Why should media companies love their CTOs?

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


One of the deep dive areas for 2023 is around the partnership between product and technology. 

In a recent INMA Product Initiative Advisory Council meeting, we talked about this subject, and I took a lot away about the technology side of this discussion. In fact, I have a lot more empathy for CTOs and how difficult their jobs can be trying to architect for the future when we product folk are guessing (albeit with educated guesses) what the future will bring. 

I’m sharing what I learnt in the hope it gives you insights into this area, too. And maybe you should go and buy your CTO a drink to say thank you. 😉

If you haven’t already joined our new Slack, please do. We’ve moved all INMA into one group so you can choose all the relevant initiatives to your work. Sign up here.  

Thanks, Jodie


What we forget about the CTO and technology

While  the INMA Product Advisory Council was discussing the partnership between product and technology, John Kundert, CPTO at Financial Times in the UK stopped us. The conversation had been very product-focused, and he gave us the perspective of a CTO (from a previous life). 

Chief technology officers have three main jobs: safety, maintenance, and product capability.
Chief technology officers have three main jobs: safety, maintenance, and product capability.

That is where I want to start the discussion on the topic of product and tech because I think we can get lost in product and all the things we want to build and achieve.

A CTOs job covers many things, largely summed into three areas:

  1. Keeping the organisation safe. Cyber security is increasingly an issue for larger organisations, and this must remain a priority (as we saw in December with The Guardian).

  2. Keep everything up and running. From internal systems to external facing services, maintaining what we have will trump anything new that we want to build. 

  3. Deliver product capability. 

Yes, product is third in line of importance. Sometimes we may need to remember that.

The other thing that came up from multiple people in the group is that a CTO wants to architect something sustainable, ideally a perfect end state. For that, the CTO and their team needs clarity on the future. Yet product can’t confidently predict where the business will be in three to five years. Just look how much the world has changed since January 2020, let alone since 2018. Without this clarity, it’s all too easy to make the mistake of building complexity or even the wrong thing. 

Business goals often don’t help either: Building for the medium/long term, i.e. a perfect future state, rarely matches with the urgency to meet OKRs and revenue targets. Another member of the council pointed to the fact that sometimes teams can be biased to “shipping” for the short term rather than “building” for the long term. All of this contributes to conflicting objectives for teams, ultimately a CEO problem.

Lastly, in what appears to be my empathy plea for CTOs, we shouldn’t forget the effort it takes to close something down. Sunsetting a platform, a tool, a feature is hard work. Getting the buy-in, realising not all features are likely to be ported across to a new system, workflows may change, or edge cases may no longer be supported. This is not easy work.

Date for the diary: January 27, just a few more days to get your Global Media Award entries in 

It’s time to get those award entries in! There are few great categories for product: best new digital product, best product iteration, best new video product or feature, best new audio product or feature. More on the categories and how to enter here

I know you are doing some great work so help show it off and highlight just how brilliant product is. Maybe we will even get to celebrate together in person at the awards ceremony in New York!

What to do about tech debt?

Tech debt comes up all the time. 

For some, it’s every day. I don’t think I need to tell you what is it, but just in case, I love Product Plan’s definition: “Technical debt describes what results when development teams take actions to expedite the delivery of a piece of functionality or a project which later needs to be refactored. In other words, it’s the result of prioritising speedy delivery over perfect code.”

Tech debt is the result of speed trumping perfection.
Tech debt is the result of speed trumping perfection.

Riske Betten, product director at MediaHuis NL, recently summed this up nicely: “We create tech debt from being nimble, but aren’t nimble because we have tech debt.” She also compared tech to marathon runners (see article above referencing architecting for the long haul), whereas product team members are sprinters, always trailing and testing.

I have good news and bad news for you …

The bad news: All companies have it (not just media companies), and there is no way of eliminating it. 

The good news: There are some ways to reduce and mitigate it. Yes, tech debt belongs to the technology team, but let’s face it, there is a huge impact on product. If technology teams are catching up on tech debt, they don’t have enough resources to build. And with no resources to build, there is not that much we can work on.  

So what do we do about it?

  1. Tech debt can be reduced in one large structural change such as platform shift. These opportunities don’t come very often, but when they do, make the most of them. 

  2. A road map should have time for tech debt built in, and it should be a consideration when building new things.

  3. Language and understanding is important (as ever in product roles): Product’s job is to give clarity to each department. Some engineers should understand the customer and have insights into desired product and commercial outcomes. By ensuring everyone knows what needs to be done now, what the risks are for cutting corners, and what the implications of these are for the future, there is a good chance that tech debt can be mitigated as much as possible.

Tweet of the week

We can all use a little inspiration from outside news, and I love that a pizza seller and shoe manufacturer are two of the most innovative. There is hope for news 😉.

Recommended reading:

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Jodie Hopperton, based in Los Angeles and lead for the INMA Product Initiative. Jodie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media product.

This newsletter is a public face of the Product Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Jodie at jodie.hopperton@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

About Jodie Hopperton

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