For more than a year, NYC Media Lab has speaking with CTOs from digital media companies to understand how they think about the role, what they have in common and where they differ in approach. You can read earlier interviews with the CTOs of companies such as AOL, Mashable, Buzzfeed, Vice, Salon, Shutterstock, Digg, News Corp, MLBAM and Hearst here.
Next up is the CTO of Time Inc., Colin Bodell. Bodell joined the company from Amazon, and his tech bona fides include a few patents from his time there. At Time Inc., Bodell is responsible for all technology and product engineering. He’s been on the job in New York for about a year and a half. I had the chance to sit down with him at his offices at 1271 Avenue of the Americas, but next time we visit it just might be in Brooklyn…
You’re about to open a significant engineering and new product development initiative in Brooklyn’s Industry City. I’ve argued for a while that one of the big established publishing companies would eventually make the jump across the river. I did not know it would be Time Inc., and I never would have thought it would be in Sunset Park. How did it all come together?
Industry City was my first choice all along. The other places we looked at have perhaps a little bit better connectivity in terms of transportation, but Industry City is really putting in a lot of investment into the location. The developers are the same company that did Chelsea Market. It’s a really cool environment.
Software engineers these days want to be paid well, but they also want to work in an environment that is conducive to collaboration. Computer scientists are as much artists as they are scientists. An artist starts with a blank canvas; a computer scientist starts with a blank screen. Yes, there is a mechanical element to both disciplines, but there is also a huge artistic element.
When you get to Industry City, you look at the innovation alley, you look at all of the common space, you just feel the vibe of the place. I doubt you’d find any creative person who could walk in there and say, “I’m not interested in this.”
Many of our engineers are embedded with the brands and will be located at 225 Liberty in lower Manhattan. They are on each of the brand floors. That’s a good chunk of people. Information Security will have offices in both Liberty and Brooklyn. All other NY-based engineering staff will be in Brooklyn, including those focused on platform development, e‑commerce, Big Data and other functions.
We’ll also launch new verticals there. We’ve announced The Drive, which will focus on automotive. On the first floor of the Industry City building we’ll have a showroom for four or five cars. The staff working on new verticals will be closely integrated with the engineering team a couple of floors up.
You’ve been in the job nearly a year and a half. Besides the leap to Brooklyn, what else has changed since you started?
At the beginning of a new job, you want to have some pretty immediate effect on the business. Cost management is a pretty straightforward thing to do. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is straightforward. Moving to the cloud and cutting down on data centers saved millions, for instance.
The next step was to create a blended organization, which is really important to me. Sometimes you see people bring in an entirely new staff. I want to blend the people with the background, knowledge and experience of the company with folks with other skill sets but who don’t have a history with the company.
The next question is what we can do to build platforms rather than individual features because any feature we build is invariably used by multiple brands. Setting all that up means building features for sites now is quicker, and we are amortizing the cost and the value of those features over a greater number of brands, rather than over a single brand, as was true in the past. The development of a native mobile application used to cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it could take four or five months. We now have the ability to swiftly develop and release native apps within a few weeks because we built a platform on which all of these apps are developed. We did a refresh a couple of months ago with the Time mobile site app. It’s on iPhone and on Android. It is focused on The Brief — the 12 things you need to know now from the editors of time.com. It also has sections that cover the US, the world, technology, and history. Since we rolled it out, the adoption has been great.
How much do you rely on open source solutions?
In any area where we want to see a strong return on investment that is unique and specific to the business that we are in, we want to own or we want to control the software. We don’t want to be beholden to a third party, even if it means we have to build it from scratch or leverage existing open source applications and develop our own capabilities around it. We get to market faster off a code base that’s already been well tested. It’s important to me that we not only take from the open source community but that we give back to the open source community. There are plenty of companies where the relationship is a one-way street. For instance, we invested in the Drupal 8 fund a few months ago to help complete that release.
We rely on a few strategic vendors, of course: Oracle, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and Adobe for example. There are about a dozen closely held relationships. Beyond that, it’s commodity. The cost of changing is low; everybody is competing against everybody else on price, and we may switch vendors annually if they aren’t performing well for us. We like them to perform well. The bull’s eye is really return on investment, leveraging open source, fastest time to market with the greatest capabilities for the lowest cost and the ability to spin on a dime to meet the needs of our customers.
What other areas are big priorities at the moment, particularly things you are exploring on the R&D side of things?
