By Nomi Bergman, Advance/Newhouse Communications, and Alan Breznick Unlike many Women in Technology award winners, Charlotte Field is not exactly a cable industry veteran. In fact, Field, senior vice president of national communications engineering for Comcast Cable, has worked in the industry for only five years after building her reputation as a technical whiz in the telecom world. But in those five short years, Field has helped transform the nation’s two largest cable operators, the former AT&T Broadband and the current Comcast Corp., into cable telephony powers. As a top technology and operations executive for first AT&T Broadband and then Comcast, the long-time AT&T Bell Labs engineer has directed the construction, growth, management, integration and provisioning of North America’s biggest new telecom network practically from scratch. Thanks largely to her work, that network now serves more than 1.2 million circuit-switched phone customers. "It was a big transition," she said. "I was going from something that was basically established to something that I was establishing." Accomplishments In her latest assignment for Comcast, Field has overseen the re-engineering, conversion and expansion of that network to deliver such emerging digital telecom services as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), which the MSO is now rolling out in markets throughout the United States. Known for her creative problem-solving, she also manages Comcast’s national operations center, back office functions, provisioning, and voice network monitoring and maintenance, with a strong focus on improving the customer experience. As a result, cable colleagues credit Field with almost single-handedly bringing Comcast into the technically demanding consumer phone business. She has impressed them by spelling out each step that needed to be taken, explaining each issue that needed to be dealt with, crafting a plan for carrying out each task, and then executing that plan under extremely tight deadlines. "Voice is new to us," said John Donahue, senior vice president of engineering operations at Comcast, who has worked closely with Field for the past four years. "I can’t imagine us doing it without her. She brings to the table so much experience." Colleagues say Field, as a well-respected member of both camps, has also helped Comcast bridge the considerable cultural gap between its cable team and AT&T’s telecom-oriented staff. "She was very involved in that," Donahue said. "It was a tough gap to close in some locations." In the process, Field has quickly risen to become Comcast’s highest ranking woman in technology and engineering. By extension, that achievement makes her one of the highest ranking female technical executives, if not the highest ranking female technical executive, in the entire cable business. Not surprisingly, Comcast Cable President Steve Burke nominated her for this year’s award. "I’ve been very lucky," she said modestly. "I would not do anything over again." Field’s steady climb from young electrical engineer to the top of her profession less than three decades later certainly speaks for itself. But the 49-year-old New York City native also stands out for helping other women and minorities advance in their technical careers. An active member of both the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers and Women in Cable & Telecommunications, she has earned honors for her mentoring work. Indeed, the Rocky Mountain chapter of WICT just inducted her into its Walk of Fame last year. "Charlotte represents us as women extremely well," said Catherine Kilstrom, senior vice president of customer care in Comcast’s west division, who has worked with Field at AT&T and Comcast since 1996. "First of all, she knows her stuff. She’s generous with her time. She sets extremely high standards … Charlotte is also very quick to shine the light on others." At the same time, Field has set a commendable example by seeking firmly to maintain a good balance between her work and home lives. When her son and daughter were young, she raised her hand for assignments that didn’t put her on the road too much. Even when she had to travel, she strived to keep the trips local so that she could always get home at night. And early on, for those times when she couldn’t get home at night, she and her husband John bought a fax machine so that her two kids could always send their homework to her. "I think one of the things people need to realize is that the work/life balance continually shifts," she said. "What’s good for today is not necessarily good for tomorrow. You need a good infrastructure (at home)." The early years The daughter of a Bell Labs engineer herself, Field grew up enthralled with math and science and excelled in those two subjects throughout her schooling. She still considers her father, the first of several male mentors that she’s had during her career, "an inspiration" in her life. "He always said, `Do what you want to do.’" Particularly intrigued by the sciences, Field entered college as a biology major. But then, as she gained exposure to other disciplines, she shifted her sights first to biomedical engineering and then to electrical engineering. After graduating from Michigan Tech in the mid-1970s with a degree in electrical