For the last 20 years I have been in charge of diverse media businesses in different countries. All along, digital was always a part of my responsibilities, and lately it has become my main focus. In appreciation for the generosity of so many people during my career, I want to share the mental blueprint I use when managing a digital operation. The following doesn’t mean, though, that I am doing well at every step I describe. Rather, I’m just a challenged beginner trying to plot my company’s roadmap to a profitable and fast growing digital operation. I can boast, nonetheless, that it represents a useful guide to leaders trying to manage rather complex digital media operations.
1. Choose who do you work for
If you are senior enough, choose who you work for. Transforming the dominant culture of a company involves, among other things, razor-sharp strategic vision, determination, stamina and serious backing to achieve the expected goals. Taking that journey with shareholders who have a track record of mistreating executives (excessive churn, unfulfilled promises, poor HR reputation…) is adding extra liabilities to an already difficult task. On the other hand, if you select a company with a good public image that goodwill will significantly help the products you launch. If the company has a good brand image albeit with a history of failed digital projects, the situation can be reversed. A poor digital track record will pose extra difficulties when attracting talent at the outset, but that can be overcome. Changing the mind of the market is much harder. Do yourself a favor and avoid conflicting companies and Boards.
2. Obtain real and perceptible support from the top
Moving a traditional media company along the digital path is a herculean task which involves most areas of the business, with the exception of printing. The successful transformation of the dominant culture and its processes requires strong support from shareholders and from the COO. This top-down support should be felt throughout the organization, should be well thought out and should include clear messages to the organization. Should hesitation or doubts arise along the way, shareholders should be careful not to express it outside the walls of their boardroom. In absence of explicit support, the inertia of the company will automatically act against the disruptive noise of the emerging culture.
3. Be “hybrid”: our digital world is a fast changing one and rigid schools of thought do not fit well with that.
Digital media is so dynamic that truths have a limited shelf-life. Requirements for success are diverse and involve many areas of human knowledge. Yes, somehow this is also true in other areas of business, but in digital we live ‘dog years’, compressed time. To be successful, one has to adopt a very pragmatic all inclusive approach. The argument in favor or against proprietary platforms versus open source is irrelevant; the answer is that both may be required. The same applies to investing in one’s own server farm versus cloud services, advertising versus transactional revenues, internal growth versus hiring from outside, agency revenues versus direct sales…etc. Be hybrid, be all inclusive and open minded in all areas of the operation, be they technical, commercial or personnel-related. When possible, perform constant A/B testing to monitor the effectiveness of each possible solution before you take a definitive decision.
4. Always think architecture first
Don’t fall in love with the variety of sexy software and technology tools to choose from! It’s easy to get carried away with a new platform which has been recommended by someone we trust and which moreover gets the best trade reviews. The problem, not uncommon to media companies with low revenue-contribution from digital, is that their architecture has become a series of technology layers which can be traced back to previous managers, or even to decisions fostered by attending seminars or visiting respected media groups. My personal advice is that you should chart your existing architecture while being honest and unforgiving with the situation and its ability to deliver. Then, share it with top tech guys you respect and find out if the current technology set up really makes sense or if some modifications would better suit your needs. Some elements will be valid; others are probably bound for change or obsolescence. This process, more often than not, will result in cost reduction. Whenever you need to progress, ask your people how any small change, new tool or platform fits with the architecture. This is my first point regarding technology simply because it’s the most important.
5. Digital technology and businesses should be intertwined
I have worked under two different circumstances: with authority over the technology team and without. Believe me that the speed of change is much greater with the former. Some media companies prefer that the IT people have control of the Digital technology, because of habit or simply because their IT managers are highly reliable. In this scenario the Digital business managers may feel insufficiently supported or dragged down. The Data Center is often a good example. IT gives support to hosting and maintenance of servers, at times without the proper knowledge of web tools and systems and more frequently following policies designed rather for traditional businesses, for which they have the knowledge. The Data Center example (let it be clear, no team is better than the other, they just have different skill sets) may shed light on the need for the digital area to have control of its own technology. Good understanding between both heads, and among team members, is a must. Whether you are the shareholder, CEO or Chief Digital Officer (CDO), the thinking should be the same, since this is not a matter of a person accumulating power, but of a professional being able to move the company forward by having control of two interdependent levers.
