A Manual Labor of Love

When Leslie Ellis was notified of her upcoming Vanguard Award for Associates and Affiliates, she was stunned. “Someone out there does understand what I do,” she says, “which is great because, to tell you the truth, half the time I don't know what to say.”

Ellis is joking, of course. After all, as an independent technology analyst, columnist and author, she has covered cable for nearly two decades and has helped countless industry members navigate and interpret this fast-changing, high-tech business, from her “Translation Please” column for B&C sister publication Multichannel News and technology analyses for Communications Engineering & Design (CED) to her work as a contributing research analyst for Bear Stearns and authorship of The Definitive Guide to Broadband.

But she also relates to her readers' need for someone to demystify complicated concepts and lingo, from Internet Protocol television and distributed CMTS to telco video and session-based encryption. “Sometimes even I get overwhelmed by it,” she says. “I'll think, am I stupid? What did that engineer just say? So I understand how someone else could feel that way.”

The Doylestown, Pa., native never imagined as a child that she would she grow up prowling the world of cable technologies. “I wanted to be a secretary, like my mother, who was a secretary and court reporter,” says Ellis. A computer-science and business degree from Pennsylvania's Shippensburg University was to prepare her for that career, but some lucky breaks propelled her in a different direction.

“A small company hired me to write their manual for cable-TV operators to make local advertisements switch in instead of an ad for Ginsu knives,” she explains. “Then they asked me to write their software manual as well, and, through that, I met the editor of CED magazine,” another B&C sister publication at Reed Business Information.

Then an offer arrived that she couldn't refuse: a job in Denver, Colo., as managing editor of CED. “People have always taken big chances on me, which is nice,” she says. “I knew I'd love living in Denver and working on the magazine.” In the five years at CED and a five-year stint as a tech-beat reporter for Multichannel News that followed, Ellis found herself using a unique combination of journalism skills and an ability to comprehend and explain complicated technology issues.

“Leslie was one of the best hires I ever made,” says Marianne Paskowski, VP of editorial development and chief editor of Multichannel News. “She always had a passion for this business, and she never stopped digging into her beat.” Paskowski says Ellis' efforts to take the jargon of technology and translate it for the cable layman has been essential: “There's such a steep learning curve for someone entering the business today.”

After moving to Paul Kagan Associates as a senior technology analyst, Ellis began building the idea for her “Translation Please” column, which Paskowski and Editor Kent Gibbons greenlighted and is still running regularly after five years. “I knew I wanted to keep on writing and that I had this knack for explaining things,” says Ellis.

She still has no trouble coming up with column ideas and questions as expanding technologies keep the entire industry in flux. “There's always something that makes me go, 'That's pretty confusing, I'd better dive into that,'” she says.

And Ellis thanks the engineering community at large for its generosity with information and explanation—which she has found similar to her own journalistic search for facts. “It's a nice match,” she explains, “because engineers are always seeking the truth, although in a more nuts-and-bolts kind of way.”

It's often tough for journalists to ask questions about technical topics, but Ellis thanks her “teachers” for helping. “People always ask me, was it hard being a female in a man's world? Yeah, but mostly I always felt like I was the little sister or granddaughter. People took me under their wing and said, 'Let me explain how this works' and 'Let me tell you about that modulation.' They will give me a factual dissertation of how this or that gadget works and say, 'Am I making any sense?'”

Today, Ellis continues to observe industry trends and watch them play out. Over the past five years, high-definition and “everything- on-demand” have been the biggest movements in the industry, she says, as well as the “constant struggle to figure out what you can do with broadband.” But the marketing of the technologies as well as a better understanding of them is most important going forward, she insists. “To me, this award signifies the importance of the life's work I've chosen, which is about bridging the gap between tech people and everyone else. And,” she adds, “if there is one takeaway I would emphasize, it is that the marketing situation has to change.” With phone and video competition from telephone companies looming ever larger, cable companies have to firmly understand what they're selling and compete hand to hand with everyone coming at them, she explains.

“A lot of people ask me things I don't know right on the spot,” she admits, and the questions change depending on the type of executive she's talking to. “Wall Street people always want to know cost versus return, marketing people want to know if their competitors have something different and better, and engineers want to know how they can explain their technology to non-engineers.”

It's a niche without end. Although she is also training to run her first marathon in October, she is also busy updating her A-Z dictionary, to be called Definitive Broadband/Next Generation from Lundwall Communications.

“I started going through it and realized that a lot of facts weren't right after just a few years,” she explains. But with ever-changing technologies and a busy schedule, getting to the end of the alphabet isn't easy.

Says Ellis, “I'm up to the letter J.”