Interview Date: December 1, 2015
Interview Location: New York, NY USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Arenstein: Hi, I’m Seth Arenstein here for the Hauser Oral History Project for the Cable Center. It’s December 1, 2015, we’re in New York City, and I’m joined by Mike LaJoie. Mike, welcome. Normally, I would give a title. I know you’re a partner at a firm, but what do you prefer to be called today—other than late for dinner?
LaJoie: Actually I never liked to be called “late for dinner.” I’m a co-owner of Jinsei 2.0. It’s a consultancy that me and Mike Hayashi—we’re looking at a couple of people joining us now. We’re really kind of looking at new technology opportunities, investment opportunities, consulting opportunities.
Arenstein: And you’re based in…
LaJoie: Wherever I happen to be sitting. As long as I have a phone and a computer, I’m effective.
Arenstein: Your former title at Time Warner Cable, the one that you retired with, was?
LaJoie: I was Executive Vice-President CTO.
Arenstein: And you retired in?
LaJoie: January 1 of this year.
Arenstein: So 2015. Let’s talk about the beginnings. Your beginnings and then we’ll get to cable’s beginnings and some of the technological change that you’ve seen. I mean, it’s been extensive. I’m really interested to know a couple of things before we start. How does a technologist who presumably learned things in college and school at such and such level and then goes into the business, and it’s changed so much. How do you keep up? How do people keep up? And then I’m also interested in knowing for you to re-create when you first walked into the cable industry—what it looked like until now and then maybe later we’ll talk about tomorrow and where it’s going and obviously you’re still very plugged in, very involved in all this.
Arenstein: So Mike, where were you born and what were your interests as a child?
LaJoie: I was born in Santa Monica, California, in St. John’s Hospital. I grew up in the West Los Angeles area, Brentwood. My father still lives in the house that we moved to when I was five years old. He’s a cable customer. You know, this is a funny story. When Time Warner Cable bought that cable property, my parents were complaining about it. They said, “Finally, maybe you can do something about the signal.” And I said, “Oh, yeah, of course.” So I called up Roger Keating, who was running the system then, and I said, “Roger, do me a favor. This is my parents’ address. Can you go check and make sure that their cable is installed properly and by the way, send me the bill from now on.” He said, “Sure, no problem.” And he calls me back a couple of days later and says, “You know, we can’t find your folks in the record.” I said, “What do you mean, you can’t find them? They’ve had cable for years.” And he says, “No, they’re not there.” So I called them and said, “Mom, how did you get cable?” She said, “I don’t know. A nice boy came and he said for a hundred dollars he would hook up the cable and he would send us a bill.” I said, “Do you get a bill?” She said, “I don’t think so.” So my parents had been stealing cable for probably fifteen years and didn’t even know it. Some guy was just going around and collecting hundred dollar bills for wiring people up and bootlegging cable. So you say our industry has come a long way. It really truly has.
So I grew up in West Los Angeles. My interests as a kid were always—I mean, if it whirred, clicked, buzzed, spun, blinked, I wanted to know why. I wanted to take it apart and fix it. So I was making things better, you know like Tim Allen. I rewired it and that was kind of me. I would always end up with two or three parts left over; I didn’t know quite where they went, but it seemed to still work, so…
Arenstein: And what about high school? What were you interested in in high school?
LaJoie: Girls, mostly.
Arenstein: And how they were put together and wired as well?
LaJoie: I majored in co-education. That was really my main intention in high school.
Arenstein: And where did you do your college and your technical training?
LaJoie: You know, I was kind of all over the place and I never did graduate from college. I was taking business courses. As I was going to school, I paid my way through school through usually mechanical engineering jobs. So I went to U of O for a while in Oregon and this was 1972. That was a pretty bleak time in the economy. I was paying the rent by fixing plows and hay balers and people said, “You know how to do those?” I said, “No, but it whirrs, it spins, it clicks. I can fix it.” So that’s kind of always been the story with me.
I became a stockbroker relatively early on; I was 21 and I was doing really well and left college. And then when I was in my mid-twenties, a number of things happened. I had a couple of personal tragedies and I stopped being a stockbroker. I went whole hog into computers. This was like 1979-1980. The Apple II had just come out. So I kind of taught myself how to write software and how to fix computers and how to build computers and peripherals so I’m kind of an autodidact.
Arenstein: So tell me about from fixing computers and working on computers in sort of the late 70s and early 80s, to here you are toward the late 80s, mid-90s, becoming a consultant to Warner Communications. How did that happen?
LaJoie: I first came across Warner in the early 80s when we were figuring out how to make compact discs. And that’s when I first met Warner. I was consultant for a company called “AIM,” which was owned by Philips. And I worked with the team that created the compact disc.
That’s where I first met Al McPherson, who was the CTO of Warner Brothers and another guy named Walt Klappert. Walt is still running around doing something. He’s a really brilliant guy from Yale, and Walt and I formed a friendship. Then I just kind of knew Walt over the time and he bought stuff from me and I had a little computer store and some other stuff that I was doing. So in 1988, Warner Brothers was doing—this was before the time of the Warner merger. The guy that was the father of the compact disc: his name was Stan Cornyn. And Stan was a fair-haired child at Warner because the compact disc revitalized the record industry. Because everybody went and replaced their entire record collection. So all the stuff that you bought the last fifteen years, you went and bought it again. So Stan Cornyn was a very, very popular guy in Burbank. He wanted to go figure out how to use compact discs to put entertainment on them, not just music. So we started messing around with CDs. The specification for compact disc audio was called the Red Book. The Yellow Book is CD-ROM. The White Book is for laser disc. There’s a set of specifications on how you lay data down and retrieve data back from optical media. So we started messing around with CD-ROMs. I don’t know—CD-ROMs used to be a big deal before TCP/IP took off. And so Stan wanted to build a business around making titles on CD-ROMs—games and all kinds of informational stuff, it was interactive stuff. Very early interactive product.
