An interview with Michael Young, CTO of Digg

Part 4 in a series of CTO interviews

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. This is a fifth in the series.

Next up is Michael Young, CTO at Digg, a Betaworks company. Young joined Betaworks through a kind of side door., a social news product he created as Lead Creative Technologist at the New York Times, moved into the Betaworks studio in 2010, and with it went Young. Just as Betaworks was determining what to do next with, it acquired Digg, and Michael and his team took the learnings from the earlier effort into rebuilding what was by then Digg’s ‘carcass’ of a product. What happened next is a great tale of digital rebirth, which you can read about here and here.

I had the chance to sit down with Michael early one morning this spring at the Betaworks studio in the Meatpacking District.

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?

Hearing people in publishing talk about change, it’s sort of like it’s doom and gloom; but I think of opportunity. If you were trying to create a site that would scale quickly some time ago you had to own your own hardware. Now with Amazon Web Services and other open source tools it’s very cheap, and you don’t have to touch hardware anymore. You can scale, you can handle surges in traffic. You can move quicker. For anyone starting out, hardware is out of the equation.

Open source software makes building things a lot easier. It’s incredible what that’s done to the speed of development, the ease of development. For instance, we built Digg Reader in two and a half months, which would have been impossible years ago. Google Reader announced it would discontinue around the first of of March. At Betaworks, we had always been talking about building a reader product. When we heard the news, everyone just happened to be out. We jumped on a HipChat, and we decided we’d build it. We had three months from saying yes to launch. In the first week, we were crawling, storing and serving 8 million RSS feeds.

That’s some of the ‘good’ change. What’s been challenging is the number of platforms- it’s expensive building, testing, and updating apps. At the minimum you have to do web, mobile web, iOS and Android. The new Amazon phone, that’s another platform. If you think about building a new feature, you have to coordinate all of the rest and go through the submission process. The opportunities are great, but it’s expensive.

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?

The roots of the company are small technology teams, so we definitely are into build vs. buy. We use vendors for analytics, from Chartbeat to Localytics to Flurry. We don’t have time to build these, and these services are great. Everything else- from CMS to whatever touches the website- we build ourselves. If we were into more video we’d likely use more vendors. The pitches on LinkedIn and those who have discovered my email address come in great quantity.

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?

At the R&D Lab at the New York Times we were looking around the corner- what’s coming a year or two from now. But here we’re thinking in shorter time frames. We have a sense of new mobile platforms, or new platforms to get Digg Video on TVs, but we’re looking at three to six to twelve months. We’re not doing highly speculative stuff; we aren’t spending time on Google Glass, for instance. That’s for bigger teams and R&D groups.

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

I read as much as I can; through Twitter and RSS feeds that I follow, from individual developers that I follow to developer blogs that are doing interesting open source stuff. I don’t do a lot of conferences, but I try to do one or two a year. Last year was XOXO, which was great. The thing I liked about that was that the people who attended actually built stuff. Designers, technologists, musicians, artists, mathematicians. Most of the talks were about how you got to where you were, and what mistakes you made along the way. Just hearing the human side of those stories was impactful. You heard this common theme of the impostor syndrome. These people I admire and respect, they talked about the anxiety or mistakes they made, that feeling that they didn’t belong, that they had worked hard but gotten lucky along the way.

But in terms of learning, I’ve had a lot of mentors who have shaped my thinking. My first job out of college was at a startup doing interactive TV and early mobile stuff. I was working with a bunch of recent graduates from Cal Berkeley- the engineers were among the best I’ve met. Michael Zimbalist at the R&D Lab at the New York Times was one of the best people I’ve worked with and worked for, and of course Mark Hansen at Columbia- he did a sabbatical at the Lab. One of the projects we worked on together got into the Design Triennial at the Cooper Hewitt. His creativity and his understanding of data; I’m always in awe and inspired when I get to hang out with him. And certainly John Borthwick. Sitting in weekly brainstorm meetings with John was great; as we were talking about the future of news and social.

When you think about the broader organization, how do you help the average employee improve their technological acumen, and raise the overall mean?

I’ve had this real fascination with the ‘learning to code’ movement. I’ve started with a longer goal, and perhaps this is because I have a daughter and I’m thinking about women in technology. I‘d like to create an education program that makes it more fun to explore computer science and programming. My hope is that it will appeal to younger girls that get in to software and computer science.

So the editorial team at Digg were my guinea pigs. I built six weeks of classes for them, and I taught them some of the basics of programming. Of course, there is a window of time where you need to decide if you like it or not. That was my experiment- that slog at the beginning, can I make that more fun. If you look at something like Codeacademy, which is a big undertaking, you’re learning HTML, CSS, Javascript, maybe Ruby or Python- learning these languages can be incredibly boring. So my thought was can we start with Processing. Data visualization experts like Jer Thorp and Mark Hansen use Processing to build some of their visualiations. My hypothesis is that doing something more visual, more interactive can help get beginners over the hump.

I want to expand the class to Betaworks. When I came here four years ago, it was 90% developers. Now that we are bigger, there is a greater mix of developers, editorial, sales, community people; the mix of nonprogrammers to programmers is higher. There are a lot of people that want to get started- you hear terms fly all day, and people are too afraid to ask what an acronym means. I want classes where we get on a white board and I explain what that is. Even if people don’t learn to code, having a deeper understanding of how the web works, how these tools and services are created, will help everyone. It’s fun to teach- my parents were teachers; perhaps that’s where this is coming from.

The other thing we do is to make sure that people on the technology team are conversant across technologies. Look at Kellen Elliot-McCrea, CTO of Etsy- he’s putting all of his developers through mobile training. That’s really smart. You want the person working on the front end to know about the back end stack, the person working on operations to get a look at the iOS app.

You need to have the time and the stomach to say we’ll put in the effort. As we staff up we find ways to make the time. Throughout the year we try to open up periods of time where people can take breaks, start projects and do things outside of their day to day. For instance, Jon Ferrer, who leads front end development, is working on some visualizations; we try to create those opportunities.

Do you have to fight the urge to be an early adopter?

With regard to gadgets, at this point, I probably get more excited about new coffee gear that comes out than I do about a new mobile phone. I’m not excited about the watches or the wearables from a personal perspective. But as a technologist I’m always reading about these things and am excited about their future. I do try to be an early adopter of services- apps and sites that come up that are related to social and media.

What’s it like to be part of Betaworks?

The main thing about Betaworks is that it’s adaptive- lately it’s gone from very small to medium stage. John’s been able to mentor companies and spin them out of the nest; he’s done a great job of mentoring and helping companies operate and grow from 2 to 15 to 40 employees. And they have also made smart investments on the seed side. Tweetdeck, Summize, that’s helped fund the game. They are not afraid- they recognize when something is not working. They’ll retool it, steer it in another direction, or shut it down. That’s key- take good, smart people that were working on a project that didn’t work out and get them going on something new.

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.