In the Pursuit of Knowledge
Tony Werner: from a one-room schoolhouse to One Comcast Center
The chief technology officer at Comcast holds one of the most critical positions in the cable industry. Tony Werner, a DCTC alumnus, has owned the job since 2006, making decisions that influence not only the direction of a corporation with assets approaching $113 billion, but also how and where consumers around the globe will use the Internet, make and take phone calls and access their favorite cable TV programming.
In the case of cable television, the industry shimmered to life in 1948 as the answer to dismal over-the-air reception experienced by households in remote or mountainous areas of Arkansas, Oregon and Pennsylvania. By the early 1960s, nearly 800 systems were delivering cable programming to 850,000 subscribers.
When Tony Werner arrived on the threshold of the cable industry in 1977 after graduating early from DCTC, the country had almost 16 million cable subscribers and Ted Turner had just launched the first national superstation, WTCG-TV, which later became WTBS.
“I had a job offer before I graduated,” said Werner, who completed his A.A.S. degree in telecommunications at the top of his class. “That first job took me to a small cable operator in Silsbee, Texas, just outside Beaumont.”
Comcast serves customers across 39 states and the District of Columbia. Backed by 100,000 employees nationwide, the numbers below are unsurpassed by any other MSO:
- 23.2 million cable customers
- 16.4 million high-speed Internet customers
- 8.1 million voice customers
Werner’s salary was $1,000 a month—a dazzling amount for an entry-level position in those days. He worked as the general manager and chief technician, covering every aspect of the operation, which had some 1,000 subscribers. He learned early on that the job had built-in limits and wasn’t going to provide him with the knowledge he needed to grow with his chosen industry—and the pursuit of knowledge would quickly emerge as the driving force of his career.
Werner spent the opening years of his life on a crop farm near Benson, a rural town on the Chippewa River in west central Minnesota. His home lacked indoor plumbing. His education took place at a one-room country schoolhouse. And, perhaps ironically, his family owned but one black-and-white TV that picked up only one channel.
His parents moved to Shakopee, Minn., when he was in third grade. He went on to graduate from Shakopee High School with his sights set on leveraging his natural affinity for technology and electronics. That love for all things techie would shape both his college and professional goals.
“While at Silsbee, I attended the NCTA convention in Chicago and learned about a job at WGN’s new cable system in Albuquerque,” Werner said. “I took the job because I knew it would be a tremendous learning opportunity for me.”
During the National Cable Television Association convention (today called the National Cable & Telecommunications Association), Werner happened to spot Ted Turner out in a hallway playing craps. As it turned out, Werner himself was not gambling when he accepted the WGN job even though he took a 50 percent pay cut. He established himself as an engineering manager working on the network architecture and system design for a newly approved cable franchise.
In October of 2010, Tony Werner was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame during the 20th annual ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Learn more at “Tony G. Werner – EVP & Chief Technology Officer, Comcast Cable.”
In 1979, he went to work as a field engineer for RCA Cablevision in Van Nuys, Calif. His job took him to 11 states, setting up and testing cable TV systems for several multi system providers, or MSOs. Werner continued to learn—and not just on the job. At night, he studied and read and studied some more, expanding his industry knowledge while living in an apartment without a phone or TV.
His next career move brought him back to Minnesota for a 13-year run with Rogers Communications, one of Canada’s largest communications companies. In 1989, he was promoted to vice president of engineering, a position that propelled him north to Toronto, where he oversaw an engineering staff of 540, including a central R&D group.
Werner loved the city of Toronto and holds Rogers, both the people and the organization, in the highest esteem. He considers his time at Rogers another superb learning experience. But he eventually felt ready to take his family back to the U.S.
In 1994, he was recruited to Englewood, Colo., a suburb of Denver, and joined TCI, at the time the world’s largest cable company. Two years later, he was promoted to CTO. At TCI, Werner was in charge of redesigning the company’s capital and technology strategy. He also continued to take college courses and published more than 20 technical papers. After AT&T Broadband bought TCI in 1999, Werner spent one year with AT&T before setting out to explore new challenges.
After brief stints as CEO of Aurora Networks in Sunnyvale, Calif., and as senior VP of strategic technology at Qwest Communications in Denver, Werner rejoined the TCI family in 2001, this time with Liberty Global as senior vice president and CTO. Liberty, one of the largest broadband providers outside the U.S., was just entering international cable TV markets in Europe, South America and Asia. Werner’s mission was to direct and harmonize the company’s global technology strategy for video, voice and data services.
“Find an industry that’s growing. It’s hard to grow personally if your company isn’t growing.”
Werner’s move to Comcast’s corporate headquarters in Philadelphia was the result of a tough decision. He loved Colorado (he still has two homes there, one in Denver and one in the Rocky Mountains next to a national forest). He met his wife, Laurel, in Colorado and his daughter, Cara, was still in high school in Denver. In the end, he couldn’t pass up the chance to work for the largest MSO in the world.
Today, Werner has an office on the 53rd floor of One Comcast Center, one of the tallest skyscrapers on the East Coast. He has a view of the Schuylkill River, 30th Street Station and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the latter featuring the steps Rocky Balboa famously ascended in the first of the Rocky films. He regards his staff of 750 at Comcast as “incredibly smart people,” noting that many are Yale, Harvard and Stanford graduates.
His mission at Comcast is complex and exciting. “I’m responsible for developing and guiding Comcast’s technology strategy and evolving network architecture,” he said. That job covers a lot of ground, including support for next-generation consumer systems and technologies, infrastructure and engineering, network integration and much more.
Werner, 53, and his wife, Laurel, reside in Philadelphia with their two German shepherds, Tazer and Xana. Son Michael, 24, is finishing his master’s in finance at the University of Denver. Daughter Cara, 21, is earning her bachelor’s in sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.
One of his main hobbies is photography and he enjoys using his Canon 5D and 7D to capture architecture, landscapes and people. Another hobby is skin diving, which he shares with Laurel, who is the far more experienced diver. Werner has a 100 dives under his scuba belt in places such as Florida, Puerto Rico, Aruba, Hawaii and the Bahamas. He likes to read, especially nonfiction, and he’s been known to peruse The Wall Street Journal and USA TODAY on his iPad.
Today, Werner has an office on the 53rd floor of One Comcast Center, one of the tallest skyscrapers on the East Coast. He has a view of the Schuylkill River, 30th Street Station and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the latter featuring the steps Rocky Balboa famously ascended in the first of the Rocky films.
Werner’s contributions to his industry have not gone unnoticed. In 2000, he received the NCTA Vanguard Award for Science and Technology for his work at TCI and AT&T Broadband. In 2006, he was named CED Man of the Year, an honor bestowed by Communications, Engineering & Design Magazine. In October of 2010, he was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame during the 20th annual ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
Werner has two channels of advice for students and graduates considering lucrative careers in a technology-based field. His first recommendation links individual growth to a company’s growth. “Find an industry that’s growing. It’s hard to grow personally if your company isn’t growing.”
His second recommendation concerns the pursuit of knowledge. “Find something that inspires you,” he said. “Find something that keeps you learning and digging.” In Werner’s life, that tireless quest for new ideas and new technology guided him to the pinnacle of his profession.Paul Sirochman Photography