Nick Rockwell’s Digital Revolution

Twenty years ago, Nick Rockwell was posting music reviews and writing code for his startup. Today, he holds a top tech job at an iconic publishing company. There’s one thing he’s sure of as he looks to the future of the media world: the revolution will be digital.

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NickRockwell, New York Times, CIO

When Nick Rockwell sat before his PC in 1996, meticulously typing in lines of code, less than half of American households contained a personal computer. The White House had launched WhiteHouse.gov two years earlier as the world collectively learned words like “spam” and “browser.”

But Rockwell was more than a hobbyist. The Yale grad was plugging away at something that would launch a career in digital media and take him from Viacom to Condé Nast to the New York Times Company. Back then, he was writing the code that would transform an unassuming bulletin board system into a music and entertainment Internet startup called SonicNet. Three years later, MTV Networks acquired the property and hired Rockwell to manage a platform development team. He spent the next ten years leading technical strategy, operations, and app development as senior vice president and CTO of digital media and digital technology. 

In many ways, Rockwell and his SonicNet partners were pioneers in the space. They conducted artist interviews, posted editorials, and even managed to cybercast live events by pushing the limits of early technologies. In the pre-broadband era of AOL dominance and low-speed dial-up, media creators like Rockwell simply couldn’t deliver content in ways users could consume it. Online video was primitive, and large backends for handling simultaneous live video didn’t exist. In the spring of 1996, SonicNet attempted a live broadcast of the Tibetan Freedom Concert. Rockwell remembers the struggle to get enough servers to support even a modest audience.

But the attention of MTV and the forward march of technology brought Rockwell more resources and support. As he grew, the company’s Video Music Awards became his annual laboratory for experimentation with online video and music. “Every year, we tried to push it harder to see what we could do next,” he says. Video resolution improved, and Rockwell’s teams added backstage cameras, different angles, user control, and social integration. When the technology finally started to catch up in 2006, the whole experience clicked—but the real revolution came in 2009 when big online video distributors like Adobe and Akamai started slicing large chunks of video into smaller pieces for rapid distribution over HTTP.

“The problem of speed can’t be solved— it can only be optimized.”

Those foundational experiences, experiments, and lessons continue to inform the way Rockwell now approaches digital media. After working in top tech positions for MTV Networks, TheLadders.com, startups, and Condé Nast, he stepped in as CTO at the New York Times Company in late 2015. In these positions, he’s managed web and mobile product development and developed digital ad strategies in a rapidly changing environment—although Rockwell says that he’s horrified to think that today’s online ads still look similar to the simple banners he designed in the mid 1990s.

Other similarities between then and now exist, too. “Years ago, we had to fight to create a product with very limited tech capabilities and resources. That taught me to be willing to experiment, and in some ways, that’s what tech leaders have to do now in this mobile environment of new technology and uncertainty,” Rockwell says.

Today, it’s all about speed. CTOs and CIOs have great capabilities, but must keep up with the ever-accelerating rate of iteration. The pace of development falls to those leaders. “The problem of speed can’t be solved—it can only be optimized,” says Rockwell. Leaders use buzzwords like “agile” and “nimble,” but very few product development teams really achieve a high level of productivity, especially in the media world. How does Rockwell do it? “I focus on the goal,” he says. “I stay humble, and I keep in mind that there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Rockwell relies on two things to help him keep up with the pace of innovation: talent and collaboration. Neither is more important than the other. “Talent and collaboration are equal,” he says. “Some CTOs like to focus on talent, but a great team that doesn’t know how to work together won’t accomplish anything. It’s a huge challenge to get this right, but it’s critical, especially in a large organization.”

Over the years, Rockwell has had to make the difficult decision to pass on talented job candidates who lack teambuilding and collaborative skills. “I wish computer science programs would spend a third of their time teaching students how to work with others because the impact in the real world is huge,” he says. In his role, Rockwell asks leaders to fine-tune their teams and match compatible personalities so tech pros can focus on the work instead of wading through unnecessary distractions.

Trends come and go, and Rockwell has noticed a pattern. Change starts slow, skeptics emerge, others adopt, and then, suddenly, the new product or solution is everywhere. He’s seen it time and time again—with broadband, Blu-ray, and texting. Now, it’s happening in mobile and smartphone usage. “Literally all the growth I see in my positions is in smartphone consumption. The debate is totally over, and the only platform that matters is the smartphone,” he says, estimating that smartphones account for up to 75 percent of traffic to digital media platforms. With limited real estate on mobile and tablet screens, the media companies that figure out how to establish a beachhead on mobile will have a huge advantage.

Other ongoing and emerging trends include the growing dominance of social networks as traffic sources and the use of sophisticated application building blocks, such as Lamda and Kinesis from Amazon Web Services. These tools have the potential to change the way software development is done, with potential efficiency gains that are exponential.

In this new environment, tech leaders need to be willing to take risks, an approach that Rockwell affirms. “We’ve historically been conservative as CTOs and CIOs. We’ve been trained to keep the lights on and make sure nothing breaks,” he says. “It’s defensive and oriented towards future-proofing, and maximizing ROI. But we need to get super aggressive and adopt new technology. We need to throw out our precious work before we mine all the value. We need to invest more effort in development tools and process, because those investments pay off, and really enable innovation.”

While Rockwell has some idea of where digital media is going, one thing is certain—it’s an unpredictable industry, and the unexpected often happens. When it does, he’ll do what he’s always done: leverage deep experience, embrace risk, and charge boldly ahead.