Podcast: Viasat COO looks to a busy year ahead

In his new role, Kevin Harkenrider is focused on the ViaSat-3 launch

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Kevin Harkenrider


In this episode of the Viasat Podcast, host Alex Miller speaks with Viasat Chief Operating Officer Kevin Harkenrider. Promoted to the role last fall, Harkenrider speaks to the busy road ahead as Viasat prepares to launch and monetize its global satellite constellation, ViaSat-3.


Harkenrider has been with Viasat since 2006 and has occupied a number of different roles with the company in that time.


Some of the topics touched upon in this episode:


  • Preparing for the global markets where ViaSat-3 will deliver service and navigating the regulatory landscape in a variety of countries
  • Determining the role third-party partners will play
  • How increased competition in the satellite internet market aligns with increasing demand around the world and Harkenrider’s view that there’s room for all to flourish
  • The advantage of ViaSat-3’s flexible beam structure and how it enables more strategic placement of capacity
  • How Viasat continues to position itself to be an employer of choice amid the backdrop of the shift to remote work and a more mobile workforce
  • The importance of accountability across the organization as it grows globally
  • Six traits of a leader where Harkenrider says he’s always trying to earn an “A” himself


Listen to the podcast:


Alex Miller: Hello and welcome to the Viasat podcast. I'm Alex Miller. And in this episode, we're going to catch up with Kevin Harkenrider, who was recently appointed chief operating officer at Viasat. Kevin's been with the company for 15 years or so, and he's occupied a number of different roles during that time. So we wanted to ask him about this new role and how he'll help manage ViaSat-2 growth in the next few years as we launch the ViaSat-3 constellation of satellites and become much more of a global player. Here's the interview.

Alex Miller: All right, so Kevin Harkenrider, welcome back to the Viasat podcast. Good to have you back on the show.

Kevin Harkenrider: Alex. It's always good to be back to be on your show. It's a true honor to be interviewed by you.

Alex Miller: Thank you. So are you still over marketing, even with your new position?

Kevin Harkenrider: Yes.

Alex Miller: Ok, so you're still my boss's boss's boss. So I gotta be on my best behavior.

Kevin Harkenrider: So, so intimidating, isn't it, Alex?

Alex Miller: It is! It is! All right. Well, let's just start with the big picture what's going on in the next year or so?

Kevin Harkenrider: Well, clearly, the companies got one big objective, you know, you've been around for a number of years, the last satellite we launched was 2017, went into service Valentine's Day 2018. So the big deal is 2022 is getting ready for the next satellite launch. It'll be almost five years apart — not quite four and a half to five. Getting ready for that is a big event for Viasat. And so if the one thing I'll be focusing on with whatever ability I have to lead is our preparations to monetize that satellite. And from that, much of my experience across the company will be drawn upon. And what's good about that, Alex, is it lets you focus on a big thing. And when the list is short, focus isn't the problem. And we have that event less often than the Olympics happen. We get to go get a new satellite launched. So that's the focus from my personal standpoint and those that are part of my team will be focused on as well.

Alex Miller: So we wanted to catch up with you for a few reasons, and the first is because it just changed your job again. So you're that guy is always being put in different positions at Viasat since you joined in 2006 and been doing it for a while. So I mean, when we first met, you were overseeing the Denver office and commuting from California every week. So you were up until recently the chief operations officer and you're now the chief operating officer. So there's a suffix change there — semantics. But what's the nuance there? What's different?

Kevin Harkenrider: There's a broader fiduciary responsibility that goes with the chief operating officer title as a corporate officer. So our chief financial officer, our chief people officer and our chief legal counsel all report to me, in addition. So from an operational standpoint, i.e. getting ready for ViaSat-3, it doesn't change in terms of where my attention, most of it probably doesn't change. But in terms of fiduciary responsibility, it's broader. It's an area that I have served ... I've always been very conscious of people and making them ... Let's just say making Viasat the employer of choice. So the fact that the people and culture team works for me doesn't change that focus, always had it. From a financial standpoint. If you don't have investors and bondholders who are happy, you don't get to have employees and from that standpoint isn't anything new. And the legal counsel is part of the roles I've had in the past. But it is a broader fiduciary responsibility that if I didn't think of it, I will be even more conscious of thinking about it with every decision I make.