6. Sit digital technology personnel next to the business managers
It’s not uncommon to find that technology and businesses work in separate locations, perhaps in the same building. Twice I have experienced the tremendous energy created by just sitting the technical guys among the business teams. It’s hard to believe how dramatic the change can be. For close to zero cost, this is by far the best move a media company can make to accelerate its digital operations.
7. Have tech and business teams interact
Along the lines of the previous point, mix technology and business team members when analyzing a new business or the next release, and also when brainstorming. Recently one of my tech team members came up with the key to a very challenging strategic question we were posing ourselves (in a database project, how to persuade unsubscribed merchants to subscribe while not affecting users negatively). Such interactions are very positive for the company and for the professional development of both teams: tech people realize how important their job is and business people learn more about the basic principles of technology. Moreover, both sets of professionals appreciate the learning and growth; they also appreciate their interdependency.
8. Be hybrid with your architecture: use open source and proprietary software
Media groups have a tendency to perpetuate their legacy habit of acquiring proprietary technology and platforms into Digital Media. They perceive a sense of security from after-sales support, vendor expertise, stability, vendor trust…etc. Adding to that, open source technicians have been absent in media groups until recently, and at the beginning they were more expensive. It was Rob Curley who showed me the open source potential back in his times in Kansas. Since then, I have tried to move to open source when possible, but not obsessively. Experts talk about the zero cost of open source as the main advantage, but that ignores the fact that a good part of innovation is being driven by companies which aren’t in the business of selling software. Open source solutions are increasingly excellent at solving specific problems. Another overlooked element in regard to proprietary software is its cost in terms of the negotiation process, including subsequent time delays. For some well-defined jobs, a proprietary solution may be the right one. For projects which can evolve in unexpected ways, open source can give you the flexibility to adapt to the possible scenarios of a project. In any of those two scenarios, make sure you have in-house experts who understand the technology and inspect new patches or adaptations. It will avoid complications, downtime and in the long run it will give you some protection against unexpected turns in your business or the vendor’s.
9. Use Project Management
I have managed digital operations with and without a Project Management discipline and the difference is notorious. I wouldn’t do it again without. All media companies are trying to grow digital revenues fast. As shareholders look at the inevitable chart in which analogue income dwindles over the years whilst digital’s goes up trying to make up for it, it’s clear that this is a race against the clock. If proper management of time and budget is important, PM is crucial. Initial project estimates will vary and without PM it’s hard to ascertain where one stands. PM optimizes internal resources and suppliers to ensure that there is no wastage of time or money, nor further complications when the problems of one project start affecting others and threaten to disturb the morale of the team and its credibility. Beyond reducing time and costs while helping quality, reaching an agreement for PM workflow is an excellent tool to negotiate and obtain buy-in from the different teams working on a project. It’s a management aphorism that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” and indeed any project extending beyond two weeks needs to be accounted for in order to be managed. The opposite is a recipe for disaster. A PM workflow is the result of team compromise and it represents commitment from each party to achieve an objective regardless of other commitments. It allows the project management officer to follow up and take corrective measures on time and on budget. With the years I have become more PM aware. I currently include in the PM workflow elements having to do with the business, not just the technology: contracts that have to be ready by a certain time, key revenue agreements to be signed...etc. Finally, I recommend that the flowchart includes quality and stress tests, technical documentation before launch as well as budget and time buffers (these last two could be hidden from the team).
10. Be hybrid: do in-house programming and also farm out
In principle, an in-house group of developers will react quicker to your company needs and will take into consideration more of the complexity of integration. Nothing beats face to face interaction and the speed and creativity generated when the holders of technical and business skills interact. When exposed to the business objectives of a project, internal developers will come up with unrequested ideas. Maintenance will be easier for them because they know the project from inception. It seems that I’m making the case for not outsourcing, but in fact there are many cases in which farming out is better and/or cheaper; each decision should be made on a per case basis, with pragmatism. An external company may be approached for a development job which requires a specialization not found in-house or because the team has its hand full or because you may want to get fresh air from outside to challenge your team or because you think that some repetitive tasks are better done elsewhere. Search was an abstruse set of skills for most of us some years ago, but now it’s a skill most media companies possess internally. For many companies outsourcing was the way to acquire them. The same applied to mobile skills some time ago. What is imperative is that at the end of the day your company has to possess the core skills. Whether farming out or doing it in-house, it has to do with the history and beliefs of your company, but as a rule of thumb, reinforce your core, reinforce your technical team but outsource routine and commodity. Lastly, one should not forget that our technical teams want to learn and grow; they are ready to move out of their comfort zone to acquire new skills in order to remain “hirable”. Am I being too candid? Honestly, in my life the most heard of complain of technicians has to do with lack of training, not with having to learn new things.
