Three management lessons from the people who build the digital news world

Technology is management. And vice versa.
Technology is management. And vice versa.
Image: Reuters/Jim Urquhart
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Justin Hendrix has a fascinating series on Medium speaking to the chief technology officers of major US digital publishing organizations, most recently Buzzfeed’s Mark Wilkie. These CTOs are dealing with a constantly evolving and increasingly competitive industry where all of the work and consumption happens online.

We’ve pulled three essential management tips from the interviews, useful for anyone leading people. Managers who aren’t thinking about technology all the time aren’t doing a large part of their jobs.

Have a keen BS detector

From Vice CTO Jesse Knight:

CTOs these days need to be careful about resource management — there are 100 vendors that would love to waste your dev team’s time testing their products, only to find that they don’t live up to expectations (or worse). The same is true for deciding what new technologies to support. Not only can you waste time, but if you implement the wrong technology, the product will suffer. So a very keen bullshit detector needs to be used when evaluating any new vendor or technology. That’s always been true, but with digital changing so fast, it’s more important than ever.

His suggestion for keeping from having your time wasted? Ask a friend or peer elsewhere. While talking about the prices you pay for technology might be taboo, whether it is easily implemented and useful is the sort of thing that’s difficult to know without having worked with it for a while.

Keeping the lights on isn’t enough

From Hearst CTO Phil Wiser:

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.

More employees than ever are bringing in technology, or expect the sort of features they use privately in their work experiences. It’s not just a productivity drain for staff to work to get around using technology they see as outdated, it’s the sort of thing that increasingly leads people to leave companies, or choose one employer over another.

Teach people things outside of their comfort zones

Digg CTO Michael Young is fascinated with the growing movement of people learning to code. In time, he’d like to create a program that gets more young women into computer science, but he started at his employer.

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.

Instead of starting with the traditional basics, things like HTML, CSS, Javascript, or Python, he started with Processing, a language used for data visualization. His thought was that something visual and interactive would make it easier for beginners to get “over the hump.”

His next goal is to expand the program to Betaworks, the technology incubator and studio that runs Digg. The company has more non-programmers than ever, but they often end up in situations where they’re confronted with acronyms they simply don’t understand.

“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,” said Young.