Tom Cochran is CTO at Atlantic Media, publisher of The Atlantic, National Journal, Government Executive and Quartz. Follow him on Twitter @tommer.
Media doesn’t have a talent problem on the content side. Despite daunting economics, a lot of people — particularly young people — want to try their hands at writing for a living. What is missing is an army of developers, coders and systems administrators to engineer the reinvention of the media industry itself.
After the first week of a college macroeconomics class, you could understand what is happening here — the demand for technology talent is far outstripping the supply. It’s the converse of what’s happening on the content side.
College graduates aiming to be journalists will often want to work for a company like The Atlantic, The New York Times or The Huffington Post. If their first choice doesn’t pan out, they might go to work for a mid-market news organization or small local blog to get some professional experience and credibility.
But the student finishing up a degree in computer science is most likely looking for a job at Google, Facebook or some hipster startup in the Bay Area. And if that doesn’t work out, the backup options are far and wide. Booz Allen, Boeing or Lockheed Martin would hire them in a hot minute. They can work for consumer-products companies like Nike, Coke or General Electric. How about J.P. Morgan, Bank of America or maybe even NASDAQ? The possibilities are virtually limitless.
My peers at other media companies acknowledge that the limited supply of interested and willing technology talent is holding them back. Addressing this pervasive issue requires understanding of why a developer would want to work at the Silicon Valley tech company in the first place.
The simple answer is this: Developers and engineers want to solve problems. At Google, they have the opportunity to redefine how people interact with data. At Facebook, they have the chance to redefine how people interact with each other. These represent major paradigm shifts in how people live, literally changing the world. (Also, there are some sweet perks available at these companies.)
At a company like Google or Facebook, developers are priority employees. They have valued seats at the table, participating in technology, business and strategy decisions. In media, developers are often relegated to the role of strategy implementers. This is often a tactical role with low visibility across the company. In short, developers are not as valued in media companies as they should be. To compete and succeed, media companies need to think more like technology companies. They need to demonstrate an employee value proposition equal to, or greater than, what entices developers to work in Silicon Valley.
We should elevate our best developers to a level of importance commensurate with
top editors. Developers need to be viewed as collaborative and intellectual peers with others in business, ad ops or editorial departments.
Let’s acknowledge that much of our industry’s success rests on the overburdened shoulders of our technology talent. These people are entitled to both a seat at the table and a share of the credit. But above all, give them a problem to solve — a real and challenging problem.
Our industry is in the middle of redefining how the world absorbs ideas and information. This is a challenge worthy of attracting the top minds in technology. And it’s a challenge we should put to them directly. The message we should send to developers is this: We need you, we need your ideas and we cannot succeed without you. That is a compelling value proposition to attract the right technology talent.
Competition for those that can code is brutal. If we can demonstrate their true value to the industry, we will provide them with a career worthy of their intellect and talent, and they, in turn, will provide us with the skills necessary to survive the ongoing disruption and transformation of media into a true technology-driven industry.
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