Alex Miller: Right? Yeah, understood. And I think whether its CEO or COO or ... Every company has variations and what some of these executive roles are comprised of. So I was wondering like, how do you see this role developing for you and evolving as Viasat grows globally?

Kevin Harkenrider: First of all, as the company grows with the Inmarsat acquisition, a big step function change, but that's probably about a year away. So until then, you know, we're growing ... in terms of more broader — the key thing is ViaSat-3 service launch. That'll happen before the Inmarsat deal closes. That means in North and South America we'll have a much bigger palette of capacity to sell, which means we'll do business in more than just Brazil, in South America, for example, and more than really just Mexico, where we currently just have some residential service and some Community WiFi. So that will cause us to be ready for it. Now the business segment presidents will have that accountability. My team will be in a support role to it, but we'll have a number of things ... And I view growing companies as step —think of a staircase. And every time you announce a satellite for Viasat, we move up a step and the first ViaSat-3 goes North and South America. But it's not a huge step because the biggest markets, US and Brazil, we're already in. So that's good, baby steps. Then the next satellite, which launches ViaSat-3, has all of Europe, where we currently just do business in a few countries because we only have KA-SAT capacity in a few — and all of Africa. That's a bigger step that, along with the Inmarsat acquisition, will make a big step for Viasat. How we divide the responsibility as a company, I think part of it will happen with the Inmarsat acquisition. We assess the talent, how we're going to be organized. We haven't gotten even close to that yet. That will determine it. But that's a little bit far away and not today's problem. It will become a 2022 issue to deal with. In the meantime, to my first comment, ViaSat-3 is a focus. We have to be ready to monetize the first one and make the ground system ready along with the satellite. And secondly, be ready to have all the various support, distribution, sales, the marketing, all of those things in the various countries you're going to is a lot of work to do, and that has to be our focus.

Alex Miller: Right, so what type of structures need to be implemented or augmented to help manage that growth for the company's global vision and strategy there?

Kevin Harkenrider: The most obvious one is, you know, legally you need to do business in the countries you wish to sell in. And today in the U.S., all 50 states have property tax, various issues. Every country has something similar. So we'll have to acquire the legal ability to do business in countries. We don't currently have a need to do it. That's a known thing. More importantly to me is getting broader distribution of our product. Typically, we'll have a combination of employees plus third-party agents that will assist us with it. We need to get those lined up now. Evan Dixon will have the primary responsibility for that because most of that will come in either residential or Viasat Community Internet that falls under Evan. We'll have lesser from the other areas to do it, but mainly it's saying: How will I get, how will I sell the product? What's the mechanism? Is it going to be a third party, i.e. we'll have to establish a contract with somebody? Or do I need to hire employees to do it ourselves? You need to be doing all those things right now to be ready to monetize it by the latter part. Second half of 2022.

Alex Miller: It's a big job, and there's a lot of moving parts to it, and as you mentioned, all kinds of different countries with those landing rights to have be able to have serve satellite and all kinds of other considerations. But alongside that, you mentioned Inmarsat, which is another satellite company that we are in the process of acquiring, is still a ways away from being a done deal. But also recently, last April, we acquired RigNet and its Intelie company as well. And so I was wondering how much of that integration into Viasat is part of your strategy or what you're up to?

Kevin Harkenrider: Only a little bit, I'd say, Alex, mainly because the way RigNet, the way we've done the acquisition is our global mobility business, GEM they call it — Global Enterprise and Mobility under Jimmy Dodd — as a primary organizational responsibility for integrating them within their segment. I do have part of our team in terms of operations and logistics, environmental safety and health. There are some things, of course, facilities, leases where we can combine. But I'd say overall, if you look at the primary integration there is done by Jimmy within his team, of which I have, my team has a support role, but mainly a secondary support role. He's got a guy named John Daly who's very capable of leading a lot of that along with Jerry Goodwin. Those two seem to be handling it and they bring us in as necessary. I have not had a lead role in doing that.

