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Emily Hom's posts

Aug 27th 2012

AOLer Andreas Turanski Talks Moviefone and Social Engineering

Since joining the AOL Technology team over two and half years ago, Andreas Turanski has worked on a variety of different projects – both big and small. But one he's particularly passionate about is creating a tightly-knit engineering culture in New York City that reflects the startup/small company background he came from and embodies a similar experience that already exists in AOL's Dulles campus.

"I wanted to help AOL NYC Engineers from my teams and other teams to get to know each other as a social group and as resources," said Andreas. "I floated the idea to engineers and engineering leaders in a bunch of these teams and virtually everyone liked the idea so I made it one of my missions to kick-off a NYC AOL Engineering mixer. I also talked with the head of the Cultural Ambassador Program that I'm involved with about funding the events." How'd he do? We'll come back to that in a minute.

In his "day" job, Andreas is a Senior Tech Director who works on AOL's Entertainment verticals and sites like Moviefone, AOL Music, Winamp, and AOL HD / AOL ON. Collaborating with the General Managers, Product Managers, and designers of the sites, Andreas and his four engineering teams work to build the best experiences for our users that will make an impact. This includes rebuilding the backend of sites to deliver a more flexible structure to pull in the best, least expensive data providers, a recent win accomplished with the new backend for the AOL Music site and Winamp.

When working on a project, Andreas' main priorities are to create reusable systems with a great and consistent user experience. "We're always trying to make a systems that can be reused by other teams in ways that we don't even envision while making sure we get them delivered quickly. This is often done by having an API (application programming interface) that defines how to access the service that our other groups can use. This makes code more maintainable, so if one thing changes in the background, the front end doesn't have to change. For instance, we're going to re-use the backend that we just built for AOL Music and Winamp as the backend for Moviefone after some enhancements."

An avid cyclist and vegan, Andreas spends much of his time outside of AOL doing non-profit work around causes that promote civil rights and animal protection. Raised in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, Andreas continues to be surprised by the new things he discovers exploring his ever-changing hometown, but it's his son who brings him the most inspiration. "I am continually proud of my son, as I watch and help him grow and develop as an amazing person."

At one point in his AOL career, Andreas ran the AOL Social, Community, & Identity engineering team where they built the current commenting platform and AOL Share. Using his knowledge of the needs from the site side helped inform what was built on the platform side. Andreas continues to dabble in community engagement with his team as they test different programs on their sites like enhancing how we let Moviefone users make events to see specific movies to share with their social circles.

And the mixers? What started out as a gathering of 15 engineers and tech staff has now multiplied into a large community where sharing knowledge while socializing thrives, but Andreas does not plan to stop there. "We'll need to continue working on this and make it a steady part of the NYC AOL Engineering social fabric. Next is to get more teams involved, after which I promised I'd do a shot at the mixer!"

(AOLers, including Chief Technology Officer Curtis Brown (far right), attend a mixer.)

Aug 14th 2012

AOLer Rob Gould Talks AOL On Connected TV App and the Future of Television

Ever have an idea that you know could change the world and you'd just explode if you didn't build it? That's how AOL's Rob Gould, a Principal Software Engineer, felt over a year ago. The AOL Blog goes behind the scenes to find out how Rob fulfilled his SmartTV dream by creating AOL's connected TV offering that brings AOL's original video content to the living room.

What's your role at AOL and how long have you worked here?

I've been with AOL for nearly 13 years, and I would have to say I'm having more fun now than I've had in years. The technologies are more interesting -- phones and tablets are exploding with creative and engaging apps, graphics processing power and UI options are plentiful, and technology has become much more accessible.

I'm actually not a true "software engineer" in the traditional sense. I've really been pretending all these years. I come from an art and television production background, and always felt that televisions were a great artistic canvas and the most coveted screen in the home. I taught myself JavaScript and other TV-client technologies because it's what was required to get graphics and applications made for television.

What are your usual responsibilities?

