View from The Top: Dina Kaplan, BLIP.TV
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
I smile when I think about the phrase that constantly rings through my head, which is that “the geeks will inherit the earth.” Technology enables and powers so much that I believe understanding it, and being able to program, is one of the only surefire ways to know you will be employed for the rest of your life. Companies will only have a greater need for programmers in the years and decades ahead, whether it is investment banks, start-ups, media companies, ad networks or any other number of businesses, including big industry, that need programmers to manage their infrastructure and processes.
If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, but you know you want to be employed, going into programming or any type of technology or development would be the most prescient bet you could make. At blip.tv, I am the only one of the co-founders who does not come from a programming background. My four co-founders spent about six years building the software that powers blip.tv before we even thought about launching the company. And that software, which we call Otter, is still the backbone of everything we do.
So much of media is moving to the web, whether it is print moving to blogs, music distribution moving from record labels to sites like last.fm, or video increasingly moving from television to the Web. All of the platforms that support these various forms of media will be on the Web, and each will require programmers to build and maintain them.
As far as going to school, do you consider it a pre-requisite for a career in technology?
Here’s how I see this: our CEO is a genius programmer who runs product, strategy, advertising and all other aspects of the business, and he dropped out of high school and never spent one day in college. Bill Gates dropped out of school and so did Michael Dell! It is helpful to go to school to learn, it is very intellectually stimulating, and you meet a great network of people who can hire you for a variety of jobs for the rest of your life. You also learn to write in school, which is invaluable whether you are writing emails, contracts or thank you notes to business partners and potential employers. So if you can stay in school, you should. If you have an opportunity to work in technology, at an existing company or by starting your own company, and you believe the idea is timely and will take off with or without you, it’s something to consider.
I certainly don’t think there is going to be any bigger growth industry in the country or the world than technology, though, and chances are you will have additional opportunities after you graduate. I’d say the ideal scenario would be to finish college, hack away at something in your spare time, and start a company or join a start-up when you graduate. You won’t be viewed as over the hill if you start a company at 21 or 22.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence?
You need to stay engaged. There are so many new tools coming out that it can seem overwhelming, and the programming languages change in terms of what’s fashionable or what is useful so quickly. For example, no one was using AJAX a number of years ago and suddenly that has become pretty popular. Languages do seem to change so much that you want to keep reading, you want to be on Twitter, and you want to be on the social networks that programmers use.
I also believe it is valuable to engage in technological communities. In New York, for example, one of the communities that focus on technology is the New York City Resistors. They get together at least once a week and go ice skating or organize a class about how to hack a Gameboy. Essentially, it’s a community of people who love to talk about technology. If you hang out with really smart people, such as the members of the NYC Resistors, you’re going to learn.
At a start-up I believe it is important to have a multi-dimensional life. You want to work on the product, you want to be in the office to motivate your staff and understand what is going on internally, but you also need to get out there. The best way to learn is to listen to smart people in your field and also to people one degree away from your field so you maintain some perspective.
Is it just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies? Or is keeping up with technologies not that important?
It’s more about engaging and talking with thoughtful people and hearing what they are thinking about. I recently heard about a company that is dramatically changing how big companies warehouse products. It used to be that if you wanted to check your inventory in a warehouse you’d have to walk around the entire warehouse and take inventory. It was a physically tiring, and inefficient, process. An entrepreneur saw this and built a company that’s technologically-based and actually has the shelves come to you. This is a simple, but brilliant, idea, and it is enabling companies to operate their warehouses three times more efficiently.
These out-of-the-box ideas are good to hear about because they keep your mind actively turning. Few things are more rewarding than talking and sharing ideas with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial-minded people. Of course you will want to read blogs, books and magazine articles as well.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
Your question is a smart one because it is something we have faced. It’s comparable to someone deciding whether to be a magazine editor versus remaining a writer. You may be offered a promotion from being a great writer to becoming an editor and hate it because you feel like you’re not having your stamp on the article, and you’re not into the nitty-gritty of choosing the beautiful word or ending to a sentence. As an editor, you can do this every now and then but certainly not with every sentence. We have faced this challenge as we grow. There are a few ways around this. Google has sub-divided its developer’s time, saying 20 percent of their time can be indulged in doing something on the side that they want to do on their own. That is something we have considered at blip.tv.
