Profile IT: Yahoo!7's Craig Penfold

As head of technology at Yahoo!7 — a 50-50 joint venture of Yahoo! and Seven West Media — Craig Penfold has a role that encompasses everything digital.

His team at the digital media company has a headcount of about 45 people. "It's made up of media engineers, mobile engineers, platform guys who are more backend engineers; I've got security specialists, product management, internal IT as well ... we have also got the network operations guys who manage the data centre and all that infrastructure."

"That all sits under me," he says.

Penfold's team is responsible for the entire tech stack at Yahoo 7 and Yahoo New Zealand. "We're responsible for building most of our media properties," he says. "So things like lifestyle and TV, which are currently number 1 in the market, as well as the front page, all of our mobile apps come out of this building. And on top of all that our publishing platforms, our engineering processes, our QA processes — we're responsible for all that."

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Penfold can trace his fascination with technology to an early age, when his father gave him a Sinclair ZX Spectrum with 16KB of memory. "I just kept on tinkering with it and I had that technical curiosity — I wanted to pull it apart, see how it worked and create stuff with it. So I started developing on it and building little programs on it which I loved being able to show off to people... I was about 13 I think. And the love of technology developed from that."

Now, when he is hiring, Penfold says that that kind of curiosity and drive to learn about technology is one of the things he looks for in candidates. "We want people who as kids used to pull apart their radio to see how it worked and like tinkering with stuff, and like looking at what the new tecnicolgy is and playing with it, and trying to figure out how it all works."

Penfold came to Yahoo!7 about five and a half years ago, after stints in software engineering at the ABC and Optus. When he signed on at the digital media company it was as a software engineer and the company had a headcount of 160-170. The headcount has grown to more than 500 in his time at the company, and his career has grown along with it, shifting from engineering into management roles and a "few horizontal moves", before ending up as head of technology.

Shifting from a hands-on software development role to management can involve something of a "grieving period", Penfold says. "You don't get to get your hands dirty and play with the code as much as you'd like." That's not to say he doesn't code at all; it's just he tends to do it in his spare time now, he explains.

"My focus now, and this sort of developed as I became a manager, is learning how to lead people; not necessarily manage them," Penfold says. "Once you can lead them and see them evolve and grow as engineers, you can really look back with a sense of pride to see how they develop and the things that they work on, and us as a technology group what we can deliver and how it's improved."

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"My focus has shifted from being able to do all the stuff to freeing up the others to be able to learn and do it all and grow that way," he adds.

The transition from engineer to leadership hammered home the importance of communication and collaboration, Penfold says. "There's only so much you can do on your own," he says. "Other people come in with some great new ideas that may challenge your way of thinking. Being able to communicate and collaborate with them can take whatever you build or whatever idea you have to another, new level.

"I think the idea of working in isolation means you're never going to get the same sort of level of success or joy or fun, [compared to] collaborating. That's what we find here. We're always collaborating with each other, always talking, which really helps evolve what we're doing and improve not only the products that we build at Yahoo!7 but also ourselves as well."

"It's not one of those things you learn and you can tick that box; it's a constant evolution," he adds.

One of the biggest challenges Penfold faces in his current role is dealing with the flood of ideas that come from all sides; he has to be able to prioritise and find a place for them on the company's roadmap. "Innovation can come from any area of the business," he says. "That's what makes it both exciting and challenging. Which is why Hackday is so well received across all areas of the business."

At the moment Penfold's team has plans to continue its work on mobile development. Its social TV app for mobile devices, Fango, came out of the regular company-wide Hackday events that Yahoo!7 hosts, where people stop what they're working on and have a 24-hour period to spend on exploring new ideas. The event is followed by the chance to present to the whole company, and prizes are awarded for the most innovative prototypes.

Ideas from Hackday, such as Fango, can be incorporated into the company's roadmap if they show promise. Penfold says the focus is on "more around mobility than mobile": Yahoo!7's tech team wants to "be able to serve our content to users wherever they are, and whatever device they're on". "So one of the streams we're working on at the moment is making our entire network device aware and responsively designed [for] those devices," he says, "serving the content to our users in an optimised way regardless of what device they're on."

For Penfold's team, ensuring that the company's systems can keep up with changing patterns of media consumption is important. For example, when it comes to the National Broadband Network, which is likely to have a significant impact on how consumers access entertainment, "we need to be ready now," Penfold says. "We need to be planning for that, and we are at Yahoo!7," he adds.

"We've recently done a major infrastructure project around our video platform, where we did a video platform refresh. We've been rolling that out to our properties at the moment; so it's on sport and on news at the moment we'll be rolling that out to the rest of the network as we go."

The project started at the beginning of 2012. "It's been a large undertaking," he says. The aim is a 'best-of-breed' video player, "which is going to be really important for when the NBN does come out," he says. The team is building everything for scale. "Yahoo!7 reaches 8.8 million Australians every month, so anything we release has to work and has to work straight away at scale. That's obviously a big focus for us that's only going to continue as Yahoo!7 continues to grow. As broadband usage continues to grow, we obviously need to be ahead of the game there. We're definitely working towards scale, performance, availability."

Rohan Pearce is the editor of Techworld Australia and Computerworld Australia. Contact him at rohan_pearce at idg.com.au.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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