Interview Date: September 23, 2014
Interview Location: Denver, Colorado USA
Interviewer: Mike Schwartz
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Note: Update: 2016. Terry Cordova is SVP and CTO of Altice USA. See video; https://youtu.be/SdArd3XxyjA
Schwartz: Hi, my name is Mike Schwartz. I’m here in Denver, Colorado, at The Cable Center, with Terry Cordova, CTO of Suddenlink Communications. It’s September 23, 2014, and this interview is part of the Cable Center’s Oral History Program.
Schwartz: How are you?
Cordova: I am doing well, thank you.
Schwartz: I want to start our discussion by going back a bit into your formative years prior to your entering into the cable industry in the mid-seventies. Do you remember anything from those days that would have indicated to you that you were going to be coming into a then-nascent cable industry as a person who would be setting up cable systems and then moving to a position four decades later of being a CTO of a major cable company?
Cordova: Early on, I would say probably nothing specific. If you remember back in those early days technology wasn’t near what it is today but I was actually born at Fitzsimmons Hospital here in Denver and my father was an officer in the military. And we traveled throughout the world. We lived in Paris, France, in Munich, Germany, and as I reflect back on your question a little bit, one thing that comes to mind is that I was a pretty mechanical kid. I used to build bikes as a matter of fact, and I’d get bike parts from people that might put a bike out on the street, throwing it away, what have you, and I would collect a bunch of bike parts and make a bike. So it’d be a few days in the basement and out would come a new bike that I would take advantage of for a couple of weeks before I would do it again. Maybe some of the mechanical mind that I had back then may have led me down the engineering path perhaps.
Schwartz: Tell us how you started in cable then some thirty-five years ago.
Cordova: Thirty-five years, that’s a long, long time. But I can remember just before I was graduating high school and was living in Junction City and I needed a summer job. So I went down the street and actually put in an application at the local phone company—I believe it was Southwestern Bell at the time—and of course, no one came out and I just handed in my application and walked out and right across the street was the local cable company, Communications Services, Inc. I finished my application process and sure enough, luck would have it, the manager, local system manager, Jeff Lowe, he walked out from his office and brought me back into his office and chatted with me a little bit about the summer job he was looking to fill. I guess I must have convinced him I had enough of a work ethic that he hired me. It worked out great. I spent the next three or four summers working for CSI, both in Junction City and Manhattan, Kansas, doing various jobs. But that’s really my start.
Schwartz: So what was the connection then beyond just the summer internships at Communications Services? Was this something that was close to your home, was it a great opportunity for you as a young professional start-up there?
Cordova: You know, when you think about it, and you're just walking from a phone company to the cable company, there was some technology interest there even as a young person, but I had no connection to CSI. Fort Riley, Kansas—as I indicated my father was an officer in the military—was right next to Junction City and I went to a small Catholic high school in Junction City. So that was probably the connection to CSI. But when I think I think about CSI, the Communications Services, Inc., it was a wonderful opportunity to do summer jobs there. I was doing installs and service calls and, depending on who was on vacation, I might be on the construction team or the maintenance team, so it just created a really great learning opportunity for me and really started setting the foundation for my interest in the cable industry.
Schwartz: So then your next step was Kansas State graduation. Following that was Galaxy. Is that correct? What was that like working for a pretty good size cable operator at the time and you were a pretty young guy entering the business?
Cordova: I was. And there again, I'm going probably to repeat myself a number of times to some of your questions, but I think it was very fortunate that I came across Galaxy fresh out of college, after getting my degree in engineering from Kansas State. The Gleason family hired me into their company; we were a mid-size cable operator. We had about 350,000 customers but it was a unique time in the cable industry in that we were getting franchises, we were building out cable systems, we were strand-mapping. I was running construction crews and really providing new cable services to a lot of areas that had never had cable before. So I can just reflect back on that and remember some of the great experiences of there again building headends and microwave systems and so forth. But it was a great foundational opportunity for me working with the Gleason family and everything they stood for relative to taking care of the customer and really providing quality services, even when you think though back then, it was just about video.
