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Running the media, cloud style - with the CTO of Fast Company

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed February 19, 2014
Fast Company’s Matt Mankins is not your stereotypical CTO. Here's how he led his team into the cloud.

Fast Company's Matt Mankins is not your stereotypical CTO. Steeped in startup culture, he wrote one of the first webmail clients, Webex, for the University of Miami  The webmail project evolved into a full-on startup, which Mankins went on to sell. (It lives on today in the form of the NASDAQ-listed SMTP). Then it was on to the MIT Media Lab, where Mankins joined the first class of students in Bill Mitchell's Smart Cities Group. After MIT, he started an early 'bricks and clicks' bookstore, the Cambridge-based Lorem Ipsum books.

As the CTO of Fast Company, Mankins brought a pre-disposition towards cloud. But transitioning to cloud-based development while supporting web properties that log millions of visitors a month is no small effort. Last week, I had the chance to dig into these issues with Mankins. I also wanted to find out how Fast Company's business model is faring in one of the most digitally-disrupted industries you can think of.

Jon: I still remember when the first issue of Fast Company came out.  I can still recall seeing it on the stand and buying it immediately.  I guess that was 1995.  The magazine somehow legitimized the startup path I was on.  It made me think I wasn’t just playing around.

Matt: Yeah, I think it did that then, and hopefully it still does. As a twentysomething dotcom CEO, I remember wondering,  'Do I need to wear suits? Do I need to fit into my father’s business world?'  Fast Company seemed to paint a new direction for how the world could be.  That really resonated back then, and today as well.

Jon: After so many years in startups, what's it like to be a bigtime CTO?

Matt: In some ways being a CTO is a lot easier, because you’re only focusing on one portion of the business - although I think my experience looking at the whole business helps me. A lot of the challenges are similar.  Sometimes you have more resources, sometimes you have less.  At Fast Company, we call these non-traditional career paths 'Generation Flux.'

Jon: I suppose with the increasing emphasis on the Chief Digital Officer, or the technology officer that really understands the business, that your diverse background comes in handy. Especially when it comes to empowering business users with cloud-based tools.

Matt: It’s about giving people access to the right tools that they need to perform their job.  Sometimes that’s creating new tools, and other times it’s just showing people what’s available and how to use it.

Today's media business - a totally different world

Jon: Before we dig into cloud, tell me about the state of the media business. Is it as disrupted as it appears to be?

Matt: It’s a totally different world.  At least for Fast Company, print isn't going away.  It's just that people are receiving information from a lot of different sources.  The challenge for a media organization is to be at all of the places where a consumer is looking for the information.  If Flipboard is catching on, and we’re not on Flipboard, then we’re missing an opportunity to engage with that user. There are two sides of that.  There’s an opportunity to expand our reach beyond what the distribution of paper would have been able to do, but then there's the challenge of actually figuring out the technology to do the digital distribution.

Jon: Beyond the tech challenge, isn't there also extent a monetization challenge in terms of what today's readers are willing to pay for?

Matt: In the early days, we were just looking for eyeballs and we knew that the money would come at some point.  We've figured out that if we ask for money, then some percentage of people will pay for it. Our business is less about monetizing every individual read, and more about growing the brand.  The print business is still alive and thriving.  What’s interesting though is that the digital informs the print and the print informs the digital.  We’re figuring out ways where we can push the boundaries across all media.

Moving Fast Company's systems to the cloud

Jon: When you came on board as CTO three years ago, what was the state of your internal systems at that point?

Matt: We had decided to focus on digital editorial content.  That decision happened fairly recently before I became CTO. From a technology stack perspective, we had some things that worked, but it didn’t give us a lot of flexibility in trying out new things.  We were using Drupal as our CMS for the presentation as well as the content management. We had a mandate to create a few websites very, very rapidly.  When I first got on board, I moved the data center on our servers into the Amazon EC2 cloud. That was the first big cloud move.

Jon: I take it you had some legacy spaghetti code to contend with?

Matt: With a technology team, you have to know when to take away the crayons, or else it will just turn into a big mess of scribbles. At that point, we had a scribbled mess of code.  Nobody really wanted to work on it, so I set forth modernizing our stack.  I moved to technology like Node.js, along with Backbone.js and Marionette.js for all the front-end code.  We modernized how we did development in terms of process, as well as the tools that we used.

