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Let Us Now Praise (In)Famous Men

Through consolidation, many of the people who built this industry are going away — being jettisoned, merged or restructured out of a job, and, in one particular case last week, eulogized (Gary Bracken, Tele-Communication Inc.'s longtime controller, died April 23). As the evolution continues, the contributions of those who spent years in the cable business (before it was more than cable) should not go unmarked.

I'm not one to live in the past. There's just too much interesting stuff going on in the present, and a future filled with great potential for even more adventure. But as I approach my 20th year in this industry, and as we slip further into the era of consolidation and really large corporate ownership, I feel the urge to commemorate my wild but invaluable career ride during my many years at Tele-Communications Inc.

Ah, TCI. The company is gone [TCI was sold to AT&T Corp. in March 1999.], but the name still evokes a broad spectrum of responses and emotions from insiders and outsiders alike.

TCI was a much-maligned company and, having been responsible for its communications efforts and media outreach, I can assure you it was not a place for the faint of heart. For those of you who read Highlights
magazine in the pediatrician's office, you'd recognize TCI as "Goofus" to the other cable companies' "Gallant."

We were the roughriders, the hard-chargers and the guys who shot first and asked questions later. We were rarely praised for anything we did well, and we were "in the barrel," usually on a national stage with a very hot spotlight, anytime there was even a whiff of speculation that we had fumbled.

You didn't come to TCI for the money — there sure were easier ways to make a living — and when people did sign up, they generally stayed 10, 15, 20-plus years. There was a common bond among TCI folks that compelled us to work, many times around the clock, with ridiculously limited resources, to move the needle. It was a continual test of our own physical and intellectual wills, admittedly a very egotistical and macho approach to work, but nonetheless effective and a purveyor of lessons that would last an entire career.

This type of dedication, combined with the constant public scrutiny and harsh opinions, fostered a unique team spirit among the TCI people. Of course everyone didn't get along swimmingly, and big egos were in bountiful supply, but the work was paramount and we were extremely close because of it. The ties that bound us together, however, also hindered us.

Early on, we set ourselves apart. "Outsiders" simply didn't understand, and we preferred to toil unobtrusively on the inside to reaching out to important constituents. That didn't serve us well on Main Street or inside the Beltway. Although we made tremendous strides in later years, we continued to climb a very steep hill in getting our story out.

Yet as a career experience, and as a personal one, I wouldn't trade it for anything. The corporate and field guys (and they were guys) who built and grew TCI, while not always right, were passionate about the business, and their commitment was infectious. I will be forever grateful to them for bringing me in when I was very young and green and letting me grow. Being around them taught me a wealth of career skills, including self-confidence, self-reliance, business strategy, consensus building, leadership and budget stretching (to an artful extreme). They gave me an appreciation for being independent-minded and entrepreneurial, and they provided me with an endless array of challenges and opportunities — sometimes frustrating, sometimes infuriating, sometimes elating, but never dull.

I want to express my gratitude to all those TCI cable guys, for being a part of my career and my life. And for those of you who are fortunate enough to have TCI in your blood, be appreciative, be proud and take the experiences you had there to your next adventure. They will serve you well.

Lela Cocoros is co-founder and partner of October Strategies Inc., a strategic communications firm. Corcoros worked at TCI and later AT&T Broadband for nearly 15 years, leaving the company as executive vice president of corporate communications.