(Excerpted from the Spring/Summer edition of the RDK Report exclusively for RDKCentral.com)
Fraser Stirling planned on being a professional rugby player, back when he was a youngster in Dumfries, in Scotland’s southwest. When that didn’t work out (“the pay is terrible”), he dove into the technologies of music, earning an HND (Higher National Diploma) in music technology and electronics at Glasgow Caledonian University.
An elaborate chain of childhood friendships landed him at NTL (now Virgin Media), where his tech-ascendance in advanced video hardware began. The same friends pulled him into BSkyB, where he went from digital systems engineer, in 2005, to head of all hardware planning and design, in 2013. He cleaved closer and closer to hardware product design at Intel, where he led its advanced IP video product, “OnCue,” subsequently picked up by Verizon.
Now, just past the two-year mark at Comcast, the 35-year-old Fraser’s near-photographic mind, gifted eye for design, and (seriously funny!) sense of humor contributes mightily to the design and roadmap of RDK hardware. An edited transcript of his conversation with RDK Report contributor Leslie Ellis follows:
Q: When did you know you were a technology kind of guy?
Stirling: Ever since I was little, I was massively interested in how things work. I still am. I used to take things apart. Eventually, I could put them back together and not have parts left over. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened when I took apart my grandfather’s watch….
Q. How did you find your way to this industry?
Stirling: Once I finished university, I applied for a few jobs, but there wasn’t much available in tech in Scotland. I worked as a cook for a while. The pay was horrible. Then my best friend, Kevin Hughes — his girlfriend’s sister, Maxine, worked in an NTL call center. She got Kevin a job, and then he got me a job. And then later, Kevin went to BSkyB, and brought me over again.
Q. Had you heard about the RDK when you are at BSkyB?
Stirling: I had. At the time, to be honest, I thought: Here we go on another middleware thing! Back then, I was up to the brim in middleware that hasn’t enough expletives to characterize. I needed another middleware like I needed another hole in my head!
But I kept an eye on the RDK. There were 2 things that I thought were amazing. One was the commitment to open source — at the time, the [industry] focus was on taking open source software as a concept, and re-developing it to make it closed source. RDK was the opposite of that.
Another thing I thought was really bold and impressive — dammit! I wish I’d thought of it first! — was how RDK handled differentiation. They approached it to say, hey, if I buy a Broadcom chip, and you buy a Broadcom chip, we’re going to get the same features. You can pretend that’s not the case as long as you want — but you’ll still be wrong. To take that reality and apply a UX/UI mentality — meaning, we’ll apply the same features, but we’ll do it in a better way? Wow. It was super-punchy, super-cool, and it wasn’t something anyone was doing before.
Q. And then Comcast was looking at Intel’s OnCue platform, and happened upon you. Lucky us!
Stirling: “Lucky” depends on who you ask (!) … More like, lucky me.
Q. Lots of readers probably want to know about the OnCue chapter, but alas, we can’t go there, lest legal stuff crash upon you. Let’s move on to your passion for hardware design. You have a real eye for it, which is good, because this is an industry that’s forever been harangued for the general ugliness/clunkiness of the “set-top box.” How do you think that through?
Stirling: To me, and this may sound like a fluffy answer, but here goes: If you look just at Comcast’s X1, and how the focus was and is on the UI, it’s much better, compared to what it was and anything else that’s out there. If you look at the ethnographic side – how people use it, how it looks, how to do it in a way that shows that we cared, and that we’ve worked hard to get it right. Making sure all the content you love is right there for you — and the content that you don’t know you love yet is easy to find.
This hasn’t traditionally followed through to the hardware design. Don’t get me wrong – the devices have always performed pretty well. I’m talking about the industrial design side. When you look at the design for video hardware products, and broadband hardware products, it’s a very, very different approach. With video, you want to make it elegant — but not the center of things, because again, the UX and UI are the center of that, with the voice remote. Whereas in broadband, you want it to be a bit of a showpiece — my god, what is that? I must have it.
The real, design-y-weirdo guy answer is, the device is the personification of the service. The brand. People navigate to things they can touch. Software is the thing that will offer the most features, and evolve the product, but the thing you can touch is the thing that draws you in. Look at your iPhone — the thing you use isn’t actually the phone, it’s iOS. The phone itself is the thing that grabs your attention. It’s the start of that relationship with the brand.
Q. When you’re not being an RDK and Comcast super-star, where are you? What goes on in the life of Fraser?
Stirling: Rugby. I’m assistant head coach at Penn University for their rugby team. And I coach the American National site. I snowboard. I just got back from an amazing family vacation in New Zealand — my wife, Coralie, has a brother there, Duncan. We’re what you would call “childhood sweethearts,” we met in the town I’m from in Scotland.
Q. Kids, dogs, cats?
Stirling: We have three kids — Erin, 8; Oonagh, 5; and George, 3. I’m pretty sure George thinks I play rugby for a living. Coralie, she’s a scientist and a teacher, with a proper degree — unlike mine! — in microbiology and parasitology.
Oh, and we just got a new dog. A black Labrador Retriever. We named her “Jet.” It’s our first dog, as a family. Growing up, my dad always had dogs. Hunting dogs. They were massively trained! He’d throw 3 dummies, one over the river, one in the river, one on this side of the river. Then he’d whistle, and point to each dummy. The dogs would retrieve them in the order he’d pointed. I’m not sure Jet will be trained like that, but, I defer to Tony …