engineering, she earned an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. She also completed an intensive study program at Bell Labs with a focus on electrical and computer science engineering and graduated from both the INSEAD Executive Management Program and Harvard’s Advanced Management Program. In her first job at Bell Labs 28 years ago, Field worked with the three major broadcast networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—on early digital compression. As a talented young engineer, she also spent much of her time at AT&T designing and developing the first interstitial fiber-optic networks between Boston and Washington, D.C. on the East Coast and San Francisco and Los Angeles on the West Coast. She still remembers the thrill and alarm she felt when, at the tender age of 26, she had to suggest the appropriate reliability measures for the networks to the Federal Communications Commission. "The pressure was on," she said. But then she calmed herself with the knowledge that the network reliability standard was hers to propose. As she climbed steadily through the technical ranks at AT&T, Field worked hard to prove herself. Although she was used to being one of the few women in a predominantly male field, she constantly found herself putting in extra time and effort to gain the respect of her peers. "Early on in my career, it was about proving myself on every single project," she said. "You’re a female in a sea of male engineers. Part of the battle is making sure they see what you bring to the table." Mentoring Fortunately, Field benefited greatly from two mentors early in her career, both of them male bosses. They helped her understand the lay of the land, encouraged her to take on new engineering and management assignments, gave her challenging projects outside her regular work, and promoted her technical achievements throughout the company. "What women sometimes forget," she noted, "is that there are a lot of positive male mentors, not just women." In particular, Field’s first mentor, a then 60-year-old AT&T veteran named Shell Jenkins, made a big difference in the early years. One of Field’s first corporate managers in 1981, Jenkins quickly sized her up, promised to give her "some opportunities" and then trumpeted her accomplishments to other managers. "It was almost like having another father," she said. More than two decades later, she still consults with Jenkins periodically. As one of the very few female engineers at AT&T in the 1980s, Field also sought to establish the proper balance between work and home by taking a direct approach. Beginning with Jenkins just a year after the birth of her first child, she made it a practice to sit down with each new manager, establish her work priorities, spell out her family commitments and set some ground rules for her obligations. With Jenkins, for instance, Field vowed that she would work very hard for the company. But she also made it clear that there would be times when she would have to take her little boy to the doctor. That candor paid off when she and her husband faced some early health crises with their son, TJ. "I think a lot of women were told, `don’t tell too much,’" she said. "But," she continued, "if you’re upfront with people, that’s a lot better. If you can have a one-on-one conversation with your boss, make it happen on the front end, you’re a heck of a lot better off." Communication As a manager of a large staff herself now, Field still takes that approach with both her superiors and subordinates, as well as key co-workers. She makes sure that everybody in her office "family" understands her personal "situation" if it might have a bearing on her work. "Especially as you grow in business, that becomes more and more important," she said. "Just because I’m out, the business can’t stop." Another big lesson that Field has learned over her career is the importance of thinking both strategically and tactically. A strong tactician by nature, she admits that she needed to learn how to understand the big picture early in her career before she could advance up the corporate ladder. "Sometimes you can do tactics to the nth degree but miss everything or strategically drive yourself out of the business," she noted. "You need to make sure you bridge the gap between strategic and tactical. It’s having the right analytical skill." Still one of the few top female engineering executives, Field now helps other women in the profession by providing them with the same kind of "extra credit activities" that her mentors gave her. In her mentoring role, she also encourages them to excel not only at the jobs they have but at the jobs they want to have. In addition, she teaches them how to promote their accomplishments inside their companies. "I think messaging is important for women," she said. "I think women and minorities sometimes assume that people will recognize you’re doing a great job. People need to understand the value you’re providing to the business." � Nomi Bergman is executive vice president of strategy and development at Advance/Newhouse Communications and the 2004 winner of the Women in Technology award. Email her at NMB@advancenewhouse.com. Alan Breznick is editor of Cable Digital News and a contributing editor to Communications Technology.