Portland: Weird not weird
Vevo had an office-warming party last week. They've been here a year, but they've been busy.
Vevo (as in video evolution) is the service owned by major labels that hosts official music videos online. Most people know it from its logo in the corner of videos on YouTube. However, it's been developing its own services to gain a bit of brand traction.
Zack Manning, Vevo's director of engineering, was there with his girlfriend. They were keen to take in a live performance by Josh English in the gaily painted lobby. Manning chatted with me at length about what Vevo is doing here. After all, Vevo really belongs in the entertainment and tech capitals, New York and San Francisco, rather than Portland.
Manning came on board when Vevo bought Showyou in 2016.
His job with Showyou was systems engineering, and that's sort of what he does now: writing backend systems.
Showyou came through the Portland Incubator Experiment, and was also based in WeWork Custom House in Old Town. The software figures out ways to do live messaging on top of music videos. He led the engineering team there and Vevo executives gave him the green light to expand the Vevo team in Portland. As he networked locally, picking up people from AWS Elemental and Jama, Vevo workers in San Francisco started poking their head over the cube walls and inquiring about moving here too. Five staff moved here from San Francisco.
"You need a hub for engineers to work in real time together," said Manning. "The company wants to give them the freedom to work where they want." Having said that, they need to sit together in the same room to talk. They also zone out into coding with their headphones on, or shift to a Zoom video conference on one of the big screens dotted about the office. Working 100 percent remotely is just not efficient.
Vevo launched Live watch parties this year, with performances captured before a small live audience. Fans can watch them any time. Like an NPR Tiny Desk Concert, everyone wants to be a media company.
On the opening night earlier this year, with pop singer Demi Lovato talking in New York, the Portland Vevo office was like NASA mission control, according to Manning. The big TV which normally plays pop videos showed a dashboard of the number of viewers, who was doing what on social media, and all the other metrics by which people are judged (if not get paid) in this industry.
There were softball questions, some from a host, some sent in live by the Lovatics, some called out by the audience. Plus,
videos with commentary over the top. One of the videos was Levato singing "Sorry Not Sorry" acoustically, with a choir, exclusively for Vevo. While that played on other screens, Manning said it was tense as eyes switched between her face and the data. The engineers sat at the ready to fix glitches and slowdowns, looking for spikes in traffic and unusual activity.
There not there
Vevo has 300,000 videos and streams 24 billion videos a month. The big three music companies — Universal Music Group (UMG), Sony Music Entertainment (SME) and Warner Music Group — license their work to Vevo, which splits revenue with YouTube. It's a solid system that has resulted in 71 videos having the coveted 1 billion views status. But, like all tech startups, Vevo needs to grow rapidly, mutate and sometimes even pivot. Vevo has also done Lives with Kid Inc. and Fifth Harmony.
The idea was a collaboration between the Product group and Engineering. "It was part of a Sprint 0 (zero), an agile method," said Manning, of the rapid prototyping they did. The engineering task was to scale what they were doing, so that it could take on 10,000 Lovatics, or maybe one day, six figures of Swifties.
They also do Watch Parties, where a viewer builds a playlist, shares it and comments to friends in real time. It's like sitting around, playing records with your friends, except your friends aren't really there. Real time likes, like the trail of hearts you see on a Periscope video, are the goal.
Another thing this team of engineers has been doing is rewriting all the Vevo apps. They used to be clunky, an afterthought. Now they are better designed and more robust. They show up on platforms such as IOS, FireTV, AndroidTV and the web. The goal is to get people to watch their music video — or just listen to channels, Pandora-style — through the Vevo front end as opposed to someone else's. In return for this location and demographic data, the user gets to set their personal preferences, which is an in-demand feature in the world of streaming music.
The atmosphere is relaxed. Every day at 4:45 the Sonos speakers come on with a music playlist to help wind down the work day. Instead of multiple screens on each sit-stand desk, there's a single, elegant 4k monitor to go with the standard issue MacBook Pro.
"They try and make the staff feel valued, so they have everything they need to do their work," Manning explained.
The party was important enough for Erik Huggers, the Vevo CEO, to be there. The Dutchman made his name on the BBC iPlayer. So was his Chief People Officer, Colleen McCreary, sitting cross legged in jeans on a desk.
McCreary pops up to Portland occasionally to see how the expansion is going. She sees all the job applications, where they're from, what they want. It's a fallacy that engineering talent is cheaper in Portland.
"It is less competitive though," she said. "Here I'm not dealing with people who have nine other job offers, it's more like three other job offers."
Who cares if software engineers only read Github, Python manuals and Star Wars novelizations?
She likes Portland engineers. "They dig in on software problems. They tend to be amazing people: well-rounded, well-read, have good communication skills and outside interests."
"Engineering has to be able to talk to creatives. To be able to ask what do the artists want, and what do the viewers want? Other than that, we want people who are passionate about music and videos."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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