I wear a number of hats at AOL. Some days I organize all the feeds and TV channels amongst our platforms (Samsung, Sony, TiVo, Roku, Boxee, Panasonic, GoogleTV, Xbox, Yahoo ConnectedTV, Divx, Western Digital). I work closely with Marta Fronc-Villa to ensure the graphics and animations are coded properly on the TV's and devices. I collaborate closely with Rob Delacruz and Rob Cabacungan to make sure all our front-end, back-end and ad technologies are in check for our AOL business needs. I sit in on demos from other groups within AOL to learn about upcoming APIs and ways to tie AOL backend systems into our TV products. Other days I'm in meetings with gaming platform providers, advertising technologists, analytics & reporting specialists, and client-side engineers.
Much of my time is spent reading up on the graphics/animation & video playback capabilities of various devices. We need to know which devices support live-video streaming, which TV's can handle graphics-overlays, sound-effects, music, 3D, varying bitrates, and keyboard input for searching. Often we are testing the layering, navigation and graphics capabilities on each device to ensure that the concepts and ideas put forth by our talented UI team are feasible. Content is king, but we take great strides to ensure that we have a user-interface that can scale to support the 380,000 videos in our video-libraries.

Advertising has also been a major focus, and we have a system in place that I think is better than our competitors. Over the past few months, a lot of time has been spent validating, re-validating, and running ads of all types to ensure that our "ad formula" works across all our TV platforms.

As an AOL Cultural Ambassador, I also get to conduct interviews with potential hires. It's become obvious over the past 6 months that word is getting out about AOL, and people are clamoring to get in. We are the most "West-Coast"-like company here on the East Coast in terms of corporate culture, our unique ambitions, customer focus, work-life balance, and how we treat our employees.

What was the inspiration behind AOL HD?

I felt like I would explode if I didn't take one last stab at this elusive SmartTV industry. I've worked for a number of interactive-TV startups over the past 20 years including Bell Atlantic Video's "Stargazer" project in 1993, TELE-TV in 1996 with Howard Stringer (CEO of Sony), and finally at AOLTV in 1999. All of these TV projects failed for reasons outside my control after years of hard work and high-hopes. Trust me, it was depressing, and I have a basement full of old TV set top boxes to prove it.
It wasn't until 2010 when everything changed. Finally all the pieces came together -- with home-networking, wireless, MPEG4 encoding, and SmartTV technologies, everything needed was cost-effective -- but yet still out of reach for everyone but the big-name Internet companies. Since I had worked on AOL Video, Moviefone, and AOL Radio projects, I knew that AOL had tons of media assets that were perfect for the TV environment if someone built a TV app. We are also one of only a handful of companies in the world that have all the parts needed to create a full-blown web video streaming product suite.

All of the pieces were there. I felt that I would not be able to live with myself later on if I didn't put forth this one last big effort and prove that the previous 20 years weren't squandered in obsolescence.

What was the greatest challenge when building/pitching the product?

After creating the "AOL" SmartTV app on my Samsung TV at home, I had no way to show it to anyone. I couldn't lug my TV in the back of my car to work. I basically had to beg my wife to videotape me late at night after the kids were in bed to make a YouTube video of the presentation. That was the best video she ever made, because it changed all of our lives.
AOL was sponsoring a "Hackathon" at that time and I showed the demo on the big-screen in Dulles and immediately Rob Cabacungan signed up to be on my "Hackathon team". Rob C's specialty was ad integration, and within hours he had beautiful, high-definition ads playing from the AOL ad server into the TV.

As it turned out, AOL ad integration was the perfect addition to the product and represented a turning point. Emails were exchanged, demos were arranged, and four days later Rob C. and I were in the office of AOL's former Chief Technical Officer. He asked some thoughtful questions about the architecture and development process and then announced, "I've already booked you guys a timeslot with [AOL Chairman and CEO] Tim Armstrong in 3 days. You're going to New York!".

I've never perspired more in my life than the day we had to present the new product we created to Tim Armstrong and the AOL board. We literally brought a big TV into the board room and set it on the end of the long table with a thud, hooking up wires like a NASCAR swat team. Fortunately, the demo went without a hitch. The whole app was only about 70 lines of Javascript, but it was enough to jump start a whole movement within the company.

Another challenge was the act of finding the videos. At the time, AOL had hundreds of thousands of videos hosted on servers scattered all over the world -- fantastic content, but sometimes hard to find in high-definition and within show series that were consistently produced. As time went on, video feeds became much more reliable, and now it's just a matter of hitting a button to add a new show series to a specific TV platform. Thankfully Rob Delacruz has an excellent eye for shows that appeal to our audience, and is very good at decyphering the analytics to know what's working.

How has the Connected TV industry changed since the launch of AOL HD?

All the secrets to where the industry is heading can be found by reading the API documentation from each device manufacturer. There, you will find ideas and device-connectivity strategies that consumers won't see for another year, based on upcoming hardware and firmware releases. It's sort of like studying the patents that Apple files to know what's around the corner.