Alex Miller: Another thing I wanted to ask is, there's a lot of activity on the satellite internet side. For many years it was us and just another company or two. And now you've got some other players getting into that space and competition. How do you see Viasat positioning itself in that market now?

Kevin Harkenrider: Well, certainly there's a lot more competition today than there was five years ago whenever we were talking about ViaSat-2 launching back in the day. So between SpaceX and Amazon and Intelsat — all these companies are entering the market, our view is in terms of capacity, we'll have and of what we're trying to go take on as customers, there's enough for all of us to succeed. Now, there's also a complication with some of the infrastructure bills you're hearing about for the U.S. government has recently passed or is considering passing will give more subsidization to other top alternatives and might cause a fiber provider to find it economically more advantageous to enter a market, say more rural where we, satellite companies, were the ones. That yet hasn't been figured it out, but that will also complicate it. But in general, to put our minds at ease, we believe the market is big enough for all of us to be successful because the demand for internet is becoming a more and more ubiquitous desire. And as that happens, we can all be successful. And the secondary in terms of the service we provide, we have to be conscious of — in terms of what product we provide — the ever increasing, for example, data allocation for companies, you hear a lot about our users today that reach their data limit and therefore they have to curtail their usage. We are being mindful of every satellite we launch, and ViaSat-3 is the next one where its data capability is much, much bigger. And therefore we can do a better job of meeting some people's demand for video in particular with the next vintage. And because the coverage area of our ViaSat-3 satellites is so broad, we can do a much more expansive job of meeting their needs as well. But there are competitors entering the market, and generally, though, that's indicator of a successful market because there's room for all these competitors to flourish, and that's how we view it.

Alex Miller: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense there's, I think, almost like half the people on Earth don't really have internet connectivity, so it's a huge market and like you said, hopefully room for plenty of people. Speaking of ViaSat-3 and its capacity and coverage: Another really interesting element of this satellite constellation is its ability to move capacity around with this flexible beam structure, which I would think that makes a really big difference on how you can approach some of these markets because you don't have to put the same amount of capacity over places that don't need it or you can't sell it. How does that figure into the whole plan?

Kevin Harkenrider: The great advantage is if you visualize the terrain of the Earth and you look at where people reside, wherever the population centers are, even though we have a typically, let's call it non core urban hub customer base. Ours are in the suburbs and rural, but there is such a peak and I visualize terrain like in Denver or the Rocky Mountains, 14,000 feet that's around the outer ring of the suburbs, around the metropolitan areas. And today East Coast and West Coast have that. When you have like LEO satellites like SpaceX has and Amazon will have, they put an equal layer of capacity all over the Earth's surface. So visualize, you have this equal capacity all over the Earth's surface, but the demand has peaks and therefore in the fringe areas of a major city area along the West Coast, they will never be able to meet the peak demand. Whereas with our architecture where you can concentrate demand where needed instead of the equal thin layer over all the surface, including water, you have an advantage economically in terms of the amount of money it takes to go put a satellite into service and the number of customers you can go get because you can focus our capacity where the demand is, so supply and demand can be matched as opposed to a thin layer of our competitors that have a ubiquitous layer all across the entire globe. They're unable to do so, therefore limits some of their ability to A, offer data limits in certain markets. And secondly, the pricing they can do has to be that in mind. So the economics we feel is advantageous for our purposes and that's what is, I think, a good thing for Viasat because of what you just said.

Alex Miller: Another aspect to this that is pretty interesting is looking ahead to like a hybrid network where you've got the high geostationary satellites like we operate today, connecting to some of those, you know, LEO satellites down close. What does that bring in terms of flexibility and opportunity?

