Image courtesy of J. Guevara
There isn’t one right way to bring broadband to your city. There is, however, a common element that appears in many city success stories: a staff member leading the effort. Having a staff member in a leadership role who is passionate and dedicated to connectivity in your city can make a world of difference. This role can take on a variety of titles, from Chief Technology Officer or IT Director to “Community Broadband Manager.” For the purposes of this piece, we will refer to this employee as the “broadband manager.”
How does one go about finding the perfect broadband manager, and what exactly should their role look like? This isn’t a one size fits all answer, but we talked to several successful broadband managers from across the country to figure out where to start.
One thing our interviewees all agreed on was the importance of a set of interpersonal and problem-solving soft skills.
All of our interviewees stressed the importance of strong communication. A broadband manager will be most successful when they can clearly communicate internally with his or her team in order to organize work, grow and maintain enthusiasm for the project, and facilitate collaboration.
Externally, the broadband manager needs to act as a “translator” as they talk to people from a variety of professional backgrounds about the importance of broadband. It’s crucial to be able to convey the needs and goals of the project to a variety of stakeholders, including department directors, industry representatives, elected officials, the community, and more. Once your broadband manager has talked to stakeholders about the benefits of a broadband project, they need to be able to align the varied interests of all these groups into a comprehensive strategy that all parties will be happy about. Strong communication skills will help the broadband manager to be an energetic salesperson and representative of the project.
This process is also made easier if this employee demonstrates empathy. Both David Young and Bruce Patterson emphasized that this trait is essential in being able to understand and bring together multiple groups with diverse interests.
Flexibility and problem-solving are crucial to the successful leadership of any broadband project. It is unlikely that your project will unfold entirely as planned, and it is important that your broadband manager can adjust and get the project back on track.
Finally, a big-picture outlook could help a broadband manager stay focused on the long-term goal of connecting a community. Bruce Patterson emphasized that it’s imperative to not let a lack of short-term progress distract from the long-term goal.
Like any job, there is a certain set of hard skills that your new hire needs to have in order to be successful.
For a broadband manager, this includes a knowledge of network engineering and design. David Young suggests looking for someone with a CISCO networking certification or other relevant certifications. Beyond understanding the infrastructure of the internet, Bruce Patterson says that it’s also helpful for your hire to have an interest in consumer trends and products, so that they can anticipate what subscribers will wants out of their networks and will have the foresight to anticipate what’s coming next (for example, the Internet of Things).
In addition to technical know-how, our interviewees stress the importance of project management and strong financial planning. J. Guevara says that it’s helpful to have a baseline understanding of business models, capital investment, contingency costs, and labor standards for a publicly-funded project. David Young adds that these skills transfer well from the management of other infrastructure projects, and explained that if someone can create, lead, and budget one public infrastructure project, that they could do the same for broadband. “Broadband infrastructure is challenging,” he said, “but not magical.”
So, what does success look like for such a role? Like their skill set, the goals of a broadband manager are diverse, and some are more concrete than others.
More measurable metrics include: the number of buildings your project has successfully connected, the diversity of institutions on the network, the take rate of a public network, and whether the project has broken even.
The broadband manager should also have helped identify, enable, and establish key broadband policies and best practices, such as dig once and One Touch Make Ready. These policies should set the project up for success, protect city rights and values, and set the course for meaningful work in the future. “Streamlined, electronic and online Right of Way permitting and plan review processes are a proven best practice for a successful project.” said David Young. “Your staff and contractors will appreciate you for it!”
There are also important measures of success beyond these numerical benchmarks. Garnering internal support for the project from elected officials, public utilities, the IT department, and the community is a win, and instilling the value of broadband in these stakeholders is a success that should not go under-appreciated. Instilling values and support goes hand-in-hand with building relationships. A level of trust and respect from and for other city employees is essential, and developing strong, communicative and collaborative relationships with vendors will not only set up your project for success, but will help set a precedent for problem-solving in the future.
A broadband manager should have technical experience, strong communication and interpersonal skills, and should be able to handle a wide range of goals. Where can one find such a candidate?
One option is to hire from the private sector. David Young recommends looking to mobile operators, legacy carriers, and engineering consultants in order to find a candidate with strong technical knowledge an/or hands-on construction experience. An Outside Plant Manager from a legacy telecom or mobile operator, for example, may be good candidate.
Alternatively, Bruce Patterson is a strong supporter of hiring from within the city. The candidate doesn’t have to be in the IT department, he says, as long as they share an enthusiasm for broadband and the core values and goals of the project. He suggests looking within your city for someone who fits this bill, giving them some rope, and seeing what happens. Jory Wolf echoes this advice, and suggests that one could look to city planners, public works engineers, attorneys, economic development professionals, policy managers, or administrators, and start mentoring them and involving them in meetings and projects.
Regardless of the candidate’s background, it’s imperative that they share a passion for broadband, have a corresponding values system, and can appreciate the impact of broadband on community members’ lives. They should be a change agent ready to tackle challenges and make a difference. “And,” adds J. Guevara, “they should have a good roster of bad internet jokes.” Our interviewees shared some favorites:
“Why did the computer go to the dentist? Because it had Bluetooth.”
“Why are iPhone chargers not called Apple Juice?”
“Did you hear about that new band called 999 Mbps? They’re really talented, they just can’t get a gig.”
Please note that the hiring needs of each city are unique, and that this blog should be taken as a starting point.
For further reading, please find examples of the City of Santa Monica’s past postings for Community Broadband Manager, Community Broadband Analyst, and Assistant Community Broadband Analyst, and the City of Boston’s job description for their Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate.
Thank you to our interviewees for their time and wisdom: J. Guevara, Bruce Patterson, Jory Wolf, and David Young.