Communicating Solutions for the Digital Future

Dr. Mario Vecchi is a renowned IT innovator, a pioneer of cable modem technology, and a multi-lingual communications specialist. Now, he’s the chief technology officer at the American broadcasting institution PBS. He speaks with HE to shed light on his job challenges of past and present-day—and especially the importance of clearly explaining their solutions

Hispanic Executive: You’ve spent your career at the forefront of the digital media world’s evolution. With that in mind, why is PBS the right fit for you at this point in your career?

Dr. Mario Vecchi: PBS is the right fit for a couple of reasons. On a professional level, the TV world in general is going through a dramatic transition, driven in significant part by the changes in technology that deal with video and the related applications to TV media. Therefore, being in the middle of helping with these technology overhauls and defining some of the roadmaps from the technology front for a company like PBS is pretty exciting. And from a more personal point of view, I have been working for a long time, accumulating knowledge and experiences, but always working in the corporate world. I had always worked in the for-profit area, so the opportunity with PBS was a chance to work for an organization that was people-oriented as opposed to profit-oriented. I felt it was my chance to do something that was professionally meaningful as well as personally satisfying.

HE: You’re coming up on two years as PBS’s CTO. In this time, what key initiatives have you led PBS through to ensure it stays as current and efficient as possible from an IT standpoint?

MV: One of the key flagship investments that we are making is in the reengineering of our distribution infrastructure. The interconnection system is what enables PBS to receive, process, and distribute to all of the 172 member stations. All of the content that eventually gets to viewers is dependent on it. With changing technology, we are overhauling that national infrastructure from a transport point of view—we are moving from a satellite delivery to broadband IP infrastructure, which is fiber optics based—and we are redoing our software systems integration, and we’re updating processes such as content management systems, traffic systems, and automation systems. So, it is a significant amount of work on all sides.

Those changes are ongoing. And if we compare ourselves to the rest of our cousins in the broadcast industry, we are touching a number of cutting-edge technologies and also pushing the limits of a lot of our traditional vendors, encouraging them to move their solutions forward and incorporate these new technologies as well.

HE: What do you bring to your collaboration with PBS Digital to enhance PBS’s mobile TV and web platforms?

MV: Our digital products team develops the mobile TV and web platforms. So what we are doing from the technology organizations side is giving them an increasing level of support on a number of common infrastructure tools that are needed to make those operations run more efficiently. So things like web development tools, we develop for both our internal customers and our consumer customers. We’re also becoming more agile and flexible in the way that we deliver content, in terms of mobile, web, and over-the-top.

For example, we deliver editing tools in order to provide better-quality transcoding to simplify closed captioning. Closed captioning is very much in our mind now because the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently issued new rules about how closed captioning needs to be delivered, not only for television, but for all of the mobile and web content as well. So, if one of our programs also gets delivered over PBS.org, Roku, or Netflix, or whatever, it needs to be captioned properly. That’s an example of a significant challenge that we are developing the technology to support both for our broadcast and our digital.

HE: How do you evaluate the effectiveness of a potential technology?

MV: This is one of the key parts of our job. I live by a personal mantra of, ‘If it is not worth doing well, it is not worth doing.’ So we need to understand, is it worth doing? You need to ask yourself that question. And in answering that question, you need to immediately start interacting and getting the requirements and the needs of the rest of the organization. That means asking ourselves, ‘What needs are we meeting?’ Are we meeting the needs of the consumer? Are we meeting the needs of a more effective business process? Are we meeting the needs of a new requirement from somebody like the FCC? The other thing we need to consider is if there is an alternative that we might already have. We need to evaluate if this new technology will provide something we couldn’t do before or if it makes our processes better, cheaper, or more integrated. If it makes it easier for us and the consumer, then move forward. Another big question that must be asked when running an organization like PBS is, ‘How are you going to scale the solution so that it will actually operate in a reliable and cost-effective way?’ That third question is usually very hard to answer until you start doing some real, hands-on prototyping and testing.

I can tell you that with the current hardware and software technology we have available, it’s actually quite easy to do almost anything on a one-off, small scale. You can do a lot of very interesting and very rich applications. But, when you try to scale them for production, and everything has to work reliably, serve millions of people, and support a variety of frameworks, you often see a different scenario. At that point, the level of complexity and difficulty means that you have to be selective on new technology because the needed performance levels may not hold up.

HE: What should all leadership better understand about the IT environment to better lead their departments? How do you effectively communicate tech solutions to them?

MV: People who are not in the IT world, in reality have significant exposure to IT technology at a personal level. What I mean by that is, because the use of so many of these applications is so prevalent—everybody has a new gadget—so using these new technologies becomes synonymous with understanding the technologies. So, people can do their email; they can do their iPhone apps, keep track of how many miles they have run. If people learn how to use the application, then that becomes synonymous with, ‘Oh, now I understand the technology.’ And that leads to a difficult situation because many times the popular description of how things are operated creates confusion between how to use the technology from how you actually create the technology.

