Ky Harlin BS'08: From Buzzfeed to Condé Nast, and All the Data in Between

Ky Harlin at the Condé Nast tech campus in Manhattan. (Photo by Timothy Lee Photographers)

Ky Harlin BS’08 is using what he learned at Columbia Engineering to bring Condé Nast into the future.

As vice president of growth and data science since March, Harlin is charged with both collecting data about site visitors and analyzing it for trends and insights that can help the venerable publication giant grow its burgeoning digital business. That includes analyzing data to make sure publications are tailoring their posts to channels like Facebook or Twitter where they’ll be best received, advising on the kinds of stories that are driving visitors to the site (and the ones that keep them there), and even working with the magazines’ online presences to tweak their presentation to maximize each user’s experience.

“Condé Nast has all these incredible brands that people know and trust and are authoritative, but their print publications still drive the majority of their business in terms of revenue,” he said. “However, we know that ultimately, people are going to spend the majority of their time consuming content digitally. My function is basically to help us use data to grow that audience.”

And to do it, Harlin is relying not only on his years at Internet news media king BuzzFeed—he’s putting into practice what he learned as an applied mathematics major at SEAS.

“I think my generation, going into college, was told by people who are four to five years older, ‘You don’t use anything you learned at school in a real job.’ But I feel totally the opposite. What I did at Columbia was perfectly suited to what I do.”

Harlin first encountered data science via a guest speaker in the applied mathematics majors’ seminar. This led to research in medical imaging at Invicro, a company that provides imaging services to pharmaceutical companies, after graduation. Associate Professor Chris Wiggins—now also the chief data scientist at the New York Times—teaches the applied math seminar and later connected Harlin with a consulting opportunity at BuzzFeed.

And working at BuzzFeed gave Harlin a front-row seat to the uses of data science.

“When I started at BuzzFeed, [founder] Jonah Peretti was very visionary. He realized that data was going to be huge in the future,” Harlin said. “Tech companies were doing it, but not many media companies. I was the first guy there doing it, so I learned it through trial and error.”

It’s that hands-on experience that Condé Nast wanted to tap. In his position—the first of its kind at the publisher—Harlin reports to EVP and Chief Digital Officer Fred Santarpia as part of a newly formed digital division that signals the company’s focus on driving their online business.

“They’re two very different companies. BuzzFeed was born on the web, and, in a sense, that made what I do much simpler, because they were creating content with a digital focus in mind from the beginning,” he said. “But the two companies are ultimately trying to do the same thing. While Condé Nast has built its company and brands through print magazines, we still employ a lot of the same strategies in terms of growing our digital presence.”

And it’s paying off. Harlin said Condé Nast’s Comscore numbers—the industry standard for measurement of web traffic data—have started showing growth: “Good stuff is happening. Three of the first four months since I joined have been our biggest in history.”

—by Jennifer Ernst Beaudry