Only Smart Technologies Need Apply"—the subhead to our January cover story on innovation—is a phrase that equally well describes the needs of today’s broadband workforce. It’s easy to overlook the key role that applied brainpower plays in running increasingly sophisticated broadband networks. New (and often automated) technologies attract attention, while technical training is taken for granted or becomes invisible. That partly describes the situation in which Comcast Senior VP of Engineering John Donahue found himself several years ago. A system was facing some labor disputes, and one of their concerns was that they needed additional training. Yet something didn’t add up. "Since we had recently expanded the number of trainers, I knew that we weren’t receiving this feedback because the training wasn’t available, but thought it was more likely that it just wasn’t visible," Donahue says. And therein lies the genesis of Comcast’s Comm Tech Jeopardy. Donahue says the idea was "to come up with a fun way to highlight the training that we provided." Based on evidence from the fourth annual final tournament, Comcast has met and far exceeded that original goal. Life of its own Staged January 19-20 at the historic, art deco Rivera Theatre in Charleston, S.C., and linked to corporate meetings at the Charleston Place Hotel, the 2004 Comm Tech Jeopardy championship capped months of practice, training, planning—through it all evincing a special kind of momentum. "It’s not a thing—it’s a taken a life of its own," Donahue says. Of course, this isn’t the first time that the cable industry has bundled technical knowledge in a competitive package. According to the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers, Cable-Tec Games (originally called Cable Games) were first held at the SCTE’s Rocky Mountain Chapter in 1989 and have been part of the SCTE’s annual Expo since 1991. As Expo attendees well know, these events include cable splicing, fiber splicing, "black box" meter reading, metallic time domain reflectometer (TDR) measurements—and "Cable Jeopardy," as created by Denver-based NCTI, the SCTE’s official training partner. Corporate culture On the game show front, however, what Comcast characteristically has done here is push a good idea as far as it can go. In particular, the Comm Tech Jeopardy championship revealed what happens when you combine a vibrant corporate culture with natural competitive spirits. As for the corporate side, Comcast not only has a corporate culture, but one that, in contrast with some MSOs, is both functional and healthy. Co-founder and former chairman Ralph Roberts was on hand to rally the troops and reflect on the past. "There was no competition then," he said, of the old truck-chasing days of yore. "Today’s it’s totally different. Today’s it’s how smart we can be." Taped messages from the likes of co-founder Julian Brodsky gave the five competing teams and other attendees a good picture on Dan Aaron, after whom the Comm Tech Jeopardy trophy was named. Another Comcast co-founder, Aaron had described himself and other industry pioneers before his death in 2003 "as backyard tinkerers … who traveled from town to town, promising more and better television in exchange for a franchise." Brodksy drew attention to Aaron’s employee-first outlook: "Aaron was a great believer in giving the utmost support to those who made it work." The teams On the divisional side, the five representative teams began their odyssey months earlier. Scott Johnston, a member of the Seattle-based "Gore Techs," said his team was formed as a result of a 50-question test taken this summer. The team reached Charleston by winning a one-day tournament in Portland in late August and a Western divisional tournament in Denver in early December. Chosen by Comcast VP of Engineering and head judge Wayne Hall as one of this year’s All-Stars, Johnston joined TCI (later acquired by AT&T and then Comcast) in the late 1990s after five years in the Navy and quickly gained expertise on the high-speed data side of the business. Chris Bailey, a member of the Southern division’s "August Players" and another All-Star, says that one impact of this competition is that system-level colleagues now look to him and other team members for answers and leadership. Apart from the technical knowledge gained over the past four years in cable, Bailey says his previous career in the restaurant business has given good insight into customer service issues. This year’s winning team was the Eastern division’s "New Castle Storm." Team member Julianne DeGraw began her cable career in the call center but made a logical shift to the field. "I like physical work, and I like to fix things," she says. "I’m a tinkerer," she adds, in a remark true to the spirit of Dan Aaron. The two other teams to reach the round-robin competition in Charleston this year—but not to the three-team final round on Thursday night—were the Atlantic division’s "Richmond Raptors" and the Midwest division’s "Minnesota 1080i’s." The other three members of the All-Star team were Henry Crisp (Atlantic), Bob Cox (Eastern) and Brian Jeans (Midwest). Comcast’s All-Stars win a trip to this year’s Cable Tec Expo in San Antonio. As yet, there is no similarly vetted team from any other MSO. But an all-star tournament, perhaps hosted by the NCTI, could be a lot of fun to watch. —Jonathan Tombes This year’s categories included:
Questions and Answers According to Comcast SVP Engineering John Donahue, technical trainers in the field forward potential questions to a team at Comcast University, which matches them against corporate training materials and internal communications, makes final selections, and ranks them by difficulty. Comcast’s corporate engineering department then reviews them for accuracy. Donahue conducts a final review "to make sure they are consistent with the theme we have set for that year." Here’s a sampling of questions from this year’s final competition: A) How many of Comcast’s 71 systems hit category A for "Think Customer First"? B) What tool is used to find files in an FTP site? C) What term describes the method used to view a 16:9 image as a 4:3 aspect ratio? D) What is the maximum length of grounding wire? E) What are two methods of splicing fiber F) What is the metric prefix for 10 to the ninth power? G) What is the attenuation of a 21-km fiber link at 1,550 nm? H) Name two wireless protocols that share the 2.4 GHz band. I) How many total hours and participants were generated by Comcast Cares Day? (This was the tournament’s final question.) Answers: A) 24; B) Archie; C) letter box; D) 20 feet; E) fusion and mechanical; F) Giga; G) 5.25 dB; H) 802.11 b/g; I) 30,000 participants, 180,000 hours.