Schwartz: That’s true, isn’t it? And that was fifteen years now you were with Galaxy? What were some of your successes at that company?
Cordova: Let me think here. So early on successes—when you think about a mid-size cable operator, we operated a lot of disparate cable systems and I would say one of the early on successes was the fact that we were tying a lot of those cable markets together. Back then, mid-eighties, it was microwave. We were building microwave sites and standing up towers, putting up dishes and tying cable markets back to one master facility. Over time that transition to fiber optics. When you think about fiber and the advent of fiber, some of the costs really were prohibitive for more midsize operators to deploy the amount of fiber we needed to tie cable systems together. An early on success for me was just the whole notion of taking disparate cable systems and tying them back to a master facility and certainly that whole concept of interconnecting cable markets today is alive and well.
Another I guess would be a distance learning network. In the state of Nebraska, there again probably mid to late-eighties, through this headend consolidation effort we were doing with Galaxy, we ran about 500-600 miles of fiber to probably about twenty-five communities. And there again, trying to tie these small markets into a larger master headend and then as part of that, we actually reached out to the local school districts. There were about six different school districts, probably about 115 schools, many of which were in these smaller markets. We really created a distance learning network and it was all about full-motion video conferencing, wide area networking, four digit dialing and so what it created was a huge opportunity for these small schools to now have access to calculus teachers, foreign language teachers, what have you, that were sitting in the bigger markets. You know, when I would see that in action and the students really excited about having that opportunity in their small town, it really made a difference. But certainly early on those were some of the accomplishments.
Schwartz: Pretty early indication of cable’s support of the education of our youth.
Schwartz: Well done. On the flip side, what didn’t work as well as you planned in those days?
Cordova: Business-wise, I’d say you know I've been very fortunate. My life has been—and I would characterize it as luck and you have to position yourself for luck. Business-wise, there’s probably nothing that I can say jumps out at me that didn’t go well. Personally, maybe; I got married in life much later than I would have thought. In my late twenties when I had friends around me that were getting married and having kids and I was jumping into a Suburban and you know, traveling to five neighboring states building out cable companies. Very limited opportunity to really have a long-term relationship. As cable luck would have it, I got reacquainted with my eighth grade girlfriend. So she, Kathy—her father was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, the same time I was—you do whatever you do when you're in the eighth grade and boyfriend and girlfriend. You go to dances and what have you. She moved away and some twenty years later, I was sitting on the back porch of my fraternity brothers’ house and sure enough, talked to this guy. It turned out to be her brother. Her older brother, back in the eighth grade, five years is a lot of time. But he told me to give her a call and I gave her a call and we met a couple of weeks later and six months later, we got married. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard. We’re going on twenty-plus years now and have two wonderful teenage boys. It’s definitely worked out very well.
Schwartz: Good for you. Congratulations on that.
Cordova: Thank you.
Schwartz: So the next step is Charter. Charter Communications from 1999 to 2003 you were again coming into a major company as a vice-president helping to build a new company. Tell us about that.
Cordova: The move to Charter was a big decision for me. I was with Galaxy for about fifteen years. There again, I thought very strongly of the Gleason family. They gave me an opportunity early on. I felt like a lot of my foundational knowledge came from Galaxy. So I really had to think about it long and hard. Eventually my wife and I, we made a decision, we took our two young boys, Parker and Tyler, and packed them up and moved to Greenville, South Carolina, to join Charter’s eastern division at a very unique time in the industry. The industry was going through a bunch of consolidation, if you remember. A guy named Paul Allen, he came into the picture. He bought a company called Marcus Cable and then bought Jerry Kent’s company, Charter Communications. When Jerry and Paul teamed up, they went off and we went off and really created Charter Communications back then, some six million subscriber company. We acquired ten different companies and grew probably 10,000-12,000 employees as a company. I had the responsibility of the eastern division. The eastern division was roughly half the company. Back then it was largely an opportunity to take a bunch of different companies and integrate them into one large company. So we spent billions of dollars upgrading about 100,000 miles of plant and tying these markets together. We had a master upgrade plan that we were executing too, launching digital video services and probably most importantly, we were turning up Internet access and most of all those homes that never had Internet access before.
