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The CTO of a digital media organization has to balance the everyday operations of a (semi-) functioning website with a holistic eye towards the future, and the technologies and talent that will come with it. Over at Medium, Justin Hendrix of the NYC Media Lab has been interviewing media company CTOs about their respective roles at the helms of media outfits, and the responses shed light on how often CTOs think about the future — and how little time they have to act on it.

Google Glass and wearables come up repeatedly as examples of the CTO’s purview: When do you move forward on designing for new platforms, and who can you hire to best position yourself? But seeing as they haven’t even figured out phones, it might be a while.

Michael Young of Digg (and formerly of The New York Times), for instance, sees his team as too small and scrappy to worry too much about future platforms:

At the R&D Lab at The New York Times, we were looking around the corner — what’s coming a year or two from now. But here we’re thinking in shorter time frames. We have a sense of new mobile platforms, or new platforms to get Digg Video on TVs, but we’re looking at three to six to twelve months. We’re not doing highly speculative stuff; we aren’t spending time on Google Glass, for instance. That’s for bigger teams and R&D groups.

One such bigger team, Hearst, does look a little further, though in a measured way, according to CTO Phil Wiser:

I always look out five years — I keep a crystal ball on the table. We have to look at the long-term trends, at major market trends to think about where we will invest. But it breaks down into a “breast stroke” of technology adoption. Every quarter we reassess our investments. It’s event driven.

This stands in contrast to BuzzFeed’s Mark Wilkie, who suggests that despite their size, his team is too new and growing too fast to think that far ahead:

This idea of thinking out five years, that seems crazy to me. I’m not thinking about technologies five years out. On the business side, we think that far out; but right now in the tech team we are thinking about tomorrow.

Salon Media Group CTO Cindy Jeffers also says looking too far out can be risky:

Things change quickly. It’s really important to build small pieces of a larger idea, to see if it’s still a priority as things move along. Sometimes things become more of a priority, and sometimes they don’t; you have to manage your tech pipeline and respond accordingly. Ten year tech planning is not realistic. There are things we know will be important for the next few years- for instance, mobile phones and social media will continue to have a big impact.

The shorter time horizons of some media companies might seem surprising, given all the talk about technology that still seems a few years away from the mainstream. But for at least some CTOs, the most flexible way to prepare for the future is to hire engineering talent that is excited about what’s around the corner, and to create a technology-driven process that will prime them for the moment when a new platform strikes — iterating to the future rather than planning for an abstract version of it.

Until then, the fact that wearables are a recurring topic of conversation shows that everyone is at least thinking several years ahead. They’re tech geeks, after all.

— Liam Andrew
                                   
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