Sunday, November 26, 2006

Disclaimer

Everything written here is my personal opinion and not that of my employer.

This blog is not in any way endorsed by Google, so I figured this was probably a good thing to add the sidebar here. (Copied verbatim from Jason Shellen.) While anything stupid I say here can still be used against me, I'd rather avoid seeing it used in the New York Times (or worse, Valleywag) against Google.

Anyways, I doubt I will be disclosing Google's master plan here. So far, I'm not sure how my blogging will be affected by my job. Last week, I had some very interesting and enlightening discussions, but I doubt I'll be able to share it all with you guys. When independent ideas strike again, you'll see it here first.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Joining the Workforce

Tomorrow is my first day at Google. My dad always said that being a student is the best time of your life, but is it? You have neither time nor money. It seems like when you're not studying, you're agonizing about exams.

I really started taking things seriously in the summer 2002, just before the first big preliminary tests: three months of continuous cramming under the pressure of not knowing whether you're cut out for ETH. Soon after, an early-morning text message received in a Motel 6 just outside Portland, OR, where I was visiting my brother. In retrospect, I should probably have worried less: I never flunked even a single class, and the results were usually pretty good.

Sure, the month-long studying in winter and summer weren't that great. But when we skipped class to go hang out on the shores of Lake Zurich, it was quite enjoyable. Ah, the fun stuff: Hanging out at the local student bar. Late-night hunting trips in Zurich's bars with my macho roommate. Debriefing the other roommate after her many dates with what seemed to be Zurich's least eligible bachelors. The girlfriends. Cooking for friends at home. Exchanging ridiculous startup ideas over Asian and Mexican food. Nursing expensive lattes at Starbucks for hours and hours while writing theses, papers, and blog entries. Traveling Europe. The little chocolates you get from Swiss airlines just before landing at far-away destinations. Giving the canned tour of Zurich to friends visiting from all over. Jogging in ice-cold Swiss winter. Sailing classes.

Seems like all the fun things we did in university don't actually require the presence of a university. You can enjoy them even afterwards, when you're all grown up.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Academic Lunch Dating

Swiss people are shy by nature. Academics are often a bit reserved. Combine the two and you get what is a common phenomenon at ETH: Entire research groups always go out to lunch together. The same people eat with the same people, every day.

On the other hand, great research always happens at the intersection of two fields. Ideas do not form in a vacuum, but are the result of interaction. To get more ideas, you'd ideally talk to different people every once in a while.

That's why I'd like to propose academic lunch dating. Unlike in traditional online dating, the ultimate goal here would be the exchange of ideas, not gene sequences

We'd make Thursday the designated lunch dating day. We build a website where students, researchers, and professors can sign up. Every Wednesday, they enter what kind of person they want to talk to: Student or researcher, data mining specialist, mathematician or biologist? The system would match up fitting pairs, and send out emails. You'd meet Thursday 12:30 at the cafeteria you agreed on.

On Friday, everything would go back to normal and you could have lunch with your peers in peace.

Offline Mobile Content

Have you tried Google Maps Mobile? It's the most useful application I've ever seen on my cell phone. Still, at least here in Europe, few people are using mobile services. Since telcos are competing on the price per talk minute and price per SMS, they are still charging extremely high fees for GPRS. With my current plan, I pay a whopping CHF 2.50 ($ 2) per MB! Most people don't even know what GPRS costs, so they are hesitant about using it.

Still there is so much content you'd want to have access to on your phone: Aside from the maps, I'd love to have mobile access to tour guides, restaurant reviews, business listings, movie ratings (for next time I'm at the video rental place without a clue of what to get).

Almost every new mobile phone today comes with a memory card with ample capacity: My Nokia 6280 came with a 64 MB card. Its successor comes with 512 MB.

For the time being, this creates kind of an arbitrage opportunity for content providers: While GPRS data rates remain high, they could offer downloadable packages of offline content instead of a web service. A map of Zurich to download on the web and store on my cell phone via Blueooth? All for CHF 5? I would certainly pay for that.

This model will be viable unless data service becomes practically free: Most would probably rather pay a small flat free than put themselves at the mercy of intransparent price plans. Once data is free, it's better to use the online service as it is more up-to-date. But I doubt this will happen soon: Making data service free endangers the telcos' core business – Mobile Skype, anyone?

