High Profile in Tech CirclesHelps TV’s Innovation Boss

CableLabs’ answer man works to keep R&D consortium ahead of curve
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Soon after being hired last June as head of CableLabs— the cable TV research and development consortium— Phil McKinney spent more than a month asking topcable executives and staff members the same four questions. One of these was: “I’m the new guy. What are you most afraid the new guy will do?”

Posing frank questions to spark new ways of thinking will not surprise anyone who has read McKinney’s 2012 book, Beyond the Obvious: Killer Questions That Spark Game-Changing Innovation. But the tactic is particularly timely for the cable industry, which is facing some killer questions of its own.

“Death of Cable” articles remain a popular blood sport among tech writers and bloggers, who regularly issue pronouncements that overthe- top content players such as Netflix and Amazon will soon replace the MSOs.

McKinney hotly disputes that assessment, pointing to the central role CableLabs and the cable industry have played in creating the technologies for high-speed Internet and a host of new digital services.

But he acknowledges that “cable as an industry suffers from a bit of a brand challenge in Silicon Valley. If you talk to [venture capitalists]…they think of it as kind of my parents’ technology.”

Hiring McKinney as head of CableLabs in June 2012 signaled that the cable industry was intent on speeding up the pace of innovation and changing how it interacts with both consumers and the tech world. Unlike most cable technologists, who keep a distinctly low profile outside the industry, McKinney has had a high profile for many years in the tech community and has been profiled by many major publications, including Vanity Fair, which dubbed him “the innovation guru.”

“Phil’s entire career has been rooted in innovation,” notes Mike Fries, who serves on the Cable- Labs board and is CEO of Liberty Global, the world’s largest cable operator. “We need that sort of leadership and energy now more than ever.”

McKinney’s love of innovation began early. During a college summer internship with a manufacturer of canvas goods, he wrote a software program to help automate the process. This attracted some press attention and a job offer from publisher Prentice Hall’s Bob Davis, who convinced McKinney to leave school before graduating.

McKinney credits Davis, who later brought McKinney to Silicon Valley, with much of his success in creating innovative products. “Bob’s philosophy was that even if you write great code, you need to know the broader business,” McKinney recalls.

After being involved in successful software and tech product launches and startups in the 1980s and ’90s, McKinney eventually became one of the five founders of fixed-wireless services company Teligent. He joined HP in 2002, eventually rising to CTO of the Personal Systems Group, overseeing technical strategy and research.

Innovation specialist Satjiv Chahil, who was CMO at the division, notes McKinney came aboard when the personal computer industry was struggling and that his work helped improve profitability, market share and revenue. “What really stands out about Phil is his passion for taking technology out of the laps and putting into the hands of people,” Chahil says, pointing to their early embrace of touchscreen technologies and ultra-thin laptops.

At CableLabs, McKinney over the last year has moved to sharpen the consortium’s focus, speed the pace of innovation and open up a Silicon Valley office.

“Silicon Valley is an important center of talent, new companies and new trends,” says Tony Werner, CTO of Comcast. “To stay relevant, we have to be interacting from the inside, not the outside looking in.”

Just how well all of this will play out remains an open question, and McKinney admits it will take time to figure it out. “From my background building the innovation team at HP, it realistically takes about two years to have a full innovation pipeline,” he says.

But Werner notes that the staff has already been “energized” by the changes, which are “exactly what we need at CableLabs and the industry.”

That’s an answer McKinney was hoping to hear. “When I asked the staff what they were most afraid the new guy would do, 90% said their biggest fear was that I would do nothing,” he says.

As part of his strategy to improve CableLabs, McKinney has moved to sharpen its focus.

He's identified 11 key research areas at the organization and worked to cut its number of projects to around 28. "When I arrived CableLabs had about 175 employees and about 110 engineers and had 69 projects," he says. "That math doesn't add up."

He has also worked to speed up the development time and more closely align its work with the product cycles of vendors. While DOCSIS 2.0 and 3.0 each took about four-and-a-half years, work on the DOCSIS 3.1 is scheduled for completion in only two-and-a-half years so that the cable industry can get the chips and equipment needed to radically ramp up broadband speeds much faster.

The organization is also taking a longer-term view of technology changes. "Historically, CableLabs was focused one to three years out," he says. "That kind of planning horizon is problematic because CableLabs ends up duplicating the work that the MSOs are already doing on their own."

As a result, staff is now focusing on "the major technology shift changes, the tipping points that are going to happen in the next five to eight years," he says.

McKinney has high expectations for the results and believes CableLabs is a great example of how various players in an industry need to come together to spur the kind of innovation that no individual company can accomplish.

"I see CableLabs as really being the model that others should copy from the standpoint of how to create these kind of cooperative R&D activities," he says.

Long-range innovation isn't easy to achieve, however. Despite his many successes at HP, McKinney was unable to push the company successfully into the tablet space even though it spent $1.2 billion to acquire Palm.

Colleagues stress, however, that he has the right combination of skills to navigate a turbulent multichannel landscape. "Phil has a very broad background and experience that allows him to sense where the markets are going and to develop a very strategic long- term view," says Ed Leonard, who has known McKinney for 10 years.

Leonard was CTO of Dreamworks Animation for much of the last decade, working closely with McKinney to acquire and develop state-of-the-art equipment from HP for their computerized animation. "We partnered on new [intellectual property] that was very important to our success," Leonard adds.

Shelby Coffey, former Los Angeles Times publisher and vice-chairman of the Newseum, recalls that McKinney worked closely with the museum on a new media gallery, helping them deploy some new touchscreen technology that could be flexibly adapted to the rapidly changing digital landscape.

"We were designing it before Twitter and in the early days of Facebook," Coffey recalls, yet they've easily been able to incorporate those features into the gallery.

When not working on ways to help the cable industry speed up the pace of innovation, McKinney spends time with his family and is an amateur photographer who loves the fact that the move to CableLabs Colorado headquarters is allowing him to more fully explore the Rocky Mountains.

His interest in discovery and exploration started early while he was in the Boy Scouts, where he was an Eagle Scout, and he currently serves on the executive board for the Boy Scouts of America's Silicon Valley Monterey Bay Council.

His daughter Tara works with autistic kids and McKinney is the founder of Hacking Autism, which brings together tech companies around the issue. He and his wife have also set up an organization in Rwanda that helps fund entrepreneurs.

Besides serving on the board of trustees for the Computer History Museum, McKinney continues to produce a popular podcast on innovation. "My passion is mentoring and sharing what I've learned," he says.

E-mail comments to winslowbc@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow

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