I Love My Job: Comcast Exec Ebony Lee

The tech leader has come a long way since working to launch Comcast’s celebrated X1 platform. Here’s how she has kept up with — and spearheaded — the company’s ridiculously fast pace of innovation.

Ebony Lee, senior vice president of strategic development at Comcast Cable. Courtesy photo.

Ebony Lee hit a big career milestone this year: The senior vice president of strategic development at Comcast Cable made ten years at Philadelphia’s most influential company. Lee’s time at Comcast began when she helped to launch what the company now calls its competitive differentiator — the X1 platform. Since then, the pace of innovation at the company has only gained speed, and Lee, among other things, is responsible for identifying the new technologies worth Comcast’s while. It’s a tall order, but the tech exec tells us exactly how she gets it done.

I grew up in… in Springfield, Massachusetts.

I currently live in… Philadelphia, in Fairmount.

I started working at Comcast… ten years ago in 2008. A former colleague of mine from my consulting days would always pepper me with job descriptions from Comcast. I was in D.C. at the time and initially said I wasn’t interested. But I did take a look when something on his team was opening up. I decided to take a chance on Comcast and Philadelphia.

Back then, Comcast was… always excited about new technologies. I joined a technology team as a business strategy professional. The goal was to have more business people inside what they called the office of the CTO to develop business cases for new technologies we should invest in long term. What’s changed in the past ten years is the pace of innovation and the appetite to do more.

The most challenging part of my job is… just figuring out all the things we want to do. Like I said, the pace of innovation has increased tremendously. It doesn’t slow down. The challenge is prioritizing which ideas we have the time and resources to pursue and those that will give the greatest return. We are overflowing with ideas to innovate our business, but we only have 24 hours in a day.

Ebony with colleagues at SXSW 2018. Courtesy photo.

Comcast stays innovative… in lots of different ways. First by hiring smart, diverse people from lots of different backgrounds who can bring a fresh perspective to our products and services.

And we get our teams different tools and opportunities outside of their day-to-day. We do things like “Lab Week” to keep people interested in exploring new problems that they might not work on every day. Giving people the freedom to pursue some of those ideas is really important to innovation.

We also try to be open to partnering and learning from other companies that can complete our strengths. That’s an area my team focuses on. We can learn a lot from the innovators at work in the startup community. By supporting them we can learn how other innovators view and solve problems in different ways.

Courtesy photo.

Something most people don’t know about working at Comcast is… it really is about the people. I think sometimes people think about Comcast as this building here in the city or a product in their home, but we really do have great people that work here. They’re not just smart and driven — they’re collegial, down to earth, and genuinely nice people. That is everywhere from the CEO on down.

Almost 10 years ago, I had an opportunity to work directly with Brian Roberts on a project, and it didn’t matter that my level was director at the time. He has always remembered my name. Everybody is like that.

Something else that people might not know is that a lot of awesome women are behind some of our most innovative technologies and products. From women leading work on AI machine learning, to women building the first X1 DVR experience, to women who are responsible for the voice remote, to women who are responsible for our cloud infrastructure and network.

My self-care routine involves… sleep. I believe in sleep. I get eight hours of sleep each night, and I usually don’t compromise on that. I love yoga. I also love wine and decompressing with a glass of red wine. And, side bar, I actually did a yoga, wine, and chocolate retreat once in California. You can do yoga and wine together!

From my stint in consulting I learned… a few things. One, that I don’t know everything. In consulting, you learn quickly to always be curious and open to new ideas. You can’t possibly be a consultant and go into a company and think that you know more than the people who work there. But what you can do is learn to learn. It doesn’t matter what your level is, you can always learn from someone else.

A project that kept me busy this year was… Lift Labs. We really tried to build a series of programs, not just the accelerator with Techstars, but a series of events, workshops, and mentorships where Comcast NBCUniversal people could sit and work side by side with startups. We wanted to help them get their businesses off the ground and see what’s coming as they try to develop what’s next in entertainment and media. We are just getting started. We are looking forward to kicking off a new series of programs at the new Comcast Technology Center.

LIFT Labs Demo Day. Courtesy photo.

The skills I’ve honed over my ten years at Comcast are… listening and adapting. It can be tough to navigate a large company, especially when you are trying to push the organization outside of its comfort zone. I’ve had a unique tenure here because I’ve always kind of worked on the edges of Comcast in areas that are looking at next generation technology platforms, like new joint tech ventures with Verizon, launching the X1, and now trying to identify and incubate new businesses for Comcast outside of our core business.

You don’t do that by just walking in one day, and everyone says, “That’s a great idea. Go do it.” It takes a lot of socializing, a lot of sitting down with people, listening to their interests and figuring out how to use that feedback to adapt and adjust your plan. It’s not always about having the best idea or the best financial model. There’s a lot of art and science when it comes to implementing innovation at a large company.

My morning routine looks like… My alarm goes off at 7 — that is the advantage of living close to work. I watch Morning Joe or at least have it on in the background while I’m getting ready. If it’s not too cold, rainy, or hot, I’ll walk along the parkway from Fairmount to the office. If not, I’m happy I live on a great block where I can get the 48 on one corner or the 32 on another corner. I stop at Wawa for coffee. I’ve been accused of liking creamer more than coffee, which is why I go to Wawa because they have the best creamer selection. Eventually, I make it to the office by 9.

During the day… it’s a bit of a surprise. I think that’s the fun part of my job. No two days are exactly the same. Inevitably, there are probably more meetings than we would all like. So by the end of the day at 5, I’m probably back in my office with a couple of hours of downtime just to myself to get other work done that I can’t get done during the day.

Ebony Lee at Philly Startup Leaders dinner. Courtesy photo.

