MySpace Exec to Teach at USC This Fall

03/13/09
Chief technology officer Aber Whitcomb will work with teams of students to develop a social application.
By Anna Cearley
Aber Whitcomb oversees engineering and technological operations at MySpace.

Speaking at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, MySpace chief technology officer Aber Whitcomb shared some of the challenges and lessons learned from managing a popular social portal that has grown to more than 130 million active users.

Whitcomb, who will teach a class at the school this fall, said that once a company reaches a critical mass, it becomes harder to operate with the same agility of a small startup. Development and operations must be pared down into specialized work groups so that “all have a part of it but no one has total ownership.”

The executive also talked about some of the company’s plans for the future.

“We are continuing to reinvent ourselves as a social portal by allowing users to customize their entire experience on MySpace,” he said. “Everyone is going to be pulling data from around the web and syndicating data, and we will let them do that.”

Whitcomb, who oversees engineering and technological operations at MySpace, spoke on March 3 at an event sponsored by the USC Information Technology Program at the engineering school.

The event also was intended to introduce students to Whitcomb and Ashish Soni, director of the school’s Information Technology Program. The two will be co-teaching a class this fall that is open to students with backgrounds in engineering, business or the humanities. The class will be divided into teams and charged with developing a social application, such as a game or information feed. The applications will be launched on the MySpace site as part of the class project.

Whitcomb said that MySpace launched in January 2004 after 30 days with a simple architecture and a single database. Two years later, it was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Some of the tips Whitcomb shared for other aspiring technological entrepreneurs included: Be nimble and start out with a small team; don’t waste time solving problems that can be addressed with already-invented technology; and fail fast, if necessary.

One of the ways that MySpace early on distinguished itself from competitors was by identifying user needs that were not being met. As a result, MySpace members have the option to customize pages that reflect their personalities and interests rather than conform to more standardized templates.

“We noticed that people wanted to have their sites customized and so we enabled this,” he said.

Much of Whitcomb’s discussion focused on the more technical aspects of expanding server space and energy capacity in a short time due to fast popularity. Because of the site’s prompt growth, MySpace had to quickly find ways to partition the information so that it could be handled by different servers. The company also reduced server overload by separating static data from space-consuming dynamic data such as photos and videos.

Whitcomb said MySpace is doing its best to guarantee user safety by using different data-mining algorithms and technological tools to identify and track down people who set up fake profiles.

The average age of a MySpace user as of now is 29, and the most popular age range is 18-34. Whitcomb said that part of the company’s strategy is to encourage the use of the site by older users, including the many parents who have signed up to MySpace in recent months.