11. Offer incentives to your developers
I firmly believe that in a digital media operation, and for that matter in all companies, all individuals should look in the same direction and have the same goals. Since accomplishing it is more art than science, let me share ways I have been trying to achieve it: first, absolutely every single person in a digital operation (including a personal assistant, or the tea person who exists in many Asian companies) should have a bonus or variable compensation at the end of a period (year, semester, quarter, month) to incentivize performance. Not only personal performance but also group results should be taken into account to foster cooperation and to stimulate the group dynamics which will expel the laggards who penalize the rest. Another non-economic way to incentivize people was influenced by my previous life as a university professor when I cherished some of the teachings of the behavioral psychologist Burrhus Frederic ‘Skinner’ regarding human motivation: I have often applied the sentence “positive reinforcement of desired behavior” in my professional life, as opposed to threats or punishments, and I seriously believe it works with most people. One question often asked in regard to rewarding developers is how to measure their performance. I have tried different ways, not all them successful. Currently our developers report to their technical head but they are organized along business lines (e.g., the video platform developers have a dotted line to the Business Manager of video so that they identify with the objectives of that line of business). Their bonus is therefore dependent upon the total digital revenues as well as the revenues generated by the video business. I know this system is not perfect but I have tried others and this one suits us best. The purpose is that developers identify with their digital peers and with the success of the businesses they work for.
12. Document all development
The pressure to meet deadlines is often responsible for neglecting the preparation of software documentation, which frequently includes a description of the software, its function, relationships to its environment, construction principles…etc., as well as record of code, interfaces, algorithms and APIs. Ideally, it also includes manuals for the administrators, end users and support personnel. Unless the piece of software is going to have a short life span (e.g. a mobile app for a client’s campaign), documentation is critical. When ignored, any future versions or updates will become time consuming and more prone to error since any changes may negatively affect the software. This becomes especially important in the case of complex platforms which are created to last for several years and which will experience upgrades and intensive interaction with other pieces of the architecture. Who determines the scope of the documentation required and gives the seal of approval is important since it will affect its quality. In principle, the developer or developers, internal or external, should get the approval from the person in charge of QA (quality assurance) or a similar position. The following may seem tough to many, but in the case of more complex SW it is good to have the documentation ready before launching. The very same pressure to implement the SW will be felt by the engineers in charge of documentation. Someone told me not too long ago that the original WCMS (web content management system) of his company had been left undocumented by previous managers and that had been one of the main reasons to move on to a new one.
13. More on the technical area
Other recommendations are just common sense. Have your tech people listen to the business owners to grasp the basic concepts that matter, let them exchange examples of what the project tries to achieve. For more complex developments ask your tech personnel to offer business owners a RFP (request for proposal) and to help them go through it. Have the business support in delaying some complex functions to Phase II, if it makes technical sense. Include tech people in some of your work and planning meetings to make sure that there are no misunderstandings. After a business owner has defined a new project, ask her to share it with her tech peers to look for complementary ideas. At key milestones of the product development by your tech people, get together with your internal clients and share what has been achieved. This type of approach is always important but more so in the case of Newsrooms. News sites have matured by now and while competition from pure plays is flourishing, our newsrooms have to work frequently with a straitjacket which prevents them from thriving. With the proper open architecture, WCMS and a good array of modern tools they can develop the flexibility they need to show what they are capable of. If they are part of the building process, misunderstanding will be reduced, later implementations will be faster. Before any major technical development obtain the proper business data to verify that you are taking the right decisions; verify that the proposed step is not the consequence of just established assumptions. Data should be the beginning of things. When creativity or hunches come first, data has to follow. Beyond that, make sure you test every single component of the architecture of a new project, the more so the larger the traffic expected. Have it done by someone who did not work on the project.
You are free to use this article in your publication as long as you credit the author Fernando Samaniego