Our CTO, who is a very good manager and but also a great developer, is given a little bit of freedom to pursue pet projects. It’s not a lot of time but enough to write a bit of code. In his spare time for instance, he just made us compatible with the iPhone. That’s a piece of development that he did himself rather than managing someone else. Clearly writing code and managing people are very different ways to spend the day. Both can be rewarding, but it’s a big transition to go from hacking and solving problems to managing people, tracking success and keeping on top of dates when you are supposed to be delivering products built by a team of technologists.
Also, I feel that developers should spend time thinking about what’s most satisfying for them and not assume that being a manager is going to be more rewarding than finding an innovative solution to a technological problem.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field?
Yes, absolutely. In saying this I may be a bit self-serving. In the early days of the company I was the only non-technologist at blip.tv. And we quickly learned this was a valuable role within the company. Because just about every early partnership we forged, whether it was with Google, AOL, Yahoo, FiOS or Sony, was through someone I met at a conference or at a digital media event in New York. You would be on a panel with someone, and then begin chatting with them, and soon you would figure out there was an opportunity to work together to mutual benefit, and eventually close a deal. I can’t think of one time we ever made a cold call to a company saying, “Hi we’re blip… this is what we do.” Just about all of our business deals have always started with a personal relationship. Of course you have to have a product behind you, but a personal connection will open and close a deal.
Also, it is valuable for tech companies to have someone who is almost like a relationship manager or, you could say, a relationship broker. For us this has been very helpful in terms of navigating relationships across the myriad of companies in our ecosystem. Blip.tv is a platform play serving three audiences: content producers, advertisers, and distributors. Each of these audiences demands high-touch personal connections with the company, and it is part of our job to continue learning from these constituencies and building products that support their needs.
Clearly I have to stress, again, that it is crucial you have a product to back you up. You cannot continue to close deals if your company has an immature or faulty product. But it is also not enough to simply program in a corner and never go out. Your company is part of an ecosystem and you have to do deals with other companies in your space, which involves a great deal of hanging out, chatting and developing relationships.
What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
It’s important to set deadlines and keep to them. It’s alluring to keep hacking away at something. You’ll endlessly find problems with it or ways to improve it. At a certain point, however, you need a project manager or a very good CTO to say we’re done. Let’s release this, let’s get feedback from the users, but we’re done. That discipline is the difference between a company that will survive and one that won’t. And then, as I mentioned earlier, you need someone who will value the personal relationships among people. In addition, if you’re selling you need people who are focused on selling. It’s good to have some tension between your product team and your selling team and to let people focus on what they are best at and most passionate about.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
If you spend a lot of face time with clients, you need to put yourself in that person’s shoes. Programmers often have the inclination of a lawyer, which is to hedge a bit. You might be inclined to see if there is a way to avoid a definitive answer. Questions in the business world require concrete and, many times, one word answers. Because clients are often looking for clear answers, having finely tuned communications skills puts you at a big advantage. It’s the concept of getting outside of yourself and thinking about what this person needs, what they want and how to communicate this as clearly as possible and to get it done so they will continue to use your service and, hopefully, recommend it to many other people.
There seem to be companies that are tech-centric and those that are more user-experience centric. Is this an important distinction in choosing the “right” company to work for?
This distinction, according to me, drives the company. You hear all the time that Google is a tech-focused company. We are very programmer-heavy. It’s nice to have staff that is local. A lot of companies are looking at outsourcing but I really value that all of our programmers are working in-house and accountable. We go on company outings together, we go on Starbucks runs, and we have a lot of friendships along company lines. That helps the company function much more smoothly because that means the lines of communications are open.
So, what you want to know is how much say the CTO has at a company and how much value is placed on the technology—is it a means to an end or is it thought of as core. It’s really important in helping to run a company that you listen. Your developers are going to be very smart and they’re going to have important input on the product. If the product people are only trying to meet a deadline, or only trying to make it beautiful then you might be skipping some steps that could put the product at risk.
Would you say the culture at a company should dictate where you end up working?
People say you should look half at the culture of a company and half at what they’re doing. Culture is incredibly important. Programmers in general like to be very independent and they like to be able to work out solutions, stay late if they want to and maybe come in late every now and then. You just have to work with that and know that if you have a good technologist you’re lucky to have that person because there are so many additional places where they could find a job.