That’s how I got working with Warner. And after the Time and Warner merger, I met Joe Collins and Glenn Britt and Jim Chiddix and all those guys in 1992. And they wanted to do this interactive stuff over a cable system.
Arenstein: And they were all at Time Warner Cable—we’ll, it wasn’t called Time Warner Cable then, was it?
LaJoie: It had become Time Warner Cable by that time. When the Time Warner merger happened, that’s when I first met those guys. We started talking about how could you do this over a cable plant. So that’s how I got involved and started talking to those characters. The next thing you know….
Arenstein: And for the record, where was Joe Collins, what was his title, what was Glenn Britt’s title, what was Jim Chiddix?
LaJoie: Joe was the chair of—actually at the time I was working for a guy named Jeff Holmes. And Jeff had been, he’d been the IR guy for Warner and Jeff was kind of a character. He ingratiated himself with Jerry Levin. And he was doing new technology for Jerry. And I would say that Steve Ross—I had met Steve several times and done a few things at his house, because he always had the latest and greatest stuff at his house. At this time Steve was still quite healthy. Boy, what a character he was. So I met Joe; Joe was the CEO and chairman of the cable company. Glenn was president of Time Warner Cable Ventures. Chiddix was running technology. He wasn’t the CTO; they hadn’t given him that title, but they had pulled him out of Hawaii. Do the archives have those videos of Chiddix fixing Volkswagens?
Arenstein: I don’t know, but I know he’s done an oral history.
LaJoie: Gosh, if you don’t have those, you’ve got to get them. You have to. It’s Chiddix with hair halfway down his back and a beard like this. He did a tutorial on how to fix Volkswagens. You’ve got to get that stuff. It’s out there somewhere.
Arenstein: I knew you were going to bring up Jim Chiddix and we were warned that you do a very good imitation of him so I got in touch with him during the week.
Arenstein: And I said, “Look, you know, we have the presidential debates going on, you have to have equal time. Jim, do you have a good imitation of Mike?” He said, “No, I don’t.” But he said, “John Callahan can do both of us very well.”
LaJoie: Callahan does. Callahan does the best Carl Rossetti I’ve ever seen. He did a Carl Rossetti impersonation that made Joe Collins cry one time.
Arenstein: So can you give us a little bit of Jim Chiddix? You said you were going to do an imitation.
LaJoie: I’ll tell you a great story about Jim. Actually it was around this time and we were trying to select which vendors we should use for the Full Service Network. And it looked like things were trending in one direction and I passionately thought they should go another direction. And so I got time with Jim and I explained to him in detail why it was so important not to choose Company A, to choose Company B, and Jim looked at me with the eyebrow down and he listened and he says, “Well, this is all very interesting. I have to go.” But Jim was always considerate, always just the consummate gentleman. What a class act. You know, he had a vision and he still has a vision. And what’s more he can translate it into a way that makes people open their checkbooks and that’s, I think, was always his greatest skill.
Arenstein: You know, that’s a good segue to what people say about you and what I think how you describe yourself as well—as somebody who can translate technology into terms that laymen can understand. And leading technologists and forming teams—that’s what people say about you. Is that correct?
LaJoie: I think it’s a skill that is something that is really, really critical and it’s hard to teach that. It’s actually an odd thing that happens to people that are technologists. If you’re a very, very good technologist, especially in an industry that has an appetite for technology as opposed to an industry that creates technology for its own sake. If you demonstrate that you’re really a valuable technologist, then people in the organization want to reward you. And so they reward you by saying, “Stop being a technologist and start managing people and money.” Rather than saying, “Gee, you’re a really fabulous technologist. We’re going to give you a bunch of dough, go hire some more smart people and build some great stuff.” They say, “Stop doing the stuff you’re good at and do this other stuff.” So it ends that being able to translate critical technology into what the opportunity is; translate it into terms of time and money, is something that’s very valuable. And if you can do that and then if your translations are correct, more often than not people tend to value your opinion. And that’s something I really paid attention to with Jim Chiddix. I really watched how he did that. He may not know this but I learned a lot at the knee of Mr. Chiddix.
Arenstein: You’d be interested to know that now he’s sort of in semi-retirement and he tells me that he’s finally found his calling. He shleps kilns for his wife’s pottery studio. He says that’s his profession now.
LaJoie: I’m sure he’s getting better at it but still not well enough for Trudy.
Arenstein: All right, so let’s get back to where we were in our story. You meet people like Glenn Britt and Joe Collins and Jim Chiddix. What year is this and what does Time Warner Cable look like at that point when you walked in the door?
LaJoie: This is probably 1992, late 1992. Cable is still long, long cascades of amplifiers. Hybrid fiber coax has not been deployed. Louis Williamson has proved that it works. People don’t recognize Louis for this but he is the guy that invented hybrid fiber coax. He is the guy that first said, “I can transmit television signals over a piece of glass and translate it into an electrical signal on a node and deliver it.” He’s the guy that came up with that architecture.
I can’t talk about modern cable television without mentioning Louis Williamson. Louis—that architecture that he came up with is the foundation for the extensibility and the robustness of everything that we do in cable. The fact that he came up with that and re-invented how you build a cable plant is what actually gave birth to digital television, gave birth to on-demand, gave birth to telephony, and high-speed data and all the stuff that we do today.
