In 1980, cable sped into hyper-mode. It was the dawning of the age of premium television. That awakening sparked another cycle of innovation in an industry already known for its entrepreneurial energy.
The growth and optimism that followed also spawned a new cohort of industry leaders and attracted a breed of professionals with the creativity, enthusiasm and smarts that would become the industry’s signature.
Enter Barbara Jaffe. Armed with an MBA from Stanford and an innate sense of strategy, Jaffe’s decision to attend a campus job fair would lead her to Home Box Office in 1980 and eventually to her current position as senior vice president of advanced technology and operations at HBO — and a place among the industry’s elite leaders.
This year’s recipient of the Women in Technology Award, Jaffe is notably the first winner from the programming community. (See sidebar for previous winners and supporting organizations.) The timing seems right.
For several years, MSOs and other network affiliates have been forging tighter technical bonds with content providers. At the same time, programmers have attended more closely to the multiple video endpoints held by today’s consumers. It’s a complex mix of business, programming, technology and operations.
Helping to guide HBO and its partners through this moving landscape has been Jaffe, who took a calculated risk on a young business nearly three decades ago.
Learning the business
From the outset, Jaffe had an affinity for the marquis brand.
"When HBO interviewed us during what was called a ‘flyback’ the idea was if you wanted to work in an industry, you go to best in class, and that was HBO," Jaffe recalled.
The fledgling pay TV service, however, wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk proposition in 1980. Just how would customers react to paying for a premium service? How reliable were these early stage technologies? Those were the kinds of questions being asked.
Never mind the answers. For Jaffe, whose intention was to spend two years at HBO in New York then re-visit her career goals, it was an exciting move.
"Remember, in 1980 there was a lot of convergence, new technologies and real entrepreneurs. And who knew about pay TV and more than one pay service?" Jaffe said. "But HBO was full of young, energetic, entrepreneurial people all building something together. It was terrific."
Jaffe landed in affiliate relations and sales, with a purpose.
"If I started in sales, I knew I could learn everything about the business. I worked with affiliates in a consultative manner and eventually broadened my portfolio to include the strategic piece of the business, while providing sales people with information about multi-pay. It was a tremendous responsibility early on," she said.
Assuming these responsibilities in stride, Jaffe held her first title, regional manager of affiliate operations, for two and a half years. Then she became director, sales planning and development; then vice president, sales promotion and development.
Her idea of a two-year stint had turned into a twelve-year ride.
In 1992, her career took an "intriguing" turn toward technology.
"Bob Zitter (currently HBO’s executive vice president and CTO) was promoted and was looking for a replacement with a business background to handle the satellite portfolio negotiations, configure transponders and multiplex launches. I knew the company and it knew me, so the trust was there," Jaffe said.
What remained was to assess the risk. "It was great for me, because technology created the opportunities. It could never be stale or boring," she said. The uncertainty turned on the question "being too soon versus too late."
But if avoiding the humdrum was the idea, Jaffe became HBO’s vice president, technology operations, at a perfect time. In 1992, digital technology was enabling a multitude of platforms with multiple content providers. That wasn’t the only excitement: regulatory debates were hot and cable marketing was learning some painful lessons.
For rising stars such as Jaffe, understanding the new dynamics of advancing technologies and their business implications became the mantra du jour.
The key word is "dynamics." Technology and business being in continual flux, managing those forces calls for executives who can soar at 50,000 feet one moment and handle details on the ground the next.
Over the next fifteen-plus years, Jaffe gained a behind-the-scenes reputation as a star for being able to do just that.
"There’s no one like her." Mike Hayashi, Time Warner Cable
"What stands out with Barbara, especially in the eyes of distributors, is that she understands the technologies we’re dealing with and adds the strategic ingredient," EVP and CTO Zitter said "She is very cognizant of the technology and business details and all their nuances."
The case of MPEG-4 is a good example.
It was Jaffe’s boss Zitter who dropped the bombshell at the June 2007 SCTE Cable-Tec Expo that HBO’s high definition television (HDTV) channels would be encoded using only MPEG-4."(HBO) just plunked a massive milestone into the developing tale that is advanced video compression," wrote Leslie Ellis, analyzing these developments in her Multichannel News column at the time.
While disconcerting to operators serving subscribers equipped with MPEG-2 decoders, HBO’s move to adopt the much more efficient compression scheme was rational, if bold and disruptive.
Zitter made the news at Cable-Tec, but he credits Jaffe with "rare" qualities that enabled the decision. "She had the vision and strategy to move to MPEG-4," he said.
In turn, Jaffe points to Zitter’s leadership, emphasizes the team and downplays her strategic role. "I led the implementation team," she said. "Nothing here is done by one person alone."
In any case, with Jaffe playing a key role, by November 2008, HBO was offering all of its linear feeds, including Cinemax, in HD using MPEG-4. Operators meanwhile had deployed a new (arguably transitional) generation of transcoders that enable delivery of these HD channels in MPEG-2.
It remains to be seen whether or when MSOs match direct broadcast satellite (DBS) and other competitors in enabling MPEG-4 decoding at the customer premise. But with Jaffe and her colleagues now looking at 1080p (progressive scan) HDTV and more ways to delivery better video quality, count on HBO’s continuing to push the envelope.
