New Broadband Chief’s Work, Vision,
Enthusiasm Will Never Buffer
When Marcellus Nixon is in the room the glass is always full. Optimism or pessimism, or any other such mindset for whether the glass is half empty or half full is moot because Nixon is passionate about filling the glass.
As things stand at United these days, there aren’t many glass surfaces or erasable writing walls within arm’s reach of Nixon that haven’t been politely annexed for his routing diagrams, calculations, footnotes, tasks, fiber backbone and head end schematics.
After only three months on the job, Nixon’s boundless broadband works have appeared on his office glass and, so too, on illustration boards that have sprung up on office walls like table coasters to catch the musings, teachings and vision of United’s new vice president of broadband services.
All things considered, United got an educator and broadband network expert in one fell swoop.
Nixon has opened new Broadband 101 classrooms at every United campus, and he is always eager to snare any new unsuspecting student and bring them into the fold—all while juggling the cooperative’s new high-speed broadband deployment that is now underway.
And lest a trampled point be missed, Nixon favors glass as a communications medium—whether it’s set on a wall or wound among the fiber-optic strands encased in thousands of miles cable that will one day provide members the gold standard in high-speed internet service.
The sheer prospect of (1) building a superior fiber-optic network from scratch, (2) bringing a whole new spectrum of economic, educational and healthcare opportunities to consumers and businesses who have been left out of the internet market space and (3)orchestrating that work for a company that isn’t modeled to serve Wall Street profit centers comprises an opportunity Nixon says is the fulfillment of a personal career aspiration. He can’t hide his elation about the recent change in his storied career path.
For the avid baseball enthusiast it’s almost as if he is kid again, and he has just come up to bat in the bottom of the ninth and he crushes a three-run homer out of the park on a full count to win a league series.
“Man, I’m excited to be a part of this,” he said. “My career field picked me. From the moment I first immersed myself in the technology, it became a hobby and a passion rather than work—I loved learning about it that much, and still do. But to marry that love of my chosen vocation with the culture that exists at United, and alongside the tight-knit group of people who are here at this company is truly exceptional and certainly one of the best career experiences I’ve ever had the good fortune to have—even though, granted, I’ve been here for the sum total of only 90 days as of tomorrow.”
Nixon attributes much of his prior career accomplishments—many of which have carried him coast-to-coast across the nation and overseas for a variety of telecom industry leaders and considerably larger internet technology projects—to a personal conviction that earning and cultivating trusted relationships along the way are vital and worth every ounce of effort made in developing them.
He said he still leans on those relationships, both for the lasting friendships they inspired, but also for the professional networking insights and knowledge pools they represent.
He sought out the advice of some of those former professional affiliations after he ran across an employment search from a company that appeared to champion similar convictions to his, and that just happened to be seeking internet management candidates to lead a start-up broadband network project in North Texas.
“A great many things stood out in my research of United that were appealing to me, including its not-for-profit business model and the service reputation of the company,” he said. “But I also realized the broadband project United was about to undertake was solely about changing people’s quality of life,” he said. “I understood then that the project wasn’t a Wall Street quarter-over-quarter profit consideration for United, this was about taking care of valued relationships and connecting people with vital services they didn’t have and weren’t likely to ever receive.
“And then I got here, and the culture was amazing. In fact, I would argue the culture I’ve experienced everyday at this cooperative, whether it has been personified by United CEO Cameron Smallwood or what I’ve witnessed from the co-op’s executive leadership team, is second to none. And that speaks volumes when I compare environments I’ve come from where cutthroat leaders consistently say one thing and do another. Even in the short tenure I’ve had with United, I can’t imagine that ever occurring here. I’ve been met with nothing but complete support since I’ve been here, and a person can make a lot of progress very quickly when they have that type of support and when they have become a part of such an honest, accountable culture.”
While Nixon agrees there is no short-order drill for completing the immense project United has on its drawing boards, he says he fully believes the cooperative’s broadband venture will move along at a quicker than expected pace because of how responsive and accustomed United is in tackling big projects, and its resolve for getting things done right the first time—through advance planning and execution.
A smile breaks across his thoughtful features when he tries to convey the prospect for helping build a broadband network raised from day one to be exemplary, rather than one that is more routinely substandard in technical quality and management.
“I’ve spent most of my professional career correcting design flaws in other networks that were largely the result of short-sighted profit motivations,” he said. “In those situations, those companies never run out of the ‘yeah, we were going to come back and fix that problem later’ cans that so many companies kick down the road—until they run out of road and hit the wall. When you do that, you basically compromise everything you’ve built, and every promise you’ve made to consumers about providing reliable and quality service because you’re constantly taking down the service to make upgrades to it.”
On that account, Nixon hasn’t tarried a day since he accepted oversight of United’s new broadband venture. Working with the cooperative’s project consultant and internal coordinators, he wasn’t on the job long before he revised and substituted a variety of provisions in network design, internet connection, internet providers, internet redundancy, hardware, IP allotments, etc., and provided an accompanying business case for why making enhancements in those areas early would buoy future system integrity and also reduce costs as the project build-out progressed.
The confidence Nixon has exuded that no other provider will be able to compete with United broadband internet service at any level on today’s playing field is born from his experience in the industry and his understanding of the lengths the cooperative is going to take to ensure the new service will have no equal.
In his words, “a transformative experience is about to be provided to United members” when the cooperative begins to make internet service available. Even though the cooperative will offer different levels of internet service, he believes beta subscribers who first test United’s broadband delivery in the beginning will be able to quickly attest they don’t need the fastest internet speeds the telecom industry has so often marketed and duped consumers into believing are critical for good internet service.
