From TV writing to scriptwriting software: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Rob Dubbin, former writer and producer for The Colbert Report and The Late Show and current CEO of Scripto. They discuss Scripto’s creation and the special workflow challenges coordinating a late-night show, animal welfare, transitioning from writing to tech, Bluetooth, Google Wave, and more.
Paul: Hi, you’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. My name is Paul Ford. I’m the co-host of Track Changes and the co-founder of Postlight.
Rich: I am the host of Track Changes, Paul is my co-host, and I’m the other co-founder of Postlight. I’m the founder of Postlight, and Paul is the other co-founder.
Paul: That’s exactly right. We really are —
Rich: Oh wait, I’m Rich Ziade. [laughter]
Paul: Yeah, that’s a good point. That’s a great point. Rich, we have someone really special on the show today, and we’re gonna talk to him in a second.
Rich: Don’t —
Rich: Here’s the —
Paul: Before you do that —
Rich: Hold on.
Paul: can you tell people what we do?
Rich: In a moment I will, but you need to change up your words, because you’ve said, “We have someone very special on the podcast” for…20 guests.
Paul: OK. Well we have someone very needy on the podcast.
Rich: Much better.
Rich: OK. We are a digital product studio based in New York City. We build apps, web applications, websites, not your BS website, where it’s like, “home,” “work,” “about,” “contact us.” We’re not the ones for that.
Paul: Now we —
Rich: We’ll refer you over to someone really great.
Paul: We like when, like, banks show up half-drunk.
Rich: Big sprawling innovative —
Paul: They’re like —
Paul: “We need to recreate finance for dogs on apps.” That’s a thing —
Rich: That’s us.
Paul: I’d love to get that email.
Rich: We’ve got some amazing design talent, too.
Paul: All right, so wait, we should talk about the person who’s in the studio with us —
Rich: We should.
Paul: Instead of ourselves, for a minute.
Paul: Rob Dubbin, hello.
Rob: Hello, Paul, Rich.
Rich: Hi Rob. It’s nice to have you here.
Rob: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Paul: Rob, how are you identifying yourself these days?
Rob: I make software for television.
Rich: Whoa. That’s sweeping.
Rob: It’s tight.
Paul: That could be anything, really.
Rob: I know.
Paul: Pretty exciting…
Rob: Let’s explore it together. [laughter]
Paul: Here on the podcast.
Rob: Yeah, on the pod.
Paul: So, um, I should give a little bit of backstory, which is I met you because you put an ad on Reddit.
Rob: Yes. Banner advertising, the wave of the future brought us together.
Paul: On Reddit, and it was, like, I had just quit my job at Harper’s Magazine, I had decided I would take every opportunity the universe sent my way, I would take.
Rich: I mean, gotta make a living.
Paul: And Rob put up an ad that was just, like, “Come help The Colbert Report do better with its scriptwriting.”
Rob: Yeah, I needed a programmer, and a friend of mine had suggested putting a banner ad on Reddit, and it was how I discovered there, uh, I don’t know if they still do it this way, I’ve, uh, I suppose over time grown maybe, like, maybe mildly less interested in advertising on Reddit. But, you know, they have this sort of timeshare system, where you put in, you know, however much money you give them.
Rob: You enter a sort of auction marketplace with the other people who’ve put money into advertise, uh, through banner ads on their site, and basically you get a cut of their traffic, or at the time you got a cut of their traffic, that was proportionate to how much money you had paid in relation to how much money everyone else had paid. So if the total amount of money that had been put into the pot was $1,000, and you’d put in $200, you’d get one-fifth of all the pageviews for whatever subreddit you were advertising on.
Rob: And I did it for the r/programming subreddit, and I said, “The Colbert Report is looking for programmers,” which we were.
Rob: Because we, I had gotten some buy-in to change the software that we used to write and produce The Colbert Report.
Paul: It was about six years ago now, seven years ago.
Rob: It was, just a little over six or seven years ago, and I…I knew who you were, and so I was surprised when you responded to it. I had read about your project at Harper’s.
Paul: It was cool though. It was cool that you, it was The Colbert Report. The other person who responded was Aaron Swartz.
Rob: I know.
Paul: Yeah, so —
Rich: That’s heavy.
Paul: Well, it wasn’t at the time.
Paul: You know…
Rich: Just a dude responding. [laughter]
Rob: It’s one of the ways that I mark that whole experience of kind of um….putting together that project and starting the thing that became Scripto, which is the company that I run now.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: Um, and uh, we had…a couple of conversations, I don’t remember if y’all knew each other before we got together.
Paul: We did. He’d come to visit me at Harper’s and talk to me. I knew him a little bit.
Rob: So you know it was really, it wasn’t more than a few emails and a really, really nice brunch that I think, you know, in hindsight that I remember sort of differently that I did in —
Rob: That I processed it in real-time, but, again, it was just the serendipity of encountering people like this just by putting an ad up on the internet, sort of still —
Paul: It was nice old internet moment —
Paul: Like, you put some words up, and then some interesting people showed up, and we all, we all got along. Paul. So yeah, you were trying to, you, it was crazy, what you were trying to do. That’s what I remember, was — the cool thing was I got to go to The Colbert Report.
Rob: Mmmm hmmmm.
Paul: That was cool. It’s, like, way over on the West side of Manhattan, and there’s like, there’s some security, and this was the problem that you had. This was the product problem that you described to me: I write a script using terrible software. I think it was called ENPS?
Rob: It was, uh, the Associated Press publishes a suite of, it’s a newsroom product.
Rob: That is called ENPS, it’s the Electronic News Production System, I think is what it stands for.
Paul: OK, so whether it’s terrible or not, it was frustrating to use for what you’re trying to do. And you — you’d write a script and it would be, like, you’d call for a goat, in the script, like, “I need a goat onstage.”
Rob: Every day. That’s sort of what The Colbert Report was about.
Paul: Right. And then what would happen?
