Tony Werner logged 25,000 miles on his Fitbit by walking to work and only 2,500 on his car in his first decade in Philadelphia. Up before dawn, he takes a spin on his internet-connected Peloton bike, plows through morning emails, and is out the door for a 20-minute walk to the Comcast campus for his “7:30 stand-up” — Werner’s daily briefing on projects in the pipeline.
“I am not doing that to show off or punish anybody," Werner said during his own 6:30 a.m. phone interview. The Comcast staff is fresh at 7:30 a.m., and Werner said he can’t be interrupted by emergency calls from bosses. "My IQ degrades as the day goes on,” Werner added.
There’s a lot riding on Werner, 61, the former chief technology officer at Liberty Global. Comcast recruited him to Philadelphia more than a decade ago to modernize its ossified technology. He’s now the top executive at the $1.5 billion Comcast Technology Center, the soaring new tower that serves as the nerve center of new technology and features for 46 million Comcast internet and television subscribers in the United States. Soon, the voice-controlled TV remote — developed under Werner’s teams — will be exported to Comcast-owned Sky television in Europe.
Few Comcast executives have as vast a portfolio as Werner.
The areas that report to him: product and software development, artificial intelligence, product design, network operations, customer experience, and cybersecurity. And the ongoing projects under his purview are plans to boost Xfinity Internet speeds to 10 gigabits a second, or 100 times faster than what most subscribers have now. There’s also the development of a voice-based, near-buttonless TV remote.
A Comcast team in California is even developing drones to track and photograph Comcast’s tens of thousands of miles of cable lines and cable facilities. The drones could investigate damage to telecom lines in hurricane-prone areas, such as Florida and Texas.
All this work does not make Werner comfortable. In an interview at a 2016 industry event, still on YouTube, Werner said that the “only thing that keeps me up at night is being able to continue to move faster than the competition. Because while we’re moving very fast, the competition is moving fast. Nobody else is resting, either."
Werner is not your typical Comcast suit. Many days, he wears jeans and blazers. The books he’s reading or recently finished tell a lot about his management philosophy — Measure What Matters by John Doerr, described as a “handbook for setting and achieving audacious goals,” and the bestseller Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. “Disappoint me early and not late,” Werner tells Comcast employees. “Fail fast but not at the expense of customers.”
To make sure this doesn’t happen — or happens as little as possible — Werner rolls out new products or features to a few thousand employees to be tested. “Then, if no issues are found,” he said, “we start to roll them out to customers. If at any time we find a problem with design or the software, we can immediately roll back.”
Added Werner: “We have a bias for action and we realize that the best products are those that go to market and then modify themselves with feedback. When you put a product into motion, you see how people adapt to it.”
Raised in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., Werner launched his cable career as general manager of the 1,000-subscriber system in Silsbee, Texas, north of Beaumont. At Rogers Communications, based in Toronto, he rose to vice president of engineering. He ran a Silicon Valley networking firm that’s now part of Arris. Before Comcast, Werner traveled the globe as a top tech executive for Liberty Global, which is based in Denver and part of cable mogul and multibillionaire John Malone’s stable of companies.
“I would say [Werner] is the undisputed technical leader in the industry,” said Dick Green, the former head of the industry-funded Cable Labs research firm. “He makes good decisions about the development of technology. You want to lead the pack slightly. If you go too far out front, you get shot. If you are too slow, you get trampled.”
In 2004, Green met with Werner at Liberty Global’s offices in Colorado. At the time, Liberty Global’s cable subsidiary in Japan had a big problem. The national phone company was laying superfast fiber, and cable couldn’t compete on internet speeds. Cable Labs had to develop faster modems for the Japanese market, Werner firmly told Green.
Cable Labs upgraded modems so that they were 10 times faster than the standard then. “He sees the market and then encourages the technology to address it," Green said.
In 2016, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences — which awards the Emmys for TV shows — recognized Werner’s accomplishment with a lifetime achievement award for television technology and engineering. “The transformation over the last four years of what Comcast was to what it is — and I don’t mean as a financial company — has been dramatic," said Seth Haberman, a cable entrepreneur who launched the Visible World ad-tech firm that Comcast bought for undisclosed terms. Haberman also served on the Emmy committee that chose Werner.
“Instead of people saying that this is a piece of crap,” Haberman said of Comcast’s TV service, “now it’s the gold-standard.” Haberman attributes much of the improvement to Werner, who was a driving force behind Comcast developing its own software and the X1 set-top box, which included such features as the Sports App, Episode Guides, and Kids Zone folded into the X1 after its release.
For the Emmy, “everyone said ‘yup, this is the guy we have to honor,’ ” Haberman said of Werner.
At this 7:30 a.m. stand-up in mid-February, Werner and two other top tech executives, Fraser Stirling and Matt Zelesko, were meeting with Jeanine Heck, vice president of AI product (“people call me the search girl,” she said when introducing herself) and Neala Gollomp, director of product management.
Heck talked about the nine billion voice commands on the voice remote and how it’s the No. 1 feature, boosting Comcast’s “net promoter score” for customer satisfaction, a closely watched internal measure. Werner considers the voice remote as valuable as a smartphone in homes.
Werner likes the iPhone’s Siri. “But some days she falls apart. I think consistency is very important,” Werner explained after the meeting. On a particular day, Siri will answer a question correctly. But Werner will ask Siri the same question the next day and it can’t answer.
Werner tells the room he doesn’t want that to happen with the Comcast voice TV remote. He doesn’t think it will. Siri has a broad mission, Werner said. You can ask almost anything of it, from dialing a contact to getting directions. Comcast’s voice remote has a narrower mission. It finds television shows and content and controls devices in the home connected through Xfinity Home. “We think we can be very consistent and have a high hit rate,” he said.
Next up to present was Gollomp. She spoke about the “Pivots” function under development that allows Xfinity TV subscribers to ask questions about shows or movies, such as the name of a song. The television then can pivot to the answer.
Gollomp also told Werner that they were advancing with the “News About” feature that mines Comcast news services similar to a Google search of the internet, only for news videos.
Werner tells Gollomp that this will be a “killer app.” He tells a story. On the day the story broke that celebrity foodie Anthony Bourdain died of suicide, Werner’s wife — a huge Bourdain fan — wanted to learn all about it. But all she could find through the Xfinity voice remote were Bourdain’s cooking shows, which were the most popular Bourdain videos in the search results.
The News About feature could change that. “Let’s get this released ASAP,” Werner said as the stand-up wrapped up after about 45 minutes. He urged the team to keep a close eye on the percentage of times that customers got to the news they wanted on the first try and to continue working to ensure that the feature was drawing news from as many sources as possible on the platform. It’s now being rolled out to all X1 customers.