“Rather than having to constantly reconfigure our network to accommodate future expansion, we will instead take the strategic approach to build this network for the long-haul—in effect we are going to build a house with a roof that isn’t porous and leaking from the very beginning, and that will allow us to provide top-level service from day one rather than spending time and resources to constantly scale the network to meet demand that we know will come,” he said.
“One of the things we’re going to do better than other providers do is to connect our system to the top four internet providers in the world. Originally, the project plan had called for simply connecting with area providers—which meant we would have been getting connections from folks who were in turn getting connections from other folks, who were in turn getting connections from other folks, and so on down the line,” he said.“So instead of suffering the law of diminishing returns as so many consumers do in their internet access, our members are going to be able to access providers that are only one source network away. That instantly raises the quality index of the cooperative’s network. The next thing we will do is build a case for bringing some of the most sought-after resources in the marketplace, such as Netflix, Facebook, YouTube and others directly into our head ends to make those resources locally and immediately available—instantaneously.”
Nixon said those and many other network tuning efforts are all things other providers know they need to do, but that would never pass the profit metrics sought in corporate sectors, even if they had the dexterity and the will to upgrade their systems.
To that extent, he already has heard from some telecom insiders that United’s reputation for doing things in a quality way has already led many internet providers to the foregone conclusion that the cooperative’s entry in the area’s internet market environment will be—disruptive.
“United is a respected brand, and the company has upheld a tradition of providing exceptional service and value to it its members,” Nixon said. “Those qualities immediately distance United from most of the companies who will become our competitors, because they know they can’t manufacture a competitive answer to those ideals. I fully intend for the broadband service to exceed member expectations, too, and I believe it will. We know we’re asking members to be patient with us as we build the network out to them, but I can assure every member and every future subscriber that the service delivered will have been worth the wait.”
Broadband VP: Life, Career Prepared Him for United’s Next Marathon
– By JOHN DAVIS–
The sound of his feet hitting the pavement starts most mornings for Marcellus Nixon.
The new vice president of broadband services for United Cooperative Services loves this time of day. Each step hitting in rhythm as the world awakens, he listens to the birds singing, watches papers hitting porches and smells hints of coffee and breakfast in the cool morning air as neighbors prepare for work.
“It’s almost like therapy for me,” he said of his runs. “I like to challenge myself. Sometimes, you have to go out there and force yourself. Sometimes I look down at my watch and ask myself ‘What are you doing? Are you going to run or what?’ Once I get over this initial pain, because sometimes it can be painful, I start thinking about stuff.”
As he passes his neighbor’s yards, he’s dissecting high-tech problems and putting them back together. Analyzing. Looking at the perplexing from a different perspective. Pieces fall into place during this time of great ideas and inspiration as miles and minutes tick past.
He’s competed in 23 marathons since 2005, and recently partook in the Cowtown half marathon in February.
Nixon’s resume is star-studded. Large national and international companies wanted Nixon’s talent when it came to his expertise with communications and the internet. Most recently, he served as head of global internet edge engineering at Amazon Web Services, and before that, as senior director of network operations & engineering at Verizon Digital Media Services.
He even served as director for global network services at ESPN – a gig he said was a dream job come true.
All of these companies have benefitted from one of his “a-ha!” moments borne of his morning runs, he jokes.
His career took a circuitous path. He credits a poor performance as his high school’s quarterback as an event horizon that started his journey. His football team lost the first two games, knocking them out of the playoffs. The experience rocked his teenaged world. Nixon said he took it hard and mentally withdrew from school. As he dealt with his own disappointment, he decided he didn’t want anything to do with college like his other friends.
One day, he happened to see the Army recruiter at school. A conversation turned into enlistment with a delayed entry so he could join up at a later time. His grandfather, not pleased with his grandson’s decision, opted to influence Nixon’s decision as to what he would do in the Army.
“I chose my career path in the Army based on a two-minute conversation with my grandfather, who really wasn’t happy about the fact that I’d decided to go into military,” Nixon said. “Once he determined he really couldn’t change my mind about going in, he thought that he could tell me what to do when I went in. He knew that communications and electronics were taking off as a career field. And every parent wants their child to do better than them. So, he thought that he would influence my decision, and he did.
“So, they showed me a job they called Signal, a fancy moniker for Telecommunications Operator. I had the opportunity to work with radios, all types of communication devices and early Internet-based equipment like modems. I liked it. I was rather proud going back home telling my grandfather that this was what I was going to do, thinking this was a pretty big deal. He just patted me on my shoulder said, ‘Good boy, I think you’ll be happy in the long run.’ ”
Working as a signal support specialist for the Army meant Nixon’s talents were in high demand and he got to travel around the world. That experience, he said, shaped his mind into a global worldview. He found he most loved immersing himself in different cultures and learning the customs of far-flung locations.
That, in turn, served him well as he parlayed his military learned skills in the career he has today. It also assisted him when he left behind ESPN to serve as head of internet architecture for Reliance Jio in Mumbai – a move he said is one of the risks in life that particularly shaped how he now thinks as an executive leader.
It wasn’t until he was 46 that he received his MBA in 2012. Going back to school later in life, he said, was a definitive choice. No matter what great ideas he had, he said, he found it difficult to gather support because he could not speak the financial language, NPV, ROI, IRR—litmus tests and staples of the business world.
Just like with running a marathon, Nixon said building United’s high-speed broadband network will take time, patience, preparation and careful planning. But, he said, he’s ready to run this race all the way to the end of the finish line.