Correction: An earlier version of this story said that AOL’s headquarters were located in Dulles. While it has an office in Dulles, its headquarters are in New York. This version has been corrected.
William Pence joined AOL in April as global chief technology officer, and he says luring great product and technical talent is going to be “a big focus” for him at the media and technology company, which maintains a local office in Dulles.
Pence and Dave McDowell, senior vice president and general manager of communications products, talked with Capital Business about a job opening for a technical director who is to focus on innovating its e-mail products:
Dave McDowell: The role that we’re hiring for is the technology owner of the back-end systems and platforms that underpin everything we do, especially mail. Mail is a massive system, so we really need people who understand big data and machine learning, storage systems and search. Once you have all this data that you’ve been storing for tens of years — thousands of messages — the ability to retrieve that data on-demand is really important. And also security. It’s really important to our commitment to our users. So this role will also help protect from the bad guys.
The job posting says you’re looking for someone to help create a “next generation mail experience.” What does that mean?
McDowell: Users have more and more data. They’re overwhelmed by data. Every social service I sign up for, every trip I take, everything I buy online generates an e-mail notification. In my inbox alone I have more than 30,000 messages. So the next generation of e-mail client is really helping users deal with that data: Categorize it, triage it, extract the important entities from that data — persons, places, things that are important to me. So when we talk about the next generation of e-mail, I think it’s about helping users deal with this massive amount of data.
William Pence: This is a very, very large scale platform. The person we’re looking for can not only deal with that scale, but with all the complexity that people are dealing with in their lives. All of this stuff really needs to be made simple for users. That’s really part of the AOL brand message, and there’s a bit of an art to that.
On day one, what should be the first item on this person’s agenda?
McDowell: People management is a big part of this role. They will manage a large team. So getting to the managers and the individual contributors on the team, assessing their strengths, helping guide them. Learning the people part of it is really important.
What’s the hardest part of this job?
McDowell: You have to be able to do two things. You have to be able to serve this incredibly valuable and loyal base that we’ve had for 15 or 20 years. The other thing is, we have to innovate and develop new world-class products that attract a new audience. Some people call it the innovator’s dilemma. That’s definitely something that you have to wrestle with in this role.