So this is 1992 and it was—as I said, this guy, Jeff Holmes, inserted himself in the cable company’s desire to roll out hybrid fiber coax and to demonstrate what you could do with a high-end two-way plant, using HFC. So I got inserted into this program and went to Denver in the old ATC headquarters right there on 160 Inverness down at Dry Creek, across from Jones. Which I understand, that’s a building that’s supposed to be torn down here pretty soon. And that’s where I met those guys: Dave Pangrac and I met Jim Ludington and Louis and Scott Waddell and Don Gall and Javon. And that was the crew, along with Hayashi on the periphery telling us we were all doing it wrong. That was the crew that kind of came up with this overall architecture and figured it out. OK, how could you actually do TCP/IP over a cable plant using hybrid fiber coax? How could you layer it on top of a transport? We used ATM at that time which was supposed to be the e-ticket, which has now been kind of retired. But that was the crew that put it together and did all the vendor selection and then oversaw the construction of it.
Arenstein: What did Time Warner Cable look like? I mean, how many states was it in, how many employees did it have? What did customers, when they turned on their television, see at that point?
LaJoie: At that point, they were probably seeing about 50 channels of television in most places and it was not even standard definition because it wasn’t digital. It was NTSC; it was analog TV. And so I think we had a mostly 550 plant, maybe not. There was a lot of 360 that we were—we hadn’t even started significantly on the upgrades then and so we were still all cascades of coax with up to 60 amplifiers in cascade. So if you were close to the headend, you had a nice experience. If you were a long way away, it wasn’t so nice.
But I guess we were in probably about 45 cities then. About 45 cities. Every single city had its own earth station and a bunch of dishes outside and the downlink facilities and all that stuff, you know. Customers were probably about 7-8,000,000, I guess.
Arenstein: When you got into cable, what did people say to you when you told them, “I’m going to work for this cable company.” At that point, what did people say, what was their reaction? Was it still kind of a pioneering business, or was it a pretty established business and you knew you were making a good decision?
LaJoie: You know, it’s funny: when I got into technology, I made the decision in 1980 to get out of finance and into technology. At the time, I set a goal and said, “You know what?” My goal was I really wanted to work on the leading edge of technology with the greatest technologists I could find. At that time, I didn’t realize what the cable industry was. I knew what cable television was; I was a subscriber. I don’t think it was that big a deal. This was before the 1994 Act. I think cable was still broadly enjoyed but still in its early growth and its heyday. I think it had been built mostly everywhere; most of the big cities had been franchised. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was still a consultant at this point in time. I actually had partners. We had other customers, you know, and at the time I had fourteen people working for Warner Records. And my partners were doing business with other folks so I just thought I was—
Arenstein: It was just another customer.
LaJoie: This was a very good customer. At the time, they represented about 40% of our business. So it was a good customer.
Arenstein: When did you make the move to fulltime working at Time Warner Cable? It was about ten years later or so?
LaJoie: No, it was January 3, 1994. So it was two years after that and we were still a year away from launching the Full Service Network in Orlando, Florida. But boy, we were full swing into it and I was managing a lot of people as a consultant. I was managing a lot of Time Warner people and overseeing a significant spend. I kind of went, you know, like, “I’m selling you hardware and I’m authorizing payment to some of my employees and managing a bunch of yours and managing the money for” – at the time it seemed like a lot of money. It was just a few million dollars, but I said, “This doesn’t feel right to me.” And they said, “Yeah, you know what? You should probably become an employee.” And I said, “Well, I’m not so sure I want to become an employee.” But my partners were in a position—they were actually happy to see me go, wrote me a check. So I became an employee in 1994.
Arenstein: OK. Tell me something about what cable technology looked like in 1994 and you know, you talked about the system in Orlando, or the project in Orlando. Tell me what were some of the early things you worked on as a fulltime employee for Time Warner Cable.
LaJoie: Well, I focused on a lot of the applications that we were building. There were two-way applications that we were building for the Full Service Network. Then in 1995, I guess—I had a development group in Burbank. We were building a lot of stuff. We were also starting to do a lot of early HTML work because by this time now, we were looking at launching a high-speed data service. So we were working on a number of things, mostly software related. And then the company decided that we were going to shut down that internal—we were also working on an interactive program guide. So the first interactive program guide that we launched on the digital television systems that came in 1996-1997—a lot of that stuff came out of my shop. We did a lot of the early design work and a lot of the early prototyping stuff. Then we shut that group down and Pioneer, we sold a lot of that to Pioneer. And they took over quite a few of the folk. They built the first guide, which then—it’s now still out there. Some of those guys are still around. I think they’re now working for Rovi, I guess. So that was like the early stuff.
And then in 1995, I’m pretty sure it was 1995, we shut that group down because the cable company, they just said, “You know, we’re not going to spend this kind of money every year. The Full Service Network is interesting, but we’re not going to take that particular methodology and roll it everywhere.” We had to re-invent it and turn it into something we could affordably roll everywhere, which became what we called the “Pegasus Project.” Then I just kind of rolled around for a year and a half and I looked at interesting stuff. And I looked at a lot of high-speed data stuff and I got involved with IP telephony, so PacketCable was something that I started at CableLabs. Actually the first RFP for PacketCable was something I wrote over a weekend at my coffee table. And that was the first thing that was published for PacketCable to start launching telephone.