Two Social Search Ideas

I'm on a short vacation in the Mediterranean, and as always during trips, I get a bunch of ideas that seem smart when you're chilling on a beach but may be useless when confronted with the real world.

Here are two simple ideas that could make search more useful by accessing your social networks. Both ideas seem pretty obvious. So obvious and trivial, in fact, that I'm pretty sure someone has already tried this. I figured I'd still put them up for discussion.

Click Popularity

A recent article in the Economist points out that people like to follow the herd when confronted with many options. They buy the most popular cereal in a supermarket, and download the most popular songs in an online music store.

What if we extended this concept to search results? If search engines showed click counts for each item on the results page, SEOs would instantly start clicking away, making that measure completely useless.

But what if we integrated search and social networking? We could show just the click counts of your friends. Your friends have little incentive to skew results. They will have similar tastes and preferences as you do, so they will search for similar things and likely click on the same items on a results page. And you could be sure you clicked the "right" result – i.e. the one your friends clicked.


Query Trail Sharing

Search results are seldom perfect on the first try: Even Google can't read your mind. When searching for something specific, users often spend considerable amounts of time refining their queries.

For example, I was recently looking for the name of the Python function that lets me get a class member given a string with its name. The function is called 'getattr', but that had somehow escaped me. Here is the query trail for that day, reconstructed from my Google search history (The first and last queries are unrelated):By looking at word overlaps and the timestamps, one could now find out that the inner three queries belong together. When a friend searches for the same item, one could now show related queries.


Problems

Implementing both features is fairly straightforward and could likely be done with a bunch of Greasemonkey scripts. But the two huge problems are privacy and the number of friends needed to make this useful.

I doubt that users would dare to use this if they thought that their searches are watched by friends. Therefore, click counts and trail sharing should be anonymous: You don't know which one of your friends clicked where. Plus, it may be useful to filter those Jenna Jameson-related queries.

Second, you don't want to be the only one signed up for this service: You only profit from the feature if you have lots of friends signed up for it as well. Sure, we could also look at data from friends-of-friends and further layers, but that increases spamming opportunities and decreases privacy. Maybe it would make sense to integrate this with existing social networks, such as Xing or LinkedIn, and have people download a browser plugin. If Google or Yahoo did this in our post-AOL-leak world, there could be an public outcry.

Let me know in case you know a product that already does this.

Monday, November 13, 2006

London Impressions

Some more impressions from my trip to London where I visited the Nestoria guys.


I went to see the Gherkin aka Swiss Re Tower aka 30 St Mary Axe, Norman Foster's well-known skyscraper on the former site of a building destroyed by an IRA bombing. While the shape may be evoke some interesting associations, it's a gorgeous building, and it has become a new symbol for London. But success comes at a price: On ground level, the building is surrounded by car blocks to protect from bombs and the vacancy rate is high: Few want to work in a building with such high visibility.

Shopping is great in London, even if you don't actually want to buy stuff. From the yummy food at Borough Market, the Tate Modern's museum shop, to Soho's specialty bookstores, you'll find great stuff and huge selections. London is expensive, though: Ed and I went to see The Departed and paid the equivalent of 30 CHF ($24) for uncomfortable seats. And I thought Zurich was expensive.

Everything in London seems to be clustered: All the antique bookshops are on the same street. All companies that make CG effects for movies are within few blocks of each other. The big web companies (except for Google, who have moved into a 'palace' near Victoria station) and web ad agencies are also within a small radius of each other. This behavior is far less pronounced in Zurich and elsewhere and I wonder how it started in the first place.

Lastly, all the pretty girls in England are not actually from England. In certain parts of London, it's hard to run into anyone with a British passport.

Nestoria Revisited

Since I'm still officially "on vacation", I figured it would be a good idea to visit my friends at Nestoria, the UK real estate search engine. One of the co-founders, Ed Freyfogle, was my personal guru back in the golden days at Yahoo Germany.

I'm impressed. Last time in February, the site consisted of just a few mockups, and lots of ideas about how to revolutionize real estate search. Nine months later, they've already built the site, signed up lots of partners, built very sophisticated back-end analysis systems, and got press attention. Good job!



