Showing posts tagged engineering

Hackathon Summer 2012: Hack Harder

By askdotcom // July 31st, 2012 Summer 2012 Hackathon Winners!

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about our Hackathons, it’s that each one yields different results—and this, our third one, is no exception. 

Our first ‘thon gave us Pollroll, which is, well, rolling along nicely. Our second one gave us one concept that we’re bringing to Twitter, and another that’s already improved our improved our database-query times by 50X.

This time, organizers Nick McCann and Alisa Barnes raised the stakes yet again. For our Summer 2012 Hackathon, our eighty participants not only hacked products, they also explored ways to improve their presentation skills. 

Getting Social

To help teams focus their ideas, this ‘thon had a theme: social media. After all, our users and partners continue to use social media tools. As a business, we’re continually looking for ways to incorporate social media in the work we do. Hence, the desire to come up with ideas that build on our existing offerings.

“I’m really excited to see what we get out of this (Hackathon),” Alisa told me. “I’m expecting it to impact our product roadmap significantly.”

The Art of the Pitch

Not everyone is comfortable with presenting in front of a group, so Eve Chaurand-Fraser, our VP of Business Development and General Counsel, offered our hacker teams “pitch workshops” to hone their skills. “We didn’t want great ideas to slip through the cracks based on the presentation alone — not everyone does this sort of thing for their job,” Eve explained. “I wanted to level the playing field.” 

Hacking for the Prize

Thursday’s hacking went on behind closed doors and on the occasional cubicle island. Friday began with presentations from all ten teams. With lunch came the judging, and by 1:30 PM, we had our winner: Team OMGCLICK with an idea that involved a content indexing system and an in-house tool that would let Ask Editors assemble hilarious and/or fascinating content into easily shareable (dare we hope “viral?”) galleries and collections. The victors received iPods and Jamboxes — and trophies, of course. But everyone received experience — in pitching, in product creation and in thinking about social media. Believe us; you’ll see more of that from us in the future. 

—Ken Grobe, 

Full Story // Leave comment

Lucky Me - Women In Tech

By lisakav // July 19th, 2011

The last few months have presented an interesting collection of experiences, which have reminded me how lucky I am. Wait…not lucky, that’s the story we women like to tell ourselves, deserving, yah that’s it. I recently attended the Churchill Women Execs in Tech Roundtable (#inspired) and heard some stats that truly shocked me regarding women in technology. This led me to some digging…here is what I found:

  • 11% of executives in Fortune 500 tech companies are women.
  • Women make up a mere 15-17% of Silicon Valley engineers.
  • The peak of women in Computer Science was in 1984 – 43%
    were women. Today it’s 18%, and declining.
  • Less than 20% of students earning Computer Science Degrees
    in the US are women. This number is also trending in the
    wrong direction. 

I’m a woman, with a CS degree, a C-level title, a little north of Silicon Valley – how could I be shocked? Then I looked around and realized I truly am lucky, because I work at a company that is leading the pack in % of women in engineering, management and executive roles of a technology company. These are stats I am proud to share with you:

46% of the Executive team  are women, this includes:

Alisa Barnes - VP, Program Management Office

Eve Chaurand - General Council, Ask US

Valerie Combs - VP, Communications

Angela Loeffler - SVP, People & Policy

Susan Shimamura - VP, Operations

Yours Truly

1 out of 3 of our Management team is female and women make up 25% of our technical staff. There are too many to call out individually but they are diverse, wicked smart and incredibly talented at what they do (see some of them below)

As I come across the inspiring interviews given recently by Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer and Rebekah Cox I am reminded that this is not the norm and that it is important to appreciate the culture we have created here, but more importantly to do my part in increasing the %s outside the walls of

Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to lean in and be ambitious. Others says it’s the system that needs fixing, not the women. I say why can’t we do both? The more women we have in critical roles, the more normal it will seem.