Arenstein: You know, I’d like to sort of stop at this point and ask you what was the feeling when you were doing this work. For example, I remember when the concept of your cable company being your phone company. Your cable company providing this thing called the Internet to you. A lot of people said, “Gee, I don’t want my cable company doing those things.” But you were in the middle of it. You were right in the weeds. And was your feeling that this was going to happen, or was it, I’m working on this and maybe it will happen? Maybe cable will be offering phone and being an Internet provider, whatever that is. At the time, right, it was pretty pie-in-the-sky or not? Were you totally sure this was the way we were going? I mean, you were in the middle of it.
LaJoie: I was rabidly in the camp that said, “This is something that we absolutely have to do.” I wanted to put high-speed data modems in set-top boxes. I wanted to put G.711 codecs for voice in set-top boxes. In the first digital set-top boxes.” I said, “Guys, we’ve got to do this. This is something that’s coming. This is going to be here.” I give a lot of credit to Glenn and Carl and Joe, too, for putting up with it. Jerry Levin let us do it, but Jerry didn’t fund it. Glenn and Carl actually went and raised the funding for high-speed data. They went out and found partners to throw in the money to allow us to build the initial Roadrunner. You know, it is one of the things I absolutely treasure about the cable industry, is the risk taking and the pioneering and guys that just have this vision and say, “You know what? This is going to be something that is going to bring huge value. This is going to change the planet. And we’re going to go do this, take the risk to go do it.” It is quintessentially American. It’s something that always been deep in the bones of Time Warner and Time Warner Cable.
One of the things I kind of lament: Time Warner Cable, the brand, going away. It’s the nature of cable. Cable, you build it, you borrow a bunch of money on it, you grow it and then you sell it. That’s how cable works. And everybody goes home to go figure out what they’re going to do next. So I understand it’s the nature of the beast. But I was always on the other side, I was always on the buying side. I’m very pleased that the career was great. Cable, as Garrett Morris used to say, “Cable had been very, very good to me.”
Arenstein: But I guess you kind of said it, but I’d like to just dig a little bit more. Was it, and I think you kind of answered it, was it a bet that Glenn Britt and Joe Collins and you made, or did you feel that it was a sure thing? Because now, here we are sitting in the digital age, everybody’s using their computers, their phones, and most young people, I would think or anybody, doesn’t really think anything was any different ever, that it wasn’t, gee, will this happen or not? I mean, when Glenn was raising the money and things like that at cocktail parties, did people, when you were talking to them, did they say, “Sounds interesting, but I don’t know.” But you were definitely in the camp, right? Do you remember that?
LaJoie: It’s hard to explain to people. At this time, we were spending literally billions of dollars on the infrastructure and the signaling protocols to support this business. When no one even knew what the hell it was. Very, very few people knew what it was. And the power of it was when you saw it work. First of all, you’ve got to remember, I was the 300-baud guy, right. I had a dialup modem in my Apple II and spent hours and hours on a VAX and a PDP-11, screwing around with text files. This was back in the late 70s. I was an absolute acolyte for connectivity.
Arenstein: I can see that.
LaJoie: So when you actually saw what happened when you could put broadband against that, and you could start to see how images would change and how quickly this thing and you’d say, “Oh, my gosh, there’s no way. This is going to take the world by storm.” It is amazing how now it just feels like air. Everybody just kind of just assumes it; you don’t even think about the fact that we’re all breathing the same air because the Internet connectivity is just there. “It’s always been there.” Not true. Not true. It came from huge investment, a lot of risk taking, and a lot of development borne on the backs of folks. Really, in the cable industry. I mean, telephony was there. The guys in the chip business and the CPU business and the routing, those guys, the Ciscos, the Intels, certainly they took huge risks as well. I think actually if you look at it, if you were paying attention at that time and you understand things like Moore’s Law and Butter’s Law, and you just do the simple math, and you say, “This is going to get twice as fast for half as much every eighteen months.” And you add that up and you go, “Wow! This is going to be really, really different, really, really fast.” So I was absolutely convinced.
Arenstein: OK. VOD: tell me about your involvement with VOD.
LaJoie: So early on—first we did VOD in Orlando. And we had about 100 titles. We had 99 titles. We tried to add 100 titles and the whole thing broke, and we couldn’t figure out why. I pored through the software, the code, to find out why was thing breaking. It was because somebody had Harp Coded the value for how many titles you could have to the maximum limit of 99. We had to go change that.
So that was where we first did it. Then we started trying to figure out, OK, how could you really do this? At the time, the server farm, to store those 100 movies—and it was only made available to 4,000 people—the server farm to store those 100 movies, to manage that stuff, was bigger than this room at the time. And now, today, that would fit in one rack unit this high, like this pizza box. And you could throw not just 100 movies in there, you could put thousands and thousands of movies in there. So that was the first incarnation of it. But then in the late 90s, 1998, I guess, we made the decision, OK, we’re going to go do this. One of the things that I did that I think was a little different than other engineers and technologists was I would actually build the spreadsheets and do the business models and say, “Look, this is what you have to assume. If you assume you can sell this many movies a month and you can charge this amount of money for it, and you license it for this price, this is the revenue and the margin you can get out of it which then says, ‘If you want an IRR of X, you can spend this much money on the capital. We’re there. Let’s go spend this money.’” And I did the same thing for telephony. I built the business model for early telephony.
So we did the first system-wide deployments of it in Tampa and in Austin.
Arenstein: I remember that.
LaJoie: And then in Hawaii. Boy, I tell you, it was very, very different than it is now.
Arenstein: How so?
