Early on in PRX’s history we faced a critical decision. Do we outsource the development and maintenance of our main web application, or take the plunge and bring all coding in-house and become a technology-driven company?
We took the plunge, and since then have grown an award-winning tech team, responsible not only for PRX’s web-based services but for a growing portfolio of successful mobile apps.
I’m not myself a developer, have not written a line of code, and other than being a super user and obsessive early adopter, I have little claim to true tech skills. But as a non-profit CEO wearing the hats of strategist, fundraiser, and manager, I have gained extraordinary insight from daily interactions with our developers who sit a few paces away from me at our office in Cambridge, Mass. I absorb just enough to be dangerous on topics like agile development, Ruby on Rails, cloud computing, iOS vs. Android vs. HTML5, and, more importantly, the daily pace and process of building successful software.
It’s incredibly valuable to have talented technologists at the table not just to build and maintain critical assets of the organization, but also to inform strategic decision-making, provide a reality check in the midst of tech churn and hype, keep vendors and contractors honest, connect with other communities of interest, and attract new talent seeking experience and mentorship.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that PRX would need a core technology capacity to fulfill our mission of delivering significant stories to millions of people, but I look around our public media field and beyond and see a worrisome gap.
As public broadcasting goes through its own turbulent transition to a new Internet and mobile world, the technology talent gap is a risk that looms large. Yes, there are many other challenges: political and policy battles, business model pressures, cultural and structural obstacles, the need for strategic vision and leadership. And there are other recruitment needs across general management, content, fundraising. But the twin coins of the new digital realm are code and design, and with a few notable exceptions, public media is seriously lacking in both.
Digital distribution, social media, and mobile platforms are essential to our mission and future business models, yet we find ourselves relegated to the role of user or administrator rather than the designer and developer of products, services and experiences that are increasingly the public’s means of access and engagement.
so much code, so few coders
By my loose estimate, out of approximately 15,000 people who work in public broadcasting there are fewer than 100 full-time coders. If you expand to include the wider range of part-time hackers, or savvy techies who can write some scripts, do some sysadmin, set up a WordPress instance, etc., that number might double or triple. But that is a thin layer compared with the need and opportunity to shape our own destiny.
The developer gap is particularly meaningful in an industry whose success over the past 40 years has been powered in large part by the pioneering work of broadcast engineers. Public broadcasting engineers built and launched hundreds of local broadcast facilities, created the first-ever satellite distribution networks, developed close-captioning services, and with limited resources and lots of ingenuity solve thousands of problems to support mission-critical 24/7 local and national services across the country. Broadcast engineering is a core competency and a defining culture in public media, where many general managers and industry leaders come from engineering backgrounds.
But just as earlier innovations in newspaper printing and delivery are giving way to digital-first content and distribution, we are at a moment in public media’s evolution where this epitomizes a legacy limitation. Broadcast-centric thinking starts with hardware instead of software; it defines local service by the contour of a transmitter’s reach; it measures content by linear air time in hour-long blocks with breaks; it treats digital as another distribution path instead of a new domain with new rules; and it hews to the standards and practices of broadcasting rather than the new web and mobile architecture.
There are counterarguments to this point: Aren’t we at a moment where open platforms and free tools mean we don’t need our own coders in our own organizations? Shouldn’t we focus on our own core skills around content creation? How can we hire developers without experience in managing and supporting them? Wouldn’t having coders at every station and organization result in duplication of effort and wasted resources?
These days the competition for talent in media technology is fierce, from new ventures to mature enterprises. Public media should be the go-to place for aspiring and experienced technologists who believe in a public service mission, want to collaborate to build products, services and content for millions of people, and seek an alternative from the rapidly commercializing web. There should be natural alliances with open-source software communities, with leading nonprofit web giants Mozilla and Wikipedia, the growing number of web-based local news organizations, and the open/civic data movement.
The “lean startup” approach that is enabling small teams and even individual developers to create viable, competitive companies underscores the fact that you no longer need a small tech army to make something substantial. But that same approach also rests on the fundamental need for technologists as principals in any venture.
So what’s the right ratio of coders to the rest of us for public media to thrive? What is it for other industries facing similar transformation? Is it OK to outsource the infrastructure for our own connection to the public? Give us your feedback in the comments section below.