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. You can read earlier interviews with the CTOs of companies such as Buzzfeed, Vice, Salon, Shutterstock, Digg, News Corp and Hearst here.
Next up is Rajiv Pant, CTO of The New York Times. I met with Rajiv at the Times headquarters in Manhattan, where we discussed the newsroom of the future, how the company is organizing itself to take advantage of new technologies and what it is like to work in an environment where technology decisions are so publicly scrutinized.
The first question I have put to each of the CTOs in this series is about the pace of technological change. Has it changed the way you do your job?
Technology, along with people’s habits and consumption, has always been changing throughout human history. What is different now is the cognitive load that new products and technology are putting on our brains. People in the developed world are constantly burdened with information overload. Our attention is pulled in too many directions simultaneously; our brains are being tasked to do things we weren’t evolved to do well. The social, cultural and workplace impact of these changes is bigger than the tech changes.
It has changed the way everyone does their job. People bring smartphones, tablets and laptops to group meetings, and even to one-on-one interactions. We are less present in the present than we need to be. People we interact with are often somewhere else, at least partly. Social media interrupts our daily routines. We often don’t opt out of these things since they are a part of our society now and we need to be embracing them to understand our customers. However, all these things impact quality, productivity and innovation.
In companies with such prestige, there can be as much of a guardian mentality as an innovation mentality. How do you overcome that?
When it comes to the journalism and the content, as you’d expect, companies like The New York Times have very high standards that must be maintained. When it comes to product development, process and innovation, companies need to be open to risk taking.
Experimentation, testing and learning, and occasionally failing gracefully are essential to evolution, growth and continuity of organizations, just as it is for living organisms.
For instance, we are currently implementing a set of engineering practices called Continuous Delivery (CD) across the organization. The goal for CD is to allow our teams to be more self-sufficient, get new features and functionality into production faster, and put more effort on things that data shows are adding greater value for our customers. CD will allow us to run more experiments live on the website and refine our products to be more useful for our customers. We have to innovate and keep up. Otherwise we will fall behind.
What specific technologies are top of mind for you right now?
Data science, machine learning and data visualization. We’re looking at algorithms to assist people in their jobs in all aspects of their work, whether it’s parsing information to make it more easily understandable, or employing machine learning combined with human judgment to improve product development. You can put functionality out there and through various forms of testing get feedback and actual user data and modify products accordingly. That’s impacting how media companies are creating products.
How are you changing the organization to take advantage of new technologies?
My job is to lead people, process and technology and to provide the best user experience for our customers. I report to Marc Frons, the CIO on the business side, and I also report to Dean Baquet, the Editor in Chief in the newsroom. Tech has to work across both parts of the company. In order to accomplish that, one thing that we have launched internally recently is a technology partners program. Each technology partner is a key tech contact who works with a given department- advertising, marketing, or the newsroom- and is intended to help that department navigate the complexity of using technology.
What is your time horizon for evaluating and incorporating new tech?
A lot of the tech evaluation happens organically. We host hack days and hack weeks where developers bring in new technology, come up with a solution, and propose that. It doesn’t normally work where a vendor comes in and proposes something. How quickly they get evaluated depends on whether they build a prototype or not. The prototype is the mechanism to evaluate a new idea.
You have a long history of working in technology in “traditional media”- what’s different now versus 5 years or 10 years ago?
A number of inventions in this field were well ahead of their time. For instance, artificial intelligence and machine learning to process text content. Media companies tried these things back in the 90s. Roger Fidler and the team at Knight Ridder were building a tablet computer in the 80s and 90s. What has changed now is that those concepts are coming back and they are working. I hate to say ‘big data’ since it has become a buzzword, but the ability to store, manage and manipulate large amounts of information is now possible. Lots of things that were harder to do in the 90s are now easy with cloud computing.
The other difference is that what we do now is better understood by colleagues and other people. Back then not everyone had used technology- whether websites or mobile devices- but now most people, even those who are not technologists, are familiar with these things. So the broad technological imagination is more advanced than it was, both for us and for readers.
How do you raise the technological acumen of the broader company?
We encourage developers to bring in new technologies and to test and experiment with these new technologies. It’s a fine balance, as it can lead to a kind of technology proliferation. Some companies are very strict- they will only work with certain databases or languages, for instance- but we’ve erred on the side of letting engineers innovate. We want to have the best talent, retain the smartest talent, and balance that with having a coherent technology strategy. We encourage people to take courses and classes. We don’t mandate a lot of learning; we encourage people to find things they are curious about. We bring in guest speakers, and we do a lot to build the culture and inspire people to learn on their own.
Do you have a vision of the newsroom of the future?
We have an interactive news technology team that is co-located in the newsroom, that does not sit with the rest of the tech team. They sit with the journalists and work with them on various projects that are prioritized by the newsroom alone. Unlike the central priorities of other parts of the tech team, they are embedded in the newsroom. We also send technologists to work with the newsroom and the interactive team; they bridge the newsroom with the corporate digital technology team. When they come back they have a better understanding of the needs of the newsroom.
Ultimately we view the technology team as just another part of the creative team, just like the journalists or the art department. It’s a creative engineering organization.
The Times is always under great scrutiny. The decisions it takes are considered indicative of the direction of the industry. Does that complicate your job?
The most exciting thing is that the work we do here in the tech team affects a lot of people’s lives in a positive way, getting information to people all over the world. Even where people don’t have computers, they can get at the information we produce. Growing up in India, reading The New York Times was a privilege; now you can be in a rural village there and read it on your mobile phone.
Of course, there is increased scrutiny, but that is there for anyone in this role at other companies as well. If you are in a big bank, for instance, you are also under great scrutiny. So, there is pressure but it’s balanced by the pride we have in what we are doing.