LaJoie: Well, we actually had to build multiple—so in Tampa, for instance, I want to say we had 80 different duplicates of the movies that were available, sprinkled around the city. Because we didn’t have enough bandwidth in the plant and because the technology wasn’t there to be able to serve it all from one single hard disk farm. And that was OK. So you built these things and you just kind of populated it out. But the problem that you had then was it took hours and hours and hours to make changes to it because you had to percolate the stuff all through that distributed server farm. Then over time we pulled that back. We made the decision, I guess, in 1999 to go company-wide. I think Glenn and Joe came to me and said, “We want to go roll this out everywhere. What will it take?” I said, “I need X number of millions of dollars and two years.” They said, “OK. You got a year and half as much.” I said, “OK, all right, we’ll do it.” And so, then we just put together the plan. And it’s interesting how people worked because you could actually put together an atomic plan. You can say, “What do I have to do in one hub?” And then if I figure that out, then I can say, “OK, if I were to do it, if I start to perc that back, what do I have to do in one system, and if I build that out, then I can…” So you can do this atomically. And if I can do the economics and if I can do the blocking and tackling for a single hub, then I can figure it out for the whole company.” And that’s basically what we did.
We pulled it off, we got it done, we turned it on in nine months and it worked. There were several sleepless nights, but it all worked.
Arenstein: Let’s go on to another project. DVR and network DVR. What was your experience with those?
LaJoie: We first saw a version of a DVR out in Silicon Valley. There was this guy, he was wearing these Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt, white socks and sandals, and he said, “Come look at this.” So we went and looked at that. And I said, “Gee, that looks pretty interesting.” We figured that was going to fly. This was Chiddix, and Hayashi and myself. I really have to give the credit to Hayashi, who took the risk personally. We knew that DVR time-shifting—time-shifting television—was a very powerful thing. I think replay TV was out there at this time. There were a couple of early tries at it. But we really knew that given the right model, that this could take off. Given the right model, given the right offer at the right price to consumers. So we’ll give you the box; you don’t have to pay $600 or $900 for the box. Oh, by the way, it’s just a few bucks extra a month and you get this wonderful thing. By the way, when we rolled out high-speed data, we were offering a residential service of a megabit per second for 40 bucks a month, 45 bucks a month. At the time, if you wanted to get a T1 line from the telephone company, which was 1½ megabits per second, you paid $3,000 a month. Just relative scale. We knew that the economics worked for us at $45. And we saw what a T1 looked like but that was something at the time that an entire office building would share. We were going to give that bandwidth to one household. So when you look at the power of the distributed network, the fact that that’s already there, and that that signaling all works, and the customer base is there, the kinds of things that you know you can make work financially, the kinds of things you know you can roll out and the customers will respond to. Kind of the world’s your oyster. So DVR we knew was going to work.
At the time, we had I would say between Hayashi and I and some others who were early advocates of it, we had some difficulties in actually getting the company to pull the trigger. Hayashi just told Michael Harney at Scientific-Atlanta, “You know what, I don’t care. Make 50,000 of them; we’re going to buy them. We’ll buy them. Trust me.” And so on. Harney went to Scientific- Atlanta and we made them and sure enough, we bought them. We first rolled them out in Rochester, New York. That was a lot of fun.
Arenstein: All right, so one of the names we’ve talked about or mentioned in passing was Carl Rossetti and I know Carl has kind of a deep connection to you, Mike. Explain a little bit about your relationship with Carl and his mentorship and his tank driving as well.
LaJoie: Well, you know, Carl is a unique guy and he was somebody I think that recognized the potential in me. I saw him mentor a lot of people over the years, men and women. And he gave you the room to grow and to make your own mistakes and learn, but he was also there with a little bit of guidance. He was the guy that gave me the opportunities. I think he saw in me the ability to go and complete this stuff and he was a big supporter. He was the driving force behind digital television, behind high-speed data, the driving force behind DVRs, from a financial perspective. Joe and Glenn really trusted Carl’s gut business sense and I relied on Carl for that little bit of guidance that I kind of needed. He was always there for me.
Arenstein: You wanted to talk about Kevin Leddy, too.
LaJoie: When I first started coming around, Kevin was a very senior guy, a lot of really deep experience in the cable industry, has done a lot of jobs. But very deliberate thinker and somebody that goes through the scenarios and figures out the ticks and the tacks. I think I drove him nuts a little bit because somebody would come up with an idea and I would say, “Well, it’s going to take this much money and take this long.” And then he would go and do the analysis and come back with the answers, this much money and this long. Within 5% or so. And drive him crazy. But he did the deep analysis and he always had the passion for the business that would allow him to—you’ve got to give him a lot of credit. He was a huge proponent of DVR. He worked long, hard hours with the NCTA and the FCC dealing with a lot of the CableCARD stuff…he was a big contributor to the industry and I really, really enjoyed my collaboration with him over the years.
Arenstein: So a name has come up a couple of times here—Mike Hayashi—and I know you’re partners now. There was a profile of you and Mike done earlier this year by a good friend of ours, Mike Robuck, and he begins the article both about you and Mike being the person—CED’s Persons of the Year. He starts by saying, “Lewis and Clark, Hope and Crosby, Cheech and Chong, Batman and Robin, Penn and Teller, LaJoie and Hayashi.” No pressure there at all, right, being compared to those people?
LaJoie: No, you know it’s really been a wonderful thing to know Mike Hayashi and to work with Mike Hayashi. He is absolutely brilliant. The kind of energy that he brings to things, and he’s just straight and true. He’s not always gentle but there’s a few vendors who I think would probably roll their eyes at that statement. But yeah, it’s been great knowing Mike and working with Mike. We say, “You get twice the Mikes, no waiting.”
