Interview: Seesmic CTO Johann Romefort on Social Platforms, Real-Time Web and Segway Hockey


johannromefort_socialnerdiaSeesmic is the company behind the widely used Twitter + Facebook Adobe AIR client Seesmic Desktop.


Johann Romefort is Seesmic's CTO and an influential leader in the construction of the future of the open, real-time, and very social web.


I am sure you will find his thoughts (sent all the way from Bucharest) to be very interesting, fun, and insightful.


Please make sure to check out all the fantastic stuff that Seesmic is doing, and don't forget to follow Johann on Twitter.


1. How did you first get involved with Seesmic and what does your role as CTO consist of today?


I met Loic when Seesmic was still 2 pages on a notebook. At that time I was searching for a challenge, so I began to work with Loic right away, and built the first version with another developer in Bucharest. My role as a CTO has been evolving a lot since I started, as we now have 12 engineers around the world which require some management as you could expect. Apart from managing our amazing tech team, I'm also involved in the product process, and I'm creating prototypes to validate ideas or technologies.


2. Seesmic has made an impressive comeback since last Fall. Aside from product changes (Twhirl, Seesmic Desktop), how has the company changed since then?


As a lot of other companies did, we decided to make some changes in the team to keep up with the tough economic times. This had the positive effect to simplify the decision process, and forced us to do fewer things with a higher focus. We also changed the strategy of the company, from being a video-only conversation platform, to become the best tool to manage your social life and build your community from a single place. We believe the real-time web is changing the way people interact in a lot of ways, and we want to build the best tools to help you manage this new form of communication.


3. Seesmic has been very open about the way it does things, instead of operating in “stealth mode”. Considering that Seesmic started with video conversations, this makes a lot of sense. Are there any drawbacks or risks in doing this?seesmiclogo


The way Loic has been managing the company communication from day one has always been very inspiring for me. Being open about what you are doing is the best way to get immediate feedback and to stay motivated over time, because you see how people want you to build some features. If you build what they want they will be happy, and you'll be happy too. The drawbacks are that you're generally exposing your roadmap to potential competitors. But that motivates even more to be fast, reactive and the first to release what people want.

4. The NYT compared the battle between Facebook and Twitter to the classic Netscape vs. Microsoft. With more users connecting to FB and Twitter through apps such as Seesmic Desktop, how important are these apps in the battle?


I don't really see Twitter and Facebook as competitors and I actually use them both myself like many people. As a matter of fact we built support for both of them in Seesmic Desktop. FB and Twitter apps broaden the reach and the value of those networks to other circles of audiences that would be hard to reach otherwise. For example, companies are more and more interested by getting real time feedback from their customers, but they need more powerful tools than average Joe to track always more information. That s what I love with "platforms", they offer a common canvas, and it's up to you to build the user experience and tailor it for a specific target.


5. Loïc Le Meur, founder of Seesmic, is a French entrepreneur. TweetDeck was started by London engineer Iain Dodsworth. Have you thought about a football (soccer) match to prove who is best once and for all?


LOL. I actually think a Segway Hockey game would be more appropriate for geeks like us :) More seriously, I think competition is essential to keep evolving in such a fast pace environment. I got the impression that things have never been so fast than they are now. When you are building applications on platforms  like Twitter or Facebook, you simply cannot afford to stay in the dark developing for months, you need to ship fast and release often. Don't wait for your product to be perfect, just listen to your users and build it with them. Competition validate the market, and push you to innovate fast. Finally it gives more choices to the end user and that s essential to build a healthy ecosystem.


seesmicdesktop6. Are there plans for web-based and/or enterprise versions of Seesmic Desktop?


We have a lot of things in mind right now, but we re mostly driven by what our users are asking for. Enterprise / premium version are one of the potential targets we have in mind, but our roadmap is moving fast, and adapts to the most popular requests. About a web version, all I can say is that we're watching web-based twitter clients closely...


7. Have the terms “semantic web”, “Web 2.0”, and “social media” been blown out of proportion? Do you think these names fully grasp the substance behind them?


The problem with those terms is that people have different definitions for them. For example "semantic web", means different things for different people : some see Artificial Intelligence, while other are talking about machine readable Linked-data. These terms are so vague and cover such a large spectrum that indeed, they are used for a large variety of different topics, which adds even more to the general confusion. But anyway, I think their recurrence still gives a good idea about where things are heading on the web. The recent announcement of Google supporting RDFa and Wolfram Alpha launch proves that it s not just a fad.


If I had to give a few words to describe where the web is heading they would be:  Open-Data and Open-Format, Real-Time and Social - in the sense that it connects even more people together.


8. You blog using Wordpress, which is what we use as well. How would you improve Wordpress if you could?

A plugin / theme stored directly into your admin interface. Installing add-ons and themes in a few clicks would be awesome. I love platforms, they enable vivid ecosystems of mutual interests. Developers get rewarded for their work ( either by rating or by being paid ), the host service benefits from a large diversity of functionalities he would have not thought about or would have not time to build by himself, and finally the user gets an always evolving view on his data stream.


9. You started a “San Francisco Photo Days” group. What do you do for fun besides photography?


I love cooking and baking. When I m too stressed it s one of my best way to relax :)  I also used to paint, but it s tough to find time for it.


10. I hear you “never sleep”. I think I may have the same problem. Do you think and work better at night?


I try to adapt the work I'm doing with the period of the day.  In the morning I'm generally much more logical, so I'm better at solving problems or fixing bugs; in the afternoon I'm usually doing most of my management tasks and some reading; and in the evening I'm either coding or playing with new concepts as I'm much more effective and creative. Night gives me a "rhythm" and longer stream of thoughts.


11. What advice would you give to anyone interested in joining (or starting) a start-up?


Communicate. The more you tell, the more feedback you get, the more you ll be encouraged to improve your product. Iterate fast on features while trying to keep it simple. Improve what sticks and kill what is not. Don't hesitate to shift gears if you feel you don't have enough traction. It does not mean to kill your product, but you might  find another way to do it better on the road.


Finally, I'd say that If you want to change the world and if you're craving for learning new things, a startup is the ideal place. In almost 2 years at Seesmic I definitely learned much more than in my whole professional life, and not only on the technology level, but also human relationships, management, and strategy.

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