Digital asset management strategy is really important. Prior to the spin-off from Time Warner, the company was really a group of loosely held organizations. Now, they are much more tightly bound. We are working to consolidate our digital asset management strategy, which puts everything in front of our staff worldwide, no matter where they are. Our goal is to provide visibility on what we’ve got, how it can be used, how cost effective it is and removing friction from the world of content creation. Our new common content management system is likewise important.
E-commerce is another area in which we are investing. When consumers visit our sites and learn about products from our content, they then go to other vendor’s sites to make purchases. Certain items have a very high appeal to our customers, and we want to make these products immediately and directly available without making our customers go through the friction of going to another site.
A lot of people are talking to NYC Media Lab about personalization, recommendation, and analytics.
We just brought in a chief data officer, Dr. JT Kostman, who joined us from Keurig. Dr. Kostman is a data scientist, mathematician and psychologist. He was an important hire because while we’ve had pockets of data and information all around the company, we are now bringing it all together. Dr. Kostman started a couple of months ago and is partnering with my technology leader for data and analytics systems.
The challenge for organizations doing big data for the first time is getting the broader staff to understand what kind of questions they can ask. A lot of what Dr. Kostman is doing is making sure that the data is right and that my team is meeting his needs for the right infrastructure. He is also teaching people how to ask the right questions.
How do you go about getting employees to begin to think a little differently about what the technologies are capable of, raising that technological imagination on the troop level?
First of all, I’m a big fan of not having an R&D team but instead making research and innovation everybody’s responsibility. I want people to step up and come forward with ideas and also to have the opportunity to explore and experiment themselves. We run an agile process, and we build into many of our sprints the opportunity for somebody who has had an idea to go away and investigate it. Maybe it’s successful, and we may double down or turn it out as a feature. Or we may look at it and say we’ll never launch that, but we learned some valuable lessons. Either way — whether it’s successful or unsuccessful as an immediately releasable capability — it’s still successful because we always learn something, whether it’s positive or negative.
Creating the culture around technology is key — bringing the engineering team closer to the brands. In the past, as far as I understand with media companies, the content team would define what the products would be. The challenge is that technology moves so fast. You find a content team saying “Oh, we would love to be able to do X, but that’s too hard.” Of course, my statement to them is, “No, no, no. I want to hear about X! Don’t tell me it’s too hard. I’ll tell you if it’s too hard. Let me worry about how to build it.” Or, one of the engineers might say, “I heard you talking about X, and you said you were thinking about doing it that way. This completely other way could give you the same result, and you’d get there much faster.” Having that interaction, having content and technology staff very tightly bound together is the right way of doing it.
Whenever you get content and technology staff discussing things, it invariably results in bigger and better ideas. I’d argue that we don’t have any shortage of good ideas. It’s a matter of prioritization, slotting them on the right brand at the right time to roll things out.
Speaking of new ideas, how many hackathons is Time Inc. doing now?
We have done two external hackathons in the past six months. We want to get to a cadence of one every four to six weeks. The people who show up for these events are passionate. Those who recently came to the Sports Illustrated hackathon are all passionate sports fans and are also computer scientists. We’ll do the same thing with other brands, different sets of data, different tasks. Of course, we get the editorial staff to show up, and they love engaging with the participants. It’s a learning experience.
How are you finding growth and new ideas personally?
When I first came to New York I went to lots of networking events. Now I have it down to half a dozen events a year where there’s much more emphasis on getting peers together. That keeps me plugged into the media space. My background is high-tech companies. I value the input I get from media and content experts.
Most important, I like to talk to customers. A few weeks ago, I got an email from a customer who was having problems with website page rendering. I said, “Well, let’s give the customer a call.” We got the customer on the line, and sure enough he helped us identify a bug that we would never have seen from within our environment. We have to adopt a high degree of humility and listen to our customers. They will tell us what works for them and what doesn’t.
One of the things NYC Media Lab is preparing for is an event on virtual reality this fall. Is Time Inc. doing anything around VR?
We’re considering the opportunity in this space. For many of our brands, there will be big opportunities in VR. Whether it’s going to be a year or whether it’s going to be five years, I’m not certain, but it’s coming. We have to invest in looking at and understanding that space because it will be a reality. You don’t want to go too soon, but you certainly don’t want to be too late.
Time Inc. is about passion. It’s about audiences. It’s about engagement. Our content is looked at in print, digital, audio, video and events. VR is another distribution channel that we will have to understand.