Arenstein: And of course I should say that another Mike, Mike Robuck, who wrote this piece we were talking about, calls you “Cable’s Mike and Mike.” That’s a reference to the ESPN hosts on the radio, Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg. Tell me about it. Because one of the things in this article that’s so wonderful—Mike Hayashi talks about your, what is it, “slap-and-tickle” management style? I don’t think I have that right. There’s a tickle in there but I don’t know if it’s slap-and-tickle. Is it slap-and-tickle?
LaJoie: It is slap-and-tickle.
Arenstein: Tell us about slap-and-tickle. That’s another great pairing.
LaJoie: I don’t know. I guess I have a personal style where I can be a little gruff but I never want people to feel bad so if I am gruff with you, I always make you feel good afterwards, right? There was one particular meeting where the guy, Bill Helms, who’s also another brilliant engineer, and I asked Bill a question, I said, “So what’s your opinion on that?” And he said, “Well, I’m trying to figure out whether I’m being slapped or tickled.” So that’s where that came from. The slap-and-tickle management style.
It’s not something that I do intentionally. It’s not a style that I try to create. But I can be gruff, I can be pushy. At the same time, I don’t want people to be afraid of me, I don’t want to be a (I almost said a bad word), but I don’t want to be a difficult person to work with. I want everyone to feel like they’re in an environment that’s creative and supportive and nurturing and you need that stuff to make good soup. So maybe there’s a little slap-and-tickle. Some people have got to be nudged every now and then.
Arenstein: Since we’re talking about people skills and things like that, I know one of the things that you mentioned to us in the pre-interview was the collegiality of the technology side of cable. And the cooperation. And clearly, you’ve talked about all these people today. I know there are a lot more that you want to mention. Talk a little bit about how much the collegiality and the cooperation on the tech side has meant to you. I know it’s a big, big part of your life.
LaJoie: You know, it’s been phenomenal. And it’s not something that you find in any other industry. It’s really the brilliance. I don’t know whether John Malone was thinking about this when he created CableLabs. But I wouldn’t put it past him. Talk about long sight. I don’t know John very well. I’ve met him a few times. Of the cable giants, he’s one of the few I don’t know really well. But, wow.
You know, CableLabs, it’s the—I don’t know, I guess it’s the consortium that we love to hate. Because in some way it’s a pain in the neck and it kind of gets in our way. But the forum that it gives the industry to work together and collaborate and share ideas in a way that you just don’t have in other industries. You don’t see Intel and AMD getting together to figure out how to make the next great chip design. It just doesn’t happen because they are really competing in that it’s another kind of—it is an affect, or it’s vestigial from the way that local franchising happened. It really doesn’t make sense. You can’t really make a profit overbuilding with cable plant. So you can really only have one operator there. I do believe that’s true. And so because of that cable companies don’t really compete with each other. So we have the ability to collaborate together. And believe it or not, it is an aspect of antitrust law, which allows for this, allows for companies that normally shouldn’t collaborate because of the risk of collusion. If it’s something for technical purposes that actually betters the entire industry, and for the betterment of the world really, then it’s OK. And that’s kind of what CableLabs gives us. And that’s yielded a real collegiality and a cooperation and a friendly competition among the technologists, right? Guys like David Fellows, guys like Tony Werner. I’ve known Tony for a long, long time. He and I have worked together a long time.
Wilt Hildenbrand is another one out there at Cablevision. Wilt is somebody that really never—he really never kind of dove into the whole CableLabs thing. But still I always knew I could call Wilt and say, “What are you doing with this? What should we do? I’ve got this issue: have you run into this?” Then he would call me and do that same thing. I remember we were trying to do—we wanted to do a company, like a town meeting. We knew we could do it at all the cable systems where our employees were. The corporate headquarters was in Stamford, Connecticut, and we didn’t have plant there. So we were going to go—I remember Warner was doing HR at the time was going to go hire a satellite truck and do all this stuff and Glenn came to me and said, “Do we really have to do this?” I said, “We don’t really have to do this.” And I called Wilt and I said, “Wilt, can you give me a channel?” And he said, “No problem.” And he gave me a channel and we did a downlink and it took fifteen minutes and there it was for free instead of spending 150 grand.
So it’s that kind of stuff that where we all kind of work together; it’s all based on similar but different technology and that collaboration has yielded great results for the industry and for our customers. Because I think we’ve made—we’ve seen such dynamic change and growth in the things that are offered. It wouldn’t have happened without that kind of collaboration.
Arenstein: On that last point, you’ve seen so much happen in the industry. So many technology projects that you’ve been part of. Are there one or two that surprised you and you looked at them and you went, “Wow!” The first time you saw them, and they’ve stuck with you for all these years. Are there one or two that still tickle you today? I remember the first time I saw an HD television and watched a game on it and then went back home and looked at my regular television. And it was a baseball game. I said, “Gee, they must have some problem with the lights since I came home.” And then I realized this was HD versus SD.
Arenstein: It wasn’t quite like that experience of the first time seeing high-def. For me, the kind of experience I had was—we had launched video on demand, it had been rolled out everywhere but that was transactional. And so it was relatively predictive. There was a natural financial gate to that. So I knew what the behavior was going to be. We wanted to launch HBO on demand. That you could watch as much as you wanted. But there was a subscription rate for it. You had to pay for it initially. And so again there was a financial gate and the introduction of customers was relatively predictable. It was an even introduction.
This is kind of the early nascent days of on-demand.
