by December 1, 2011 0 comments

With over 700 million unique users using the Yahoo! Network every month, over 3.5 billion pages viewed every day, and 10 TB of access log data to mine through everyday, there is a satisfyingly good list of challenging problems to tackle. Building technologies to drive one of the most used Internet service in the world essentially means exploring and breaking new grounds in Computer Science Research, and demands Innovative approaches to building Technologies, Platforms and Applications. We spoke to David Chaiken, chief architect, Yahoo to understand the challenges involved and how they’re being tackled.

Q: How different it is to build applications for Internet than for mobile phones?

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A: When I think about that difference, the interesting thing about mobile devices is that different form factors, everything from a very small text-oriented screen to screen screens that are approximately the same size as laptops, are in vogue. Another difference in mobile devices is that there are different ways of connectivity available. They can have no connectivity whatsoever to very reliable connectivity, and they can also have different bandwidth options. So they can be on a broadband mobile that is effectively equivalent to a wired connection all the way down to just receiving a very small number of bits per second which is challenging from the perspective of building applications that provide a good experience at all of these different rates. I mentioned HTML-5 earlier, one of the things that gives for mobile devices, is the ability to have local storage and that is one of the things that we use to adapt to the different kinds of bandwidth. Devices like smart phones have the same kind of operating systems now that we see in PCs and in fact we see PCs looking more and more like mobile devices. The latest versions of Apple’s and Microsoft’s operating systems are examples of this. But there are still significant populations with text-oriented phones where we can deliver some very useful communications. Even videos in the form of full length movies can be transmitted to some of the lower-end phones.

Q: Yahoo is planning to develop a strong ecosystem in India for system architects. What kind of an ecosystem would it be?

A: When we talk about an ecosystem for architects, it means we’re recognizing that our India research and development center is a significant investment for Yahoo from the perspective of products that we develop here and the talent of all of the people who work on these products. That talent includes business and product management, and technical and design teams. All these folks combine to create products here and that itself is a significant investment. When we look at the talent in general, my job as chief architect is to focus on the technical talent and the architects are an important part of that technical talent. Architects tend to be some of the more senior individual contributors in the company and they work very closely with other stakeholders, whether they are designers or product managers or business people and what we do is rebalance the functionality and the operability and the time to market of our products and make sure that our products are well documented and have the technology that they need to meet their objectives. When we think about an ecosystem there really is a discipline to what we do and some principles to behind how we build systems, again to balance functionality and operability and time to market and some training involved in being able to apply those principles. Really, the training is building product after product, system after system, and there are some fairly unique experiences that you can get at Yahoo operating at the scale that we operate at and with the different kinds of people and products we work with. We are opening up the general community of architects to talk about what we do and then as with most communities and most ecosystems what we hope to do is find other people who are like-minded or interested in what we are doing and build up architecture in general, and the software discipline as a more structured domain of expertise.

Q: So what are you looking at — an Indian architecture or a global architecture?

A: We at Yahoo! almost always think global first and like I said the main reason why I am focused here is because we have such a large investment in terms of product development and technology development and the talent in our Yahoo! India research and development center. The size and scale that we have here is fairly unique. The kind of things that I talk about in India for example are exactly the same that I talk about in the US but then we overlay on top of that the local sensibilities and understanding of the market place and how products that we need to develop for India for example are different fundamentally. Having so many talented people in India can definitely help us understand what we need to do in India.

Q: If we talk about the software developers and the architects how would you differentiate between these two in terms of skills required?

A: We find that architects and software developers have different personality types. Architects enjoy the negotiation phase and the process of talking to stakeholders whether they are consumers, advertisers, publishers, product managers, program managers, designers, security experts, or privacy experts; all the people who have to come together to create products. Talking to those people, negotiating and understanding what the trade-offs are between all the different things that have to go into our products is important. On the other hand, software developers enjoy building a product. At the end of the day when an architect goes home they can say you know I really understood how to apply technology and the trade-off involved in the product and I really think I hit the right balance on how to build a product and to get it to meet the needs of all stakeholders. When the software developer goes home, they say I built this really cool thing today. But I don’t really want to make a hard distinction here because there are a number of us in the industry that tend to alternate between architecture and going out and talking to stakeholders and then going back and going heads down and building systems.

Q: So is it more of a mindset rather than a skillset?

A: I think that is true to a large extent because to stay relevant architects really need to have a hand in implementation which blurs the boundary is really dicey. I should also mention that the career paths at Yahoo for a software developer and an architect all go up to the executive level in the company. We understand that managers and architects and software developers can get to a level where they all add equivalent amounts of value but in different ways.

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