News Corp IT executive shares insights and lessons from first few months on the job

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In my new role at News Corp, where there are many companies under one umbrella, from Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, to HarperCollins Publishers, to more than 100 properties in Australia alone, it’s tempting to look for a few unifying forces that can help bring everything together.

One such force, at least from the customer perspective, is mobile. The smartphone, in particular, has become the dominant platform in consumer technology faster than many people predicted even a few years ago. It’s increasingly the way news, information and entertainment are consumed – and created – and already accounts for the majority of traffic at most of our businesses. Our ability to master the intricacies of mobile publishing, to create compelling experiences for our readers and sustainable models for advertising and subscriptions, is going to define our ability to succeed for years to come.

Given how rapidly mobile technology has evolved over the past few years, it’s not surprising that each of our businesses has forged its approach to the web and native mobile products. But that "to-each-his-own" strategy makes less sense as we try to move more quickly across all of our brands. And while it’s easy to say we should adopt common platforms to raise the overall quality of our products, increase time-to-market, and reduce costs, a one-size-fits-all approach seldom works in practice.

Borrow lessons from the open source movement

The trick is to strike the right balance between technical diversity and common platforms. It turns out that achieving that balance, and sustaining it over time, has as much to do with the kind of technology culture you create as it does with any particular technology you choose. At News Corp, we’re taking a page out of the open source movement to promote the spirit of collaboration and transparency across our brands.

Creating such a community doesn’t happen overnight, of course, but in a few interconnected phases. It begins with a common understanding that collaboration among business units is a good thing, and that sharing technology doesn’t mean giving up autonomy to some monolithic central authority but learning from peers elsewhere in the organization. Much of the groundwork for this approach had already been established by the time I arrived, though it was also clear we still had more work to do.

The power of shared assets

The next step was to introduce open source methodologies to many of the components we’ve already built or that were in development so that the code and the applications can be distributed. There may be an “owner” of each asset in the traditional sense, but in principle, everyone can contribute and participate in the ongoing evolution of the applications, APIs, and other systems. Once you’ve demonstrated the benefits of sharing assets in your culture, evolving the code base to something that is inherently shareable makes sense.

We call our shared platform “News OS.” It’s not an operating system per se, but a series of loosely coupled components that the development teams in our various businesses can adopt for new products or updates on existing products, as the case may be. But like an OS, these shared components take care of many functions that would otherwise need to be developed and managed separately. The idea is that we will eventually have shared components for such things as content management, mobile app development frameworks, identity management, and access control, just to name a few, across the enterprise. I’m pleased to say we’ve made tremendous strides in the past few months thanks to the efforts of the many talented technologists throughout the organization.

Communicate to understand people's concerns

What’s key to remember, though, is that the most valuable behavior in my first few months – and the first few months of any IT leader – has been to do a lot of listening. Many people want to talk to you, and many are trying to advance a particular point of view. I like to draw on the training from my journalism days and interview people to understand what their concerns are. News Corp is a very far-flung operation, so I’ve been traveling around, getting to meet people and understand their issues, while at the same time making forming my impressions and working closely with as many people as I can.

You have to do more than only listen, of course. You have to ask questions and not be shy about having a point of view. At the same time, it always pays to be respectful to the culture that you’re entering. Technology has advanced so rapidly over the past few years that it’s inevitable that many systems are in a transitional state between legacy and contemporary technical architectures. The job of any technology leader coming in is to appreciate and value the good work that has come before, acknowledge what might have been done differently (without getting too hung up on it), and help figure out the best path forward.

What makes me optimistic at News Corp is that unlike many traditional media organizations, technology is truly integrated into the business and the editorial side, and plays a significant role in strategy and decision-making. It’s a very exciting structure to be a part of, and gratifying to see how many people at the company recognize the importance of technology to our future success.

Collaboration must start from the top

It also helps immensely when the importance of collaboration starts at the top. In his New Year’s note to the staff, News Corp’s CEO Robert Thomson said: "In this age, it is a sin for any of us to have a silo sensibility - our competitors are ruthless in their pursuit of our world-class audiences, so if we don't share intelligence we are undermining our businesses. It is not a matter of waiting to be asked, but of taking the initiative, wherever you work, whatever your responsibility.”

If you’re a recently arrived IT leader, searching for unifying ideas and generating excitement about the possibilities you find should shape a lot of your early success.

Marc Frons was named Chief Technology Officer of News Corp in May 2017. He joined the company in 2015 as Senior Vice President and Global Head of Mobile Platform and Deputy Head of Technology. He was named Interim Chief Technology Officer after Paul Cheesbrough left News Corp to become Chief Technology Officer at 21st Century Fox.