Once again, luck would have it. I had a great opportunity to learn a lot, which I did, not only through the technology integration we were going through but also the people integration. When you think about the ten different companies and all the different cultures that existed in those companies to get them wrapped around a common culture was a large task. We put in place an effort called “Operational Excellence.” It really involved a lot of the care center folks, a lot of the front line folks and I think it really helped position us to organize ourselves well and do as well as we did.
Schwartz: It was also nice to have someone like Paul Allen coming in to the cable industry as an investor as well. I guess he was a pretty hands-on operator, wasn’t he for awhile?
Cordova: He was, yes.
Schwartz: So what next? What happened after your work at Charter?
Cordova: After Charter—you make the point about a “hands-on” person and Paul Allen. So Jerry Kent, who was our CEO at Charter, he left Charter, I guess, in probably 2001. I think that he probably left because of that hands-on approach of Paul. Jerry is masterful in his knowledge about cable television and really had asked me probably three years prior to come to work for him. I believe I missed an opportunity at that point. I made a decision to stay with Galaxy and I'm sure that the Gleason family were pushing me hard to stay. So when he came and asked me a second time, “Do you want to come and join our company here in St. Louis?” It was called Cequel III and Cequel—a lot of people may not know it, but Cequel III was Crown Communications, then Charter Communications, then Cequel III Communications. So the sequel to the story (although it’s spelled with a “C”). When he asked me to join him, I went home and talked to Kathy. It took about an hour and we made a decision: we’re packing it up and we’re going to move to St. Louis.
You have to kind of think about where I was at that point in my career. I'm part of a great organization at Charter, we had a great team, we just spent billions of dollars upgrading networks and launching new products and roughly six million subscribers. Now I’m leaving that scenario to join Jerry in what was about a 300,000 subscriber company and what felt like probably an equal number of headends. But we left because of Jerry, frankly. I mean, Jerry is a quality guy that I've always had a lot of confidence in and so he asked me to come to St. Louis and be his senior vice-president of engineering. So we packed it up, we moved to St Louis and it turned out to be a great move for Kathy and I. It was at the same time that we were looking to do acquisitions and so I was tasked with the acquisition modeling and the upgrade modeling and really a lot of the integration of several acquisitions, including about 17% of Cox Communications and then some assets from Charter Communications, News-Press Gazette and others. As you think about it, now you’ve got much like a Charter and an opportunity to begin the deployment of new products and tie markets together and so very similar in nature to some of the other efforts that I've been part of.
We went through, early on, “Project Imagine,” which is all about launching advance services. We put about 100 HDs over the national backbone. I think we’re one of the few companies that were delivering that many HD services over a national infrastructure, which we were doing. We launched VOD, or extended our VOD footprint as well. We launched 107 megabit data service. At the time that was the fastest Internet service in the U.S. In a funny story really quickly on that, Mediacom was at 105 and I told Jerry that and he said, “Why don’t we do 107?”
But it was a great time and here we are once again. We just announced a project. It’s called “Operation Gigaspeed” and it’s a focus on our data product. We’ll go out and take our flagship product, which is where the majority of our customers sit and we’ll take them to about 200 megabits over the next fifteen months. So if you think about that, in the early days when we were launching sub-1 megabit speeds and now we’re talking about 200 megabits as the standard product offering. Many of our markets in fifteen months will have a 1-gigabit offering. Certainly it’s great to see the data product do so well but I'm happy to be part of Suddenlink organization. We’ve got a great team there and I'm excited about the next few chapters.
Schwartz: I think you should be. It sounds like a great, great place to be launching into.
So looking back now, what do you call over the course of your career in cable as one of the biggest challenges the industry has had and faced and how has it overcome that challenge?