Jon: You were already aware of the value of cloud then?

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Matt: Yes - I was an early adopter of cloud computing just for my own side projects.  I was a member of Press+. That was the largest project I’ve used the cloud on, and it was a success there.  I understood how creating environments easily - and being able to serve things easily - was really important to the development process.

Jon: Did you face any internal resistance to cloud adoption?

Matt: Well, it helps that we were saving a lot of money.  That helped win over some portion of the audience. The developers were initially hesitant, but they fully embrace it now. I think if you asked them today, they would say that they never thought it was a bad idea even then.

The cloud needs a business case

Jon: So you built a technical and business case then.  On the business side, were you able to literally present to the management team something along the lines of, 'We'll save 25% in the coming years if we do this'?

Matt: Exactly. A 25% cost savings is in the ballpark. Today, we’re running higher than when we first started using the cloud. But we're doing a whole lot more - without the servers we would have had to buy. Beyond the cost savings, I was really focused on the process of the IT team and how we interface with the rest of the company - such as centralizing our ticketing process.

Jon: Were your internal developers able to make the cloud transition? Or did you have to hire new ones?

Matt: 100% of the developers who were here then are still here.  We’ve hired a lot of other developers as well.  One of the reasons we went to Node was because it's JavaScript-based. Everyone knew JavaScript so that was an easy choice.

Jon: Do you pretty much use cloud all your operations, or do you still have on-premise systems running?

Matt: At this point, all of our web traffic is supported by cloud-based systems. We have a few office-based systems that are on-premise, like video storage, where we might need access to the bits all at once and the number of bits are great.  Oh, and our copy machines.

Jon: (laughs). So you've made the plunge then.  What kinds of cloud applications are you running?

Matt: We have a lot of log management servers, Cassandra, Solar with EC2. We have MySQL Instances, logstash, Chef, Basecamp, and Boundary. We're pushing huge amounts of gigabits per second; it's a little scary sometimes.

Jon: What do you use Boundary for?

Matt: One of the challenges with being in the cloud is understanding how you’re growing and shrinking application landscape is behaving at any point in time.  We do releases to our web properties several times a day, as often as we can. As the systems get more and more complicated, it’s not always obvious how those changes will react in the real world. Boundary helps us instantly point out the subsystem that was impacted by the change that we recently did, or isolate something that’s going on at the moment. Early Monday morning, we had a situation where our backend CMS stopped responding.  We couldn’t figure out what was going on.  We were able to pinpoint the overloaded server in Boundary and resolve it.

Mobility, business relevance and loose ends

Jon: Before I let you go, what about mobile consumption?

Matt: We’re seeing a lot of growth in mobile and international traffic. It’s an area where we have to change how we sell and how we present. Mobile is an area of enormous challenge because it is growing so rapidly. With so many fragmented devices, making sure that your content looks good in all of them is a little overwhelming.

Jon: A lot of testing.

Matt: Lots of testing, and then pulling in feedback from our end users.  Social media actually helps with the development process.

Jon: Are you able to get away with some level of overall mobile experience like HTML5 or are you focusing on device-specific presentation?

Matt: We’ll go wherever the user is, and the user is in all of those places. Our web site itself is responsive, but we have, for historical reasons, a mobile website that is different from the responsive website. This year, we're trying to simplify those experiences. It is a very different technology stack on mobile then on the desktop.  You can have more complicated user experiences on the desktop.  You actually can have complicated experiences on mobile as well, but they’re just different.  That’s a challenge for us.

Jon:  As far as IT getting along with the business side, any parting shots on how accomplish that?

Matt: I'm looking to have a culture that integrates us all along as a partner.  I don’t think it’s necessarily adversarial at all.  We can help with growth and we can help meet business objectives, but we can also help shift the business into new areas that the traditional leaders might not have considered. For instance, we have a new feature that came out of a technical conversation on how we can use text-based algorithms to engage readers based on their interests. From that conversation, you have a whole new part of the content business. That's how we're trying to do it.

Photo credits: images provided by Matt Mankins.

Disclosure: Boundary PR helped to arrange this interview. Boundary is not a diginomica partner, nor is Fast Company.

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