Kevin Harkenrider: It clearly gives you the advantage of latency ... the latency concern that some users have — if you develop that technology, which is still a future-tense thing for us to develop. We've done a little bit with hybrid with in terms of using our satellite with DSL. We've done a little bit of technology, things from it. We haven't yet, I'd say, gone into the market with it. We're trying to do some things, but once you do that, you can address the one weakness we have, which in certain markets and certain user demographics, latency does matter. And today we generally avoid those markets. So that would be the advantage, whether it's necessary for us and when we might do it, I think is still a TBD.

Alex Miller: Yeah, it's really interesting when you think about it, those LEO satellites are so close to the Earth that they can't beam a signal very far, but if they could beam up to a GEO satellite and then back down, it really opens things up quite a bit. So it'll be interesting to see where we can go with that. One other thing you mentioned earlier was the importance of being an employer of choice, which, you know, may not necessarily think of the COO thinking about. Maybe it's like an HR thing, but I know it's key to your thinking. Can you talk about a little bit about that and how you make Viasat become that employer of choice?

Kevin Harkenrider: All right. So first of all, I'll start with Greek mythology, Sisyphus rolled the rock uphill got to the top and rolled down again, right? That's Sisyphus. Being an employer of choice is a Sisyphean task. You never succeed, but your attitude has to be that you'll continue to toil to find a way to try to satisfy our employees. There is always competition — today's market and working from home the last 20 months clearly makes people more mobile. Therefore, the standard has to go up because people's ability to move is easier. So my view of this is number one, the research is that most people leave a company not so much because of money. It's because their relationship with their manager isn't strong enough to keep them from looking elsewhere. When the headhunter or the LinkedIn, you know, email person, whatever it happens to cause them, they pick up the phone or the email and they return it. So I take it very seriously that my obligation to my employees and to their employees and to their employees is to develop relationships and give feedback constructively about how we're doing. What's your career desire? What are you looking for and trying to find an intersection of your desire and our needs? And with a growing company, which we are, we continue to add hundreds of people's positions each year. You have opportunity for growth. That's what's great about Viasat and our growth. So if you establish rapport and if there's trust between a manager and the employee, and if you can have this constructive dialogues about what are you looking for, Alex, what do you find good? What's your next, what are you looking ... And constantly looking for what I call the self-actualization desires of employees that only the manager typically can do — the number one thing to forward that. And I go through it myself, I inquire of the people, the vice presidents who work for me. What are you doing to ensure you're bringing your direct reports and their direct reports along to go meet their needs? And I make it a regular review point. Now we get these pulse surveys that give us some macro information, but it's my supervisor that can show you sort of the fringes of people who have a problem and maybe manager ranks is not the good location for them or coaching is necessary. They give you some indicators, but I rely very strongly on a singular purpose of making me the employer of choice for my direct reports and certainly one level down because I have a relationship with all those, those individuals, but I got to cascade it more. There's eight levels or seven levels between me and our and some levels in certain groups of the company that are very large. That's not good enough alone, but it starts with me. What do I do in terms of ensuring I'm being the employer of choice for the people who work for me? And what am I doing for at least another level down? If I do that and hold a standard, I believe I can at least address some of why people leave. And yes, we look at our competitive and our markets for salaries. We do a lot of things. Typically, if Google or Facebook wants to give someone a huge stock award to jump ship, and there is a segment of the population that cares an awful lot about it, we'll lose some, but we lose more because the manager employee bond is not strong enough to ever develop it. And I set a standard for myself to it, is my fault if that happens and I haven't done my job, I need to up my game and I try to go, let's say, inculcate that attitude with the people who work for me.

Alex Miller: Ok, well, you know, that leads right into my next question, because, you know, in addition to your your day to day work at Viasat, you regularly do this pretty popular class for employees. That's about accountability. You know, when you think about a rapidly expanding company, you can't be everywhere and you've got to have those people in all parts of the globe with that accountability focus. So is that going to be a real focus of yours and how do you promote that?

