An interview with Phil Wiser, CTO of Hearst

Part 3 in a series of CTO conversations

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with CTOs from very 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 am publishing a summary of each of these discussions. (The first- with Jesse Knight, CTO of Vice, is here, and the second, with Cindy Jeffers, CTO of Salon, is here.)

Next up is Phil Wiser, CTO of Hearst, who I have the pleasure of working with thanks to Hearst’s membership in NYC Media Lab. I sat down with Wiser in his office at Hearst Tower in Manhattan.

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?

I would agree that things are accelerating. This is a direct result of a couple of technical factors. One is the wide availability of utility computing- the cloud- that allows upstart competitors to launch a full scale operation in a matter of weeks. An example would be Vox- that went from concept a couple of months ago to something that is a full blown news operation in 6-8 weeks. Starting a new digital business no longer has capital, infrastructure or time constraints. We’re now looking at new projects the same way, which is why a major push in the company is a movement to the cloud. All new product development happens on a cloud solution. Starting with the cloud is really key to moving quickly. We’ve canvassed the company and tried to move as much of our assets into the cloud as possible as quickly as we can.

When you look at a company like Hearst you need the technical leadership to realize that keeping the lights on and managing servers is no longer value add- value add is bringing new technologies to the company that accelerate product development and enable creative teams to move faster. We need our enterprise technologists to be the equivalent of the person at the Genius Bar. You need to be the source of inspiration for the technology- not holding things back. Traditionally the corporation led decisions on technology- but now our employees are walking in the door with the technology they want to use. We want the environment inside the company to be as flexible and open as the experience they have in the real world.

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?

I sort through the inbound requests based on current priorities. If someone is trying to pitch me an enterprise technology solution, I don’t pay attention. We’re ‘end of lifing’ such solutions in most parts of the company. But if someone has a consumer engagement, content marketing, or a consumer analytics solution, those things are interesting. For instance, how to leverage consumer data to deliver a better experience. On the development side, you have to find dev shops on specific projects you are focused on.

I look at the continuum from back office infrastructure to consumer experience. We tend to build where our strengths are- closest to the consumer. My view is that we should only build what truly differentiates us as a company. The areas where we are investing include unique solutions around how we aggregate information online and offline and how we deliver experiences.

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?

I always look out five years- I keep a crystal ball on the table. We have to look at the long term trends, at major market trends to think about where we will invest. But it breaks down into a ‘breast stroke’ of technology adoption. Every quarter we reassess our investments. It’s event driven. The iPad was an event. You can’t wait a year to respond.

In the future, wearables are interesting and the smartphone form factor will get smaller. We can’t build everything around displays. For our television business the ongoing growth of online video will be profound. We are seeing that as a major market factor. Connected large screens in the home are going to be big. Apple, Amazon, and Google are all in the game making over-the-top video accessible in the home. The real time nature of advertising will be an important trend. That real time system of metrics that supports display will move across all forms of advertising in the future. It will transition into real time delivery of content.

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

The most important element is curating online sources of news and information. I’m very active using feeds and alerts to stay current. It’s a challenging position as a head of technology and a business leader in the company; I can’t just read the newspapers. I have to go into deeper tech properties.

In the company we have open discussions about market trends. We share reports, we try to raise the level of dialogue and speak the same language. And, real time dialogue in the market is important. Outside of New York, I spend a lot of time in the Bay Area, and in Los Angeles, which is increasingly an interesting source of technologies for the media.

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

We try to encourage engagement with the New York tech community. We have meetups here on specific topics. For instance, this week we had a meeting on Amazon Web Services and the cloud. We recently hosted a group of CTOs to share ideas. And, programs like hack-a-thons bring ideas in from the outside.

There is one key thing: it comes down to real time, honest conversations. If you are an executive at a company like Hearst with more than 20,000 employees, sitting in presentations, you’re going to miss things. I try to find open contexts where I can have very real conversations. The key point there is being less structured and creating an open environment.

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.