SMW '16: 'Always Be Hacking' Says Viacom, Engineer the Future

"Always be trying something new," said Jeff Tapper, senior vice president of engineering for Viacom, delivering the second day keynote address at Streaming Media West 2016. "When you stop asking why or how or will it work, you stop growing as an engineer."

Tapper delivered an eye-opening talk on how media brands can succeed by creating a company-wide engineering culture. One key lesson was to "always be hacking," thinking out-of-the-box and reevaluating decisions such as build vs. buy.

Viacom doesn't just live the hacking ethos in-house, but sponsors student hackathons in New York City, as well, encouraging young coders to create new things. Question everything and see if you can do it better, Tapper said.

For Tapper, creating an engineering culture in-house means creating a UNIX culture, and following a decades-old UNIX philosophy that says programs should do one thing, do it well, and work well together.

Historically, OTT apps have been treated as marketing for brands. Bringing an engineering culture to that requires attracting top young talent, which Tapper said is a challenge for Viacom. Recent grads want to work for top online properties. "As a media company, it's very difficult for us to recruit top talent," he said.

Besides always be hacking, Tapper offered several other tenets for creating a company-wide engineering culture. Build cloud-native applications, he said. That doesn't mean porting existing apps to the cloud, but building cloud-native. Doing so pushes network operations to the cloud provider. "If we can leverage the cloud, we don't have to worry about managing our own hardware."

Adopt 12-factor app development. While this might be common knowledge for engineers, others can learn about it at 12factor.net. Lessons from 12-factor development include having one codebase, as well as keeping clean processes for building, releasing, and running applications. Also, think about disposability of processes: "Each one of your micro-services needs to be able to start up very, very quickly and be able to be torn down very, very quickly."

A/B testing is critical for implementing new ideas. A/B testing starts with an hypothesis and gives teams a method to test it. Roll out the change to one percent of the users and see if analytics prove or disprove the idea. "This can work for everything," Tapper said.

Create a test-driven environment by writing tests before creating any code. This ensures that the code is testable. When they skip this step, developers create code that isn't inherently testable.

Brands within an organization should share codebases, Tapper encouraged. In that way, everyone contributes to the greater good while building trust between teams. Rather that saying, "Your code is broken, you should fix it," teams should say, "Our code is broken, we should go fix it."

Tapper also pressed for continuous integration, where all tests run on every commit. That way, if a test fails the organization can reject the commit. It lets companies identify bugs sooner, when they're easier to fix.

Creating an engineering culture means engineering success and creating the future, Tapper said. "We need to always be looking at what's next."

Get ready, experiment, and get ahead of the curve.

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