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Reddit CTO Marty Weiner on building a home for the internet’s wildest community

TechCrunch TechCrunch 25/05/2016 Lucas Matney

After years of crash-and-burn growth met with copious scandals and user complaints, Reddit is getting back to basics and trying to scale like your average internet company, albeit one that boasts around 234 million unique visitors powering 8 billion page views per month.

Critical to this major effort is Marty Weiner. Weiner joined the Reddit team this past summer as the company’s first-ever CTO, and he’s spent the past 10 months building out areas for improvement on a site infrastructure that is increasingly less MacGyver’d together.

Reddit is the 9th most-visited website in the United States, but when Weiner was hired last August, the engineering team keeping it afloat was “way too small” and was having a tough time keeping up with the demands of the site’s famously demanding set of users.

In the past six months, Weiner has doubled the size of his engineering staff and is making significant inroads on improving user experiences through backend upgrades and a pair of smooth mobile apps that are keeping users enthralled on-the-go. He still has big plans for where he wants to take the company on the technical front, but also knows that with Reddit sometimes the community is the one making the calls.

Instability everywhere

In February of last year, Weiner met over lunch with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian just to chat about how things were going at each other’s companies. Weiner was working at Pinterest at the time where he had been the founding engineer on the team, and Ohanian was still serving as the Executive Chair of Reddit.

“At one point I just ask him, ‘how’s the data science team at Reddit?’ And [Ohanian] said, ‘what data science team?’” Weiner recounts to me.

“That was the first moment that I was like, holy crap, this site is this big and you’ve never run it on data. Then I was backed into this other thought where if you don’t have data science you probably don’t have access to all the data pipelines that are crucial to the other things you want to build.”

Soon Reddit would have quite a bit more to worry about then just the quality of their code and the growingly insurmountable amount of tech debt that was causing long-promised features like search and the ever elusive official Reddit mobile app to fall by the wayside.

Reddit’s endless natural cycle of administrative constraint and user backlash grew a bit more hyperactive as the site introduced new anti-harassment policies in May of last year which many users in the community felt went too far in stifling their free speech while other observers were dumbfounded how such a visible site, again the 9th largest in the US, could thrive while hosting user-created communities devoted to fostering hate speech against just about every race, religion and creed under the sun.

Through a somewhat cataclysmic turn of events that followed the firing of Reddit Director of Talent Victoria Taylor, users went wild and moderators began shutting down communities on the site in protest. CEO Ellen Pao resigned shortly after and another Reddit co-founder, Steve Huffman, returned to lead the site he had helped build in 2005.

During a period where Reddit was continuing to test its status as the internet’s darling and was, in many ways, moving towards a new title of the media’s punching bag, Weiner met with Huffman and chatted about bringing him aboard.

Engineering a solution

Weiner was on a bit more stable footing during this period than Reddit was, having been with Pinterest since its founding in 2011, but the rare chance to build something that could broadly impact so many vocal web users was not lost on him.

“It’s so rare that you have such a massive company that’s ready to start the engines again, Reddit has gone through so much interesting history and when I saw Steve coming back, there was all this excitement to make this thing go a lot faster, to build a bigger team, to codify [Reddit’s] mission, all of these types of things,” he says.

“So I got here and I was like, ‘okay, let’s just build the sucker.’”

What came from later conversations with Huffman was the formation of what Weiner frames as “a very clear focus on paying down a lot of tech debt, building a great platform, starting to build products for our mods and users, and then starting on some of our crazier ideas—the rocket science that we’re not to yet, but will be soon.”

So I got here and I was like, ‘okay, let’s just build the sucker.’

Something he’s also had to tackle is the ever-present threats of harassment, spam and abuse. To tackle these, Weiner tells me that he’s been forming a special “anti-evil team” since he came on that’s been helping rid the site of all that ails it.

Spam has been one of the major areas of “evil” that the team has been working on in the past several months. Last quarter, the site was dealing with a pretty consistent onslaught of spam across the subreddits that was causing spam reports from users and moderators to hit new peaks. In the past few months, Weiner’s team has hit spam hard and has reduced the amount of incoming reports by about 60%.

Getting rid of spam makes the site run quite a bit better for users, but it’s the moderators who will likely appreciate these efforts the most. Weiner tells me that the company actually has an entirely separate set of metrics around “moderator happiness” that it works with.

“Moderators shouldn’t have to worry about spam, they should be focused on making a great community.”

Weiner also tells me the engineering team is proactively heading up new efforts on a host of new tools for mods that should make their lives easier and improve communications and feedback. No specifics, but he said more info was coming.

Nailing the basics

Outward-facing improvements like new user blocking tools or sexy new interfaces for mobile apps may be what garner much of the external excitement, but a lot of Weiner’s job focuses on the nitty gritty that happens behind the scenes. Stuff like building out the platform, catching up on tech debt and building out the data pipeline allow the company way more flexibility to get products out in a snap.

“You see the effects of this push, [the apps] are more beautiful, smoother, simpler,” Weiner says. “They just looks awesome, but what you wouldn’t see is how we can develop products way, way faster.”

Soon, Weiner detailed, Reddit’s entire desktop site is going to be put on this new platform which should allow things to move along quite a bit more quickly on the engineering side when it comes to building new features.

The CTO really stressed how critical the improvements that they’ve been making to the data pipeline at Reddit were and how they will allow his team “the capability to build functions like search, relevancy, personalization and really good recommendations.”

All of these features are critical in eventually giving users a little bit more insight into how exactly they should be making sense of reddit’s thousands and thousands of user-created communities.

“Users don’t know about communities that they’d probably be interested in, I’d like to help them find those [subreddits], find other users with similar interests and find more great content.”

Building up a data pipeline for a site that has as much content and points of contact with users as Reddit has is no small order.

With all of the growth Reddit’s engineering team has experienced in the past few months, Weiner still wants more. The company is looking to add to their iOS and Android developers as they continues to build out features for their new set of mobile apps, team members to continue strengthening Reddit’s back-end as well as “uhhh.. pretty much everything,” Weiner said laughingly.

Weiner spent a lot of time telling me about how important it has been to him to ensure that Reddit’s work culture really flourishes even as the team rapidly scales.

“One of the things we did really well at Pinterest was in communicating our vision, and I’ve tried to bring that back to Reddit so that we’re constantly making sure everyone inside Reddit knows exactly what we’re building and why we’re really building it.”

Reddit is a site composed of many things, plenty of users, sure, but also the communities that they’ve all built on their own. For the company, this can mean a ton of headaches in the form of racism, spam, harassment and cyberbullying, but it can also lead to things like random strangers helping each other and chatting about things they love in communities that they may not have access to in real life. Reddit houses so much of the internet’s living digital history under one roof, and when it comes to building a space for so many of the web’s interesting, deeply weird characters,  Weiner is the one left trying to make sure none of them break anything.

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