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Rising to the Challenge

In July 1979, Andre Mendes, a 17-year-old living in Lisbon, Portugal, faced a defining moment: leaving home. Portugal had endured a revolution, overthrowing a fascist government that had held power for 48 years. There was fighting in the streets and brief communist rule. In short, "nothing for a kid to do."

Leaving behind a university system in tatters, Mendes boarded a plane for America with $300 in his pocket and no prospects or connections. He packed only dreams and a work ethic—the same one that propelled his father from bank doorman to chairman of the board.

His son inherited his drive. Today, Mendes oversees both the IT and traditional-engineering staff at PBS. But his career journey underscores his passion to achieve.

Once in the U.S., Mendes quickly found a place to live, staying with a family in Tacoma Park, Md., that gave him room and board in exchange for housecleaning, babysitting and tutoring their son. Then he began a series of odd jobs: washing dishes, construction, even spinning records as a DJ. "Between work, study and basketball, I was going 90 miles an hour and loving it," he says.

Mendes still travels at warp speed, although he says his affinity for basketball and travel keeps him sane. "[They allow] my mind to slow down. Otherwise, I'm always thinking of new things to do."

One of those "new things" include Mendes' goal for PBS: to synergize IT and engineering, letting stations pull content from PBS versus PBS's pushing it to them.

"We want content to move from point A to point B as efficiently as possible," he says. "That way, there is a better price-to-performance ratio. We can dedicate our operational dollars to the creation of content that fulfills our educational and cultural mission."

This approach required Mendes to tap into a varied skill set he had acquired in an array of nonbroadcast jobs.

He began his career ascent in 1982, as a computer programmer at Disclosure, the company that maintains records for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Within eight months of joining, he completed Micro Disclosure, a commercial program that provides financial analysts online access to 10Q and 8Q company filings. "It was one of the first to make use of online financial data," he says.

He then headed to General Health. While there, he designed a program to provide employees with corporate risk assessment compared to individuals with similar biomarkers. "They could then aggregate the data for their entire employee population, then target health-care costs within a specific plan," he says.

Ever ambitious, he also progressed up the ranks and ran General Health for six months before it was sold to Johnson & Johnson.

Both the Disclosure and General Health jobs proved his ability to tackle new areas and deliver results, a consistent theme of his career. "I've tried to map my career path so I would go to a place that used technology I hadn't worked with," he says. That sensibility runs counter-intuitive to the IT field, where many people attempt to build an expertise, such as in IBM mainframes. Not Mendes. "I wanted to round out my knowledge base," he says.

That's one of the main reasons he decided to join the broadcast industry; he had little understanding of traditional broadcast engineering. "[The learning opportunity] was a beacon," he says. "While engineers may be risk-averse, they grasp what an efficient model means and appreciate an elegant solution."

For someone eager for the next hurdle, Mendes has found contentment at PBS. "PBS offers a tremendous amount of challenges," he says, "and over the next six months, we'll be transforming the way PBS does business."