AOL CTO Bill Pence spoke with Geektime on a range of topics including AOL’s most watched emerging markets and technologies, the challenges AOL faces in the future, a possible merger with Yahoo and their take on Israel
While AOL is mostly known for it’s presence and dominance in the US market, trends in the last few years have taken the company across the ocean with global acquisitions throughout Europe and Asia. Earlier this month, Bill Pence, AOL’s CTO came to Israel to promote the company’s new initiative for university relations and its newly formed program with the Israeli Technion Institute for Technology and Science. We tracked down Mr. Pence to learn more about how AOL is really seeing the rest of the world.
AOL Started many years ago and went through more than several transformations in the recent years, changing the company focus and strategy. What does today’s AOL look like?
I think that what makes AOL unique is we’re not just building content, we’re building content platforms. And I think that’s where the strategy is really going. The way that websites are monetized is changing radically. It’s getting automated, it’s getting mechanized, even through programmatic buying. Video’s coming into the mix. That’s going to be mechanized as well. And then there’s a blurring taking place between web video and TV as that starts to go online.”
So I think it’s a deliberate strategy trying to build content platforms. So if you think about the programmatic platform, we power a lot of advertising for a whole network of partners. We do big sites like Tech Crunch and the Huffington Post and we power those. But those are really the showcases for how we really power networks.
Until recently, AOL has been a pretty US-centric company. But we’re starting to see that the company is looking towards the rest of the world, both in terms of content and users and in terms of talent. How do you see the world outside the US as a part of the company strategy today?
Huffington Post is rolling out an international creative aggressively. There’s a Greece edition that’s launching, and there’s another edition for Arab countries rolling out next year. So we have a very limited approach to where we’re going internationally. We’re not in a rush to push all things to all places in the world. We’re trying to build great platforms, and then we’ll usher programmatic things out in a very typical fashion.
On the talent side, We’ve been making major acquisitions here in the Israeli market, as well as the Nautilus program you see here, and we’re trying to provide early stage support for companies. So I think the companies being acquired in Israel can definitely become big operations and the country is incredible. Obviously we’re not only focused on Israel and we’re going to go anywhere in the world where we see talent.
We have some operations in India. Part of our IT operation is out of India, for example. We have a major facility, a research and development facility, in Ireland. We have operations all over Europe; in London and Frankfurt as well. We’re taking advantage of technology wherever we can find it.
Wherever we find a technology company that fits what we’re trying to do, we’re interested.
Is AOL a content publishing company supported by technology, or a tech company supported by content publishing that’s used as a means of demonstrating its ability?
For highly scaled large properties, you’re going to be both a publisher and technology player. You’re going to have to be. Publishing is becoming a technology business.
I think it’s inevitable that advertising is going to become automated. It’s historically been a very manual business. Like any other business, it’s going to be influenced by technology moving forward. So that’s effectively what we’re trying to do, and not just us, the other players as well.
I also think it’s in experimentation right now. We’re trying to bring technology to a business that’s been very manual. Very inefficient. Native is one example, but there’s a lot of experimentation. In global and video there’s a lot of experimentation going on. The main drivers of that will be the native experiences and the traditional players. Video/mobile will drive a lot of those formats.
As one of the largest tech companies in the world, what technology trends are you seeing right now in your field?
There’s a lot of innovation in mobile – mobile video, especially. People have been talking about television as the landscape that’s going to change, and we’re really starting to see that happening now. This is happening in the U.S. for sure, and we’re starting to see the consumption of video online, and we’re seeing changes in discussion around what the traditional TV market is going to look like. So delivering a video to a multitude of devices and the management of that experience across TV devices and mobile devices – to me that’s a huge technology shift. That’s the biggest opportunity, I’d say, if I had to just pick one. That’s going to be profoundly disruptive to a lot of B2C businesses and a HUGE opportunity for AOL.
The television market is different in each place. But video delivery to mobile is going to be a huge worldwide phenomenon.
What are the Biggest challenges facing AOL today? What kind of talent are you currently looking for?
Mobile app development is a key one [talent challenge]. This will be a key delivery point for us. We can’t get enough app developers, specifically around video interaction.
We’re always looking for more data scientists, if I had to pick two.”
There have been rumors of upcoming acquisitions and a merger with Yahoo? Anything you can share with us in regards to the way the company sees it’s future?
Nothing we’re prepared to announce. We have some brands that are already pretty significant. If you look at a pyramid of content, a lot of mechanization of content – the big challenge is building the platforms to deliver the big brands at scale.
You came to Israel as a part of your promotion of AOL’s university relations program. Why did you choose Israel and specifically the Technion to launch this program with?
It’s a five-year program we’ve committed to. We plan to do more with universities, by the way – around the world. We started with the Technion here in Israel because we’re headquartered in New York City. Cornell Tech, as you know, was a major new university in New York City which won a competition as part of a cooperation between Cornell and the Technion. And so, that’s a powerful relationship for us to set up, both in New York City and here in Israel; the Technion being a world class institution, Cornell Tech being a world class institution.
That was one, very nice starting point for me, working on university relationships.
Last thoughts about Israel
We see this market [Israel] as unique. I’ve been in business a long time, and I’ve always had the highest respect for this market. I think it’s a unique combination of great technical talent and everyone here is really entrepreneurial, in my view. It’s just baked into the engineering culture here.
There are other places where it’s like that as well, Silicon Valley has some of that, but it’s not always the case. So I view this as a very Silicon Valley-like market where we need to have a footprint. The engineering talent here is unique and not just here at AOL, but in the past, through my career in the past 25 years, I’ve always been very impressed with this market.