At the same time, you also want to have fun. Yes you’re going to work hard, but can you go out for coffee during the day? It’s important to have a good corporate or startup culture, and it’s something we are very conscious of at blip.tv. It’s something that even comes up at our board meetings, where the board members will ask: How’s the culture? How are people getting along? This is something we think about every day. Our CEO was traveling for work a few weeks ago, and he was out for a few days and called me to check in on things. The first question he asked was: How’s the culture? It wasn’t anything else but: how do people feel? Is everyone happy?
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure? What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
The technology side has to have a strong voice. Then again, you also want to try to meet deadlines as much as you can and play well within the rest of the team and not become cliquish. One of the things I really value about blip is that the ad sales people will go out for a Starbucks coffee with the developers and the content team.
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
What’s most important is that everybody is talking. And it’s not just the CTO to the CEO or to the head of business development, but that everyone is talking.
So vertically as well as horizontal?
Yes, because our ad sales trafficker is going to have to ask the programmer who came up with the creative for the ad campaign why it’s not clickable when it’s supposed to be clickable. So you want them to know each other and to have hung out, because it makes those conversations easier.
What issues plague the technology industry? What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
It seems like everybody is hiring technologists, so one of the biggest issues is figuring out where to work. Do you go to a startup and take a slightly lower salary? Or would you go somewhere more established where you can command a bigger salary but have no chance of cashing in on equity?
Also, there’s too much input: there’s IM, there’s e-mail, there’s Tumblr, there’s blogs, Yammer, RSS feeds and all of the publications you subscribe to. So part of the challenge each day is how not to get distracted by all that.
Another issue is copyright. The expansion of Creative Commons licensing is really exciting. There are also questions about whether the FCC or another government agency could start regulating the Internet.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
There could be a very big culture clash between your business people and your developers. They have different ways of looking at the world and a different way of being. At first I was pretty resistant to it and now I love it and feel honored to work at, and have co-founded, a company brimming with so many talented programmers. In part it is having an independent spirit that drives people into programming, and I really appreciate that independence and openness.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
People used to ask us all the time if we are a tech company or a media company. And we would say both, because the technology enables the media. In a year from now you’ll think of the TV and other media-related internet companies as being media companies. When it started, CBS was thought of as a technology company because it was delivering content to people’s television sets. Now it is considered a media company. So the technology enables the media. In the end unless you’re a technologist you’re going to look at blip and say there’s a lot of really compelling shows here. The better job we do with our technology, the more you won’t think about the technology. So yes, that’s a mistake.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
It’s very possible. New media is growing so quickly that it’s luring people in from all sorts of nooks and crannies of the world. I came from television. You’ll see people from record labels go to new media, people from traditional television and film and people from print. You’re already seeing this happen. The world is rapidly becoming a digital environment. There will be more and more companies and therefore more jobs available connected to the web for years and decades to come.
But would you say it’s an easier transition if you’re moving into a more non-technical role?
I don’t think you are going to go from being a television reporter to being a Java programmer. No, but think there is an opportunity for you to work at a new media company and for you to be incredibly valuable to that company.
So if you’re in a different field and you want to go into programming would one need to go back to school?
I feel like it’s in your blood or it’s not. I know hundreds of people working in new media right now and I don’t know anyone that decided to become a developer mid-career.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Do it and start a company, start a project and don’t over think everything. Don’t program in a hole for years and years and not release anything. You learn a lot from the audience you serve so the new model for the web is to release and then iterate and have your product get better every week.
Also, learn, learn, learn. I believe in the Nike slogan of ‘Just do it.’ Listen closely to the people you are serving, and if they recommend that you change what you’re doing, you should probably listen to it and accommodate the request. That’s the best marketing you could possibly engage in, and it’s free.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
In terms of a product that hasn’t gone mainstream yet, I suspect in the next few years we will see two-way phones with live video so you can see, and interact with, the person you are speaking with.
The second trend is that people will want to become more engaged with government, just as they became very involved, through social media, with the presidential election. I would be surprised if we didn’t learn a lot more about government, our government officials, their daily schedules and the policies they are considering and promoting, during all stages of that process. I think we’ll see a lot more openness and a lot more participation on the part of the American people, whether it is in drafting legislation or lobbying for policies they feel passionate about. That will be a very positive ramification of new media, and it will make our politicians more honest and more accountable.