How NBCUniversal’s Operations and Technology Teams are Transforming the Future of Media

Leaders from cybersecurity, data, engineering and product discuss their collaboration in NBCUniversal’s pivot to a direct-to-consumer model, and how the company’s performance culture attracts and retains incredible talent from all disciplines.

Written by Kathy Kantorski
Published on May. 17, 2023
How NBCUniversal’s Operations and Technology Teams are Transforming the Future of Media
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When you hear “NBCUniversal,” what do you think of? 

Some think of their favorite television shows: The Today Show, Saturday Night Live, The Voice or even the throwback, The Office. Some think of the Universal Studios theme park, possibly the new Super Nintendo World. Or maybe you think of the streaming platform Peacock.

“We all have a hand in a piece of those experiences,” said Steve Makofsky, NBCUniversal’s SVP of software engineering. The “we” he is referring to can be both the talent at large working for NBCUniversal as well as his fellow leaders in the Operations and Technology division. 

Among the many functions within O&T like production and technical operations, the division also encompasses the cybersecurity, data, engineering and product teams. “We’re focused on building centralized technology platforms, capabilities and workflows that can benefit the various entities within NBCUniversal — from the content creation side of our business through all the ways we distribute and monetize that content,” said Ashish Desai, SVP of product and operations.

Today, these four O&T teams are united in their efforts to build an architecture for NBCUniversal as it transitions from a primarily business-to-business model into a growing direct-to-consumer model. 

 

Historic photo of NBC microphone
NBCUniversal

 

“As a 100-year-old studio, NBCUniversal has a storied history and legacy,” Desai said. “You can imagine the amount of business process and technology that has been built and iterated upon over decades.

“Now, it’s pretty clear that we’re at an inflection point as a business, in a rapid transition to the DTC model,” he continued. “And all of us within O&T are aligning around this concept of a unified architecture for this company as it pivots in a once-in-a-generation way into the new world of DTC. That architecture effectively will build the organization’s underlying technology capabilities.”

All of us are aligning around this concept of a unified architecture for this company as it pivots in a once-in-a-generation way into the new world of DTC.”

 

It’s no small feat, but this group of leaders — Makofsky, Desai, Marissa Johnson, VP and information security officer, and Jeff Szuba, SVP of data and analytics — is up for the challenge, with each other’s support. Support that comes in the form of both encouragement and challenge.  

“There’s a principle in our organization: Everyone gets a flag,” Desai explained. “We’re encouraged to raise those flags if we’ve got a concern with a project or a working dynamic. As leaders, we’re mandated to face those flags head on and deal with them as a team.”

 

‘We Bring Each Other Together to Solve and Unblock Things’

In creating this architecture, each part of the O&T team is critical to success. When asked who she works with most, Johnson, who runs the cybersecurity team, replied, “All of them.” 

Desai underscored Johnson’s role in the team when he explained that the architecture they’re working on is “underpinned by a really advanced cyber posture that Marissa and the cyber team drives. Because we can build the greatest things in the world, but if we build it in a way that’s not secure and can be vulnerable, then it doesn’t matter how cool it is.” 

And let’s not forget data. “We’re driving the industry on the paradigm of the data mesh,” said Szuba, who heads NBCUniversal’s data and analytics. “The data architectural paradigm is in its infancy, and we’ve been ahead, driving the major cloud providers to unlock capabilities on their product roadmaps.” 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Makofsky, Desai, Johnson and Szuba are on each other’s speed dials. “Our head of HR said this week, ‘Some groups really know what the word collaboration means,’” Szuba reflected. “If Marissa, Ashish, Steve and I are having a bad day or struggling with a problem, we bring each other together to help solve it, or to unblock things that we’re challenged against.”

“We’re just really open and transparent about issues that we’re facing and where we want to go,” he added. 

The rest of the team agreed, noting that the environment elicits team members to talk about predispositions and beliefs, then challenge them. 

“It’s OK to say, ‘Yeah, that was true then, it is not true now.’ These are the ways we need to talk about things. It’s not a personal attack. It’s not meant to offend,” said Makofsky, who joked that he also serves as “Jeff’s therapist.” 

 

MAKO’S MANTRAS

Makofsky, nicknamed “Mako,” is known for some key phrases that have become mantras for the engineering team, whom he is empowering to be “agents of culture change.” These mantras include: 

“We should be focusing on things that are core to us, not commodity to us.”

“What’s your say-do ratio?” 

“Focus on the ‘yes’ (the things we’ve said we’re going to do). It’s OK to say ‘no’ to protect the ‘yes.’”

 

 

Johnson describes the dynamic as “good friction, where you’re driving dialogue to develop an optimal secure technical solution for NBCUniversal.” Ultimately, that friction is a catalyst for a discussion that becomes educational. 