Rob: Well you would, um, writing software, writing television, sorry, for, in that context, in sort of a studio context, everybody, I think, is familiar with this format, even if they don’t understand it’s a format. Somebody is sitting at a desk, usually. They’re, um, reading material, usually off a teleprompter, and performing material off a teleprompter, and stuff is happening around them, as they do it, so whether that’s graphics popping up, sort of in a full frame, or in a, over their shoulder, or a video clip, or a voiceover, or a sound effect, or a cameo, or a wardrobe change —
Paul: So someone has to write all that down, literally, like, just at some point that has to all get written down, like, we’re gonna do this today.
Rob: Well, to write that show is to write to the final produced context. You’re writing, you’re not just writing that a graphic should appear, you’re also writing when it should appear. So that the over-the-shoulder graphic appears kind of in the right, as sort of contextual information for what you’re — because usually it’s part of a set-up.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: Or in the case of, you know, maybe it’s a graphical mock-up, you know, where you’re foreshadowing the goat who will appear later.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: You know, in a graphic, and so somebody in the graphics department has to know that they need to make that mock-up —
Rob: Often the same day, because within a few hours, uh, the host is sitting at the desk and rehearsing the script, and you wanna have as much of that in place as possible.
Paul: So you’re, you’re there writing, you’re writing stuff —
Rich: To, to give context, you’re a writer.
Rob: So I started — I was not always a software person —
Rob: Other than it’s a hobby. I wrote for The Colbert Report —
Rob: For um….most of the nine years that it was on the air.
Paul: And you kind of, you went there right after college, right?
Rob: I had been out for a little bit. My job before I wrote on The Colbert Report was that I reviewed digital cameras and home theater equipment for cnet.com.
Rich: No kidding.
Rob: No kidding.
Paul: Honestly, we’re just gonna spend the rest of the podcast just kind of running that down. That’s good stuff.
Rob: Cnet was good. I loved it.
Rich: Well, I’d say “was.” I hit it once in a while. It’s kind of weird now.
Paul: Do you?
Paul: What do you need — what do you need reviewed, at this stage?
Rich: Well, they review, like, hand-vacuums and stuff.
Paul: Oh. You don’t use The Wirecutter for that.
Rich: The Wirecutter. Let’s plug The Wirecutter.
Rob: Well, for any —
Rich: I spent 11,000 hours trying different brooms and dustpans and here we go.
Rob: Listen, for vacuums above a certain size, it’s The Wirecutter. For hand-vacuums you really wanna go to Cnet.
Paul: Fair. Fair.
Rich: Mmmm, good advice.
Paul: Absolutely good advice.
Paul: OK, so Cnet to Colbert Report, natural career progression, things are going well.
Rich: You’re a writer.
Rob: Yeah, and I was —
Rich: You’re writing jokes.
Rob: Yes. And I, to bring it back to what Paul was asking, you know, we had software that was designed for newsrooms, and the….workflow was different. We were, I think, in hindsight, I know, I would, I would, I would less use the word “terrible” than I would say it was just the wrong software for what we were doing.
Rob: And so we would encounter that kind of at every level of the process.
Paul: Right, because this is what they’re using for, like, CBS News, right?
Paul: OK, so Dan Rather, let’s say, doesn’t need to tell a joke. It’s kind of all leading up to one big broadcast.
Rob: You know, it’s honestly that I think those shows are in some ways less driven by the writing.
Rob: Um, which is not to talk anything away from the people who write for those shows, but newsroom software is primarily concerned with, um, in its design, helping machines talk to each other.
Rob: In the newsroom, which is, uh, they’re often…on lower budgets. They have fewer people operating more machines, and so part of newsroom software is about giving one person the power to automate the workflow of some of the devices that make a newscast possible.
Rob: And so the fact that I was in a…building of humans who were trying to put together a comedic broadcast that was comprised of words but also pictures and all these other things, you know, we were often in communication with each other through the script, that was sort of the medium through which we communicated, and it wasn’t, sometimes it was asynchronous, it’s not like making a phone call, it’s like…putting a message in a bottle, and hoping that someone gets the bottle, and can read the message inside. And using legacy newsroom software to write a show that way was kind of like there were 10 steps where you would want to just roll the message up and put it in the bottle?
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: There was, like, you had to…hit a shortcut key, and then mouse over to an input field, and then when you were finished typing, you had to mouse back over to the update button, and then it took two seconds to resolve, and if you noticed a typo, you would have to mouse back to that —
Paul: OK —
Rob: Element that it created in the script, and you’d have to double-click, and is this taking, is this —
Paul: No, no, the most —
Rob: We’re simulating that this took too long.
Paul: Most writers would just sort of live with it, though.
Rich: And they’d say, “This is garbage. I’m creative. Why is this in my way?” Like, why did you —
Paul: You could’ve spent eight fruitful years complaining about your software. Most people do.
Rob: Well I’ve spent —
Rich: And they channel that into better writing.
Rob: Well like I said, I was there for nine years, so I spent four fruitful years just taking it on the chin and working that way.
Rob: And it built up to the point, and I think the thing that broke me was that I…was Etherpad. Do you remember Etherpad?
Paul: Sure. Etherpad was a….open-source editing tool that let more than one person write, and I think the people who made it ended up on Google Docs.
Rob: So it happened in the reverse order that you described.
Paul: Oh, OK.
Rob: It was a tech demo that existed, that you could go and a different, you know, people could go edit the same document at the same time.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: They were then bought by, they were acquired by Google, and they were put on Wave, not Docs.
Rob: I think they ended up backfilling into Docs, but the, the, the crucial thing was that after they were acquired, they open-sourced Etherpad.
Rich: Oh boy.
Paul: OK, it’s really too bad that Gina Trapani, it’s her birthday today, but Gina wrote a book, she’s a partner here at Postlight
Paul: And she wrote a book about Google Wave, and she was a huge Wave fan. We would’ve had — we would’ve just roped her into this podcast at this exact point.
Rob: “Happy birthday, Gina! We got you an anecdote about Google Wave!” [laughter]
Paul: There you go.
Rich: Little gift.
Paul: LIttle gift. All, right, so you…Etherpad. You just brought up.