Cordova: That’s a really good question. I’d say one of the largest challenges has been the perception of our quality customer experience. And we’ve evolved ourselves so many times as a cable industry in going from video only to data and phone and what have you. It has been a challenge to make sure that we’re constantly focused on the customer experience. A guy like Jerry Kent: absolutely focused on the customer experience. Customers have long memories. So in the early days, I won’t say that we were terrible, but we weren’t as good as we are today. I know that the leaders of the cable companies that I interact with were keenly focused on tools at the care center level, at the technician level, to really improve upon the customer experience. So I know it’s a focus and net promoter scores and JD Power scores and us being open to taking customer input and what have you has made us a much better company and certainly much better industry.
Schwartz: When you're here in Denver this week for the annual convention of the Society of Cable and Telecommunications Engineers, you were just recently re-elected as their chairman. Congratulations on that.
Tell me about where do you see the organization headed and how have you felt your relationship with SCTE has blossomed over the years?
Cordova: The SCTE for me—I think about it. From this perspective it’s all about the technicians in my opinion. The technicians are in many cases the only face that the customer sees. It’s like the CSRs that are answering the phone call. It’s the same thing. So the SCTE, it’s a great society that really focuses on the technician from a training and certification perspective. We have some seventy chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada and those are locations where technicians are coming every day to be part of something and collaborate. The SCTE has got great training and certification efforts that go miles in terms of building the confidence for those technicians to be able to go inside of a customer’s home and resolve their issue and do so proudly and having feel like they mastered that particular install or service call. So the SCTE is an organization that is focused on that. For me it’s been a part of our organization at Suddenlink. I really pushed for SCTE certification. In our organization, every technician has at least one level of certification and in many cases, they have two or three. We’ve seen our employee churn go down and so lots of benefits from training and certification. Certainly lots of benefits from just being associated with the SCTE. But I'm very proud of the experiences and the opportunity I've had at the SCTE.
Schwartz: You’ve mentioned several times in our conversation the name Jerry Kent. Was he the biggest influence in your professional career?
Cordova: I would say absolutely. Jerry, he’s a wonderful person, he’s certainly a very well-respected person on Wall Street. He is a very capable operator. He’s taught me many, many things—being financially disciplined, the importance of taking care of the customer, the importance of personal and business relationships, the importance of generally just taking good care of your family—like you would take care of your customers. He is a guy that creates culture and the culture you can see and feel. So people around him, certainly inside of Suddenlink, they gravitate towards that. You know it’s not just words, you know it’s just not a card you carry around in your wallet or your purse. It’s something that the company lives by. If anything, Jerry is a guy that really is keenly focused on building a culture as much as he is building a business of driving revenue and cash flow.
Schwartz: And who else would you put up into the category of great influences on your outstanding growth in cable?
Cordova: Another good question. You know our industry is a very collegial industry. If you think about that, many industries aren’t that way. But the likes of guys like Tony Werner at Comcast and Mike LaJoie at Time Warner, Nomi Bergman at Brighthouse...over my career, they’ve always been very forthcoming with information or resources. If I had questions maybe about a certain technology or certain idea that I was trying to flesh out inside of our own organization, they would absolutely make their teams available or offer their own input. So when you think about that, it really allowed me to have a lot more resources available to me, gave me the confidence in some of the decision-making that we were doing as well. Certainly those folks absolutely impacted my career and I thank them for that.
Schwartz: In your opinion what is the most important big story in cable that should be told?
Cordova: You know what, the cable industry is one that has constantly evolved themselves. And we think about it in the early days, when we were a video-only network in disparate stand-alone towns, we began interconnecting like I was mentioning earlier those markets into larger networks of towns serviced from one master facility. We then evolved ourselves to activate the return plant to where we now had data services and phone services. We started introducing commercial and carrier services and what have you. So time and time and time again, we continually evolve ourselves from a network perspective. Our people as well continue to evolve themselves. That for me is probably one of the most unique characteristics of the cable industry. Any one of those businesses, whether they be video or data or phone, could stand on their own and be a very successful business. But we have the unique opportunity in the cable industry that we get all that ability, both residential and commercial over a common infrastructure and really the same technicians and same CSRs largely supporting that network.
