Recently I’ve 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 The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vice, Salon, Shutterstock, Digg, News Corp and Hearst here.
Number 10 in the series is Robyn Peterson, CTO of Mashable. Robyn previously held technology management roles in companies such as Next Issue Media, NBC Universal, Ziff Davis and Juno, the Internet service provider. He has a master’s degree in computer science from NYU Courant. At Mashable he is responsible for product strategy and development, and he manages the product, design and engineering teams. I sat down with Robyn in Mashable’s new offices on Fifth Avenue, where the paint was barely dry.
The first question I’ve put to all the CTOs participating in this series is the same. How has the pace of technological change influenced the way you do your job?
The biggest change as of late has been the ability to incorporate data science and artificial intelligence in a meaningful way. Within my group, we have a data science team and an artificial intelligence team. Smart systems and algorithms have certainly changed the way we work. The data science team is led by Haile Owusu, who has a PhD in theoretical physics, while the artificial intelligence team is led by Anthony Nyström, who has impressive experience starting companies in the machine-learning field.
With technology coming so far you can build intelligent systems, such as true artificial intelligence and scientific modeling, with a handful of people. I don’t know if we’d call that the democratization of technology- that seems grandiose- but it’s never been easier to do complex things. We’ve certainly reached an inflection point.
How do you organize your teams at Mashable to advance the existing products and create new ones?
First, I’m lucky because there are multiple people on my team who have been CTOs before. We benefit from their experience and leadership. The way I structure the team is in to pods. We all build products- and the way we build products is within those pods. The pods are small teams — design, product management, engineers- that operate as if they are a startup. They have their own schedules, own product lifespan, own needs, own standups. In aggregate, I view my group as an incubator within Mashable.
I take inspiration from other organizations when it comes to the way we work. For instance, Betaworks is a model. If there is any group out there that I’ve looked and said, hey man, that’s pretty smart- it’s Betaworks. Of course, we’re different- we have different goals. But it’s a similar thesis.
What are some examples of the projects the teams have launched recently?
Last week, we launched our new Mashable iOS app, which Apple featured in the App Store on day one.
Earlier this summer, we launched Mashable Velocity (a viral prediction platform) into alpha. In a nutshell, the Velocity platform crawls the web, categorizing content it finds into topical areas, and then collects as much data as it can on how people are sharing and interacting with the content, and by analyzing that data, predicts how viral each story will become. It’s a crystal ball to what’s happening on the social web.
The editorial team uses Velocity to have a sense of what people are sharing- whether video, stories, photos, or other content. And now we’re exploring with 360i how we bring Velocity to brands, and setting up dashboards for companies who are interested in social and want to appear prescient to the market.
Mashable has grown rapidly in the past couple of years. How has the organization changed?
It has been an evolution. When Mashable first started, Pete [Cashmore] was 19 and living in Scotland. He wrote articles on Silicon Valley, and then he listened to see how people reacted. He tackled new topics based on what people were sharing. If something bubbled up, he’d focus on that. Our approach to technology is an evolution of that human behavior; when we launched the latest version of the site, it had that thinking at its core.
Of course, nothing will replace good journalism- there are stories that need to be broken. We have a correspondent in the Ukraine and contributors in Iraq, and we’ve done some amazing work, such as this story on Amsha Alyas. She was sold to an ISIS leader and held captive for a month – our editorial team was able to produce an amazing long form piece on the story of her escape.
We view Mashable as the intersection of media and technology, and the journalists here are excited about the technology. One of the first things that Jim [Roberts], our Chief Content Officer, said to me when he joined Mashable was, “I’ve been dying to try something like this.” I think it’s the next evolution of media- great reporting supported by platforms that are smart, and algorithmically-driven.
How do you keep up with new technologies?
I love tinkering. It keeps you sharp. Right now, I’m teaching my twin six year old girls the beginnings of programming. We use an app called Move the Turtle to code how a turtle moves on screen. It’s fascinating to step back and look at how far technology has come, when you can sit down with six-year-old kids and some concepts they just grasp immediately. But the concepts they don’t grasp immediately are probably the things that will change. For instance, they keep trying to touch the screens in our house because they think all screens should be interactive.
And of course, I reach out to my network. Other CTOs – some of the ones you’ve interviewed, for instance – I call them with questions. It’s an opportunity to chat about different ideas. In the end we’re all working together in the media space. I’ll put it this way: in the grand scheme of things, media in general face more competition from non-media companies, than we face from each other. Tech companies- or companies historically thought of as tech companies- own a disproportionate amount of advertising revenue that was once owned by media companies. So the more we can work together and share ideas, the more we can move ahead together. That’s why you see more cooperation today than ever before in the media space.
What’s next for Mashable?
We are gaining a lot of domain expertise around data science, machine learning and the social web. I can tell you that our technology has evolved and developed so that we are able to make better predictions with fewer data points. We’ll continue to develop the Velocity platform. I think over the next year or two we’ll be able to make systems that are so smart they can take a lot of actions for people. That will allow our journalists to do more of the creative things that only humans can do. That’s where my focus is — at the intersection between the technology we’re creating and the people- from employees to readers- who use it.