Rob: Well, I had identified, I think, that part of the big issue that we had was that, because in addition to that whole thing I described about the sort of user experience of adding a very common element to a script —
Rob: Um….was so protracted and friction-full. There was also the matter of the way that, um, ENPS handled files, which was sort of almost more like a….like a networked Word document.
Rob: Where there was a sort of, like, lock-and-key situation, where like, uh, Rich, if you were editing a file, and I wanted to see what you were doing, if you hadn’t actually saved your changes to the server —
Rich: Right. There’s a whole…
Rob: I wouldn’t actually see them in the document.
Paul: What I love is this is what’s going on behind the scenes at The Colbert Report. Like everybody thinks that you’re running around with arrows through your head, going, “Yakka!” And instead you’re just like, “You don’t understand how…”
Rob: Well no, and yes and no, because we were running around. We were on, the demands of the job did not change, you know, when our software got better.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: Or before it did. We were on, I was, I would, you would be on an hour deadline, an hour and a half deadline, you would really have to turn something around fast. You know, and the reason you had to do it is that after you were done with it, it went down the assembly line.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: And the next person had a half hour to do their highly-skilled professional job.
Rob: And so this fact that, you know, not only could I not see your changes if you hadn’t saved, but if I noticed a typo or wanted to change it and you were still in the document, I couldn’t make those changes without bouncing you from the document.
Rob: And, you know —
Rich: Classic problem.
Rob: Well, and so it was a lot of phone calls down the hallway. There was a lot of, like, actually —
Rob: Physically going to someone’s office, and maybe they weren’t there, and…
Paul: And there was a goat incident, which —
Rob: There was —
Rob: Literally, there was literally a goat incident. The genre of problem that would crop up was that something would get cut, something would change, um, you know, in the script. It wouldn’t just be the sort of like, from the jump, we’re writing the script, it would be, like, this script had a goat in it, and somebody in the building called a, you know, you have to be really careful when you put animals on television, there’s a lot of rules about how they have to be supervised, and —
Rob: Well, you know —
Rob: It’s, it’s, um…I think, uh, I think TV’s been around long enough to have learned from several mistakes.
Rob: And um….
Rob: You gotta call a person to bring in the goat, and —
Paul: People don’t know, there were 36 Lassies. [laughter] No. I don’t know that at all.
Rich: Most people don’t know —
Rob: Ultimately it was just a goat in a dog costume. [laughter]
Paul: So wait, goat, TV, people, there’s a lot of rules about animals.
Rob: Yeah, and you, and so you have to call a professional, and you have to pay them money, and you have to say, like, “Hey, bring the goat, and this is the time, and this is when we need it.” And —
Paul: Do you know where you call? I’m just curious.
Rob: There are people, generally upstate, it’s usually like a rescue context?
Paul: Ahhhh OK.
Rob. They’re people who sort of, like, you know, tend to animals —
Rich: Upstate New York, by the way. For our international listeners.
Rob: Right, is uh, yeah, excuse me. In this one case, you know, they had, they had cut the bit with the goat, and so they did not need the goat, but nobody told the person who was talking to the goat wrangler in time to cancel it before the goat showed up. So, you know, you’re on the hook to pay for the goat at that point. And the proverbial goat —
Paul: There’s literally a goat. Like, I mean, a goat shows up.
Paul: And a guy’s, like, “Hey, I got your goat.”
Paul: And you’re like, “Oh, hey.”
Rob: It ends up becoming a nice photo opportunity for everybody in the building.
Paul: OK, so it’s like —
Rich: That’s cute.
Rob: You know, it’s like, “Hey, we can’t use the goat, but hey, there’s a goat here today. Come check it out.”
Rob: And uh…
Rob: Ideally, again, you’re getting this message to the goat wrangler before he gets in the car with the goat.
Paul: Sure. Of course.
Rob: And, um, it’s a….it’s a good, um….it’s a microcosm for a type of problem
Paul: Right. And a human needs to get these — it’s not like the goat wrangler has an API for goat requests. Like —
Rob: Again: not yet, listeners.
Paul: It’s true. There’s an opportunity there for anybody who —
Rob: Dear Postlight. [laughter]
Paul: All right, all right, so, the goat showing up, the system’s tough, and you’re, you’re wrestling with —
Rich: You have a moment.
Rob: Yeah, I’m like, I see Etherpad and I’m like, “This is the way people should communicate in a context like this.”
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: Where a five-second delay at the wrong time of day can snowball into a 30-minute aggregate delay. On a TV show, you know, the adage “time is money” is very literal.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: And if you are scheduled to start taping at 7 PM and you don’t start taping until 7:30 PM, there are all kinds of externalities that crop up.
Rob: As a result of that. And so if you can find a way to de-frictionalize the process that gets the host behind a desk, you are adding, you know, tangible value to the, the process that creates the show every day.
Paul: How many people are working on this show?
Rob: Well at The Colbert Report it was about 75.
Paul: OK, so you can literally sort of stop 75 people in their tracks with a big mistake like that.
Rich: Well I don’t know about all of them.
Paul: But a lot, I mean, they’re filming the show.
Rich: Right, but there’s somebody who just handles catering.
Rob: Well, you, it’s, it’s subtle, and it, there are points in the day when things bottleneck. And so if the delay affects the bottleneck, it can leave people standing around for two minutes, and sometimes there’s a cascade effect where those people standing around for two minutes causes someone else to miss a deadline, and then that missed deadline causes a three-minute delay somewhere else. Some of this I only learned when I had that buy-in from the show to pursue this project. You know, like, there was some of it where it was a good idea, in theory, that ran up against a lot of challenges to…actually learn about some of these things that were happening in the building that I was not…
Paul: Well, it wasn’t your job. You were a writer.
Rob: Well, and my job was literally to roll the words the hill and let other people take care of it.
Rob: And then when I decided I wanted to try to help that process along, I had to actually learn a thing or two about how it worked —
Rich: Did you quit writing to do this?
Rob: No, not at first. That was, that was recently —
Rich: So you’re double-duty?