In the evening… I probably leave the office around 7 then make my way back home. I definitely take a Lyft and figure out what I’m going to eat for the night, either takeout or I cook. I do a little bit more email at home, or I just read. I turn on MSNBC again when I get home. I probably need to do that a little less given the current state of things. Work is kind of continuous these days. You’re always thinking or reading or responding to email or preparing for the next day. You’re always doing something, but in between you can always sneak in some others things as well. I’m in bed by 11.

On the weekends I… have one rule that I’ve had since post-college: No phone calls before 10 a.m. It’s not because I’m not awake. I’m awake. I’m just not ready to engage with the world. My mom usually calls me at 10:01 so I can expect a call from her on either Saturday or Sunday. I have a big family so there’s usually a lot to be caught up on with six kids in the family. I usually take a yoga class, at least one over the weekend. I usually watch a few episodes of Fixer Upper on HGTV because that’s always on and then just hang out with friends or family. There’s usually a restaurant outing of some sort. That’s the one thing I’ve loved about living in Philly these last ten years. The food scene is amazing and so under publicized. It’s fantastic!

A Philly restaurant I can’t get enough of is… It’s hard to pick just one. Anything on 13th and Sansom, though. That’s my favorite eating block in the city. You can’t go wrong.

The innovations exciting me the most right now are… anything around new interfaces or new ways of creating frictionless experiences. That starts with voice, but I’m always interested in people pushing those boundaries with things like gesture control. I saw a demo at an AI focused demo day and people were changing things by just thinking of it. There’s no gesture, no movement. It’s a little crazy to think of that, but innovation and tech is interesting when you can see that it simplifies someone’s life and is accessible to anyone irrespective of disabilities or abilities.

A Philly startup or technologist I’m excited about is… Orai. With the conclusion of the Lift Labs accelerator, I can’t help but shout them out. What’s really cool is that they’re not just focused on speech or public speaking skills but now they’re analyzing gestures and body movements. They are following in the footsteps of great technologists and innovators here in the city, and they’re ones to keep your eye on.

One way Philly could elevate its tech scene is by… getting out and doing more self-promotion. It’s not that there is not a great tech scene. The tech scene is already here; people are doing amazing things. But it’s almost like the food scene — not enough people know about it. If there is some way we can all do our part to get out there and shine a light on what’s happening here, I think that could be really impactful. It creates this cycle of more attention, more people coming to the city, more people wanting to invest in startups. We need to shout it from the mountaintops.

Ebony Lee at Machu Picchu. Courtesy photo.

If I weren’t in this line of work I’d be… doing something related to travel. I love travel. In high school I had the chance to spend my junior year in Barcelona. I had never gotten on a plane before that trip. I was 16, and that was life changing. I had come from Springfield, Massachusetts and then gone to Exeter in New Hampshire. I didn’t have this broad view of the world. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with other countries and cultures. There are so many places I have yet to see.

The next few places I’d like to see are… Japan, Argentina and Ghana.

The shows I binge watch… depends on my mood. I love This is Us, and I usually binge watch it on the weekend because I need to be emotionally prepared. I can’t watch it in the middle of the week because I need to be ready to cry. I also binge watch Game of Thrones. I’m re-watching it from the beginning now.

The last music I listened to was… the Hamilton mix tape. I finally got to see Hamilton for the first time this fall.

I think the best way to address the lack of diversity in tech is to… keep shining a light on it. Holding leaders, including myself, accountable to making a change. It’s important for organizations to hold a mirror up and be transparent about where there is an opportunity to increase diversity. Again, diversity is everything from gender to race to age to ability to different ways of thinking or where people grew up, urban vs. suburban.

My first pinch-me moment at Comcast was…when I met Oprah backstage at NCTA in 2011, the year Brian Roberts unveiled the X1 for the first time to the public. There were only a couple of people backstage preparing Brian for this debut. It was already amazing to be there. And then I got to meet Oprah backstage, and now I have an iPhone picture of us framed in my office from 2011. That qualifies as pinch me. [Laughs]

Ebony Lee and Oprah. Courtesy photo.

Working to launch the X1 platform was… super challenging and rewarding. I was lucky to have been on the ground floor and be one of the first employees working on it. I built the business case for X1, and when the funding got approved, they brought in Sam Schwartz to run this team. I was one of the first people on that team and had such a unique perspective to be able to see a concept grow into a platform that’s now deployed in more than 60 percent of our video households.

At the time, there were so many people thinking of all the reasons why it wouldn’t work. Our job was to stay focused to demonstrate that it could work. We could develop and deploy this cloud-based infrastructure and reinvent our TV product. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s exhausting and challenging. But at the end of the day, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career here because we did it and now have other companies syndicating that same platform.

On imposter syndrome… I was advised early on, particularly by women in leadership positions, that when you’re in the room you need to behave like you belong there. You may have your own doubts but you need to sit at the table, engage and believe you belong there.

A social issue I’m passionate about is… education, giving everyone access to a quality education regardless of your background. I’m also the board chair of an organization here in Philadelphia called Muscopia. I also believe that part of having a quality education is having a well-rounded education that includes music and the arts.

The most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased is… my townhouse in Fairmount. It’s lovely! I love it.

The career advice I give to young people is… don’t be afraid to raise your hand and take on things that are outside what you think you were hired to do. If you’re interested, volunteer to do that thing. It exposes you to new people and gets you more visibility.

In ten years I see myself… hopefully getting ready for retirement. Is that too soon? Or I’ll at least be finding my act two. Maybe ten years from now I can pursue something totally different. I can take all the lessons I’ve learned in the tech space and figure out if I can apply that in some other way. Maybe that’s nonprofit work or working with kids.