An interview with Jesse Knight, CTO of VICE

Part 1 in a series of CTO interviews


There are many different models for the role of Chief Technology Officer. In the fast moving world of digital media, no matter how the CTO does the job, the role requires its holder “to constantly balance technical and people skills, and to look ahead while fulfilling the here and now,” as a recent article in Information Week put it better than I might. Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with CTOs from different digital media companies to understand how they think about the role, what they have in common and where they differ in approach. Over the next few weeks I’ll publish a summary of each of these discussions.

First up is Jesse Knight, CTO of Vice. I had the chance to speak to Knight in Vice’s headquarters in north Brooklyn, in between what seems like a constant drum beat of product launches (the company announced it will launch a sports channel this summer, for instance). Knight takes an immense amount of pride in Vice and its growth; touring what is beginning to resemble a campus, he speaks with real enthusiasm about each new space the media company has claimed in Williamsburg for its growing business. Knight joined Vice as CTO in 2012, and worked for the company as a consultant from 2001.

1) We hear all the time that the pace of technological change has sped up. How has that changed the job of the CTO, particularly in digital media?

CTOs these days need to be careful about resource management — there are 100 vendors that would love to waste your dev team’s time testing their products, only to find that they don’t live up to expectations (or worse). The same is true for deciding what new technologies to support. Not only can you waste time, but if you implement the wrong technology, the product will suffer. So a very keen bullshit detector needs to be used when evaluating any new vendor or technology. That’s always been true, but with digital changing so fast, it’s more important than ever.

2) You must get a thousand pitches from vendors a year, each promising you a new software or widget that will change your business. How do you filter, how do you sort, and what types of things stand out? How much do you buy vs build?

One of the best ways to know if a vendor or a service is worth trying is to ask someone else who is already using them. In my case that means reaching out to other media CTOs. While we can’t discuss pricing, we can find out how hard implementation was and how worthwhile the technology is. I’d say about 75% of vendors are offering services that are not worth the time it takes to implement them, which makes this vetting process all the more important.

For buy versus build, the decision usually hinges on what’s already on the market, and how bespoke your needs are. Vice is a global media company with offices in 36 countries that push content to 9 verticals. Not a lot of media companies are in the same position, so in our case it meant that we opted to build our own platform and CMS for our sites to meet our needs- a key one being easy translation and copying of content between locales. For other services, like real-time analytics, the offerings available are so good and so affordable, we don’t need to bother building our own system.

3) What types of time horizons are you working with when thinking of how to incorporate new technologies into the business? What technologies do you think stand the most chance to change your business in the next 3-5 years?

Truth be told, 3-5 years is a long time, and it would be hard to predict what it will be like in 2019. So the best bet is to always go with versatile technologies, things that can be easily adapted to new devices and platforms. We try not to get locked into any service or technology that’s not flexible. As much as possible, when we design our sites we put content first, which just means that we try and cut down on superfluous distractions in the layout.

4) How do you personally keep up to date on the latest?

My dev team, my peers, and a few good vendors are my best day-to-day sources for what to watch.

5) When you think about the broader organization, how do you help employees improve their technological acumen?

A big challenge for all media companies right now is how to use all of the data that is coming at them. From real-time to traditional analytics and reporting services, there is a ton of information to digest and take action on. We’re working to make sure that all teams have the support and training they need to analyze this information, and can stay on top of changes and improvements to these tools.


Justin Hendrix is Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. Reach him at justin [dot] hendrix [at] nycmedialab [dot] org or follow him on Twitter @justinhendrix.