Nancy Walker, chief commercial officer, SmartSky Networks

Image: Vanca Walstra

On May 30, 2018, Nancy Walker was announced as the first chief commercial officer of SmartSky Networks. During an interview at APEX EXPO 2018, she spoke about her first 100 days with the company.

What’s your background and how did you end up at SmartSky Networks?

I have a Master’s degree in Engineering Management and a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering with 30 years’ experience in government, DOD and Aviation. In 2011, I started consulting for Thales before they convinced me to go full-time. I launched their connectivity product on the United fleet and, as program manager, oversaw five prototypes and 300 installs. Next, I worked in Business Development to help find a customer for FlytLive, then went back into program management to execute on that commitment. That’s what I was doing when SmartSky found me, and the rest is history.

I really believe our product is disruptive, that it will change the way people think about in-flight connectivity. We’re not trying to say you don’t need satellites, but I think we’re going to see the market move towards having multiple connectivity solutions on board. We can also help regionals who haven’t been able to make a satellite-based system work economically, or from a space and cost perspective, on board the aircraft.

What would you say is the most common question people have about SmartSky?

“When are you going to launch the network, and when is it going live?” We answer by confirming that we’re over 75% of the way through the active upfit stage of the towers and are working towards full deployment by mid-2019.

Airlines that are just getting to know us are trying to understand how our connectivity system is different, so we’ve had the opportunity to educate them on things like throughput – not only to the aircraft but also from the aircraft – as well as low latency and the difference it makes to user experience.

We are also asked, “What are your plans outside of the U.S.? And what’s the timeframe for that?” We answer that with the fact we’re beginning with the Asia-Pacific area and other parts of the world, and that international will come faster than we thought it would originally. We are focused on the U.S. right now, because we need to deliver to our promises that we’ve made.

“I think we’re going to see the market move towards having multiple connectivity solutions on board.”

“Chief commercial officer” can mean different things to different people. How would you describe your role?

To me, my role is to help shape our strategy, not only in the short-term but also the long-term. It’s all about balancing the strategic versus the tactical, which is one of the strengths that I think I’ve always had – it’s an intuitive “I know what we need to do now,” but I also see how that’s going to affect us further down the line.

I also make sure we’re partnering well with people. We have a lot of partners already in place, so I’m continuing to push those forward, but also moving us into new market spaces that we’re a little on the fringe of currently.

Because of my engineering background, I can ask the technical questions as well as ask the execution questions: “What are your risks?” and “What are you doing to counter those?” So, I do a little bit more than a typical CCO…

What has your first hundred days been like?

Crazy. I’ve got a great team but it’s very dispersed. One thing I’ve already been able to institute is meetings with the sales, marketing, product management and support teams every six weeks. I wanted us to be able to come together outside of trade shows and more proactively and effectively collaborate on our efforts. We’ve had one meeting in Wichita and next time we’re going to team-build with our technical team in Sterling, so each team understands the pressures that the other is under.

The other thing I have been able to do is help drive execution and strengthen our focus in the marketplace – two critical items to keep us moving forward.