Rob: You know, I, I would…manage a team of programmers, essentially separately, from my duties as a writer, which is what I was there to do.
Rich: So they funded a software project.
Rob: Not the show. I, I, uh, Stephen Colbert and I have been partners on this sort of from the beginning, and it was something that he really had to buy into himself, because it was, this was his show, you know, and, and —
Paul: This is a lot of risk to introduce —
Rob: It was —
Rob: And especially —
Rich: Stephen Colbert’s got plenty of money. This is…
Paul: Well, let’s not talk about that, but let’s, I mean, so there’s a lot of risk here.
Rich: So wait —
Rob: I’ll say —
Rich: To clarify —
Rob: Stephen Colbert’s got plenty of vision, Rich. [laughter]
Rich: Oh…. [various sputtering noises] Vision equals money.
Rich: So wait, so….Stephen Colbert, when you say “Stephen Colbert,” you mean personally he decided to invest in this…
Rob: Both of us did. And —
Rich: You both invested personally in this software venture?
Rob: Yes. And —
Rich: And the name?
Rob: Dumb name that stuck.
Paul: What does Scripto do?
Rob: Scripto provides a, uh…a way of writing television where you know that once you’ve shared it, everyone is going to see it, and then the changes are going to be sort of pushed in real time to everybody else. And that includes changes to sort of those elements, graphics and graphs and stuff like that. It just basically gives you a real-time interface to the information that is constantly transacting in a television environment. And that has proven to be useful to people —
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: Who work in this context. We’re —
Paul: And useful, if you quantify it, means they can get more done, or spend less money, or…
Rich: Be more coordinated.
Rob: I think all of those things are results, but I think the way that it feels is that a lot of the, um…person-to-person communication that provides the scaffolding of the process that makes a show like that happen every day is handled by just making things transparent versus being something that people have to kind of remember…the way that kind of Slack makes everyone better at email?
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: By creating fewer needs to send emails.
Rob: The, I think Scripto helps people make television by giving them fewer kind of….um, ancillary kind of communicative tasks with their colleagues. And so uh…it ran The Colbert Report for essentially the last two years, every day. And when you talk about Stephen taking on risk, you know, it wasn’t stable for the first, you know, year that we were developing it.
Rich: By stable you mean the software wasn’t ready.
Rob: Well it would crash. It would disconnect. People with — the most intense time of day is the rewrite that happens between the rehearsal and the taping.
Rich: It would blow up?
Rob: Yeah, dis — you know, and someone will lose their connection, we wouldn’t know why —
Rich: OK, so The Colbert Report’s using it?
Paul: So I’ve checked in on Rob, like, maybe, and probably once every eight months, or every year or so —
Rob: Sounds about right.
Paul: I would see you. And so like, the first two years, you’re like, “Boy, this is really hard to get done,” and then you’re like, “Oh yeah, we’re switching it over.”
Paul: “It’s real now.”
Paul: And then it was immediately like, “Oh God. What have I done??”
Rob: Heh heh heh.
Paul: Because then you had a company with software that could fail, and when it failed, it was really bad.
Rich: Well, I mean, yeah.
Paul: That’s life. That’s life.
Rich: People were relying on it.
Rob: You know, when you all talk about, I’ve heard y’all talk about legacy software, and it really resonated with me, because I think in a lot of cases, you’re talking about people who have something that works, and so they keep doing it, because the cost of it not working is so high that it….creates a sort of significant amount of risk aversion in a culture.
Paul: Well right, and it’s meta-broken, right? It’s like, well we’re still getting our job done.
Paul: And basically, the software is working, so something’s broken, but you know, if we go down that path, who knows where it’s gonna end up. And then you went down that path.
Rob: Yeah. And mmm, I also think there’s a difference between something that is broken in known ways and something that’s broken in unknown ways.
Rob: Like, uh, you can use the old thing that crashes if you hit the words, you know, the letters “J” and “K” in succession, and then hit “enter,” like, you know that happens so you just don’t do it, and you kind of know the tripwires to avoid, because you’ve worked with this thing for 17 years or whatever.
Rich: Right. Just get comfortable with it.
Paul: But then you show up with a new product based on the web —
Paul: And you make your bed.
Paul: And it does the thing that every new product does, which is break.
Paul: So how did you deal with that?
Rob: I learned to look people in the eye, take responsibility for things messing up. And…
Rich: Sounds like it took you a bit to do that.
Rich: Let’s talk about when you used to avoid people and not take responsibility. [laughter]
Rob: I mean, I…I was…
Rich: I, I, that’s a joke, you don’t have to answer that question. Let’s —
Rob: No, I —
Rich: Focus on the positive here, Rob.
Rob: I would, it’s, it’s…debugging is hard, right? And, like, reproducing errors is hard.
Rich: Oh yeah.
Rob: And when you’re in —
Paul: You mean across a network of TV professionals, it’s hard to debug? [laughter] It’s hard to debug software?
Rich: Easygoing TV professionals.
Rob: That’s what I got good at. That’s what I did. That’s what it meant to actually take responsibility for someone messing up, was to be, like, “MMM-K. What did you see? What happened? You know, what do you remember? Did it look green or did it look blue?” You know, and then part of what I had to be able to do was to…basically there was a pretty high degree of tolerance for something going wrong once.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: If, as long as I could, like, sort of establish that it wasn’t gonna go wrong the same way again, that was kind of our engine of progress.
Paul: What did they make of you, the writer who suddenly is running around the entire organization telling everyone, like, how this is gonna go, and what’s gonna break, and…
Rob: I think it followed a sort of time-honored progression from sort of, like, suspicion at first to sort of, like, uh…enough of a glimpse of how it could be better, that people really sort of started to support it, you know, pretty quickly.
Paul: So they saw the pain going away, even if they hadn’t been aware of the pain. They’re like, “Oh, my shoulder doesn’t hurt as much anymore.”
Paul: That’s interesting. And then they, then they break an arm.
Rich: Well it’s also not individual-user software. Like if a team around you is using the thing, you don’t really have a lot of choice. That’s the collaborative tool. What are you gonna do?
