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Meet The Mentors: Connecting to the customer with Mickie Calkins

by Leah Oppenheimer | Mar 28, 2018 | Meet the Mentors |

Welcome to the second installment of UpRamp’s ‘Meet the Mentors’ series. In this series, we’re showcasing the wealth of resources available to Fiterator teams throughout their journeys with UpRamp via the mentors available to them.

Mickie Calkins began her career in Colorado working for HP. Over 30 years, she built a reputation for excellence in innovation by delivering several first-of-its-kind products for both enterprise and consumer markets. She joined CableLabs in 2013 as a Principal Architect, Human Factors Strategist, and in 2016 became the Director of Co-Innovation.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Mickie, and thanks for being a mentor for the UpRamp Fiterator - particularly to DeviceBits (second cohort) and MediaHound (first cohort). So tell me, what's going on in technology that excites you right now?

Mickie: I’ve spent my career focused on the human side of technology solutions. Right now I'm thinking a lot about autonomous vehicles, robotics, AI, AR/VR, and how these will change how we interact with other people and things in our world. Network technology is needed to deliver all of these experiences, so the industry needs to be mindful of how we architect solutions and understand both the intended and unintended ways the technologies can be used.

What about in the cable industry? And particularly the customer experience side?

Mickie: The cable industry is truly transforming how it interacts with customers. There have been complaints for years about complex or confusing customer support, but our members are beginning to roll out platforms that are radically improving customer experiences -- from voice-driven remotes, to simplified billings statements, and even voice-based authentication for support calls. I think many consumers will be pleasantly surprised by by the commitment to improvement and the overall changing experience.

So how important are small tech companies to overhauling the user experience?

Mickie: They’re key to this transformation. Overhauling the customer experience has been the #1 focus of many of our members, and I've seen a lot of willingness from cable operators to partner in this area and bring the best-in-class into their operations. Customer experience executives across the industry are hungry to meet people with exciting solutions that could be easily integrated.

When we talk about customer experience (CX) and user services (US), do you think there's such thing as a one-size-fits-all, or does it need to be adaptive?

Mickie: I'm a fan of the adaptive approach, especially for websites and apps. That said, our industry is starting to internalize design based on the psychographic of consumers --- offering different ways to navigate to the same result based on how you personally perceive or choose to use technology. One good example is Comcast’s voice remote: you can engage with it as a traditional remote, but now you can also press the blue mic button and engage via voice.

A beneficiary of Mickie's mentorship in the 2017 Fiterator Cohort- JC Ramey of DeviceBits

Let’s look a bit further into the future. What do you think we'll be seeing ten years from now?

Mickie: Cable and broadband is still going to play a big role in how entertainment comes to a home, but services will be much more than that. Over half of our members offer wireless options. Soon, I believe there will be solutions that help consumers safely manage connected devices, along with connecting them to highly personalized experiences around healthcare and education - not just at the household level, but at a personal level.

I also believe that displays are going to change, and how we get bits to those displays is going to change. We're going to see a lot more cloud-based activities, so network architecture will be closer to the edge.

A real consumer consumption transformation is happening and it's going to be fun!

As you of course know, we work with a ton of startups at UpRamp. Tell me about your experience working with startups.

Mickie: I actually worked in two Silicon Valley startups that were part of the dot-com bubble. Icarian, ranked the #1 start up in the Silicon Valley at the time, was among the first cloud-based human resources management systems available. Later, I worked for a Motorola subsidiary called Starfish that developed personal information management for mobile phone. After experiencing hostile takeovers by competitors at both, I wound up back at HP managing Innovation Projects.

I was later part of the founding team of the e-gaming division at HP, which ran as a startup within the company. We were a small group working to make the best gaming PC to ever hit the market. We achieved our goal as the only gaming PC to ever receive a '10' from PC Magazine. During the journey, we acquired VooDoo, one of the top gaming companies at the time. Here, I experienced the corporate side of a start-up acquisition, from strategy development, through due diligence, and ultimately through to integration. It was definitely a learning experience!

What's your advice for startups going through that type of acquisition?

Mickie: You need to find a company that maps to your values - not only for your own sanity, but also for the people you bring with you. You probably know that you're not going to have that same small company feel. Don’t underestimate the behavioral change and cultural changes that will need to take place (along with your personal maturity as a leader) to let your baby integrate into a larger company.

Once inside, you should identify an internal sherpa to guide you through the corporate landscape; someone who knows the landmines and understands the hierarchy and how the org chart might not show who actually gets things done.

That's really good advice. Hypothetically, if money and technology weren't a concern, what would be your dream startup?

Mickie: I would be trying to cause a breakthrough in education. In my opinion, the U.S. system needs a massive change, and that's how I like to approach innovation. Is something broken? Then I want to fix it. Learning now seems focused on tests and college admissions, and I sense many kids aren't really connecting with the materials these days. I  think technology could help solve that.

It's March now, and Fiterator time is coming around very quickly. What's your mentor superpower?

Mickie: My Rolodex!

In all seriousness, it's probably coaching startups on how to talk to people in the cable industry customer experience groups. It's so important to connect with your audience and this is an industry where different sized operators have different issues. I can help highlight these issues.

Startups that work with me should also know that I’ve spent a good deal of time in product design for both hardware and software solutions, helping to develop market adoption strategies and market test methods.

Mickie mentored our friends at MediaHound during the first Fiterator cohort. 

So what should a team be asking you if they are fortunate enough to  to have you as a mentor?

Mickie: They should really be focused on asking me how they can best shape their offering to fit to the industry and how they can develop their relationship with the industry. They should also be asking me what are the top 3 things their potential clients are seeking. I'm surprised that more people don't ask that question.

Applications are rolling in now, and the next cohort will join us in August. What's the one line of advice you want them to see?

Mickie: Take the time to read up on the cable industry, its people, and its issues. It'll be well worth it.

Final question: entrepreneurs are perpetually over-caffeinated. So - French Press or Aeropress?

Mickie: I'll drink any kind of swill there is. Right now, I’ve converted to decaf.

Mickie Calkins, everyone - more energetic without caffeine than most people are with caffeine.


Mickie Calkins


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