So, one of the problems managing IT—in talking to both the world in general and sometimes my colleagues—is to try to explain what is actually under the hood, so to speak. We want to clarify that in building all these applications the user may be familiar with, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed—particularly when it comes to business. There are a number of investments that need to be made that are probably not obvious—they’re hidden under the hood—but they are really the core and the key for everything to actually function properly. And when you start having those discussions with people who are not IT professionals, you enter into jargon, acronyms, concepts, and so on, that obviously are confusing for people who are not in that domain. So the communications part becomes, at my level at least, a challenge. When balancing the communications with the leadership and the management of all the other parts of the company, one has to spend a significant amount of time explaining concepts in ways that non-IT professionals—managers, other staff—can relate to. And it takes a huge amount of my time. Not earlier in my career, but it does now.

HE: What consumes a majority of your time? 

MV: Right now, I have to say—though I haven’t taken an hour-by-hour account—this sort of translating and communicating is probably what consumes most of my time. And it’s important if you want to be successful. Otherwise, the people misunderstand—as we talk about different priorities for the business, you have to allocate resources. Usually, in conventional terms, it means you’re going to talk about budget. It isn’t just budget in terms of funds; it’s budgeting people’s attention, and what meetings people go to and don’t go to, and what news they read or don’t read. You have to capture peoples’ time and attention—those are resources as well—and if you don’t make people understand the importance of certain interior operations and investments that we need to make in technologies, you make the whole process worse. Then you can’t get your job done. That’s where I, and I think most people in my position and at my level and in similar roles, are most likely also spending a significant amount of time.

HE: What does the next generation of IT leaders look like, and how do you mentor your team in pursuit of this vision?

MV: I think you can’t de-couple what the next generation of IT leadership is from the general question of, ‘What is the next generation of leadership?’ The world has changed a lot. When I was a kid coming out of school, it was pretty clear that you would get out of school, and you would get a job somewhere, and that job came with the expectation that you were going to work for that company, and that company was going to take care of you—meaning it was going to pay your salary, it was going to give you a medical plan, it was going to take care of the things that you needed to promote and develop your career, etcetera. And I think people who come out into the world now—and I think this is across the board, not just from IT—are facing a very different world. Jobs are not company-defined, lifetime, or almost-lifetime. People have to take charge of managing their own careers much more than depending on the company process for their careers to develop.

In the world of IT, this is just as acute as it is in everything else. So one of the things that implies is that people have to, from the get-go, be much more flexible, and able to thrive and enjoy change, as opposed to enjoying and thriving in stability and repetitive activities in their work life. So, I think that’s one key attribute that everybody needs to be aware of.

In the area of IT, the other thing that people need to be aware of is that dependency on a lot of the technology is around software. Hardware design is a smaller fraction of what we do with the IT world, compared to years ago; more and more of the value added of IT solutions is in the software. So you really need to be up-to-date with all the new software technology. But having said that, I think it is extremely valuable for new professionals not to lose sight that software doesn’t live in a world isolated from hardware. You need to understand that without hardware, software is nothing. And when you design and develop—especially if you are a developer of new solutions—you’ve got to have an awareness of the hardware architectures and the hardware limitations. It is, I think, a gap that you often see in new professionals who are entering the modern world. I can understand why it happens, but if you want to be successful, I think spending a little bit of time and attention to understand the hardware platforms of which your software solution will run, will give you an edge, will give you an advantage, will allow you to design better systems and be more effective than somebody else.

Also, working in small teams as opposed to large groups, is the name of the game, in a much more collaborative way. People work remotely, so you need to be able to understand how you work with a lot of online tools and a lot of remote-communication tools. There is no way that any organization in the IT world will be large enough or will have enough integration that the other people you need to work with are sitting across from you. No matter what, you’re going to have to work from people across the city, or across the country, or across the globe. So being able to work in small teams, but being able to work remotely, collaboratively, with a lot of these tools, is a given. That’s just the way the world is.

As you grow your career, you will find that—just what I said about what will consume the majority of my time—communicating and making your solutions understandable, simple, and clear to people who are not IT professionals is a very important part of your professional development. As you start as an individual contributor and move on to managing small teams, and then start taking responsibilities for larger operations, that component becomes absolutely critical.

I was a professor for years, and I’ve kept saying that IT professionals need to improve significantly on their communication skills. Writing is sometimes poorly structured, use of language not adequate. Universities, and everybody, need to go back and make sure all the young professionals in IT are well rounded—they have the greatest technological skills, and they know how to do all the new application development, testing, and all the other stuff that is inherent in their jobs—but we need more than we have today on the writing and language skills. I believe if you know how to write better, you also know how to speak better, because those things go together.