“That argument of, ‘Well we did it this way five years ago,’ well, the bad guys have changed,” Johnson said. “The threat landscape is going to continue to shift.” 

Makofsky echoed with, “The way we built software five years ago isn’t the way you’re going to build software tomorrow. It’s just a very different world. We’ve got to consistently embody continuous learning and continuous improvement.”

 

 

‘A Holistic Ecosystem of Services’

In modernizing the architecture of NBCUniversal’s technology, O&T is not just building what Makofsky describes as “monolithic applications.” Instead, they are building a “holistic ecosystem of services,” ensuring everything is privacy and security compliant, thanks to Johnson’s team, and landing into a data mesh built by Szuba’s team.  

“When you think about something like Peacock, O&T is ultimately building everything from what it takes to know we can present a piece of content on a platform to the way we market, license and distribute it and the way we reconcile both costs and revenue associated with that title,” Desai explained.

And they’re building it in a way that has scalability, reusability and elasticity. 

“Is the infrastructure elastic?” Makofsky said, explaining how he challenges his team of engineers. “Can I have it expand as it’s getting consumed more and more? If no one’s using it, can it collapse to where it costs us no money?”

 

 Photo of two NBCUniversal colleagues sitting at a table outside with laptops, talking and smiling
NBCUniversal

 

‘Experiences challenge technology and technology inspires experiences’

The O&T team is quick to combat any misconceptions about working in tech for a media company. 

“‘Oh, cool, you work in technology, you’re an engineer — so what are you doing at a media company?’” Desai said, quoting a common question. “Almost every single part of NBCUniversal over the last decade has required significant transformation in the way it operates, and, inherently, transformation and technology these days are synonymous.”

Desai explained that no longer is it the case that candidates for jobs at NBCUniversal have to come from other media companies. “Now we need the best talent regardless of their industry background, but rather in terms of their technical discipline and aptitude,” Desai said. “And then we’re able to teach them some of the coolest ways to apply that technology, where you can go home, turn on your TV or launch your iPad and show your loved ones the output of something that you worked on.”     

We’re able to teach new hires the coolest ways to apply technology, and they can go home, turn on their TV or launch their iPad and show their loved ones the output of something they worked on.”

 

Being able to contribute to something that family and friends have a connection to is what drew Makofsky to NBCUniversal.

“I’ve had the good fortune of working at some of the biggest companies,” he noted, “but I don’t like building tech for the sake of building tech. What is a kick for me is that this company has an emotional connection to people. I can easily reference ‘more cowbell’ in a meeting and everyone knows what I’m talking about. And that is a far more interesting conversation than ‘my email doesn’t work.’”

Makofsky went on to cite a quote he believes in: “‘Experiences challenge technology and technology inspires experiences.’ I view us as a company that leverages technology to create great experiences.”

 

Photo of an employee walking alongside NBCUniversal_s _Stage 6_ building covered in ivy, toward door
NBCUniversal

 

‘You can have 20 different careers here’

It used to be that if you wanted to work at a media company like NBCUniversal, you would likely study a specific field related to broadcast television. And if you wanted to work in a technical capacity, you’d be drawn to the company’s highly complex ecosystem, including geosynchronously orbiting satellites receiving hundreds of signals and delivering them back down to earth. 

“That is actually a bit old school now, but NBCUniversal has always been a highly technical organization requiring the best of both operational savvy and great technical design architecture,” Desai said.

As the company has evolved, so has its talent. 

“Every time I change a role or take on a new challenge, the scope is so significantly different. I feel like I’m going to a different industry or a different business,” said Johnson, who has worked at NBCUniversal for nearly 14 years. 

Szuba’s tenure of 17 years means he got to work with Johnson as she was rising through the ranks. “To watch her career grow into now being a key leader within the cybersecurity organization is something I’ve been proud of,” he said. “In the data and analytics landscape, I’ve also had to constantly reinvent myself. I started here working on an on-premise data warehouse to now stitching together 30 different data lakes across our entire company, across clouds, across technologies at enterprise scale. I’m having to reinvent myself every couple of years.”

Makofsky nodded, chiming in with, “You can have 20 different careers here.”

Desai, who has been with the company for 15 years, concluded, “You don’t normally have this type of talent stick around this long in markets as dynamic and hot as they’ve been for the last several years. People have been here so long because we know that the leadership we work for, they mean what they say, they’re bold with their visions, but they’re also practical and supportive of the way that we get there. 

“The performance culture of the organization is such that we’re working on complex problems, we’re hard charging and holding the bar really high,” he continued. “We expect great results and drive lots of change across this business. But equally important is that we maintain a culture of integrity, mutual respect and collaboration.”

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by NBCUniversal.

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