Simply surviving at this cutting edge is no mean feat. Jaffe clearly has thrived, superior management skills and raw intellect being on her side.
"She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known and someone who can get several groups working together," Zitter said. As examples of successful collaborative projects that Jaffe has facilitated, he listed HD, On Demand, and "HBO Go," a broadband product slated for a national launch later this year.
Praise from MSOs
Others confirm Jaffe’s exceptional qualitiies. Industry peers such as Mike Hayashi, senior vice president of advanced technology for Time Warner Cable, echo Zitter’s praise.
" She brings a perfect balance between business, operations and technology." Marwan Fawaz, Charter
"The words to describe Barbara are credible and reliable," Hayashi said. "Any business/technology issue, we know she’ll get solved."
Hayashi said that Jaffe represents HBO’s operational excellence from a technology perspective, reiterating the reliability factor: "Having someone you can really count on is very rare these days. She’s 120 percent on whatever she does."
That level of focus would seem to include one of Jaffe’s epicurean passions.
"One chef said he had never met anyone who can eat sushi as fast as she can," Hayashi said, with a laugh. "You must be on your game to work with her, but I know if there is an issue to be solved, she’s the first person I call. There’s no one like her."
Few have had the impact on the cable industry that Jaffe has, according to Charter Communications’ CTO, Marwan Fawaz.
"She is very practical regarding technology and knows what is real," Fawaz said. "She quickly picked up on what technology meant to business and brings a perfect balance between business, operations and technology."
But that’s not all. "I realized early on she was not just about business, but very easy to get along with," Fawaz said.
Teamwork and balance
Those people skills are influential not only outside but also within HBO, where Jaffe manages more than 20 key employees. She is quick to acknowledge them. "The only reason I am successful here at HBO is because I am part of an extraordinarily talented team," she said.
"The engineers on our team are extremely smart, actually brilliant," she said. "But we still must communicate in English, and I think my background helps bring a lot of balance."
Jaffe also brings balance to the question of how technology has played out in her career, striking notes of continuity, business and awe.
"Technology was on my radar screen from my early days at HBO. After all, it takes only one visit to HBO’s studio and broadcast operations facility on Long Island to quickly be impressed with the ‘magic’ of technology, even if you’re not a techie," she said. "And after all, it is typically advancements in technology which enable marketplace opportunities and stimulate new consumer demand."
Has gender been an issue? "Being a woman in technology has not really been an issue or a challenge, as far as I can tell," she said.
Indeed, this year’s award seems almost as much a ‘shout out’ to technology in content as to women in technology. "Here’s someone (Jaffe) that has contributed so much to the industry, and on the programming side. It was time for us to recognize someone in programming and technology," Fawaz said.
Jaffe herself sees the SCTE and Women in Cable Telecommunications (WICT) as critical to fostering the exchange of ideas and attracting young professionals to the industry. "We must all nurture and develop the up-and-coming talent, and organizations like WICT and SCTE create the perfect settings and opportunities to do so," she said.
Does she have any advice to share?
"The technology sector…can be a tremendous field with boundless opportunities for anyone," she said. "If you like rapid change without knowing exactly what the future holds and know that it will lead the wave, then cable technology is probably a good place to look," Jaffe said. (For more advice, see sidebar.)
An organized player
After hours, she looks to fly fishing as a way to separate from the business side. "I move pretty quickly, so fly fishing gives me the chance to really think about what I’m doing, and it’s always in a beautiful place."
Then there are the bees. "I’m also a beekeeper. They’re fascinating creatures, and so very organized," she said with a chuckle.
While her own organizational skills are exceptional, Jaffe’s ability to visualize problems from a customer perspective, and narrow the gap between technology, business and operations has earned her top honors for women in technology.
"She always keeps the ball rolling and her intellect allows her to handle a large volume of material — 15 to 20 things at once," Zitter said. As cable networks, such as HBO, and their affiliates continue to create new and complex ways of interacting with each other and consumers, expect Jaffe to remain a valuable player.
"She’s always a leader with industry agendas," Zitter said.
Hesitant to mention only a few names, Jaffe said these were three key team members:
"One of the keys to selecting the right field of pursuit is knowing the types of problems one likes to solve and the types of decisions one likes to make. And then you must consider the pace of the environment and the culture where you can thrive. It is all about the right fit." — Barbara Jaffe
The Women in Technology Award is a joint effort of WICT, the SCTE and C T magazine. The 2009 award is sponsored by Bright House Networks and presented at the Cable-Tec Expo annual awards luncheon.
Past Women in Technology Award recipients include the following:
2008: Cyndee Everman, Time Warner Cable
2007: Carolyn Terry, Time Warner Cable
2006: Vicki Marts, Cox Communications
2005: Charlotte Field, Comcast Cable
2004: Nomi Bergman, Advance Newhouse
2003: Marci Anderson, Cox
2002: Christy Martin, Canal+ Technologies
2001: Sabrina Calhoun, Cox
2000: Margaret Gaillard, AT&T Broadband
1999: Sally Kinsman, General Instrument
1998: Sheri Stinchcomb, Cox
1997: Yvette Gordon, Seachange
1996: Pam Nobles, Jones Intercable
1995: Pam Arment, TCI