I was one of the few women in my CS program at UCSB and remember feeling outnumbered, intimidated and way, way, behind (compare my high school word processer #datingmyself with my classmates criminal hacking record).  I can relate to the literature on women suffering from imposter syndrome and can’t count the number of times I’ve been the only woman at the table.  I encourage women seeking careers in the tech industry to see it as a challenge, do what you love, and don’t let anything stand in your way.  Be the exception and know that you make it easier for the next woman to do the same. I hope in some small way, I will.


Some of our stellar female managers

Lisa Kavanaugh, Chief Product & Technology Officer

Full Story // Leave comment

Hackathons, APIs and all that good stuff…

By whos-v-blog // June 2nd, 2011

Last weekend I had the opportunity to check out the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon organized in New York. There is something about this type of event that sets it apart from others – maybe it’s the hacking itself, the people or the atmosphere — nonetheless, I am always excited to participate. The challenge? Pick a real-world problem and hack a solution – all in 24 hours. The event is geared towards developers, just the type of folks who are not afraid to get down and harness the best of their abilities to build something that’s functional in such a short timeframe.

At the Disrupt Hackathon, developers either went solo or banded together in groups – it seemed you were definitely at an advantage working in a group given the short duration.  Also, given the nature of the event, most developers found they were better off leveraging existing APIs from other sites and properties, than building something from scratch.

Thanks to the many open APIs available, the developers were able to focus on the problem and tap a vast array of available APIs to tackle tricky use cases like acquiring data from other systems. APIs can also give developers new ideas on what they can incorporate in their application, and additional functionality to enhance the value proposition. Best of all, since most of these APIs are based on HTTP, and optionally RESTful, they can be leveraged by an application built on any platform that supports it — be it mobile, desktop or a large scale web application. Not only does this make the APIs extremely powerful but also both parties are able to benefit. The API provider gets additional exposure to its services, brand recognition and possibly new content, while developers get to build upon existing services, extending them or incorporating them in interesting ways. Check out some of the top hacks from this year here .

At Ask, we are passionate about answering questions, and we have developed sophisticated systems and algorithms that combine the power of search with the insight of a live user community. We see a lot of value in giving developers access to our technology via simple APIs that are easy to use and integrate and give developers around the world ability to integrate our answers technology into their products. Expect to hear more from us on this front in the coming months!

I definitely want to give Tarikh Korula and Daniel Raffel a big shout out for doing an excellent job organizing the event and am looking forward to the San Francisco Disrupt hackathon scheduled later this year.


Vishal Shah, Director of Engineering, Mobile & Platforms

Full Story // Leave comment

The Next Frontier in Search: Questions & Answers

By dougleeds // November 13th, 2009

A few months ago at SemTech 2009 we announced that our questions and answers database –launched almost a year ago – had grown to more than 300 million high-quality Q&A pairs. “High-quality” means that we use our semantic and extraction capabilities to recognize the best answer from within the sea of information on relevant pages. Instead of 10 blue links, we deliver the best answer right at the top of the page.

This week we’ve achieved another significant milestone by reaching 400 million Q&A pairs, and I want to acknowledge the outstanding work of our engineering and product teams who have built one of the largest and most useful Q&A collections on the web.

I also want to share what we’re seeing from our users in response to our Q&A offerings, and to preview what’s next for Ask.

Our Q&A strategy has started to pay off. We see increasing loyalty among users who conduct question searches on Ask. Simultaneously, we’ve seen a pronounced increase in the percentage of users on Ask who conduct queries in the form of a question – we now see 3x more questions on our site as a share of total queries than our competitors. And perhaps most rewarding for us is when we ask Internet users where they go for questions and answers online, they consistently rank first, making us the #1 brand for questions and answers online.

Online search in the form of natural-language questions was the ingenious proposition of the original Ask Jeeves in 1996, and frankly, it’s the reason we’re still around today after so many other Internet brands didn’t survive. 

As the leader in questions for more than a decade, one thing is crystal clear: Asking a question isn’t the same as searching.