Schwartz: So with that kind of a culture for the industry as a backdrop, what do you see as the most significant accomplishment that you made as a contributing high-level executive in the industry, or that you were a part of in the broadband cable industry?
Cordova: I’d have to say, given the importance of the Internet and really for me, having been part of many companies or at least three different companies that we were launching Internet access in many communities for the first time, that would probably have to be the largest. And there again, you think back to the days of Galaxy and Charter and Suddenlink, I think in total probably approaching some ten million homes that I've had some role in launching Internet access. For me, that’s very gratifying. Knowing what the Internet has become, knowing how important it is to all of us, how many devices inside your home. We have connected VOIP. So certainly that clearly is right at the top. We’re still at the infancy from many respects. We have DOCSIS 3.1 coming our way and continually evolve the ability of access to high-speed data outside the home via Wi-Fi hotspots and so on. But that one is certainly right at the top of the list.
Schwartz: It’s a good one. What do you hope your legacy will be?
Cordova: I would say that I hope people remember me as not somebody that really sought out the limelight. And really it was important for me to recognize the team because it is all about the team, the people you assemble, you create a vision of the direction that you're going. I’d also hope that people remember me as someone that was keenly supportive of the SCTE and the mission that we stood for, which is all about training and certification of that frontline employee technicians. We’re actually working on a program to have certification for CSRs, which I think are just as important. Then I guess lastly, I hope people remember me being very, very supportive of ethnic and gender diversity and someone that spoke about that regularly and really felt like that was a very, very important effort.
Schwartz: On the same level, what do you think cable’s legacy will be on our society?
Cordova: I think it has to be the remaking of itself, the constant evolving of itself. And there again, when you think about the changes that we’ve gone through as an industry—we’re not fully replacing our network every time these changes come up—we’re actually augmenting it. We don’t run out and get a bunch of new people to replace the people we have. We train the people that we have to do different skills and support different products and services. But I think our legacy as an industry will be an industry that constantly evolved themselves. Very innovative with our products and services and getting better and better at that everyday. When you think about what I was mentioning earlier, just the sheer notion of having Wi-Fi hotspots allowing people to go to a ballpark and open their tablet and gain access to a local cable company’s Wi-Fi hotspot and do that for free, as an extension of their data service, and now we’re tying those Wi-Fi hotspots together so you can travel from one town to the next—the neighboring cable company will participate in a very similar manner. They access the content outside your home on the tablet through some authentication processes. All those are unique changes, I think, that will be a legacy of ours in our customers’ minds. I remember sitting in a meeting once with Steve Jobs and it was a cable meeting and he made the comment, “The cable guys are just a bunch of deal-doers, and you should really just leave the innovation to me.” And he made that statement and it was profound. We all knew—and this was probably five or six years ago—that we needed to step up the pace of innovation. I think we did in the industry. So I believe our legacy will be largely about our ability to adapt, constantly evolving and innovation is one of our key priorities.
Schwartz: So what’s next for Terry Cordova and what’s next for the cable industry?
Cordova: I can tell you that I've been speaking about this year many times being at another inflection point. It’s another one of those points within the cable industry that we’re going to go through a massive change and it’s all for the good. It’s one more time we’re going to be remaking ourselves. When you think about the dependency on our networks, on the customer experience and so forth, it really requires us to take the next set of products that we have with DOCSIS 3.1, where we’ll be offering some ten gigabits to the home and you really think about that. Boy, that’s a lot of speed. And all the things we’re going to do with television everywhere and community Wi-Fi and what have you. There’s still a tremendous amount of opportunity that we as engineers, we as the cable industry, have ahead of us.
What am I going to do? I think I'm going to continue doing what I love, which is this cable business, and it’s been a passion of mine so yes, I'm going to spend the next several years helping Suddenlink write another good chapter of success or two.
Schwartz: So you’ll be in the thick of it.
Cordova: I hope to be.
Schwartz: Thank you very much. That concludes our interview with Terry Cordova as part of the Cable Center Program on oral histories.
END OF INTERVIEW