I was delighted to have the chance to connect with Edward “Smitty” Smith, who recently became Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, at T-Mobile US. Smitty has had a number of substantive positions in government, in prominent law firms and now with a national wireless carrier that has a mission driven culture that Smitty enjoys. Smitty has also sought elected office, which is a bit of a new twist for FCBA column interviewees! With all of Smitty’s time in telecom, his various leadership roles in government and the private sector and other experiences, I knew he would have some great perspectives to share with FCBA members.
Q. What attracted you to the field of communications?
I found telecommunications by accident. Before joining the Obama Administration, I was an M&A attorney. At the beginning of the Administration, two giants of the telecommunications regulatory space, Larry Strickling and Anna Gomez, gave me an opportunity to work for them at NTIA and from there on out I was hooked on telecom. From my time at NTIA, then working for Chairman Wheeler at the FCC and, finally, in private practice, I had the chance to work with and learn from many other industry legends and luminaries. In different ways, each of them helped me grow, become a better lawyer, and discover my place in telecom.
What I love about telecom is that change is the only constant. Our industry sits at the always busy intersection of technology and government and innovation is king. This means that there are always opportunities for creative, energetic, and imaginative people of all ages.
Q. Talk a bit about what you did along the way to get where you are today.
I always sought out opportunities to learn and was always eager to try something new and novel, whatever my role. I was never too proud to start at the bottom, nor was I afraid to push my limits by taking on a role that was a stretch. When I started at NTIA, I was completely new to telecom, but I was immediately put in charge of building a $350M broadband data grant program that became the first National Broadband Map. That was a stretch for me, but to do it I built a team and relied on the top experts in and outside of government. When I later joined the FCC, I passed up management and leadership opportunities to work as a line attorney, so that I could better understand the workings of the agency from the ground up. I often advise my mentees to always have the courage to lead and take on any challenge but also the humility to follow and learn.
Q. How have things unfolded in your career, was it more or less the way you planned?
Nothing in my career unfolded as I planned. When I went to law school, I thought I was destined to be a litigator. But it turned out that I did not like litigation and instead I became a corporate M&A lawyer. Back then, I did not even know that telecom regulatory law existed. When, as a young associate at Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), one of our deans of the FCBA, Ari Fitzgerald, asked me to consider telecom as a career. I laughed and told him that I was an M&A lawyer and had no interest in regulatory work. Now, almost twenty years later, here I am and he laughs about it every time I see him.
Even after entering telecom, nothing went as planned. I left the FCC to run for DC Attorney General and lost. Then I served in DC government helping survivors of violent crime and figured that my telecom career was behind me. I was wrong again and I later returned to the FCC to work for Chairman Wheeler. After that I was a partner in private practice and a significant aspect of my work there was being part of a team shepherding the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, a project with plenty of twists and turns.
Just as I thought that I was comfortable in my legal practice and law firm leadership, as a senior partner and practice group chair at DLA Piper, the opportunity to join T-Mobile turned my plans on their head again. So, it is fair to say looking back on my career thus far that I sometimes took risks or seized unexpected opportunities.
To be clear, I have certainly lost many times, but each loss taught me valuable lessons and created new opportunities that over time proved to be better than the opportunity I was seeking originally. My career has never followed a straight line but that is what has kept it interesting.
I have always been most excited about being a part of mission-driven organizations, whether in local or federal government, or now at T-Mobile. I am happiest when I can find creative ways to do good for people. As a company, T-Mobile has a very distinct, positive culture; one that drives to innovate and to up the game on serving our customers and being a global leader in technology. All of that, in my book, counts as doing good for people.
Q. What’s the most interesting or challenging thing that you’ve done in your current position?
Well, I just started at T-Mobile, so circle back to me on the “most interesting” question in a few years. But the most challenging thing is succeeding Kathleen Ham, who has been an institution at T-Mobile and in Washington. As the new guy, I have big shoes to fill. But I am also fortunate to have great leaders above me and an incredible team supporting me, so I feel good so far. What also makes it challenging in a good way is that my team and I have to be and are well-versed in the fundamentals of the business and are able to pursue the company’s interests in a number of areas, including innovating and introducing new products and services to our customers. This means weaving in business goals with policymaking in DC and elsewhere and living at that intersection of business leadership and government policymaking. Finding ways to thread it all together is frankly a lot of fun.
Q. What do you enjoy reading?
I love good poetry; and Pablo Neruda is a particular favorite. I love histories and also fantasy and science fiction, because the issues of our world are heavy enough that sometimes it is nice to escape into a good book.
Q. Can you share perspective on the pitfalls to avoid or other career advice for those who are just getting started in the communications field?
First, I would congratulate them on having found a great field of specialization. Communications can provide incredible opportunities for young, energetic, ambitious, and creative people. Because the technology in our field is always evolving and the issues are always changing, even someone relatively new to the space can quickly become an expert because many of the major issues and technologies of today did not exist 20 years ago. This creates a relatively unique field where the thirty-year veteran may not have an advantage over the newbie on the hot topics of the moment.
However, the constantly changing nature of telecommunications means that all of us must be able to constantly learn and adapt with the technology or it will pass us by. Also, I would encourage those just getting started to always remember, while we work with technology, our real business is creating connections. In the macro sense, we connect people all over the globe, but also important are our connections with each other in the communications bar. When I first joined the bar, one of my mentors from my time at NTIA, Tom Power, gave me some of the best advice I ever received. He said to remember that our community is a small and tightknit one. The person who is your most junior team member today could be your boss or client a few years from now, so always put the relationships first and treat others with kindness and respect. I try to live by that rule both at work and more broadly in my life.
Q. Has anything changed in your life as a result of the pandemic?
Everything changed. But I am not alone there; we all had to make massive adjustments in how we worked and interacted when COVID hit. One thing many of us learned was that we have the ability to work more flexibly and, in some cases, more productively than we had previously thought. For many of us, the power of virtual collaboration was demonstrable. But I have to say, coming out of all this, I do value more than ever the ability to interact in person with my friends and colleagues.
Q. What is something interesting about you that people are not generally aware of that you’re willing to share?
I’m a BIG nerd. I still watch cartoons and read comics.
Q. How long have you been an FCBA member and what is the value of FCBA membership?
I have been a member of the FCBA for twelve years. The FCBA has been an invaluable part of my professional and personal life, providing me with opportunities to expand my knowledge, network, engage in philanthropy and, perhaps most importantly, build community and friendships. I recommend it to anyone starting or building a career in this space.