Our users tell us that their expectation when asking a question is different from their expectation when conducting a search. When asking a question, they have a specific need for a specific piece of information. When conducting a search, they’re browsing for information, sorting through results to unearth the answer they’re looking for. 

Put another way, when asking a question, you expect the work to be done for you (much like when you ask a librarian for a book at the library). When conducting a search, you do the work yourself (skipping the librarian, and heading to the card catalog instead).

Further, with the advent of the social web, asking questions online is now more natural, as we have the ability to broadcast a question to real people, our friends, instead of hoping a computer can understand our inquiry.

I firmly believe that questions are the future of search, but search technologies as we know them today can’t deliver against this future.

And this brings me to what’s next for Ask.

We’re focused on solving the two shortcomings of search as it relates to questions:

1. Traditional search signals don’t work well for answers to questions.
2. The answers to many questions are wrong or don’t exist online.

Let me explain what I mean.

When you’re in the business of answering questions, the volume of inbound links to a given web page – a long-accepted search technique for ranking web sites – doesn’t tell you the site with the best answer to a user’s question; it just tells you the most popular page with relevant information. Nor does another search technique, text matching, sufficiently identify the best answer, as the text in a question is rarely found in the best answer. Same with a newer though established technique, pioneered at Ask, actually, that uses click-through behavior to determine a site’s relevance. Unlike presenting a text snippet that merely describes a site and a link, presenting the actual answer requires no click through to the  
destination site.

Below are some examples which bring this to life.
Without a wholly different approach, search engines will never be able to adequately answer all the questions that users increasingly have for them.

More importantly, no method that merely extracts answers from a published web page will ever be able to access the limitless number of answers that are unpublished on the Internet. Indeed, the information that is directly relevant to many questions most certainly exists; it’s just that it’s locked in people’s heads or captured in unpublished conversations, and therefore inaccessible by traditional search. Obviously, this is not a trivial deficiency in a world that is increasingly interconnected and clamoring for perspective, guidance, and shared knowledge at an interpersonal level online.
At, we’re dedicating ourselves to solving these problems and we’re approaching the solution in two primary ways: 

1.  Extracting and ranking existing answers
2. Indexing sources of answers that have not yet been published

To extract and rank existing answers, as opposed to merely ranking web pages that contain information, we have and are continuing to develop a unique set of algorithms and technologies that are based on new signals for relevance specifically tuned to questions and answers.

I’ve outlined a few of these below.

Pic3  Pic4  Pic5

Developing a new Q&A relevance algorithm that draws upon these signals is what we’re focused on building here at Ask, honing our ability to extract answers from the published Internet, and allowing us to fulfill a vastly larger volume of questions than can be done with existing search technologies.

But our work doesn’t end with extraction and ranking of existing, published answers. Where our vision really comes to life is in our efforts to index the sources of unpublished knowledge that can generate answers specifically in response to a question, in the moment it’s asked. This is the long tail of questions that are nearly impossible for search engines to answer, but which create incredible value for users when they are.

Here are some examples:


As we accelerate our strategy to answer the world’s questions, these “tough questions” are where we see huge opportunity, and where we are also focusing our efforts. And as you’ve probably guessed by now, we will do this unconventionally, harnessing the equity of the Ask brand, and our loyal, question-loving users to build a community of answerers available through Ask.

We’ve learned at Ask that while the existing Web can solve many problems, when you’re in the pursuit of answering questions, relying on published information sources can really only get you part of the way there. There is an infinite volume of answers in people’s heads that isn’t being indexed by the search engines today, and that can’t be successfully deployed against questions until you unleash it, in real-time, in response to the unique needs expressed by the person asking the question. 

This is the problem we’re in the process of solving here at Ask: Connecting our users’ questions to the best possible answers on the planet – be they published or unpublished. And as we solve this problem, we believe today’s multi-billion dollar questions and answers value proposition will one day transcend search as we know it today.

I’m very passionate about this, and so is our team at You’ll be hearing much more from us on this in the coming months.


Full Story // Leave comment