They wanted to embed HBO on-demand. Embedding meant that if you bought an HBO subscription, a linear subscription, you got HBO on-demand for free. And I said, “Guys, you can’t do that. If you want to do it for new HBO subscribers, OK. But you can’t turn it on for everybody because it will break.” And they said, “What do you mean, it will break? I thought it was working.” I said, “It’s working but trust me, when it scales to that big, it will break. I don’t know where it’s going to break, but it’s going to break. So we’re not ready for that yet.” “OK, we won’t do it.” And they did it in Manhattan Fourth of July weekend. And naturally, it broke. And I’m actually up on my boat, Fourth of July weekend, and I’m on the phone, on a cell phone, talking all night long, trying to figure out what is going on, why is this thing breaking. And it kept falling down. Systems, the queues would get long and people couldn’t get their movies started and their set-top box would reboot. You know, cats and dogs living together. It was bedlam.
Waves and waves of set-top boxes started rebooting. The network controller is about ready to tip over. “Look, when the set-top boxes reboot, they have to go in a queue. Otherwise they’re going to kill the controller” “All right fine, we’ll slow roll them.” I said, “Before we do that, we better call customer service and tell customer service we’re going to do that because if somebody goes and unplugs their box, it’s not going to come on for six hours. They’re not going to have TV.” “OK, all right. Good idea. We’ll call customer service.” So somebody runs off on the engineers and he comes back on the line: “I figured out why the set-top boxes are rebooting.” “Why?” “Well, customer service had a recording on telling everybody to reboot their box when they called in.” So they didn’t tell us that they were telling customers, ‘Reboot it.’” Then, about thirty minutes after that, we found out what the problem was. We actually found out that there was some issue in the code for checking to make sure that somebody had credit. There was a code in there to make sure they’d been paying their bill and they could actually do it. I said, “You know what, screw it. Tonight everybody’s got good credit. Just turn that piece of the code off.” But then the guy from Pioneer, it actually was, said, “Wait a minute. I think I know what’s wrong.” And he went back and fixed it, then did a build. Introduced the new build and all of a sudden, everything settled out. It’s those kinds of moment in the course of things when you get over the hump and you know you’re past that “baby land legs” stuff in technology that have been really the most rewarding for me.
Arenstein: OK. I know there were a couple of other folks you wanted to mention in your oral history. People like Dick Green, Kevin Leddy, Brian Roberts and Jim Robbins, you wanted to talk about.
LaJoie: And Bob Miron.
Arenstein: And Bob Miron, right, at that dinner where they regaled you.
LaJoie: Actually that dinner was early on. It’s interesting, a lot of the names you mentioned there. It was a dinner that Dick Green had pulled together at the Consumer Electronics Show. Probably 1993, 1994, something like that. Bill Gates was the speaker at this dinner. Here I am, this kid, you know, some software kid. I’m at this table and I’m between Jim Robbins and Bob Miron. If you don’t know these guys, Jim Robbins was 6’4” and the swept-back blond hair. What a nice guy.
Arenstein: He was a great guy.
LaJoie: And Bob Miron was not. Bob Miron was about 5’6” and no hair, but they were both brilliant guys and very early pioneers in the cable business. All night long the two of them regaled me, trying to outdo each other with, “Who invented cable? Who was the guy that first did all this stuff?” It was a wonderful experience. Bob Miron was always—even to this day I consider Bob a mentor.
You know, it’s another thing too about the industry. It’s such a welcoming industry. Everybody that I’ve encountered has been more than willing to give you a hand up, to say, “Come here. You’re interested in this? Come look at this. Here, let’s look at this. Try that.” It’s been such an open and diverse environment. You know, I come from nowhere. I mean, I come from nowhere really and met all these characters by happenstance. If you come into the cable business and you want to work hard, and you want to just be a worker among workers, boy, you can make a living and you can find a home. And I certainly did.
So Bob and Jim Robbins, really great guys. It was tragic that that happened with Jim. I remember one night it was Cable Center Hall of Fame dinner. And the time when our cable table was here, and the Cox table was here and Jim and I were sitting right next to each other. And we were kind of—one of the things he would always kind of do was talk out of the side of his mouth.
Jim at the time, this was close to his retirement, but he was a very senior guy but that was kind of the way it was. It’s a very level industry. It really is, nobody stands on hierarchy or rank in the industry. And I always felt like doors were open anywhere. You know, Brian Roberts, I’ve known Brian for a long time and I’ve actually watched him—boy, what a job he’s done building that company [Comcast]. Ralph, of course, gave him something to start with but Brian has done a fabulous job. And I can’t help but recognize Ralph, the fact that he passed this year. Another one of the guys that just—
Arenstein: Very down to earth.
LaJoie: Down to earth, just as nice as can be and just went and took this risk. He was a haberdasher, for heaven’s sake.
Arenstein: He made belts, I think.
LaJoie: And he said, “You know, I’m going to build these cable plants.” That’s what he did. Phenomenal to me. It’s such an honor to have been part of it. But Brian has always been—he’s somebody that’s willing to take a risk. He gets nervous about it, though. He does get nervous about that. And then all the guys at Comcast, because we worked very closely with them over the years. Mark Coblitz, who left the industry several years ago, Mark was very involved with CableLabs and he was involved with NCTA. Might be Mark pulling in now.
Arenstein: That was Mark, yes.
LaJoie: Anyway, Coblitz was involved with CableLabs and NCTA and so I spent a lot of time with Mark and with Steve Craddock and those guys from Comcast and Fellows. Now in the last several years, much more time with Tony Werner. Tony Werner and I have really collaborated well together over the last seven or eight years since he came back from Liberty and went to work for Comcast. He has just been a great partner.
