Talking about Content publications with Brian Zotter, VP of Engineering at Medium

Ravi Bhim
Ravi Bhim
March 05, 2020

People are willing to pay for high-quality content relevant to them

Brian Zotter, is the VP of Engineering at Medium. He has been a founder/co-founder for many companies such as YesPath, Connectize, and others.

Here is a transcript of the interview with him, edited for brevity.

Can you please introduce yourself for our readers?

I’m currently the Vice President of Engineering at Medium. I have about 20 years of experience.  I grew up in New York and started my career there. Then in the early 2000’s, I moved out to the San Francisco bay area.  My experience has been a combination of startups and big companies. The pattern usually is, I do a startup, and it gets acquired, and I stay there for a couple of years, and then I do another startup. The last one I started was a company called YesPath. We developed technology for product recommendations, and that was acquired by Medium about three years ago.  

What are your top challenges that you are facing at Medium?

Our top challenge is in scaling the engineering org - we're now just shy of a hundred engineers...we grew more than double last year. High growth brings with it all sorts of organizational challenges like; How do you onboard people effectively? How do you level and take care of their careers? How do we grow but remain agile and efficient as an organization? At the beginning of last year we formally introduced an agile scrum process. Before that, the teams were doing their own thing, and it was time for us to standardize on our process. So when new people come in, they can get on-boarded quickly, see the process and get into the flow of things.

And at that scale, it's just hard to keep track of everything that's going on. So having a very formal process where we do have a sprint review every two weeks, keeps us in the know, and stakeholders can provide feedback. We're going to keep growing and need to make sure that we don't slow down which usually happens as you scale an organization.

During this time we've also gone distributed. We have a New York office, which has about 15 people in engineering there. We have another dozen or so who are distributed across the country. We need to make sure that all these people are informed, they're engaged, and feel part of the organization. We're at the size now, where there's a lot of slack in the system, we can move people around, and we could set up these optimal org design patterns, and allow people to work on the things that they enjoy.

What is your perspective on a remote team? Would you prefer a team with co-located and remote employees or would you prefer a fully remote team?

I think it depends. I believe there are some teams that would benefit from fully remote from the start. Like if you didn't have a base of people already working together in an office, then I think fully remote is very interesting. We're in this transition period now where Medium did start with an office but now we are hiring more and more people remote.

I think when we were doing a lot of experimentation and product-market fit type of work, it was good to have those quick conversations here in person. Now the tools are getting so good that we're doing this all online now. Even when there are three people in the office, we're all in conference rooms or at our desks meeting on hangout, and it's beneficial. These days, I walk around the office and see what's going on, check in with how people are doing and what kind of things they're working on. You know, just the casual water cooler talk or after hours chatting. That's the thing that you would lose, and that's okay. There's again ways to get around that. So, I think the future of remote is super exciting.

You were able to hire 54 people in a year. So, what are the things that attract people to Medium and keep the existing people at Medium?

I think what attracts people to Medium is our mission. We are giving anyone in the world a voice where they can express themselves, get an audience and in some cases if you want to you can get paid for it with our partner program.

Another thing that attracts people is that we are not like big ad companies, where we're collecting your data and sacrificing your privacy. Three years ago, we launched our subscription business and it's been working. That growth gave us the confidence to grow the business and our teams. Medium is no longer an early stage startup where there's a chance that it might not work out. It's up to us now to execute and scale it to the point where it will become something big, and people see that too.

Our culture is superb. The people here are the best, brightest and most thoughtful people that I've ever worked with. I think when people come in for the interview, they can feel what we're trying to do, they can sense the amount of autonomy that the teams have, which is very important for engineering. We're using all the best technology. The remote flexibility also helps.  

We don't want to always compete with all the big Silicon Valley companies. We win because we're a fast-growing consumer company that is changing the world around publishing and how you read and write on the internet. So people see that, they feel that and they want to be part of it.

How do you ensure that you have a high bar for quality in terms of the content getting produced?

We assess the quality of the content in a couple of different ways; we use machines to take a look at the content, and we also use humans. We do a pretty good job of recognizing spam and not publishing it. We also have a curation team that looks at the content and assesses the quality. We use those signals to train machines that can determine quality automatically. We also get a lot of data from readers. We know what people are reading, we can see what's trending, we know what people are clapping for and sharing.

What could be some of the shifts that we can see in the publisher industry in the next three years?

I think in a lot of ways the future is here with subscriptions. We were fortunate enough to be at the start of it three years ago. We see that people are willing to pay for high-quality content that is relevant to them. On the other hand, with an ad business, it's a race to the bottom. It's all about clicks and eyeballs.

Medium has been around for a long time, and there was a brief experiment with ads.  During that time, we noticed that the quality of content that was clicked on just went down. The subscription model encourages high-quality content, and gives excellent feedback to the writers, so they write more high-quality content. Our algorithm is trying to reward this great content that keeps people engaged. If they see the value, they'll become a long term customer.

I equate the industry to when music first was being distributed on the internet, you could go and find it anywhere, and you can download it - sometimes illegally. But it was an unsatisfying experience because you didn't know exactly what you were getting all the time. It was challenging to find, you didn't see the quality. Then iTunes came out, and people were willing to pay because it was convenient. The experience was great, and then the recommendations got good, and they knew exactly what I wanted. So, I think that shift is happening again in the publishing industry and we are well-positioned for it.

What are some of the shifts that are happening in terms of consumer behaviour?

When consumers experience high-quality content, they expect it every day. They start building tighter relationships with the publications and authors they like. Now it's going back to some of the old blog days where people followed authors because they can’t wait to see what’s going to be published next, it's super exciting. This model is encouraging because it is about the quality.  The best things are rising to the top. I think it's going to elevate those types of folks who do great work and build a following.

I think writing and publishing are going to grow as a business like YouTube and Instagram influencers. There will be Medium stars just as there are YouTube stars & Instagram stars. We already have people who are making tens of thousands of dollars on the platform a month. It's just going to be another channel to express themselves on the internet.