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Vanguard Awards: Science & Technology: Big-Network Virtuoso

For a technology guy who landed in high-performance data networks back when state of the art was X.25 and frame relay, and now leads one of the world’s biggest conveyors of digital stuff , it’s safe to say that John Schanz is an example of what happens when curiosity and drive meet opportunity.

Schanz, recipient of the Vanguard Award for Science & Technology, is executive vice president of Comcast’s National Engineering and Technical Operations group. His job is to design and deliver the technology blueprints he concocts with chief technology officer Tony Werner — from “cloud to ground” — and across technology, products and services.

By all accounts, he’s pretty good at it. “John is a partner in every sense of the word. Our groups work well together. He’s a master at operationalizing technology,” Werner said.

“His leadership shows from the executive level, all the way to the installers — they have a distinct sense of purpose,” said Mike Hayashi, executive vice president of technology at Time Warner Cable, who recently did a ride-along with a Comcast technician in Denver.

ADDED METRICS TO MIX

Others credit Schanz for being the first of his ilk to really think through how to make technical operations more measurable and metric-centric. “He brought that discipline to Comcast, and the rest of the industry followed,” Marwan Fawaz, outgoing president of Motorola Home, said.

The 6-foot, 7-inch Schanz jumped into big networks right out of school — and stayed in. From an electrical engineering degree in 1986 from Manhattan College in the Bronx, N.Y., he landed at GE Information Services. At fi rst, he lab-dabbled with new networking technologies (tri-speed dial rotaries!), then was placed in an intense, two-year executive-management program.

“That’s when I met him,” said friend and former boss Jim Greenberg, who hired Schanz into Sprint. He green-lighted Schanz to build a broadband backbone, which became the first commercial deployment of asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) services. “In a large company like Sprint, you have to work well with lots of different groups. I was a bull in a china shop. John? I’ve never worked with someone so effective at getting things done.”

In those early days of fiber backbones, a government-run network run by the National Science Foundation Network began talking to carriers, seeking ways to commercialize. We know this network today as the Internet.

“John brought what became the Internet from what was basically a toy network, into the mainstream. Others got credit, but John really drove it,” Greenberg said.

It was at Sprint that Schanz realized the importance of a customer orientation. He scheduled regular meetings with Sprint’s 10 biggest customers, including GE and NASA. “It was, what do you need, where do you want to go?”

One of the 10 was a little outfit called “Quantum Computer” — which would become America Online. Schanz would later join AOL as executive vice president of global network operations — with two important stops in between.

First was the move to Transaction Network Services (TNS) to build, from scratch, a network capable of moving financial transactions. “I became VP and GM of a division that had one employee — me — plus zero customers, zero revenue and an idea on a piece of paper.”

He was 33 at the time, and went at it by building a “small, powerful team” (by all accounts, a Schanz specialty). Time to cash-flow positive: 22 months.

Around this time (the early ’00s), optical backbones were in a go-go period. Seeing a market in optically connecting the thousands of competitive local-exchange carriers, ISPs and Web-hosting companies in big U.S. cities, Schanz next cofounded a metro-optical carrier called MediaCenters.

It folded during the dot-com crash, and remains a testament to Schanz’s people-centric character. “The same people who were there with me when we founded it, were there when we locked the door and closed it,” Schanz said.

JOHN UNPLUGGED

He spent that summer (2001) at the beach, “unplugged” — no phone, no email, no Wall Street Journal — with childhood sweetheart and wife of 26 years, Liz, and their three kids (John Jr., Michael, and Emily, now 22, 19 and 16, respectively.)

When autumn approached, AOL called to ask what he was doing. “I’m reading the paper,” he said. What about tomorrow? “Reading the paper,” he quipped.

He joined AOL a few months later, in charge of global network infrastructure — backbones, data centers, and optics. That’s where he was when Comcast recruited him, in 2006. “I needed to do this cable thing,” he said.

Pankaj Patel, EVP and chief development officer for Cisco, credits Schanz’s vision for Cisco’s first core router, in the late ’90s. “He’ll say, ‘Look, you need to do your part.’ ”

Peers also credit Schanz for his listening acumen and informed risk-taking. “I’ve not experienced a senior-level executive who listens as well, and allows his own plans to be dismantled,” Leigh Kearney, a leadership consultant who helps Schanz build high-performance teams, said.

“John’s a technologist who understands the business, and is a great people manager,” said Neil Smit, Comcast Cable’s president and CEO. “He’s the full package.”

Added Hayashi: “He’s just one terrific dude.”