Paul: Yeah, I mean, I’m, I’m teasing you a little bit, but the reality is the thing that you did, which is launch a new piece of enterprise software into the enterprise for users who are not technical, or who are technical in a very different way than software —
Rob: Yeah. That’s how I would describe it.
Paul: Is the actual hardest thing. Like, I don’t know of a harder challenge in product…
Rich: Yeah, I mean, we’ve seen a lot of stuff die on the vine.
Paul: I think some mass consumer launches, where you just have millions and millions of users —
Paul: On different platforms, but —
Rich: That’s hard, too.
Paul: But there’s a pretty small range of things that I would call, like, “the hardest thing,” and that’s one of the hardest things.
Rob: Well, and it, we were fortunate that we had, I think, we were not in the position of serving everybody at first.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: You know, we had the, we had The Colbert Report, and we were gonna get that right, and um…one of our producers, um, left The Colbert Report to go start a new show that was gonna be called Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and they were looking for what software they would use, and he was like, “Well you know, over at The Colbert Report, they have this thing they’re working on that’s pretty good.” And it was, actually, at that point, fortunately good enough for us to be like, “Yeah, we can do this,” you know?
Paul: And you’d built a team at this point, right?
Rob: Yeah. It was…it was…you know, there was a team of developers that I was managing, and…a woman named Sasha Stewart was doing a lot of the QA for us.
Rob: Internally, and receiving a lot of those sort of, like, bug reports and stuff like that. And um….she’s a comedy writer now. And um…when other shows started to get interested is when I knew that we needed to make it a company with, you know, more of a formal infrastructure, because, you know, as challenging as it was sometimes to be a writer for the show, which was very demanding in its own right, and also be responsible for this software was at least the place that I was.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: And so I was able to sort of see things happening myself, with my own eyes. And I knew that was gonna go away as soon as somebody else started using it. So…that was when I hired Rusty Foster, who some of you listening to this may know from “Today in Tabs.” Um…but his, his day job is that he works for Scripto. He became sort of the eyes and ears person for all the other shows that were gonna start to use it, which was Last Week Tonight and The Daily Show were the first two shows that started using it outside of The Colbert Report.
Paul: And he’s in Maine.
Rob: He is.
Paul: So he’s setting up TV shows from Maine.
Rob: Yup. And um…you know…
Paul: Decentralized software. It should work.
Rob: Well, it’s…it’s…it was always…remote work has been the DNA of the company. It was how we built it in the first place, and it’s been how we supported it since, and you know, there’s stuff that’s really, that’s better done in person, but there’s also stuff that you can do remotely, and it works for people. So we’re always kind of finding that line and working within it, but….really people just need you to be there for them, virtually for otherwise, when they have a problem.
Rob: And uh…now there’s, between active shows, pilots, shows that are waiting to hear if they’re coming back, etc, there’s about a dozen shows that use Scripto every day.
Paul: All right, so you’re a significant part of today’s televised entertainment industry.
Rob: Yeah. I wanna give a quick congratulations to the crew at Last Week Tonight, who just took home a…I just came from Los Angeles, where I watched them win a bunch of Emmys.
Paul: Pretty much all of them listen to this podcast.
Paul: So that’s great.
Rich: Good shout-out.
Rob: Yeah. Thank you. [laughter]
Rich: So you’re full time now?
Rob: Yep. I moved from The Colbert Report to The Late Show, with all my now-former colleagues, and I worked there for um…through pre-production and the first about a year and a half of episodes.
Paul: Oh, when he took over for David Letterman.
Rob: And so The Late Show is also using Scripto, but I left at the end of last year, so basically a couple weeks after the election.
Rich: So you’re not writing. You’re not a writer.
Rob: No, I am a um, I am a tech CEO.
Rich: Are you happier?
Rich: This was — this was an aspiration, it wasn’t just, “Oh, there’s a pain point, let me fix it.”
Rob: Well it was a…it was a lot of things. I mean, I enjoyed a long career working with Stephen as a writer, and at The Late Show as a producer as well, and…you know, I think, kind of realized that I’d done it for over a decade, and was ready for a change. I didn’t actually leave the show to start running the software company. It was sort of, it existed on the side, and I think it, as I think it might for a lot of people who leave a job after a long time, it took me a while to sort of get my head above water, and…
Rob: Figure out what I wanted to do, but technology’s always been a passion of mine, and a hobby. I make video games. I make —
Rich: You make video games.
Rob: Yeah. Twitter bots. I’ve been a programmer for a while.
Rich: OK, so it’s sort of your secret passion.
Rob: Well, and I think it’s been really nice this year to learn, in my capacity running this company, to start to see it and appreciate it and really experience it as a union of those two things, because my experience as a writer and producer of TV is very much not irrelevant to my job now. It’s very relevant to my job now.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: I remember the, I remember the email Paul sent me about, uh, off the Reddit ad, about the stuff he’d done, and uh, actually, I looked it up before I came in here, because I knew I was gonna talk to you guys, and the way he described the stuff that he had done was very, very similar to the way I hear him describing what y’all do now.
Rich: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: You know, “We make web apps. We make your information transparent to people. We make the thing that puts the stuff in the place where people can see it.” You know, it was really how he described the stuff he’d done with Harper’s, it was how he described your other work, and I feel that way when I get in the room with a showrunner of a TV show who’s like, “Well, should we use Scripto or not?”
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: “Or should we go with newsroom software, or should we try to use Google docs?” I’m experienced enough in television that I can have a conversation with someone and pretty quickly suss out what their actual needs are.
Rich: Sure. You can talk their language.
Rich: You don’t have a sales team.
Rob: I am the sales team.
Rich: You are the sales team.
Paul: We’re in a similar boat, I mean, we refer to it as a highly consultative cell.
Paul: Right? Like you just…you go in and you listen and I would say a surprising amount of the time, we go, “Well you probably want this instead.” But then when they want what we have, it’s sort of like, “All right, well here. Let’s, let’s figure — “
Rich: Here’s how we can help.
