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Chris Satchell's job: Make Comcast products more fun

In recent years, Comcast Corp.'s product developers in Philadelphia, Denver, and Silicon Valley have gone app wild. The company has released eight Xfinity apps for Comcast customers to pay their bills, change TV channels, watch on-demand movies, check email, and perform other useful tasks with smartphones.

British expat Chris Satchell was selected by Comcast over job candidates from Apple, Amazon, and Intel. "His passion was contagious."
British expat Chris Satchell was selected by Comcast over job candidates from Apple, Amazon, and Intel. "His passion was contagious."Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

In recent years, Comcast Corp.'s product developers in Philadelphia, Denver, and Silicon Valley have gone app wild.

The company has released eight Xfinity apps for Comcast customers to pay their bills, change TV channels, watch on-demand movies, check email, and perform other useful tasks with smartphones.

Millions of Comcast customers have downloaded them.

But why are there so many? And, very important, are they fun to use?

These are some of the existential questions that Comcast's new head of products, the former Xbox video gamer Chris Satchell, is asking in his first big project at the cable giant.

"It's about a clear [app] constellation that works together when each has a clear meaning," said Satchell, an energetic expatriate Brit.

Comcast hired the 43-year-old West Coast transplant - a former chief technology officer for Microsoft's Xbox game console and a top tech executive at the sneaker giant Nike - last summer over job candidates from Apple, Amazon, and Intel.

He fills the shoes of X1 team leader Charlie Herrin, now Comcast's customer-experience czar, and has assumed the products role as Comcast seeks to transform itself from a customer-loathed cable company into a nimble tech giant to compete with Netflix, Google, and Apple.

Not only is Comcast transforming its product-development personnel with new executives such as Satchell, but also its facilities.

The Philadelphia company has scheduled to open in early 2018 a $1.2 billion, 59-story technical and innovation center, representing the soul of the new Comcast.

The building's architecture calls for open floors and abundant sunlight for cooperation among thousands of Comcast software engineers, coders, graphic designers, and interface experts now scattered in leased office space around Center City - which plays to Satchell's vibe and passion.

"I was looking for someone who was a cultural fit but not a cultural clone," said Tony Werner, Comcast cable division's chief technology officer, to whom Satchell reports. "We loved a lot of things about him. We did a serious long search. His passion was contagious. We liked that."

Werner said that Satchell, chief product officer in the cable division, was a "button-up executive" and technology expert who can quickly tell whether a project is doable within the time parameters proposed.

"Over the past several years we've really changed the way we approach product development, bringing more of what we do in house, and hiring engineers, designers, and developers who know how to focus on the customer experience when they're building something new," Werner said. "Chris embodies that cultural shift."

Personable and comfortable with the media, Satchell dressed for a recent interview in black slacks, a black blazer, and a shirt with no tie.

He wouldn't talk about his Comcast projects - Werner disclosed the app revamp - but he did say that he expects Comcast to introduce new products and services later in 2016. There has been speculation that Comcast could launch a wireless phone business.

Friends and former colleagues say that Satchell is a skilled technologist but that he doesn't take himself too seriously. There's video of his taking the ALS ice-bucket challenge at former employer Nike on YouTube. He practices krav maga martial arts. He exercises with kettlebells.

Andrew Kertesz, a former Microsoft games developer, said Satchell was such a good communicator that Microsoft tapped him to "evangelize" the Xbox so that software engineers would develop video games for it.

"He's not one to dwell on the negatives," Kertesz said. "He wants to talk about the possibilities and help you dream it."

Satchell's odyssey to Philadelphia began in the southwest of England, in the town of Chippenham, on his family's pig farm. His parents bought him an Atari 800 when he was 8, and his life changed permanently. He played games, taught himself Basic, and coded not only the Atari 800 but the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Atari 64, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga computers. At Loughborough University - a 90-minute train ride from London - he studied computer science and artificial intelligence.

Still fascinated with video games, he went to work for the gaming companies Eidos Interactive and Silicon Dreams Studio in Britain but decamped for sunny California in early 2000. "The West Coast of America," he said, "is the heart of video games, that and Tokyo."

3DO - a game-console developer - hired him as the dot-com bubble crested. Satchell ran half the 3DO development team and another guy was running the other half. "If either of us missed a deadline, the company would go under," he said.

3DO did go under, but by then Satchell had relocated to Microsoft, which was entering the interactive and games businesses. Satchell later transferred to the Xbox project.

Caesar Filori met Satchell in 2007 and the two Microsoft employees fell into a conversation about the soon-to-be-released fantasy war movie 300 and weightlifting.

Within months, they had a regimen of push-ups, pull-ups, burpees, and arm-swing sets with kettlebells that they would do in Satchell's driveway in Redmond, Wash.

"I called it the 'kettlebell workout of doom.' . . . It wasn't just the weights. It was the pace with no break," said Filori. "He's tireless in driving toward a solution; that's what he brings to the table."

Satchell rose to chief technology officer of Microsoft's Xbox program. An important lesson Satchell says he learned in video games was that products have to be fun.

"If I read for 30 minutes and then I can have some fun, what's the fun in that?" he asked. "You should start with fun immediately."

His next career stop was at the slots manufacturer and casino-systems developer International Gaming Technology in Las Vegas. The company hired him in 2009. He held the title of chief technology officer and head of research. Satchell said he was comfortable in Las Vegas, but "I felt like this was not the industry for me."

When Nike called, Satchell didn't know what to think. What would a sneaker and sports-apparel brand and retailer want with a technology executive? Nike, in fact, was looking for a leader of its consumer digital unit and hired him in 2012. Fast Company magazine named Nike the leading global tech innovator in 2013, partly because of its FuelBand wristband, a consumer wearable that Satchell's division released around the time he got there. Consumer digital grew from about 500 employees when Satchell joined to 1,700 employees when he left.

Nike was "a great company, but what I realized was that I would not make apparel and footwear. I would not work at the core" of a company's product lines, Satchell said.

Then came the opportunity at Comcast. He started last summer and now lives in Center City with his wife. Philadelphia, he says, is the first place he's lived where he can walk to work.

On YouTube, there's a video with Satchell at a technology conference last May.

"Now it's about how much consumers trust you," Satchell told the interviewer in his diluted British accent. "If they trust your brand, they will use it. If they don't, they will walk away from you very quickly.

"So what that implies is that you have to be very authentic and consistent. And if you are a big brand, and even if you are not, that can be hard."

bfernandez@phillynews.com

215-854-5897

@bobfernandez1