Kevin Harkenrider: I guess it's two ways. One is I'll keep doing the class that we've done. We've done 80, over 80 of those classes so far. So about about one third of our employees actually have attended the class, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. And I like doing it. Just like in the college, the president still teaches a class in school. It keeps you connected to levels that you, as you ascend the career ladder sometimes you lose that connection. So I always like it and it lets me try to, again inculcate is the word I'll use again to try to go do it at that level. Secondly, I set a standard myself for me, accepting accountability and the people who work closest with me and I will come in contact in a week with 50-100 employees every week. I try to set a standard with them for accountability. Are they willing to accept responsibility? Make sure they're willing, not just take it ... And do my part to set the standard myself. It is a cause that I do, Alex, that it resonated with me 30 years ago and it still works. There are some people who aren't comfortable with it. I accept that people have differences in terms of their style and their motivation. But most people, generally it appeals to. So that's why I find this class that I do. With about 25 people one to two times a month, there's 50 people a month. When I do that, I find a resonance of people and I make a difference. And I still generally hear from my students one bit to a month, reach out to me to have ... They got a problem, they've got something to deal with. So I know it's still working there. And I guess you all try to go make a difference one person at a time. That's my thing here. So I plan to keep doing it.

Alex Miller: All right. Well, it's a good thing. I know a lot of people have really appreciated that, and it's a simple message that, you know, don't pass the buck, don't pass the blame. You know, if you see a problem, fix it. And it's something that we can all use a reminder of anywhere. So I wanted to end with ... Just to ask you, as someone who's held a number of positions here over since 2006 that you started, what kind of advice would you give for ambitious people looking to do the same, like climbing that the career ladder? I mean, what's your secret, Kevin? What's it been?

Kevin Harkenrider: Well, I have I have six traits that I look for in any leader that I try to earn an 'A' myself. So let's go through those: curiosity, empathy, understanding, tenacity — drive for results, so that's what the accountability is about, results. Then there's self-confidence, self-awareness and selflessness. And the selflessness part is the company is the thing, not me. Whenever I have an assignment or do it, it isn't about me. It's about working with others for a common good and not trying to take the credit for me. That's the selfless part of ... That's what I think is most powerful is ... People, very often I have millennial children and much of the some of the ages, I need to do it for me and I try to convince them to do it for a greater cause. If it's a non-profit world, you're a community you want to do that's great. From the company standpoint it's for what makes the company successful so we all benefit. It's a singular focus and accountability for it with a broader good. And I tell people, I'll tell you Alex, is management will figure it out. If you're selfless making results, even though you don't tell us we got enough brains to figure it out. Just be tenacious. Have self-awareness so with in fact, your tenacity is getting in the way of your success because you're turning other people off, have enough self-awareness and empathy to realize it. Be curious about why, why not. Why do those things but do in a way that are selfless? If you do those things, I believe there is success for you somewhere. I'm hopeful it's Viasat, but I'm about the people themselves to develop their abilities as broadly as we can. I've had a number of people who've chosen to leave Viasat who I still talk to on a regular basis because it's about them and being successful. Some of them come back because of that connection. And that's the selfless part that I'm trying to espouse, and I'm not looking for credit for it. I want everyone to reach the ascension of their capability somehow. And that's the employer of choice part. But for me personally, it's me helping them. Let's face it, there's around 1,800 people who report to me. I don't do their job. I can help them succeed. And what I try to do is set the model. Ask some questions about how you know, how they're coming along and showing the concern, but also demonstrate it all the time. Seven by 24 by 365. That's my attitude. And if I do it, I feel good about myself. And sometimes I don't get an 'A' every day, then I get to look in the mirror and say, OK, everyone laughs. I got a 'C' today, and then they all laugh at me when I tell them. But the fact is, I got to look in the mirror myself. I don't get an 'A' every day. My attitude is I got to still strive to do it, and I want everybody to earn an 'A' who works with me. Part of that is me helping empower them as their own accountability.

Alex Miller: All right. Well, on that inspirational note, Kevin, I think we can wrap up here. Thanks so much for taking the time and congratulations on your new position and your fiduciary responsibilities that go along with it.

Kevin Harkenrider: All right. Thank you, Alex, and I appreciate getting to an interview with you, as always, enjoyable. So thank you again. Good to see you.

Alex Miller: All right. You too, Kevin. Thank you.

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