings. So sometimes people walk out and say, “I had no idea what stuff to say.” I said, “Well, just ask them.” “I can’t ask them.” I said, “You can, but you don’t have to make it a question that you don’t know. You can say, ‘That’s an interesting concept, Seth. I hadn’t heard it expressed that way. Can you elaborate some more on it?’” And all of a sudden, now—most engineers love to talk about themselves, or what they’ve done and now you’ve opened it up in a conversational way that he wants to or she wants to explain it to you. And those little nuances can help people feel confident about what they’re doing and to pursue their next career moving forward.
I think being involved, staying involved—I challenge people that are in technology, take one hour, just one hour a week, and devote it somehow to a STEM initiative. Either the students or someone inside your company to help them. It could be learning a new skill so they can be more diversified. So that we can continue to retain the employees we have and then continue to attract new talent that employs it.
Arenstein: Listening to you talk about all these things from the time when there was a room this size filled with phone books, to now talking to the television, giving it a line from a film and the film comes up. Do you ever sit back and go, “I’ve been in all this. This arc has been tremendous.” Are you the type of person who looks back and says, “Wow, my goodness.” Or are you so peripatetic and moving so fast at traveling—I’m sure mentoring—that “Let the historians deal with that. That’s not me. I’m moving forward.”
Hennesy: I hadn’t thought about it until this interview came up. Then I thought about it—it’s very fun for me to look back and see what the changes were. But in this industry you can’t look back because it changes so fast, and it’s what’s going forward and what’s happening now that really keeps me inspired. But you run across friends and you laugh about how things used to get done, and I look at how businesses run today and I remember bursting files, which some people don’t remember: goldenrod and pink and bursting files. But that wasn’t much fun to do. It’s a lot more fun to be able to get things done and move faster. Getting things done is what we do. We complete calls, we complete interactions, we allow people to see and do things. And to me that’s all getting things done and being able to be prepared for the next big jump that’s going to take place. People are seeing it so much with the wireless and the Internet and things coming in. But that all has to be embedded with a really, really tight security.
Arenstein: Of course. So, a legacy question to end. What do you want people to say about Theresa Hennesy ten years from now? Hopefully, you’re retired, and enjoying talking to the television and giving it lines from films and watching all your favorite films. What do you want them to say? What did you contribute to communications? And to women as well. Women in technology.
Hennesy: I think, you know, for me being able to say that—a couple things. I’m very basic. I want people to know that I worked hard and did a good job. To me, working hard and doing a good job is important. But the other aspect is, “She helped progress things forward.” That can be a person, that could be a project, that could be a department, that I was a catalyst to help move things forward. And that’s the way I would like to be able to think back. I’m able to engage and get people interested and get people inspired, whether it’s doing a technology project, or it’s bringing new people on board or retaining new people. It’s important to me to have some connection to people out there in what I do.
Arenstein: I think you’ve done a great job here today. You’ve taken us from the room full of phone books to today and did it well and did it with grace and style and I really liked the fact that it’s not all about technology. It’s about the personal interaction.
Hennesy: I had a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun. Thanks so much.
Arenstein: I really enjoyed it.
Hennesy: It was great. Thanks. It was fun.
END OF INTERVIEW