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TV Reengineers Its Tech Teams

Much has been made of the TV industry’s push to radically change the technologies they’ve traditionally used to deliver programming into the home. But as companies begin to invest huge sums in the new operations built around IP, IT, cloud and software technologies, they are also making enormous, though far less public, efforts to revamp their workforce. 

“As my business changes, I need new skill sets,” said Vince Roberts, executive VP of global operation and CTO of the Disney/ABC Television Group. Roberts added that they are making a major push to train or hire employees with knowledge of IP technologies, data analytics, cloud architectures, software development and other tech areas in a larger effort to build new businesses. 

Those efforts have already paid off in a number of cutting-edge products such as the Watch ABC apps and the company’s groundbreaking effort to build a cloud-based master control for ABC, Roberts said. In the last five years, Disney/ABC tech teams have filed more than 40 patents. 

But Roberts and others also admit the process of transforming engineering staffs is in many ways harder than the deployment of technologies they’ll be using. 

“The competition for talent is tough,” said Phil McKinney, CableLabs president/CEO. “The challenge is that as we get into the next generation of networks, the technology is less and less about traditional cable technologies and more and more about straight IP technologies. There is a lot of innovation in this technology but there are a lot of companies competing for talent.” 

“Our competition isn’t Fox, NBC or CBS,” added Roberts. “It’s Google. It’s Facebook, Amazon, Twitter. The talent we are competing against in this space, whether its application development, over-the-top video, cloud workflows, data scientists, are the same people that the Internet folks are going after.” 

Industrywide, several surveys by the International Association of Broadcasting Manufacturers have found that the lack of the right talent was limiting the ability of members to expand their business and that they were struggling with an aging tech workforce. “A few years ago we did a survey that found almost 65% of the workforce was within 10 years of retirement,” said Steve Warner, head of training at the IABM, who added that the elimination of in-house training programs have accentuated the problem. 

Those problems are compounded by a lack of diversity. “I was at an event recently with about 300 people,” recalled Barbara Lange, executive director of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). “Most of them were older and you could count on one hand the number of women.” 

That can make TV companies a less inviting place for the kind of younger techies the industry must recruit, and it can limit their ability to develop services for large numbers of women, Hispanics, African- Americans and other demos. 

“The lack of diversity is a problem and changing that has to be a priority,” said John Honeycutt, CTO of Discovery Communications, who outlined a wide range of efforts it is making to both diversify its workforce and to encourage science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educational programs. 

The stories that follow will look at these industry-wide efforts, including training, diversity and initiatives to change management styles.

Creating a Better Sandbox 

Finding new talent may be job-one for top technologists, but they’ve also been working to reinvent the way they manage their tech teams. 

Discovery CTO John Honeycutt stresses that as traditional TV businesses have converged with digital media, the company has also had to combine technical infrastructures to make sure that teams for broadcast, IT and digital are tightly integrated. “Information exchange is one of the most critical things we have to be focused on,” said Honeycutt. 

Management structures also have to be more agile and fluid. Vince Roberts, executive VP of global operation and CTO of the Disney/ABC Television Group, said that several years ago he began implementing a management style based on the principles of “agile” software development, which emphasizes speeding up the delivery of products by using a more collaborative, customer-focused approach. “It is a tool we use to help socialize change,” he said. “We can’t produce content and deliver content like we did 40 years ago. It just doesn’t scale in a world that changes so rapidly.” 

Similar thoughts come from CableLabs CEO Phil McKinney, who has written a book on the subject called Beyond the Obvious: Killer Questions That Spark Game-Changing Innovation. He stressed that companies have to overcome the culture of fear, be patient investors and be more transparent with their employees so that they aren’t “always worrying about being whacked.” 

“To create a culture of innovation, you have to be tolerant of failure,” McKinney said. “Everyone struggles with the fear of failure…but when you take out 100% of the risk, you also take out 100% of the potential of discovering and trying new things. You have to be willing to try things and have some of them blow up in your face.”