Q&A: Hulu CTO Richard Tom on the future of television

Hulu CTO Richard Tom at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle. Photo via Karen Ducey.

It’s rather stunning to think that Hulu was just a germ of an idea five years ago. Obviously, the entertainment industry has experienced a tectonic shift of epic proportions in that time.

Backed by the likes of NBC Universal, News Corporation and The Walt Disney Company, Hulu has very quickly become one of the most important distributors of video content on the Web since its founding in March 2007.

And the landscape is about to get even more interesting.

As the company fights off new rivals, pushes deeper into original content and distributes video across a slew of computing devices, we invited Hulu CTO Richard Tom to join us on stage for the GeekWire Summit last Wednesday to share his thoughts on what it is like to manage the technology operations of the fast-growing online video service.

Tom previously worked at Microsoft, and still owns a home in the Seattle area where he retains a craving for Paseo sandwiches. (One of the reasons we started the talk by giving him one of the classic Cuban sandwiches). Hulu also has an engineering office near Pike Place Market.

Here are excerpts from Tom’s talk, along with full video in which he describes the engineering culture at Hulu, talks about the competitive landscape of digital video and shares his thoughts on where things are headed with the future of television.

John Cook: How are we going to be consuming video content in two to three years, and are we even going to be calling it TV?

GeekWire's Todd Bishop and John Cook chat with Hulu CTO Richard Tom

Richard Tom: “I think you are already starting to see a lot of those seeds being planted today. You take a look at all of the types of devices that — not just in your pockets, but also in your homes — and it is dramatically changing. And I think a lot of the folks on the panels today have already described a lot of those inventions and motivations and movements. So, it is great to see. I think from a television standpoint what we are going to see is folks continue to dive in and consume content in every fashion, and a lot of that I think is going to see an increase in augmented viewing experiences. You have devices in your pocket, you have laptops while you are actually consuming content. So, clearly I think that is one path. We haven’t talked too much today about the social aspects, but when it comes to anything related to content, and again I think of content being someone watching a piece of video on their tablets or their televisions or maybe it is them reading a GeekWire post or watching a podcast … or watching the livestream right now, I think a lot of times folks think of those things as being a very singular experience or a very personal experience that they have on their own, but when you realize the very next day or that evening when they go into work or they go to classes, what they find is that they are having this really social experience. They are having these water cooler moments. And the idea is really whether you can bring those experiences to life in other ways.”

Todd Bishop: There’s actually a fantastic example…. Underneath the video when you are watching it on Hulu is a gigantic Facebook field and you can post your comments at any given moment at any given point of any show directly to your Facebook profile. Why did you choose Facebook over Twitter over other social networks and what have been the results of that particular feature on Hulu?

Tom: “So, I’ll start with the results side. We actually haven’t shared any results of the performance. We are extremely excited about it and Facebook was a very natural choice in terms of a social platform. It is certainly not the last platform that we will be looking at, and from that perspective we have been very excited about the potential of really giving people the access to have those water cooler moments as they are experiencing the television experience.”

Todd Bishop: Even just anecdotally, what kinds of things have you been seeing and how has that impacted how people interact with Hulu?

Richard Tom: “When folks have that experience when they are able to share a moment and capture that experience and share it with their friends, what you find is that people learn and discover brand new content that they had access to, that they never even realized was around. And that really is one of the great things about this platform which is that it opens so many different doors for discovery, and really at the end of the day you start to think about how people consume content. The challenge for them is how do they start to discover new content that they can really enjoy and that is very relevant to them, and I’d say that clearly your social network and your circle provides great input into that.”

John Cook: Tell us a little bit about original content and what Hulu’s plans are there. You just recently launched Battleground…. And Amazon today, there was a report out saying that they were going to be pushing deeper into original content. I am curious whether you think we are going to see more of that … and why that’s of interest to you guys?

Tom: “We are super excited, and now clearly it is early days in regards to our original content. We had A Day in the Life and we have Battleground and a few others. The reality is that a lot of this content is great to produce and to build, and for us it goes back to we’d really love to build great content that we have a group of folks who are just super excited about it. And the reason that’s of interest to us is that there’s an exclusive nature to it, which means that we are providing things that no one else can. And for our users that means we are providing them with brand new content that, again, they couldn’t experience anywhere else.”

John Cook: It is interesting because Hulu in a lot of ways plays on several different fronts. You often describe yourself as a technology company, you are distribution company in terms of you are distributing content out there, and now potentially a content company. How do you balance those three different aspects of what what could be very different cultures, I think?

Geekwire founders John Cook and Todd Bishop speak with Richard Tom, (center) CTO of Hulu, at the Geekwire Summit in Seattle. Photo via Karen Ducey.

Richard Tom: “That’s a great question. In our world, we look at it being a customer company that is really focused on technology. We’ve always said from a customer perspective — we have our users and clearly we are producing and building the best platform for them to enjoy a frictionless experience for television and movies and dramas and the rest of it. And then of course there’s our advertisers, and we are aiming at building the very best and the most effective advertising platform that is around for online video and you’ll notice that we focus intensely on that, everything from trying to garner a lot of feedback from users by giving them the option to actually give us that feedback to even capturing the experiences that they have when it comes to the different types of ad formats that we have. We have one that’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure at the very beginning of a screen… It’s called Ad Selector which is at the very beginning you can be presented with the option to look at a sports car, look at a minivan or a sedan and based on your options you can actually go down that path and have an experience tailored to your needs and your likes…. Another really great one that we are extremely proud of excited about is Ad Swap, and Ad Swap really puts the control back into the user’s hands, which is how do we allow the user to be able to control their experience so if I see an advertisement that for whatever reason I am not enjoying or I have an allergic reaction to, how do I get into something else. And Ad Swap really gives you that opportunity. And then the beautiful thing for us actually is that all of that information that we are able to capture there, feeds back into our advertising systems and services. So, again, it is just a wealth of information to learn about our users and what they like.”

