She may have begun her career on a manual typewriter, but that hasn’t stopped Tanya Cordrey from becoming one of the most prominent leaders in the digital landscape. Now chief digital officer at The Guardian, she tells The Drum’s Jessica Davies about the journey from national print newspaper to global media brand.
Move over Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter. For anyone looking to join a company at the coalface of digital evolution and technological disruption - head to the Guardian. With a technical team of 170 engineers and its own in-house digital agency, it is clear the publisher has its sights set beyond content generation alone.
Chief digital officer Tanya Cordrey has overseen the upsizing of the team from 65 to 170 people in the past year, a feat which ensured the company was well placed to handle its migration from a UK to a global domain name last summer.
She admits the migration was a nail-biting time, and one of the toughest challenges she has ever faced in her career. "Our domain move may seem like a relatively small thing but it was a massive engineering task, and one which we have since been told is the biggest in internet history," she says.
“Most people have never had the courage to do it as so much of your traffic comes from the likes of Google that when you change domain names you can often completely lose all the SEO magic that you have amassed over years and years.
"People said it couldn’t be done and that we were crazy to even think about it, but we knew we had the engineering talent to do it, and we felt strategically it was the right thing to do, and nothing disastrous happened – traffic didn’t drop – it rose. We knew we had the engineering talent, and we felt strategically it was the right thing to do. And nothing disastrous happened,” she says.
Indeed, not only did traffic not drop, it rose, and with the website notching up 91 million unique users in March alone, it’s hard to dispute its success.
Meanwhile, the investigative journalism displayed around the National Security Agency (NSA) scandal and the Edward Snowden leaks has seen it establish itself on the world stage, scooping a Pulitzer prize – the first won by a British brand.
“Everything we do is in the service of journalism and right now that is red hot – with everything from Wikileaks, to the phone-hacking scandals, and the Snowden revelations, it’s a fantastic time to work in news,” adds Cordrey.
But it is not just its cutting edge journalism that has earned the Guardian its place on the list of top recruiters for technological talent. Its investment in data and engineering is seeing it shake off the image of a traditional print newspaper, according to Cordrey.
“One thing I’ve learned quickly in my career is that great people like working with other great people. We often get people from Silicon Valley come and help us with things such as data, user experience, or engineering.
These are senior executives who have worked with the likes of Netflix, LinkedIn, eBay, and after they have been here and had a glass of wine or a cup of tea they always say they expected to see a fusty dusty newspaper, but that we actually have a great team that would not look out of place in any top tier digital company in Silicon Valley.”
Yet there are still far fewer females who apply for the more technical roles within the industry as a whole, a reality which Cordrey describes as “depressing”.
“Even in Silicon Valley where they have coding computer clubs for kids as young as 10 in the summer, there are still so many more boys than girls in them.”
More work must be done to improve the image of technological and engineering roles for women, to highlight how creative they can be, she says. “The engineers in my team are some of the most creative people I’ve ever worked with – often that is a point that’s missed. We need to break down some of these myths and misunderstandings.
“When we were doing graduate recruitment it was very depressing looking at the initial number of women that applied, so we made a big push around that. But it’s tough and we have to keep pushing.”
Looking back at her own career Cordrey laughs heartily at how in her first journalism job she wrote on a manual typewriter. Although she loved content she
found she wasn’t quite as “wedded to her pen” as her peers, compelled more by the commercial side. So she took an MBA at London Business School – an unusual course for a female at the time, she says.
After graduating with distinction she headed to the BBC where she ended up writing BBC News’ first digital strategy. “It would be fair to say it would be rather embarrassing to read it now,” she laughs.
But it was her following job that instilled her with a real thirst for digital-centric roles, and at the height of the dotcom boom she went to work for an e-commerce giant called eToys, where she headed up a division called BabyCentre.
“We built BabyCentre from scratch, so I saw the impact of building something successful on the internet, which was wonderful. But then eToys – one of the biggest digital players in the dotcom boom – had a spectacular fall. Luckily we sold BabyCentre to Johnson & Johnson and it is still successful today, but that’s what gave me the internet bug.”
A hefty stint at eBay then solidified that interest – a job she took against the fierce warnings of her friends who felt the shadow of the dotcom crash still loomed.
Cordrey describes eBay as a “juggernaut hurling down a hill at great speed and nothing could stop it”.
A success in the US at the time, but yet to be replicated globally, people were sceptical eBay would take off. “When I worked there it was a team of 20 people in a ramshackle office in Chiswick where you had to put the phone on mute every time a train went by. It wasn’t profitable and it wasn’t market leader. But that soon changed,” she says.
Now Cordrey will turn her sights to the new website rollout, which is currently in beta, and with mobile traffic accounting for half of its traffic at times, it is readying
a string of app propositions, all of which feed into the Guardian’s coming plans. It will keep its eye firmly on advances in wearable tech and smart TVs, where it has already experimented heavily.
“We can’t be everywhere but whenever we do something I’m passionate about it being right. We often take inspiration from other digital companies that are doing it well. My team get bored with me saying this but my mantra here is ‘what does good look like?’”
This article was first published in full in The Drum magazine.