Paul: Let’s figure it out, and it’s always gonna take longer and be a little more expensive than you wanted, but you know what? I mean, it doesn’t have to be. We can talk about all the parameters. It’s a good, it’s a good….approach, and I think people just learn to trust you over time. It takes a lot of calls.
Rob: And you know, I think it was…it was a skill I had to learn to be confident in myself as a television professional while outside of the television profession, strictly speaking.
Paul: So now the goal is to grow this thing, get more TV programs using it?
Rob: Yeah, always. And there are, I mean, there are people who can use it for, you know, outside of the realm of late-night. We actually just started working with BuzzFeed on their new morning show for Twitter that they’re making AM to DM.
Paul: And is it kind of like an enterprise license, or how does it work?
Rob: Yeah, it’s an enterprise license. We license the software to people.
Paul: Is there —
Rob: On a yearly basis.
Rich: Per seat?
Rob: No. Just per show.
Rich: You get the show.
Paul: Is there a standard rate, or do you negotiate with each one?
Rob: There is a standard rate. There are cases — a lot of times, you know, you are working with a pilot order, or you’re working with a sort of limited order, someone is sort of giving you a, a little bit of running room to make some of the show that you would ideally make.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: Over the course of a full season or whatever, and um…you know, obviously in those cases, we work with people within their means and stuff like that, because I think it benefits everybody if we’re trying to help people get their things off the ground.
Paul: They’ll become Scripto users down the road.
Rich: Is it scripto.com?
Rob: So scripto.computer is our new website.
Paul: Oh, that, that —
Paul: So you’re also head of marketing, huh?
Rob: Yeah. Well listen, it’s always what dot-com was short for. We all knew it. Finally —
Rich: I thought it was “communications.”
Paul: No, it was “commercial.”
Rob: Let’s, we, the Council of Global Domain Names, whose abbreviation is not that.
Rob: It’s like “I” and then four “E”s, or is that someone else?
Paul: No, that’s the — you’re thinking of the I-triple-E — no, you’re thinking of IANA, I think.
Rob: OK. Well they finally saw fit to resolve the ambiguity once and for all and let us all know that the whole time it really was dot-computer, so we jumped on it.
Paul: [sigh] It’s just not —
Rich: I like it.
Paul: Let’s wind all that back.
Paul: So look: that’s scripto.computer is the URL.
Paul: But before you came in here, you said you were willing to answer some reader, or some listener email.
Rob: I made the request unprompted.
Paul: All right, let’s —
Rob: I’m ready to do it.
Paul: So —
Rich: We’ve got, we’ve got questions.
Paul: All right, let’s change the pace and change the….
Rich: Well good luck and congratulations with Scripto.
Rob: Aw, thank you.
Rich: It’s awesome.
Rob: Come find us if you’re, if you’re making television, making video.
Rob: That’s it. That’s us.
Rich: [laughter] You keep saying it, Paul.
Paul: Well, I —
Rob: Websites are fun to say again.
Paul: I don’t think people —
Rob: Thanks, Scripto.
Paul: Know that they can put dot-computer, like, that’s real. So you actually literally type the word “Scripto,” and then a dot, and then the word “computer,” and hit return.
Rob: It’s like the web is fresh again.
Paul: Yeah. That’s great. It’s…
Rich: It’s exciting.
Paul: Is it? All right, so let’s, let’s see, we got an email here from a man named Randy. “Dear Rich and Paul and Rob.”
Rob: How’d you know, Randy? That’s amazing.
Paul: It’s crazy, isn’t it?
Paul: “I have some questions related to Bluetooth.”
Rich: Hard stop.
Paul: Any thoughts so far?
Rob: Connecting to this question. [laughter]
Paul: It’ll take a while.
Rob: Mmmm hmmmm.
Paul: Um…you actually just connected to another question.
Rob: Oh shoot. All right. [laughter]
Paul: All right.
Rob: Do I have to enter a code? [laughter]
Paul: You do. “You guys have disparaged Bluetooth on occasion.”
Rob: Wow, demand satisfaction on behalf of Bluetooth. Is this guy at bluetooth.computer? [laughter]
Paul: He is. It’s bluetooth.guru.computer.
Rob: Uh huh.
Paul: “Why? I have become inordinately fond of Bluetooth headphones. That’s how I listen to YOUR PODCAST while I walk the dogs and do yard work. For headphones, especially for talk instead of high-quality music, Bluetooth seems to work perfectly. Why don’t you guys like it? Also: should I be concerned about having a Bluetooth wireless device embedded in my head, close to my brain, for long periods of time?”
Rich: That sounds like a two-part question.
Rob: I was gonna say, yeah.
Paul: Let’s go straight to Rob. Rob, what do you think?
Rob: Well my, here’s my hot take is that I have come around on Bluetooth because um…I know everyone’s out there with various iPhones. We’re all wondering whether —
Paul: Some people have Android.
Rob: Some people have, some people, wow, that’s true.
Paul: Yeah. [laughter]
Rob: An increasing number of people.
Paul: Just actually the majority of humanity, but many of us have iPhones.
Rob: I have an iPhone 6.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: Still. It’s going on —
Paul: Me too! Wow, we are really —
Rich: That’s really old-school.
Rob: Going on three years old.
Paul: Rough. Rough —
Rob: The battery no longer functions.
Rob: Like a functioning battery should, and so my entire phone is embedded in a large clamshell, like, not clamshell, but like a big bulky battery case that makes it look sort of like a large —
Rich: Holds it…
Rob: iPhone 4S or whatever.
Rob: And as a result, I cannot access the headphone jack on my phone anymore.
Rob: It’s like I, I have an older iPhone than when Apple made this decision deliberate, but I cannot use standard headphones with my phone. So Bluetooth headphones became the way that I was still able to listen to music and/or conduct headset calls on my phone. That being said: the headset also will frequently connect to my computer without me telling it to.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: Um…the…need to constantly charge these headphones is kind of a bummer. But I was listening to, enjoying some music on Bluetooth on my way over here.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Rob: I will probably continue to do that.
Paul: I mean…
Rob: So thumbs up or thumbs down on Bluetooth?