Todd Bishop: Why was it important for Hulu to essentially “roll its own” advertising technology?

Richard Tom: “That’s one that we didn’t take on very lightly. It was clearly a big, big decision for the company, and it was clearly a big bet. Early on in that time when we were talking about building our own platform — it was about 2007, 2008 we started having those conversations — really out of the need to sat that we wanted to have full control of our platform and really have the very best experience that we can have for our advertising. One of the things that we noticed when we looked out on the landscape of the market was that a lot of the different advertising platforms that were out there were really born out of search, born out of display. And we knew that our focus was completely video and so we knew that we’d have to make that investment. But the real question was: Did we have the ability to actually pull that off because as you said — getting to 1.4 billion (ads served) is a very large number when you are talking about the amount of traffic coming through. We had so much confidence in the team that we had that we knew we could build it better, faster…. and actually have a service that we are extremely proud of at the end of it. Again, the advantages of doing that — aside from scalability and agility to move very quickly and the ability to add and improve our workflow and processes — the major advantage there too was the amount of information we could collect and actually leverage again within the targeting services. Again, it is not to say that this is the right solution for everybody — the build versus buy is not something that you should take lightly and I think it is really understanding the team that you have and recognizing its strengths.”

Todd Bishop: Would Hulu ever follow the path of Amazon Web Services and sell its technology infrastructure as a third party service to other companies?

Richard Tom: “That’s a great question. I think our focus purely today is about our users, our advertisers and our content partners. And to the extent that would help us get there, I am sure that we wouldn’t close that off…. But today the main things that we focus on is how can we provide a frictionless experience for the users, how can we provide the very best advertising platform from an effectiveness to our advertisers and for our content partners, how do we build the best monetization platform out there. Again, it is those three customers that we will always focus on.”

John Cook: Why did Hulu decide to remain a standalone company, and what advantages does that have for you on the technology side of the business? And what is the future looking like for you?

Richard Tom: “I don’t have too much to share on that topic, except to say that we are extremely happy that we’ve gotten through that. The great part, and if you look at the team and their dedication and and their focus and if you look at the monster year that we had even with that going on — it is just an incredible thing. For us, it is just really great to be out of that, and clearly our media partners and our investors have really signaled that they really want to see us succeed and they really want to put everything behind us to make that happen. From a technical perspective, I don’t think it really changes all that much. The team has been relentless about pursuing new innovations on the platform. And none of that kind of changed things.”

Todd Bishop: What do you look for in the people you hire these days?

Hulu CTO Richard Tom

Hulu's Richard Tom

Richard Tom: “We are very, very disciplined when it comes to the hiring side of things. We love the hacker types. We love the folks who are just extremely passionate about technology…. For us, the most important thing is to hire some really strong general athletes, and I think Ray (Ozzie) mentioned the same thing which is we love to have folks who have a depth and a large depth of technologies, folks who are extremely comfortable moving around. If you looked at the technology stacks at Hulu, one thing you’d find is that we really empower our developers to to give them opportunity to investigate and try different technology stacks, and much in the way that Ray (Ozzie) mentioned, we think that it is critical because what we want to do is make sure that the developers are taking a look at what is the best tool for the problem that we are trying to solve. It is not to say that we allow them to go rogue, but we give them the opportunity to explore, try new things and take a few risks, and really select the right type of technology to use.”

John Cook: Could we see Hulu form a stronger alliance with the cable companies?

Richard Tom: “I think for us you see some of that playing out already with different ways for people to consume content. For us, we are always going to look for ways to make it easier for our users, and consumers in general, to get access to our content. So, that end, if that makes it a lot easier for folks to get content, I am sure that that will be an option as well.”

John Cook: Do you still write code?

Richard Tom: “Those are some of the best days for me is when I actually do write code. I do every now and then.”

Todd Bishop: What could change that could allow you to deliver Hulu in a new way that you never dreamed — is it bandwidth, is it processing power, is it something bigger? What do you get excited about?

Richard Tom: “Certainly, all of those things would be fantastic, and I think everybody who is in the technology world would feel that way about all of those things you just mentioned. I know a lot of folks bit on the device fragmentation, and I’ll pick on that one just for now because I think for me, and I think for a lot of developers, and probably a lot of the folks in this room, whether it is having a fragmented browser market or having a fragmented device market, one of the painful realities there is that you spend a lot of your time porting and assuring that you can actually push code to different devices versus spending all of that great raw energy on innovating and coming up with new things and new technologies. To the extent that we can reduce all of that burden for the entire dev community, and I am sure a lot of the folks in this room can relate, we’d be in a much better place.”

Other GeekWire Summit coverageT-Mobile executive: Key to fixing industry is removing device subsidiesQ&A: Ray Ozzie on startups, Microsoft, and what he’s dreaming up nextGeekWire Summit: How to stay innovative in a world of technological change