Unlike other websites whose interest it is to keep you on their site so they can show you banner ads, Nestoria works on a referral basis. It's best for them if find what you're looking for as quickly as possible. They're doing a great job at keeping the site very simple. However, their results pages provide a huge amount of useful information: Maps, closeby tube stations, hospitals, and schools, congestion charge indicators – they even have different pins for each of the tram systems in the UK. The latter requires quite some effort: Apparently, British real estate agents typically write longish descriptions of each property: Cutting that down to a reasonably short summary on the results page requires some non-trivial processing.

Their site is so good that Google technology evangelists are using it to pitch the Google Maps API at real estate conferences in the UK.

I wish there were a Nestoria Switzerland: I'll need to move out of my fancy university-subsidized room very soon. Update: As one of the commenters pointed out, immo.search.ch is actually pretty good, and that's what I'll be using.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Junior Managers

Many recent or soon-to-be Computer Science graduates from ETH Zurich are aiming to become strategy consultants, investment bankers, and junior managers right after graduation.

I'm not sure this is a good thing.

A career in these fields seems enticing. In theory, the jobs are prestigious, you get to travel a lot, and most of your time is spent talking to top brass in glass-and-steel buildings. In reality, the culture at these places is unfriendly, workdays are long, and you never quite get the satisfaction of seeing the success of your work. By the time you know whether your advice led to triumph or failure, your assignment is already over. You tend to miss out on the most valuable experience of all: Knowing what works and what doesn't.

In the development of information technology products, it's the engineers who create value. Consultants and managers don't actually build products but infrastructure and processes, both of which the end user isn't really paying for.

Unfortunately, it's hard to make becoming an engineer more attractive. Unless you work on very simple stuff, the work is relatively challenging, hard to learn, and sometimes frustrating. But every once in a while, when something starts working and everything clicks into place, there is a rush of euphoria that's hard to beat.

It's sad to throw away a solid ETH education to work as a junior manager, especially if you are a gifted engineer. Earlier this week, I met with a friend who was probably the most talented student of our class. He now works as a junior project manager at a large Swiss bank, on a project budgeted at several million dollars. Eventually, he got so fed up of the incompetence of his superiors, the suppliers, and the endless meetings, that he hacked up a simpler, cheaper solution to the problem in about half a week. With this architecture, the bank also saves around half a million dollars in license fees. Will that reflect in his bonus? Doubtful. I hope that will make him angry enough to return to computer science.

A shortage of software engineers is on the horizon. In 2001, around 400 people started studying computer science at ETH Zurich. My school then filters out the low performers in tough exams: Less than half of the people I started with will ever graduate. In 2006, enrollment is down to around 100 people, so there will be less than 50 ETH computer science graduates in 2011. After subtracting those that go into consulting, banking, or decide to do a PhD, there will be around 30 engineers to recruit from! I doubt that enrollment numbers elsewhere in Europe or the US look much better.

Maybe this will all fix itself. When a war for talent ensues, entry salaries may rise to new heights. How lucrative does engineering have to be to make wearing a tie all day look not so enticing at all?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

After the Reddit Sale: The Age of YCombinator Clones

Congrats, Alexis and Aaron, on the Reddit sale! It was the right idea at the right time. Wired Digital is a great fit.

In this TalkCrunch podcast, Mike Arrington seems very surprised that they're still just 4 guys and have taken less than $100'000 investment in total.

This is the genius of YCombinator idea at work: Take smart people, very little money, and try to build something popular. This can become a very profitable business and a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that if Reddit sold for more than around $10 million, YCombinator is already in the black. Many other YCombinator startups are doing well and could get bought in the future, such as Xobni, Wufoo, loopt, or Likebetter, among others.

Earlier this year, I wrote an essay on how to clone YCombinator in Europe. When I discussed this idea with VCs and wealthy individuals, some doubted that YCombinator was even worth cloning: "How successful are they?", "Can $10,000 really take them far enough?", "I looked at y combinator very closely for last six months once current project is a success, EU y combinator is definitly [sic] the plan."

The Reddit sale has now proven that the YCombinator idea can be successful. My guess is that we'll see plenty of clones in the future, whether in the US, Europe, or Asia. There are some difficulties: You need smart founding fathers to pick the companies. Ideally, you'd also have another Paul Graham or a strong brand name that will drive the application process.

Incidentally, just a few hours after the Reddit acquisition, one VC already announced their "Quick Start" program, which invests small amounts of money in large numbers of startups.