Rob: Thumbs it’s what we have?? Thumbs…thumbs…
Rob: There’s no…you know, like, I think that if, um, like, you know if, like, Apple had skipped straight to the AirPods instead of introducing that dongle?
Rob: If they had been, like, “Listen, there’s no port.”
Rob: Forget a bad port —
Rob: That no one likes. We’re not, and yeah, we’re gonna make you buy new headphones. But there’s not the sort of awkward kind of, like, you know, three inches of cable, which has weirdly become, like, the dominant aesthetic of, like, early 2010, or like, mid-2010s peripherals. [laughter] I don’t know how we got there, but that’s where we are. You know, if you just sort of skip the wires, in general, I think it would be OK. I almost feel like Bluetooth is…it’s kind of man — it wanted to be a replacement for wires, and it’s become kind of, like, functionally equivalent to wires?
Paul: It’s very, it feels — because everything —
Rich: Its own…
Paul: Well no, because nothing stretches very far, right? So it’s sort of like…I go to a bunch of — I’ve been to a bunch of conferences, for whatever reason, Bluetooth speakers are now the, like, default gift.
Rob: Yeah, OK.
Paul: If you go anywhere or do anything.
Rich: They’re, like, $11 at this point.
Paul: And I just, I have so many now, and they all sound kind of bad.
Paul: And if you move them more than six feet away from the computer, they stop working.
Rob: That’s true.
Rich: Can I plug something?
Paul: Go. You’re gonna use that word and then talk about Bluetooth, is that what —
Rich: Yeah. They’re called —
Rob: Can I unplug something?
Paul: Can I unplug something?
Paul: Wonderboom. Is that a brand, did you make — dream that, in your bathtub. What happened?
Rich: No, they’re very good. They make a $100 egg-shaped one, and they make, like, a $300 really big one.
Rich: And they’re excellent.
Paul: I like —
Rich: The sound is excellent.
Paul: I like Skizzlebop —
Rich: All right.
Rich: Paul. Just let me plug, this is a company that’s —
Rich: Trying to get on its feet.
Paul: Wonderboom. You hit that up on wish.com. Where’d that come from?
Rich: No. Actually, if I’m not mistaken, Wirecutter said this is it.
Paul: I’m so tired of The Wirecutter running my life. [laughter]
Rich: I know, it totally runs my life.
Paul: It’s just killin’ me.
Rich: Just one last point on Bluetooth: not the fault of Bluetooth, some cars, my, my brother owns an Italian automobile, and —
Paul: It’s a Maserati, c’mon.
Rich: It’s a Maserati. And —
Rob: Did you want to take a second to drop the microphone after you said that? [laughter]
Rich: Just walk out.
Rich: It is one of the most preposterous user experiences adding a Bluetooth phone or whatever to the Maserati. That’s because the guy — he just, he’s making that turn on the cliff and, and, and he’s gonna go have, like, crostini in a minute. He doesn’t care about the Bluetooth.
Paul: All right, all right, so all of that aside.
Rich: I think we really answered that question beautifully. [laughter]
Paul: Yeah, that was really good.
Rich: It was a trainwreck.
Rob: Randy, if your headphones didn’t die while you were listening to that answer, I hope it satisfied you.
Paul: Just so we all know, Randy’s a stormwater regulatory specialist.
Rob: That’s so good.
Paul: OK, Randy has one more question for us: I’m actually, I want to have Randy on the show. “What is going on with modern news websites? Every time I open up The New York Times or The Guardian websites my browser chugs for quite a while. The scripts seem almost endless. Are they causing problems to a significant number of people’s’ browsers? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?”
Rich: We had some great stats, because we had built a, uh, a plugin that turned any webpage into Google AMP, in AMP view, which is a very streamlined view.
Rob: Are you talking about Postlight’s Mercury plugin?
Rich: Postlight’s Mercury plug-in! [laughter]
Rob: No kidding!
Rich: Dude. Rob’s in.
Paul: No, I know, he’s co-host —
Rich: He’s in, man.
Paul: The co-host audition went very well.
Rich: Why did I open my mouth?
Paul: It’s good. Postlight Mercury.
Rich: Rob, I’m gonna throw out two stats, and I’m gonna turn it over to you.
Rob: Ah, fascinating…
Rich: Nearly 70% of the payload that comes in on a news article is not the news article.
Rich: I forgot which ones we hit. A top-10 news site was hitting 28 different domains.
Paul: Sure. That’s not unusual, actually.
Rich: And to just litter the, the code with all kinds of calls to add tech and metrics and all this nonsense. It’s kind of incredible. Rob, your thoughts?
Paul: Your thoughts on page-load time?
Rob: Don’t you feel like it’s something where like, you know, we feel like it’s sort of, like, an age of abundance from the standpoint of, like, bandwidth and stuff like that, and kind of, like, video, you expect everything to have video on it, you expect, like, you know, like, kinda…we’re, like, past the point where people are, like, optimizing the graphics on their website —
Paul: Oh yeah.
Rob: For, like, modem connection.
Paul: Nobody’s bringing —
Rob: I feel like a lot of the constraints have sort of evaporated.
Rich: So you’re an apologist?
Rob: Not an apologist, I think that it’s, like, one of those things where it’s like, uh, load-time by a thousand cuts, like, where it’s like, I don’t think those 28 domains all got added at once.
Paul: Yeah, nobody sat down and were like, “Let’s slow this website down.”
Rich: No, of course not.
Paul: But in answer to Randy’s question, what you’re seeing is just the site is hitting all the different ad networks, and they are all, they’re not optimized for the fastest delivery, or there’s a whole lot of logic being executed along the way that’s slowing down the load-time, and the big deal here is that things are waiting for other things to load. You can program in such a way that things aren’t waiting for other things to load, and you’re putting as much onto the screen as possible, but what often happens is that’s really hard and expensive to get right, and so you’re just literally sitting there waiting for ad networks to say, “I got your ad, Mr. Homepage of the Something Something Times.” Probably New York Times.
Rich: I mean, Randy, to hone in, to home in.
