19TH MAY 2015

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Denver Business Journal

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If you want to understand how much consumer expectations are changing corporate information technology, take a look at satellite TV company Dish Network Corp.

Douglas County-based Dish's 1,000-employee IT division has borrowed from the world of startups and has been "figuring out how to get small again" as it tries to be a source of innovation for the company, not just an IT shop, said John Swieringa, Dish's senior vice president and CIO.

Members of Dish's IT staff, or Swieringa himself, sometimes take a laptop to Galvanize or Pivotal Labs and work from one of the downtown Denver gathering spots for coworking software developers and tech startups.

Dish Network also is regularly working more closely with startups as it learns to be less of a satellite TV business and more of an online commerce company that makes consumer-facing technology to sell a variety digital entertainment and information products.

Part of that learning involves getting Swieringa and members of his IT staff out of Dish Network's offices to be around other people trying new things, he said.

“The idea of the all-knowing tech exec who’s always going to get everything right — it’s a bit of a false premise,” Swieringa said.

He came to Dish in 2007 after working in finance at Avaya and Aramark Sports. Part of his attraction to working at Dish (Nasdaq: DISH) was the way Charlie Ergen, its chairman and CEO, spoke of it being a learning organization.

Swieringa became CIO about 14 months ago. He sees the job as primarily making sure Dish’s IT staff, about half of whom work at headquarters, have the right resources and relationships throughout the company and in the broader tech community.

Working among young software companies helps expose him to new approaches and understand where technology’s headed, not just what’s available now, he said.

“The big thing for me is establishing the right resources to be able to work in the best way possible,” he said.

Mike Marcotte leads Acumen Digital, a local technology development startup that has worked with Dish on its Sling TV streaming video technology. Marcotte, a former chief digital officer at Dish’s sister company, EchoStar Corp, says he’s impressed to see Dish rubbing shoulders in technology outside of its own offices.

“What’s the best way to be entrepreneurial? It’s to get out of there and come work with people in startups, like us,” said Marcotte.

Dish Network also works closely Greenwood Village-based Qwinix Technologies; Recurly, a San Francisco-based billing technology company that opened a Boulder office at Dish's urging; and with others, Swieringa said.

Early this year, Dish launched Sling TV. It was the first subscription Internet TV product launched by a TV distributor, a “cable lite” offering that attracted attention across the entertainment industry.

Sling TV is as close to the a la carte television consumers crave that TV programming studios are comfortable with, Ergen said. Sling TV is still in its earliest days, and has a long way to go in its development, Ergen said, but it could prove to be the TV technology of the future.

If such technology is going to eat away at the satellite TV business, why not seize on the opportunity rather than get run over by it?

That’s the way Ergen approaches things.

“Let’s build a better product, and we’re going to do it regardless of the consequences,” he said in an interview with me for this week's print-edition cover story. “Whether what we’re doing is smart or not smart, the jury’s out.

“A lot of companies aren’t comfortable competing against themselves. In today’s world of stock prices and quarterly earnings calls with analysts, people are hesitant to hand any ammunition to the analysts that says ‘our core business is declining,” Ergen said. “Yet, the history books will tell you if you don’t embrace change and you don’t constantly try to improve your product — even at the expense of your own current core — ultimately you’ll go out of business. The buggy whip guy didn’t invest in the automobile. Not many guys in buggy whips these days.”

He also expects people with a passion for working in TV and technology will find it fun to be technologically ambitious.

Ergen credits Joe Clayton, the former CEO of Dish who left that job in April, with bringing new sophistication to product development at Dish. Clayton’s background in consumer electronics at RCA and in services running Sirius XM satellite radio helped hone Dish’s internal product abilities, Ergen said.

The IT staff had to evolve as well, to create technologies that keep customers happy, not just serve the satellite TV operation, Swieringa said.

Sling TV is a no-contract service, meaning customers can walk away any given month, and they will if the technology doesn’t work to their satisfaction.

”We used to talk about moving at the pace of business, but now we talk about the speed of the customer. They move a lot faster,” he said.


Greg Avery covers tech, telecom, aerospace, bioscience and media for the Denver Business Journal and writes for the "TechFlash" blog. Phone: 303-803-9222.