Any trends we should look out for?

Here are the trends that I've identified that you will see with the "TV of the Future":

  • You are going to start seeing a lot more convergence between TV's and tablets/phones. Tablet apps that communicate with your TV will show additional information about the show you are watching, and targeted ads will be very valuable. You'll see apps on a "2nd screen" that do the work of a set top box. This will provide the content hosts with data about who is watching, what they're watching, where and when.
  • You are going to see more TV's come with pre-installed cameras for video-chats right within the living-room. (Like AIM AV for TV)
  • You are going to start seeing camera-enabled TV's act as security-monitoring for the home, with motion-detection, and the ability to take snapshots of whomever is about to steal the TV.
  • Some TV's have API's that allow you to connect hospital blood-pressure monitoring equipment and healthcare stats devices to the TV. You will start seeing more TV-based healthcare apps in the upcoming years.
  • Did you know that as of 2012, people spend more time watching videos on their Xbox's than playing games? That is a seismic shift. Only the big companies will get into the Xbox video app biz, however, because it's very expensive to go through the development process to do so.
  • The Rapid drop in DVD sales will continue, and there will be a push to shrink the window between theatrical and pay VOD release. Studios know the VOD market is growing and will slowly but surely start to shorten their windows.
  • AOL's approach to host-based "live-stitched" high-definition advertising is superior to what is found in other products, I believe. It eliminates the latency between ads and the main content, gives the host more control and flexibility, provides excellent analytics, and eliminates the "black screen" gaps that you see in client-based ad-serving. It wouldn't surprise me if our ad technology becomes the industry-standard in the SmartTV-space.

Bandwidth caps are the main thing keeping people from cutting their cable TV altogether and going all to connected TV viewing. Cable companies want to keep users in their cable TV fold, so they punish users who choose the "Internet only" option by charging more for better bandwidth and a reliable high-speed connection. The US Department of Justice recently announced that it was investigating whether bandwidth caps constituted "restraint of trade".

What are your favorite AOL HD shows?

Translogic, Digital Justice, Engadget, Moviefone, You've Got Videos, GMC Trade Secrets, WSJ Live, Reuters, and BBC News.

What's one thing people wouldn't guess about you on first glance?

I enjoy comedic acting and have performed in front of thousands of people between 1990-1999 (before kids), including a brief sketch at the Patriot Center.

What's your favorite thing about AOL (product or site)?

The people at AOL are what makes the work environment so special. If I were to pick some favorite sites, I would have to say the Winamp team is putting together some absolutely amazing backend API's centering around music that I can't talk about just yet -- but I will say when they launch it, it will be a big game-changer for the music industry.

The HuffPost livestreaming team has some really ground-breaking API's centered around community-journalism and live-"web socket" communications between viewers, TV-hosts and SmartTV devices. I've been on tech forums in the TV space across nearly every TV manufacturer and no one is as far ahead of the game as our new HuffPost Live service. I think it's going to be monumental in it's impact on how IPTV works, and what users can expect from their broadcasters.

I'm also a big fan of TechCrunch and Engadget, and of course http://hd.aol.com!

Check out version 2.0 of our connected TV app which features ad-serving capabilities and a wide selection of rich, high-definition video content drawn from The AOL On library of more than 380,000 short-form videos.

Aug 7th 2012

AOLer Fletcher Jones Inspires Incubator Lab


As Senior Director of AOL's Strategic Partnerships, Fletcher "Fletch" Jones knows how to bring together powerful parties to collaborate on a greater vision. Working with a number of AOL's larger relationships that power websites like DailyFinance, AOL Jobs, and AOL Real Estate, Jones and his team focuses on deal performance. "Business Development does the deals and then someone has to work with the partners and the AOL GMs to make sure the potential of the deal is realized for both parties," said Jones. "I'm an advocate for the partner within AOL and for AOL when dealing with the partner. It's an enjoyable role because of the relationships required both inside and outside the company as well as the real, measurable business metrics involved."

Jones utilized his relationship management skills when collaborating with fellow AOLers, Bud Rosenthal and Brian McMahon, to found Fishbowl Labs, a startup incubator for the D.C. tech community that lives on AOL's Dulles campus. How did Fishbowl Labs begin? "The idea itself – to provide free space on campus to local startups – was not a new one," said Jones. "It is something we'd proven out in Palo Alto and New York. Many in Dulles had asked the question – why not here? I think the reality is that you just need someone or a small group of someones to take the initiative and see it through. Bud Rosenthal, Brian McMahon and I worked on the idea and pitched it to local VC and startup community for probably nine months before the first company moved in."

