When Westman Communications Group president and CEO Dave Baxter was interviewing candidates for the CTO job some 10 years ago, he wasn’t shy about acknowledging considerable challenges in a rapidly evolving industry. Some candidates responded with fear, Baxter recalls, but Jeffrey DeSarno responded with gusto.

“The underlying personality trait that stands out is Jeffrey’s enthusiasm,” Baxter says about this year’s Independent Technology Executive of the Year. “It’s infectious, so people want to work with him. Our organization, culturally, is one where you really have to relish change to be successful. Jeffrey was prepared to drive change.”

The change DeSarno has driven over the past decade at the Brandon, Manitoba-based provider is extensive. He shepherded the launch of TiVo, led the deployment of the managed home WiFi solution, orchestrated adroit bandwidth capacity planning to ensure speed and reliability advantages and has worked closely with numerous vendors, including Evolution Digital, to ensure that Westman remains an industry leader.

“Vendors want to work with us because we have become known as the guinea pigs in the industry,” Baxter says, noting that DeSarno played a key role in establishing this reputation. “He’s always first to put himself and his family as initial testers, much to the chagrin of his family. He certainly takes his work home with him. He’s always a good sport.”

DeSarno’s passion for innovation shows up not only in testing new technologies, but also in building his team and harnessing their best work, Baxter says. “As an executive, he not only finds innovative technological ways to achieve Westman’s goals, but he also is very aware of the business case required. We don’t have the economies of scale [of larger providers], so that way of thinking is important.”

Coming of age in the ’90s, DeSarno was effortlessly drawn to technology. “I grew up in the dot-com days—what else was I going to do?” he quips. Looking for some job stability, he “lucked out” and landed a job with a telco, moving quickly into the R&D side of the business. “I loved being on the cutting edge of that stuff. That’s what drew me to the telecom industry—it was always reinventing itself.”

His next bout of luck came when he moved to the cable industry, where he discovered a culture of collaboration and mutual support.  “In the telco world, I was just a number,” he muses. “I’d go to shows and it felt like someone was going to stab you in the back later.” Working in cable, he says, has felt like a “brotherhood and sisterhood… an industry where everyone is just trying to help everyone work.”

Working at an independent cable company for a boss who allows him to take bold steps gives DeSarno the freedom he needs to innovate. “Things are done here with an entrepreneurial, independent spirit,” he says, adding that the same spirit underpins Westman’s successful partnership with vendors. “Dave Baxter gives us just enough rope to get into a little bit of trouble.”

DeSarno, who is the first Canadian to be named Independent Tech Executive of the Year, is known for being generous with his time, networking across borders and building mutually beneficial relationships. Asked to reveal the vision in his crystal ball, DeSarno cautions that future success in the industry will not be defined by any single technology. “What we really need to focus on is quality of experience, and customers don’t see it as a wireless or wired thing. Today it may be about WiFi, tomorrow it may be about LiFi.”

In addition to his enthusiasm, DeSarno’s humility and gratitude stand out. “I’ve been blessed to work with some of the best tech people and business people, who have taught me that it takes a team,” he says. “How grateful I am to the NCTC, to the ACA, to my brothers and sisters [in the industry] who allow me to speak, and to my team here at Westman. I’m also grateful to Cablefax for making me look good in front of my wife.”

– Caron Carlson

Fast Facts

  • Westman Communications Group was established by volunteers in 1977 as Westman Media Co-operative, and it still invests each customer’s equity back into its operations.  The company provides service to more than 26,000 homes in western Manitoba today.
  • As CTO of an independent operator, DeSarno is required to understand the business from the customer service, marketing and financial perspectives as well as from the technological perspective. He reads the balance sheets, performs economic analyses and also runs the helpdesk.
  • DeSarno currently serves as co-chair of the Campaign Committee for the United Way of Brandon & District, and he is director of Rocking the Fields, Canada’s annual classic rock music festival in Mennedosa, Manitoba.

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