Jonathan Boutelle - SlideShare Insights
As engineers, it's our duty to come up with solutions to the problems people face. But, how do you go about spotting the problem (read: opportunity)? Relax! Two things: 1. Keep your eyes & ears open and 2. Listen to Mr. Jonathan Boutelle - CTO & cofounder of Slide Share Inc., USA. CrazyEngineers is extremely proud and happy to have Mr. Jonathan Boutelle to share the story of SlideShare - one of the most happening website on the Internet. Check out CE's exclusive Small Talk with Jon -
CE: Jon, you are the co-founder & CTO of SlideShare Inc. Could you tell us more about your job?
Jon: I have final responsibility for anything technical at SlideShare. So that means I spend the majority of my time working with our engineers to help them continually improve the code base and feature set of SlideShare. We are an agile company, so code changes to SlideShare are deployed several times a day! I make sure that that happens without breaking anytihng, and that the product is always getting better and is delighting our users.
CE: The idea of creating SlideShare clicked when you were helping organize an informal tech conference. What was the problem that you thought of solving by developing SlideShare?
Jon: The specific question that 10 people came up and asked me was "How can we add our PowerPoint to the wiki"? It was immediately obvious to me that an embeddable widget similar to a youtube video would be the solution, so I spend several hours googling for such a product. When I came up with nothing, I knew I had discovered an opportunity.
CE: How did you go about building SlideShare once you were convinced that the idea would work?
Jon: We started off very conservatively, since we already had a profitable business that still needed to be supported (our first product was an online survey tool called MindCanvas that was targetted at design professionals in fortune 500 companies). Fortunately, there was a new engineer set to join our company who had to stay at College to re-take his final exams. So he and I built the initial version of SlideShare together. The first stage had a $5000 budget and a one-month schedule, and we were able to get a crude prototype together in that time. We then started adding one engineer to the product every month as we iterated on the concept throughout the spring and summer of 2006. By the time we launched in October, we had 5 engineers on the project full-time.
CE: What were the software design concerns you had initially for SlideShare? Did they influence the choice of technology for building SlideShare?
Jon: I was most concerned with building something quickly. In my previous experiences in a large software company, I had seen a lot of wasted effort making things that had great engineering properties, but that were not useful to the end-consumer. So my main concern was that we be able to rapidly iterate in response to feedback from our users. So I chose Ruby on Rails, which made building a basic database-backed website remarkably fast. SlideShare was the first Ruby on Rails project for everyone involved ... so we learned on the job.
CE: Could you give us technical insights on what happens when a user uploads power point presentation to SlideShare?
Jon: When a file is uploaded, the first thing we do is upload it to Amazon S3. Then we write a description of the conversion job onto an Amazon SQS queue. Individual virtual servers on Amazon EC2 pick up a job from the queue whenever they are available for work. The resulting flash files are saved onto Amazon S3, and a token that indicates the job completed is sent back to our main cluster on a different Amazon SQS queue. As you can see, we are big fans of Amazon! It lets us quickly add additional servers whenever we need them, and to immediately scale our cluster back down again when we need fewer servers.
CE: Why did you choose Flash to deliver the presentations? What were your other alternatives?
Jon: We considered turning the presentations into images (GIFs or JPGs), but the rasterization was really ugly. Today Silverlight would be an alternative, but at the time there was no other way to ship embedded fonts and vector graphics to a web client. So Flash was definitely the best option.
CE: What kind of traffic does SlideShare see? How do you handle the scalability & availability of the site?
Jon: SlideShare gets 12 million unique visitors a month. We have a cluster of 30 machines, including a couple of web servers, a large number of app servers, several big database machines., and various utility boxes (for DNS, load balancing, etc). Our database is horizontally partitioned, and uses master-slave replication.
CE: Could you tell us about the feature of SlideShare that you loved building?
Jon: I enjoy working with multimedia. So SlideCasting, which lets you upload an mp3 file and synchronize it to the slides in your presentation, was a really fun project for me.
CE: As engineers, we are used to creating presentations that have facts, figures, stats, graphs & charts. We would usually fill the slides with bullets. What are your tips for creating better presentations? How can we make better use of SlideShare to deliver our presentations?
Jon: I think a lot of it depends on context. Is the presentation designed for sharing live or online? Who is the audience? What is the desired effect on them? Whatever your goal, you need to reach your audience through emotions as well as through logic. And data can certainly provoke an emotional response, if it is presented in the right way. So if you have lots of data, get good at designing how it is presented (Tufte has some great books on this subject).
In terms of sharing online, remember that your slides don't have to have ALL of the information that you communicated to your audience. Think of the slides as a souvenir. for your audience, and as an advertisement for your next talk! So make sure they look good and will intrigue people and spark their curiosity.
CE: What are you currently working on? What can we expect from SlideShare over next few months?
Jon: Apart from growth and scaling which are ongoing concerns, I'm focused on crafting new premium offerings. These are innovative services built on top of slideshare that solve business problems. It is a fun challenge to work on, since you need to understand not just how to build something useful but how to frame it and price it and structure it so that it will be a business success. Expect some interesting things to come out of SlideShare in the next few months!
CE: We thank you for sparing your time for us. What is your message to crazy engineers?
Jon: Now is a great time to be an engineer. There are amazing APIs to work with, incredible new distribution channels like the iphone app store and twitter and facebook, and of course low startup costs due to open source, Moore's law, and cloud computing. So get out there and build your dream!