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March 31, 2016

Meet William Tam, Web Engineer

As a Web Engineer, William Tam helps build websites for THIRTEEN, WLIW, NJTV, and the WNET-produced PBS programs such as Nature and Great Performances. “I particularly focus on how we integrate video into our websites, and also work closely with Member Services to help manage our online donation process,” William says. Read on to learn about William’s work on THIRTEEN Passport, his favorite places in Manhattanville/West Harlem, and more.

What is your background, and how did you land at WNET?

I started in tech at my alma mater Indiana University in the early 1990’s, where I got to build one of the first websites ever while working at the IU Cyclotron, an atomic particle accelerator used in physics experiments. (Fun fact: the “World Wide Web” was originally created as a way for nuclear research facilities to share documents). I moved from Indiana to northern Virginia in 1999 to work at PBS’s national headquarters as their first “Kids Technologist.” While there, I helped launch PBSKids.org, websites for kids’ programs including Teletubbies, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and Cyberchase, and eventually helped build systems for the PBS.org general audience website. I left PBS in 2005 to work on Capitol Hill for an election cycle, which was rewarding but burnt out any desire to work in politics again. I left DC and politics behind to move to New York City, where I worked both full-time and freelance for various non-profit organizations. When I heard about an opening to rejoin public television, I jumped!

Are there any current or upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about?

My main focus for the last year has been THIRTEEN Passport, our member video on demand product. The work has been full of opportunities for creative technical problem solving, and the outcomes are exciting. I’m working closely with Member Services, my technology colleagues here at WNET and at PBS headquarters, and even at some other stations to make the system run better and serve members better all the time, and that collaboration is really fun.

What are some of your favorite websites, and what are the qualities you admire about them?

For my professional work, I spend more time on Stack Exchange than anything else – it’s a terrific crowd-sourced system for tech questions and answers. On my own time, I mostly look at news websites on my phone. If a website isn’t optimized for mobile (the New York Post, for example, is unreadable on a phone), I don’t even bother looking at it. Find out more about William’s technical side on the wnet authors’ site.

For our Media with Impact campaign, we’ve been asking viewers to share stories describing how THIRTEEN has influenced their life. How has THIRTEEN (or the PBS station of your childhood) inspired you?

As a kid in southern Indiana in the early 1970’s, PBS was my window on the outside world. Film Odyssey exposed me to the films of Renoir, Eisenstein and others and I’ve been a film buff ever since. Great Performances had a wonderful Taming of the Shrew with Marc Singer that was my first chance to see Shakespeare. And even though I was enjoying this “high-brow” stuff before I reached my teens, I also enjoyed the more age-appropriate Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a quiet, imaginative place where adults would speak to me with calm respect – soothing even now.

Where do you live, and what are some of your favorite places in your neighborhood?

I’ve been in in Manhattanville/West Harlem for the last few years. There’s great energy there that comes from incredible social and ethnic diversity – long-time residents, faculty and students from the various schools nearby, and a surprising number of people in the performing arts who like an easy commute to the theater district or have a connection to the Manhattan School of Music. There’s free live jazz from MSM students weekly at Paddy’s on Broadway, lots of interesting nearby restaurants, and Riverside Park and views of the Hudson are steps away. When the weather is decent, the bike path next to the river is a great way to get to work.

What book are you currently reading?

I just picked up Medusa’s Web, the latest from Tim Powers — a sort of alternative magical historical mystery about 1920’s Hollywood. Most of Powers’ books take on real historical events — such as the Ottoman siege of Vienna in the 16th century, the life of Lord Byron, or the early years of Las Vegas — and retell them imagining some sort of occult backstory. A recent favorite he wrote, Declare, imagined the Cold War Kim Philby spy scandal as a proxy conflict between ‘djinni’ (genies). The in-depth historical detail combined with wildly creative supernatural elements I find very entertaining.

Do you have a special interest or hobby outside of work? If so, tell us about it!

I’m a big film geek. I’m a member of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and usually see between 15-25 films over the two weeks of the New York Film Festival, plus revivals and foreign films they show throughout the year. My favorite at last year’s festival was Junun, a performance-documentary about Indian music by Paul Thomas Anderson.   Mad Max: Fury Road should have won Best Picture.

 

 

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