"The Fishbowl," named for its glass walls, is a perfect space to showcase the startup community. When looking for startups to join the lab, Jones and team look for a strong cultural fit within AOL and the other startups already in the portfolio. Jones explains that "they also look at the problem the startups are solving for and the technology and ideas they employ. What we don't worry too much about is whether their business is going to scale into the next LivingSocial. Since we aren't investing, we can put an emphasis on the culture fit and knowledge transfer and still win big."

When discussing the Dulles tech scene, Jones shares that "people would be surprised by the number of technical folks working in basements and garages in northern Virginia. We got our first six companies in through word of mouth alone. Recent stories by Washington Business Journal and TechCocktail have also created a real surge in interest. A 'Build it and they will come' mentality is really how it's playing out for Fishbowl Labs right now."

Jones joined AOL through the acquisition of Netscape Communications in 1999 and has worked in product management, marketing and business operations roles over the years. A former rower at the University of Michigan, Jones still enjoys exercising as well as coaching and home improvement. His favorite AOL product is AOL Mail and "like many, has had the address for a long time and it's part of my identity." Jones is also addicted to caffeine "and can't operate without coffee first thing in the morning."

Learn more about Fishbowl Labs by reading these articles by BizJournals and TechCocktail or follow them on Twitter at @FishbowlLabs.

Aug 2nd 2012

The Advertising.com Group Launches Blog

This week, our friends at Advertising.com Group launched a blog that will feature shared industry insights and knowledge from the collective leadership of the team. Ned Brody, CEO of Advertising.com Group, kicked off the blog explaining the vision of the group and what the blog will cover:

"The vision of the Advertising.com Group is 'to simplify digital advertising at scale.' As a company, we are focusing on that vision by building a unified suite of tech products and services to provide simpler, easier-to-manage solutions serving publishers, marketers and everyone in between.

We are excited to begin publishing weekly blog posts covering issues that surround core ad technologies, formats, buying opportunities, regulatory themes, publisher monetization and other critical and often confusing topics."

Today's blog post, written by Delia Biddison, VP of Publisher Services, covers the OMMA RTB Conference, where Biddison participated on a panel called "You Call This 'Premium?': Publishers Face the RTB Question." Read Biddison's recap of the conference to learn about display and data targeting, as well as RTB strategies and practices.

Learn more about the Advertising.com Group and read future blog posts by clicking here.

Jul 24th 2012

Who Ever Told You Not to PLAY with Fire?


We recently launched our AOL music app, PLAY, for iPhone and Android with one goal in mind: give people a simple, but killer, music listening experience that lets them discover and share constantly updated new music with friends in fun ways. Since that launch, nearly 1,000,000 rockers, rappers, hippies, hipsters, metal-heads, and jazz-heads (that's a thing, right?) have downloaded PLAY across Android and iOS and we're proud to say that we're now bringing PLAY to the Kindle Fire.

This isn't a repeat of some app built for your Droid. This is 100% designed and built for Kindle Fire. Why? Because our Mobile Ninjas here at AOL love the heck out of the Fire and we love the way PLAY looks and feels on that glorious 7-inch screen.

PLAY has been referred to as the "Swiss Army Knife of music apps." While it doesn't come with a toothpick and scissors, it is a beautiful custom music player that lets you listen to your own MP3 collection via our elegant interface; but it's so much more than that. You want to discover new music? We've got you covered with our CD Listening Party that lets you stream free tracks and albums from our huge and constantly updated AOL Music database. PLAY also gives you access to 55,000+ SHOUTcast radio stations.

And, since many of us learn what to listen to by hearing it from a friend, PLAY shows you a constant feed of what your friends are listening to. Share your favorites to PLAY, Twitter, and Facebook, even customize the album artwork with friends' photos and let your friends and followers stream free previews of your music. For the real music aficionados, PLAY also integrates AOL Music News to keep you current on the latest music industry highlights.

Spiritual guru and AOL Mobile First Senior Director Sol Lipman said, "The Kindle Fire can't get much more awesome, but somehow we made beautiful babies together with PLAY. It's the best social music experience on the Fire, and I say that because I'm only mostly unbiased. Look, just stop reading and go try it."

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