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Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes in IT strategy at one of the original dot-coms

From containers to CDNs, About.com is embracing change. Director of operations Matt Landolf shares how he's seen the outlook of one of the web's oldest properties evolve.

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In "Where Are They Now?" listicles featuring the original dot-coms, About.com fares well. While many of the company's contemporaries met untimely ends in the late 1990s and early 2000s, About is neither gone nor forgotten. In fact, the media property today boasts 74 million unique visitors each month, with 1.5 million pieces of published content covering 1,000 different topics -- from planning a road trip to saving for retirement.

But, much like the internet itself, the About.com of 2016 is a far cry from what it was 19 years ago. According to director of operations Matt Landolf, the brand that once took a resolutely stolid approach to IT operations now views innovation and changes in IT as fundamental to its overall strategy.

In this edition of The Subnet, Landolf shares insights from his nine years with the company, where he began working in 2007 as a systems administrator.

What changes in IT have you seen at About over the last nine years?

Both [the 2007 About and today's About] have been interesting and pretty cool, but they're almost complete opposites of one another. The About.com I started at was very, very solid and somewhat risk-averse, I'd say, but because of that there was a lot of solidity to it. It hadn't changed very much. And you could see that in the product: It was pretty old-looking but it was also very reliable and solid.
 

Matt LandolfMatt Landolf

The New York Times Co. sold About to IAC [in 2012]. That was kind of a new era; About changed drastically at that point. We got a new CEO and started placing a premium on innovation and change. And now we're really rapidly rolling out new changes and prioritizing change over "a sure thing." We're making a lot of bets, and if the changes don't pan out, then at least we've tried them. It could be a fundamental shift in the way that About.com operates.

What is one of the biggest challenges you are currently tackling?

I would say right now, one of the biggest challenges is keeping up with the [changes in IT]. There's a number of really cool technologies out there that we want to get our hands on and start using. So I guess the challenge is not keeping up; the challenge is having the people and the resources available to actually do the new things, rather than just keeping the lights on and focusing on what you currently have.
 
I think every tech team in the industry wishes that they had more people and staff. It sometimes seems like if we just had one more person we could do all the cool stuff we want to do. But I'm sure if we had that one person, we'd wish we had another person. There's an endless amount of awesome stuff to work on.

What's an example?

We're transitioning a lot of stuff to containers now. So we're making sure we're making the right choices, doing all of the appropriate proof of concepts, the testing, the quality assurance and actually getting it rolled out. It's not a trivial undertaking.

Why is the concept of containers attractive?

My old graybeard Unix buddies would roll their eyes; they'd claim it is a concept that's existed in the industry for a long time. But the ability to scale-on-demand, the ability to be more responsive and to also not be tied to physical resources [is appealing]. The agility that containers offer is important to us.
 
What's a project or accomplishment at About of which you're particularly proud?

We're making a lot of bets, and if the changes don't pan out, then at least we've tried them. It could be a fundamental shift in the way that About.com operates.

We had a really large initiative in the last couple of years to start focusing more and more on what we can do to shave milliseconds off of the time that it takes to serve About.com. So we were able to identify a few things such as moving the resources -- more and more resources can be cached through content delivery networks. Even decreasing the Time to First Byte by moving our DNS to an anycast network -- those sorts of things now are part of the DNA of the company. We always cared about speed in the past, but it's become something that's front and center now, I think. Even focusing on the third-party content that we host -- ads and tracking widgets -- things like that. We focus on ensuring that everything is functioning as efficiently as it can.
 
How did you get started in IT?

I got into technology during the web boom. My first real job out of college was in data entry for a music data company called Muse. My supervisor saw that there was a lot of opportunity out there in technology, so he started giving me programming assignments. He saw that I had, perhaps, an aptitude for it, and he started steering me more and more towards doing nothing but the programming side of things. So instead of doing the data entry, I was writing the application itself. That's sort of how I learned.

Given the changes in IT you've seen, what advice would you give to someone at the beginning of his or her career?

Given how much I've seen the industry rapidly evolve, I would say don't get overly attached to any specific technology because it's going to change over the years. Instead, focus on the actual classic things, like the back-end things that are actually happening behind the scenes -- the low-level stuff, because that's the stuff that's not going to change as quickly as whatever the latest technology is. The kernel-level operations. The way a CPU works. The things that computer programmers in the '70s actually had to worry about.

OK, here is our rotating personal interest question: If you could take a free two-week trip anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Let's see. I was in Ethiopia last year; I'm going to Cambodia in a couple of weeks. I've got a lot of places in mind ... I guess I'll say: I've been wanting to go to Patagonia.

Wow, Cambodia and Ethiopia are far-flung.

I have small children, and I find it's really a pleasure to travel with them, despite what people tell parents. It opens up whole worlds. When you have tiny children, people treat you a different way. [When we took our first baby to Peru,] people were stopping us on the street and taking pictures of us, instead of us taking pictures of them.

Next Steps

Even amidst big changes in IT, some wisdom remains

The Subnet: Getting Ethernet to an observatory on the ocean floor

Networking skills must keep pace with changes in IT

This was last published in August 2016

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