Hulu CTO Richard Tom

Many of us think of Hulu as the place to catch up on our favorite shows. But at its heart, Hulu is “a technology company first,” says Richard Tom, Hulu’s chief technology officer.

Exhibit A: Hulu’s decision to build its own video advertising system, without leveraging third-party services — developing everything from campaign management to ad serving, in addition to Hulu’s unique features for targeting ads by asking users about their preferences.

“There was nobody out there who was doing online video the way we needed it to be done,” explains Tom, who oversaw advertising engineering and operations at the time, and has since risen up the ranks to become Hulu’s CTO, responsible for all of the company’s core technology and infrastructure.

The Hulu CTO will be among the speakers joining us in Seattle the afternoon of March 7 for the GeekWire Summit, our inaugural conference bringing people from around the community, and across the country, to discuss the future of technology and learn from the experiences of tech leaders.

Other speakers will include Ray Ozzie, the former Microsoft chief software architect, and leaders from Facebook, T-Mobile, Rhapsody, Microsoft, Swype, the University of Washington, Z2Live and others.

Tom, who lived in Seattle before joining Hulu, has a unique perspective to share based on the company’s approach, and its market position.

Five years after deciding to build a homegrown ad system, Hulu serves more than 1.4 billion video ads per month, more than twice the nearest service. Hulu users, on average, spend more than three hours watching video on Hulu per month, second only to YouTube and other Google properties.

Systems developed by Hulu’s engineering team not only run the service but also help the company make sense of — and base decisions on — multiple terabytes of data every day.

With the continued rollout of the Hulu Plus premium service, Tom and his team are also intimately familiar with the challenges of today’s fragmented landscape for devices — figuring out how to deliver the service on everything from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 to iPhone and Android.

“Our stance is that, in order to get the very best performance or the very best user experience, you have to build native apps,” he says. “Inherently what that means is that you are going to have quite a bit of one-off code that’s really specific to a device. In our world, our biggest challenge is, how do you write to every one of these devices and build a custom app?”

What about the rise of web development technologies HTML5 and JavaScript on mobile devices and PCs? Those trends are promising, Tom acknowledges, but more needs to happen with standards and content protection before Hulu can make that type of transiation.

In the meantime, Hulu has come up with specific solutions to manage the device fragmentation, and that is one of the topics we’ll be quizzing Tom about — getting his insights into the future of the mobile industry and what needs to happen to improve the situation for app makers and end users.

Hulu, based in Southern California, also exemplifies the trend of tech giants expanding from California to the Seattle region in search of technical talent. The company’s development office near Pike Place Market has about 15 people, with engineers focusing on building out the company’s device footprint in the living room, in addition to a team focused on testing and certification for living room devices.

In looking to extend its West Coast engineering presence beyond Santa Monica, Hulu chose to expand first to Seattle, and the company hasn’t yet opened a Silicon Valley engineering office.

“Seattle just really embodied the spirit of Hulu, in terms of the types of developers that we could find up there, in terms of the passion for innovation,” Tom said. “We just felt that it was a really good mix and a really good fit for us.”

We’re looking forward to diving into all of these topics and more when we talk with Tom at the GeekWire Summit on March 7. The half-day program will be followed by an evening celebration marking GeekWire’s first anniversary. Tickets for the event are available here.

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