IBM’s Steve Canepa is innovating for a 5G world

"Video is changing our lives in real-time, all around us, every day.”

By | 4 minute read | June 24, 2019

This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.

What do the Space Shuttle, ATMs, the Emmys and 5G have in common?

Each is a testament to Steve Canepa’s innovative spark.

Throughout his life and career—which spans a number of diverse industries—Canepa has tackled complex human problems through technology.

“The centerpiece of my career is working with clients to build powerful new capabilities that often play an essential role in our daily lives,” said Canepa, a global industry managing director for Telecommunications, Media & Entertainment at IBM.

Canepa began his IBM career in aerospace. There, he applied advanced mainframe solutions to help Rockwell International build complex engineering products, working most notably on development of the iconic white-and-black Space Shuttle.

Next, Canepa launched IBM’s first industry consulting practice, focused on finance and banking, in the early 1990s. The objective was to accelerate the digital transformation of retail banking. It was a pivotal time.

“Consumers were first connecting with banks through electronic means—ATMs, network banking, and self-service devices,” Canepa said. “We were helping banks to create advanced analytics solutions to gain new insights like the lifetime value of a customer, or the value of family plans and upselling.”

Canepa then landed on the central passion of his career, helping launch IBM’s Global Media & Entertainment practice in 1995. To him, the move was a no-brainer. He was already deeply engaged in the industry, as his wife, Marianne, was a successful producer of popular television shows such as 21 Jump Street, The A-Team, The Pretender and Wiseguy.

And once again, he was focused on an industry right as it was undergoing major changes.

“It was clear that the transformation to digital products and services—and the innovations that standards-based technology could deliver—were going to fundamentally change the media industry and the world,” he said.

Video has been fundamentally reshaping the information and business architecture of every industry, Canepa believes, and soon 5G wireless technology will further push boundaries and possibilities for businesses and consumers. Distance medicine, for example, will change how patients and caregivers interact with each other. First responders will increasingly fly drones over California to assess how they can most effectively fight fires, and 5G could even allow the drones to navigate autonomously someday.

Video is changing our lives, said Canepa, “in real-time, all around us, every day, and 5G will only accelerate the pace of innovation.”

And the emergence of edge computing and hybrid network clouds will only further this acceleration, Canepa believes. When companies bring the cloud closer to users and seamlessly integrate their cloud operations, they can now provide a new generation of compelling services that enhance their brands and the value they deliver to their customers.

“We all expect our next digital experience to be as good as our best last experience,” Canepa said. “There’s this constantly rising expectation regarding the way you interact with products and services.”

To that end, the ever-changing, global nature of innovation inspires him.

“We can do something innovative in Singapore in the morning and talk to clients about it in Europe in the afternoon,” said Canepa. “The opportunity to learn cultures all over the world and to help different marketplaces adopt innovations at different rates and in different forms has been a great experience.”

Education is another area that’s becoming increasingly interactive, multimedia-driven and digital. For Canepa, a more personalized learning environment is helping teachers in a number of ways.

“Access to education that can be tailored to improve learning for everyone is so important,” said Canepa. “Education is transforming to personalized services using technology such as AI so that each student can learn at the rate and pace that works best for them.”

To the next generation, Canepa’s advice is to constantly challenge yourself to learn new skills because they always go with you on your life journey, especially when change is the new constant.

“If you’re careful about the way you cultivate skills, it can position you for success,” Canepa said. “I’ve always mentored folks to think carefully about not just the job they want or the role that they’ll play, but also what skills they will build or enhance that align with their long-term aspirations.”

It’s those skills—and teamwork—that helped him to accept three Emmy Awards.

The first was for helping to build the Warner Brothers Network (better known as The WB, and now the CW), which was the first end-to-end all-digital broadcast network launched in the world. He received the second with the Fox Networks Group for transforming their sports broadcast platform to HD while dramatically improving the efficiency of video and audio transfers. He accepted the third Emmy in 2017 for the early work done by the IBM Media and Entertainment practice to enable the shift of production and broadcast workflows from analog to digital.

And while awards are career-affirming, he believes it’s the human connection and our impact on the world that ultimately define us.