Cox’s Aaron Ripley: Making the Complex Look Simple

As a Lego-loving kid whose greatest thrill was building space stations and tagging along with his engineer dad at General Electric, Aaron Ripley’s future as a bright, innovative young engineer was being cast early.

The 31-year-old’s meteoric rise in the complex world of network engineering and the convergence of video, voice, data and wireless services, has earned him the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers Young Engineer of the Year for 2007.

The award recognizes an engineering professional under 35, who has demonstrated outstanding achievement within the cable industry. Ripley is being recognized for his work at Cox Communications, where, after six years at GE in a number of business and quality roles, culminating in a Six Sigma Black Belt certification, he put his boundless enthusiasm and engineering spirit to work in cable.

“Process design and improvement was a newer skill set and competency for Cox Communications,” Cox executive director of network operations Debbie Simmons said.

“Aaron took on the role of educating the Network Operations team on key improvement skills and creating partnerships with our internal customers, the markets, where our end customers are served. He personally designed a five-day Six Sigma class that was focused on making the tools real to our business,” she added.

Ripley’s unique mix of engineering and business skills helped him create Cox’s “Remedy” application for network operations. He sponsored and mentored the project, which put in place a software development process and decreased bugs by 83%, a significant reduction felt throughout Cox’s markets.

He also developed the “Unified Network Operations” program for Cox, which put each of the operator’s markets onto a ticketing platform with common procedures for handling network operations.

“The philosophy of a change agent, a modern-day pioneer, is someone who is equally comfortable with the technology, the business equation and the people at the heart of everything. Aaron brought with him this spirit to Cox,” Simmons said.

He also brought good engineering genes and an entrepreneurial spirit. “My dad was an electrical engineer at GE and worked in the wireless part of GE. I’d ride with him and other radio engineers. That sparked an interest in engineering for me. I thought: This is good stuff. Since then, I’ve always found the technology interesting,” Ripley said.

His English-teacher mother provided an interesting addition to his engineering gene, he said with a laugh. “The journey didn’t always have me as just an engineer. I could convert the business, technology and engineering sides. And while an intern at GE during my college years, I was allowed to do a lot of programming logic and write code on water handling systems. I had some very meaty assignments at GE. I can still walk by the plant today and know my code is running a water system. That is very satisfying,” he said.

Ripley, the fourth generation in his family to work at GE, started there following his graduation from Penn State University, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. His two-year rotational program at GE shaped his unique perspective on the business-technology-engineering link.

“I enjoy the business side, as well as engineering and that has allowed me to see both sides. At GE, I spent four years in engineering and design, yet my first job was as a contracting agent where I negotiated contracts. GE purposely put engineers in that role. It really shaped me,” he said.

The rotations were a bit unusual for an engineer. For Ripley it was a career-changing experience. “The rotations were in manufacturing cost accounting, railway electronics, contracting agent and pure operations. There were some interesting challenges,” he said.

Armed with three years of experience at GE in a variety of positions, Ripley was ready for some new challenges. He moved to startup Internet service provider Excite@Home, where he joined his father to build the new company. “It was a tremendous experience with some very cutting edge [Internet Protocol] technologies. I was always interested in networking, but it was a startup and had lots of issues,” he said.

The company soon went under and Ripley returned to GE’s power system plant in Atlanta, where he joined the mergers and acquisitions division. “The company needed several acquisitions in a short period of time and needed someone with engineering background. We did some pretty pioneering stuff like analysis where the bottlenecks were, contract analysis, problem solving. Then, the opportunity arose at Cox. That’s where I wanted to work,” he said.

At Cox, he began bridging the business, technology and engineering functions.

“When you look at a problem from a customer perspective, sometimes the technology fails, and sometimes the process and how it’s handled fails. There are lots of components, and the technology needs to be designed properly and reliability becomes important to manage. My role is to look at problems from the customer’s view and pick apart what are the technology, user and application problems. It’s about taking a more service view and how do we make technology easier to use for customers,” Ripley said.

With his engineering savvy, business process background and holistic view of a network, Ripley’s value to Cox, and the cable industry, has not gone unnoticed.

“We want to attract young engineers who can bring best practices with them. Aaron came from GE with Six Sigma Black Belt credentials and knowledge of the business process. He also brought a world class view of network operations, and that’s what is needed to be competitive. Cox brought Aaron in with the background to measure the metrics, which is very valuable. He drove the organization to specific metrics, which is not just a system or processing changing event, but a company event. That’s why we felt he was most deserving of this award,” said Mark Palazzo, vice president and general manager of the transport and access networks business unit for Scientific Atlanta, which with Multichannel News sponsored the Young Engineer of the Year Award.

And SA should know engineers. Peggy Ballard, SA vice president of strategic communications said: “We’ve got over 55 years of engineering history and lots of seasoned and young engineers. So we are always looking to support engineers and their value, especially the young engineers in the industry. The award ties us to the engineering world, especially SCTE. Now, we want to make this award even more prestigious.”

For Ripley the award has come as a pleasant surprise. “I was really humbled and in a state of disbelief when I learned I had won the award. There are just so many great engineers in this business. What I’m most proud of, however, is that this award is the result of tremendous team efforts and the result of listening to and empowering the folks that do this everyday. I just want to create an environment to help do these things. I’m very honored and humbled,” he said.

And indeed he is creating a unique environment at Cox, mixing his engineering, business, processing and technology savvy into a next-generation platform. “As things become more complex, it’s about looking at the whole system function, not just the operational pieces, to create the end service, and how to take network operations information and make it available to customers when they need it. And, how do we add more science to the art of troubleshooting. My engineering background plays a big part in that space, and that’s what’s fun and dynamic about this job,” Ripley said.

And Cox, he noted, has provided the opportunity for him to expand his unique qualifications. “I’ve really benefited from looking at the various aspects of the operations support system and IP multimedia,” he said. “Yesterday, we had only video via cable or satellite, now we’ve got it over mobile devices and IP. I find that very interesting — the convergence of services like wireless networks and how do we re-architect, manage and disconnect those services. It’s all very intriguing to me.”

Ripley’s also sharing that interest with his co-workers. Added Simmons: “His five-day Sigma class instructed attendees on the fundamental elements of measurements, statistical analysis, process design, customer-based metrics, and more. More than 100 people have participated in this training, with marked improvements in their processes.”

And for Ripley, improvement is essential.

“During one of the rotational positions at GE, we brought different dynamics to the role and made some improvements in the engineering design and helped make some automation changes. That was very satisfying knowing we had made improvements. I’ve had lots of opportunities at a young age to lead some major design projects — from customer care to network operations,” he said.

And what about his personal pursuits? “Cavern diving and wine-making are my outside interests,” he said.

As for his career, Ripley believes there is much to be accomplished on the network operations side, and Cox is where he wants to do it.

“Cox is a good space for me. I really enjoy taking products and helping to fulfill a need, and translating from the engineering side. And answering the question of how to make customers’ complexity simple.”