You know you think about guys that I’ve also—like Chris Bower, just a solid technologist and he was at Cox. Great, great guy. Kevin Hart, who is somebody who’s relatively new to the industry and different. I think he came from Capgemini, is where he came from. And Kevin is not somebody who’s cut from the mold. He’s not one of the old cable guys, he kind of came in from the outside, but true to form, the industry just said, “Who’s this new guy?” He’s a little different, he’s a little quiet, he’s a little reserved but he really kind of came into his own and he’s a great contributor, really wonderful guy to work with, and he was welcomed in. Jim Blackley is another one. He’s at Charter now. He was at Cablevision for many years. Another one I’ve done a lot of work with—
Arenstein: I know you wanted to mention Dick Green, too.
LaJoie: Dick is—the work he did at CableLabs, he knows everybody. He knows everybody. To herd these cats; as collegial as it is, and as open and diverse as it is, there’s a lot of ego stomping around. To herd all those guys together, and to get them all to perform nicely with each other has been quite a task. And I think Dick’s contribution to the cable industry is really difficult to measure because he’s always been the guy that kind of pulled everyone together and been pushing things forward. But digital television wouldn’t have happened without Dick—high def probably wouldn’t have happened without Dick. Certainly DOCSIS. Huge contributor to DOCSIS. IP telephony. All of this stuff. You know, everything. Dick has been there and because we have had CableLabs and because of the patient guidance and tutelage of a guy like Dick Green, it moved things along in a way that allowed it to move much faster.
If we hadn’t had the DOCSIS specification—when we first bought cable modems, we paid $2,000 a copy. The first ones we bought: two grand. We pay $20 now and that’s because of CableLabs and because of things that Dick Green pushed for. That’s hard, tedious work. Most companies are measured by their financial success. Well, CableLabs doesn’t get that, they don’t get that. Dick labored and did all that stuff and let everybody else take credit for it. Everybody else reaped the benefits. To say Dick hasn’t done the ________, fine, but he’s been a huge contributor.
Arenstein: So Mike, as we wrap up here, I think I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to look ahead. If we were to get together in another five years, what kind of technology projects, what kind of fun stuff would we be talking about?
LaJoie: Five years might be a little short. But I think some of the things that we’re going to see—advancement in health care, enabled by technology, in the next ten years, or fifteen years—are going to be mind-boggling. I’ve seen some stuff here recently where companies are working to build models of diseased cells that will take your cell, your particular manifestation of a disease in your cell and build a model of it. And then they will bombard it with models of therapeutic treatment in all different kinds of doses and combinations. There’s only about 150 different molecules that medicine uses to treat people therapeutically. The problem is today, medicine tries to do this stuff through these human trials, this convoluted long process, very difficult. But by building these models with the advent of huge computers, huge storage, massive connectivity, massive bandwidth, they now can come up with solutions that are tailor-made for you that they can prove at least in a model will cure your manifestation of a particular disease and yet not impact you negatively. That’s just the beginning of it. The kinds of things we are going to see in health care are phenomenal.
I think entertainment and information will continue to expand. But the technology in those arenas, in entertainment and information, is really today and has always been held back by the licensing act and the business models. It’s always been the challenge. And I think the technology is generally there before the business models get worked out.
I mean, there was always video on the Internet. When the Internet first was there, there were Usenets. The biggest storage on Usenets was video clips. They weren’t high quality, they weren’t socially redeeming but the video was there. The technology was there. It didn’t really take off until the combination of the licensing and availability of the content and the appetite then demonstrated itself, but the consumers and technology was there.
Arenstein: You know, one thing that Glenn Britt said at his retirement was that—and you’ve kind of echoed it—was that so much of what we do today and so much of what we take for granted today technologically has its roots in the cable industry. And his comment was that we should tell the story a bit louder and a bit prouder, I guess…agree?
LaJoie: I absolutely agree that without the risks of guys like Glenn Britt and Carl Rossetti and Brian Roberts and Ralph [Roberts] and John Malone. I hate to give those guys more credit than the technologists but they deserve it because they’re the ones that actually took the financial risk and actually stood up there and convinced people, hey, if I’m going to spend this money, this is going to work, right? It’s easy when somebody else just kind of gives me the checkbook. That makes that job a lot easier. But Intel wouldn’t be what it is, Microsoft wouldn’t be what it is, Google wouldn’t exist, Facebook. People wouldn’t be pushing photos around to each other if you didn’t have broadband, right? Think about all that stuff. Medicine wouldn’t be what it is, radiology wouldn’t be what it is.
You know, yes, the cable industry and the risks that we have taken is the complete underpinning for the technological revolution that we see today. Largely the advancement in TCP/IP, the advancement in computing technology, the advancement in storage, the advancement in networking is the greatest American export. It happens here first. It does. It happens here first and then it gets exported. Cisco, for heaven’s sake; I was at Time Warner Cable for several years. I was John Chambers’ biggest customer. For several years we were spending $1.2 billion a year with Cisco. The willingness to take that kind of risk and to make that investment and to place that bet. So you look at what that funds and the other things that they could build. And then the fact that they’re buying the Broadcom chips to do all that stuff and the Intel chips and the funding that happens. And the jobs that are created. I mean, the cable industry has what, 300,000 jobs? But if you add up all the other industries that support this industry and all the jobs that we create, it’s millions of jobs. Millions of jobs. It’s a fabulous industry. We should crow about it a lot louder.
Arenstein: I agree. Mike, you’ve done a lot to do that today. So thank you so much. It was a pleasure. It was great.
LaJoie: It was fun. It was good to see you.
END OF INTERVIEW