Paul: Hone! Hone in.
Paul: Home in.
Rich: I messed this up.
Paul: Do you know, Rob?
Rich: You’re a writer.
Rob: I think it’s…hobe.
Rob: H-O-B-E. [laughter]
Paul: No, no, it’s good. Hobe in, to hobe in.
Rich: On the poor guy’s question, which is, is it me? And the answer is no.
Rich: It’s not you.
Paul: No. Randy, you’re doing everything right.
Rich: Yeah. You’re doing everything right.
Rob: Unless you’re not using Mercury by Postlight. [laughter]
Rich: Unless… [laughter]
Paul: That is true. Randy, if you —
Rich: That’s mercury.postlight.com.
Rob: Actually, you know what, this is gonna be, this’ll be my, um, this’ll be my app for the credits plug teaser thing, because we’re actually, we’re working on a second product at Scripto, and I bet, I’m 100% sure there are people listening to this right now thinking, like, “OK, well you’re doing this for sort of studio-based, you know, television shows or whatever, but what about the people who are using Final Draft?”
Paul: A terrible piece of scriptwriting software.
Rob: You know, it’s sort of at the point where it’s, like, famously easy to hate on it.
Rob: Because it’s the kind of, like, de facto standard or whatever, and we are, we’re working on that. And you know, part of what we’ve done, you know, kind of internalizing the lessons of supporting Scripto in the wild for five years and stuff like that is, like, from the jump, we’ve been trying to work to minimize the size of the packages that we’re putting into the browser. That, like, when you are making enterprise software, you kind of have a lot less room to kind of have these issues, where, like, it’s gonna take an extra 20 seconds to load or whatever.
Rob: That counts as friction.
Paul: Yeah. That initial page-load time, or just that initial app-load time, is, is huge.
Rob: Especially if, you know, I think people are really leaning on the fact that, like, mobile infrastructure has gotten beefier.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rob: To try to, like, send, you know, three, five MB packages down, you know, as like a sort of prerequisite to seeing the thing?
Rob: Which gosh, I mean, you probably can get away with it in 90% of cases but people don’t seem to realize that if it’s small, all that beefy bandwidth is gonna make it look really fast.
Rob: And that’s really great. You really notice.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rob: You know, when you’re using, um, something that has optimized what your content and taken away those 27 layers, like, I don’t know, like Postlight’s Mercury or something like that.
Paul: Thanks. But does your new product have a codename?
Rob: It’s called Showrunner.
Paul: Showrunner is a script-writing tool —
Paul: For film, TV…
Rob: For scripted narrative and, you know, we have a prototype, we’ve been showing it to people, some people are using it.
Paul: How is it different from Scripto?
Rob: Well its format.
Rob: The, there are so many…different…types of kind of like internal TV-specific communication.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rob: And they change dramatically when you move between genres in television.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rob: And in the same way that software that works well and continues to work well for news, because, you know, there are probably people listening to this that depend on ENPS every day and they’re like, “Well, I don’t know, it works fine for me,” and they probably are right.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rob: Different types of TV demand different types of software, and you know, the format for scripted television, movies, etc, is just different. You know, that sort of, like, classic screenplay format, which actually Final Draft was responsible for ushering into standard use.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rob: It was, you know, wasn’t even Word, it was before Word, it was, like, a plug-in for a word processor that predated Word.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rob: Was how people made screenplays before Final Draft came along. And you know, needs change. Things change. People work in more collaborative teams. They work across the country from each other. There are more people working remotely. And that’s true for creative projects in addition to technological ones. We wanna make a product for those people. So we’re working on it.
Rich: That’s showrunner.desktopcomputer, if you want to visit the website.
Rob: Come to, there’s no, it’s uh…
Rich: There’s no URL yet.
Rob: There’s no URL yet.
Rob: So —
Rich: Stay tuned.
Rob: If you’re thirsty enough for this, come find us. We’ll talk about it.
Paul: Any release date planned?
Rob: I mean, we’re gonna be vaporware for a second.
Paul: All right, so CEO of Scripto.
Rob: That’s me.
Paul: Rob Dubbin.
Rob: Bluetooth expert. [laughter]
Paul: Thank you for coming onto Track Changes.
Rob: Oh, it’s a, it’s a pleasure.
Paul: Yeah, it’s been great.
Rich: Thank you. This was good. And congratulations. I mean, out of the ashes.
Rob: Yeah, a little bit.
Rich: Very cool.
Rob: I appreciate that. Thank you.
Paul: Well you’ve been listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, digital product studio.
Rob: You know, one more thing you might not know, listening to this at home, is that, you know —
Rich: It’s awesome that he’s jumping in.
Rob: They start with the music, it’s really inspiring, it gets really, it really gets you in the mood for the Postlight podcast, they’re one of the few podcasts that just, like, leads with the theme song, which is always great. You always wanna hear that. You know, instead of, like, an ad or something like that? I know there are business realities for the podcast world. I get it. But I love that it starts with the theme song. When you’re recording it in person they don’t play the theme song. I didn’t hear it while I was here.
Rich: Yeah, you don’t hear it.
Rob: It’s gonna get laid in later, but I gotta say…
Rich: You would’ve been a little more pumped?
Rob: The in-studio experience could use a little bit of, like, stadium noise to get you in the mood.
Paul: In just like anything, that’s just great feedback. We’re gonna take that under advisement.
Rob: All right.
Paul: We’re glad to hear it. Glad to get any—
Paul: Any feedback. And if you have feedback for us, you can send an email to [email protected]
Rich: Or [email protected] [laughter]
Paul: That’s another great email address if you have any problems at all.
Rich: Rob, just forward them over to us.
Rob: Anything to do with your headphones. [laughter] Website load times.
Rich: Any hardware issues.
Rob: Hit me up.
Paul: Rich, we got anything else?
Rich: I think that’s it. Thanks again, Rob.
Rob: I’ll be here next week. Thanks. [laughter]
Paul: Bye. We’re gonna go. That’s enough. Goodbye. We’re gonna go back to work.
Rich: Have a good week.