Category Archives: thoughts

Why Embedly?

I’m now about 3 months in to my job as a Worker at Embedly. After an adventurous search for my first big-people job, I want to take a look at just how I landed here.

My job search took a bit longer than I wanted it too, but there were a few things that contributed to that, one of them being that the time around Christmas and New Year’s Day is an awful time to get interviews. The search ended with a bang, though, when I got 3 job offers in the span of a week.

My choices were Embedly, E La Carte, and Google.

E La Carte is making tablets for restaurant tables to handle ordering, paying, and playing games. I think they have a big opportunity to be really successful. They have the prototypical startup feel, working out of a house in downtown Palo Alto, and a team that I would have enjoyed working with.

Google is Google. Their company is now a verb. As an undergrad, it was basically a dream of mine to work there. And their offer was significantly higher than the others. And they gave me a rental car and hotel room with a jacuzzi to watch breaking bad in after the interview.

Embedly was a little harder to evaluate at first. What we do is sometimes difficult to explain; it’s the kind of thing that, when you realize you need it once, the general idea jumps out at you. Short of that, the tour is a great demonstration.

The initial hook that kept me interested in Embedly was the team. Only 3 people (at the time), but all with an attitude that really drew me in. Get shit done, and enjoy yourself while doing it. It’s hard to ask for more from a job, and if you can find that kind of job, you’re a lucky person. I’m a lucky person.

Another important aspect of Embedly is the fact that we have a legitimate product with an actual revenue-generating business model that doesn’t depend solely on advertising.

Back to the “get shit done” principle, another good thing about Embedly is that we are flexible in languages and technologies that we use; whatever fits the task. I’m a pretty big fan of python myself, but I think it’s good practice to explore other languages too.

Being able to work quickly is something that drew me to startups in general. At Embedly, I can push code live basically whenever I want to; there are no hoops to jump through.

Beyond the day-to-day, Embedly is at an exciting phase as a business. I started a week after Embedly moved from a shared office space to it’s own office near North Station. We’ve already made another hire since I joined, and we’re still hungry to hire again.

Since I joined Embedly, I’ve spent a lot of time making sure that we do what we do better. Faster, more efficiently, on a larger scale. But there’s also room to do more than what we already do. We have big plans for new features to build that will extend the Embedly service. That’s exciting.

I think that I would have been happy with any of the 3 job options, it was really about choosing the better good. The annoying thing about choices is that you never get to see how the other ones would’ve worked out, but I can definitely say that Embedly was a good choice.

Hey Google Scholar, where is my citation visualization tool?

I have been a bit latent about writing here in the past couple weeks, but it’s not for lack of motivation. Since commencement a few weeks ago, I’ve spent just about every day flinging myself at the wall that is my thesis, trying to get it to crack. My thesis is by far top priority –I have less than 3 weeks to finish up — so I have a hard time letting myself work on anything else. But maybe changing gears for a little bit will be helpful; and this post won’t be entirely off topic.

In doing research for my thesis, I have had more than a few run-ins with Google’s academic paper search tool, Google Scholar. While it is both familiar (in interface) and fast, it lacks some more advanced search features that it seems like any researcher would inevitably want; sort by date comes to mind, and maybe the ability to comment on papers (like Google provides for businesses).

Thinking bigger, what I would really like to see from Google Scholar is a citation visualization tool that would allow a researcher to visually follow citations, jumping from paper to paper. This would make it much easier to get up to speed on a given topic. It is tedious to keep track of the connections between a group of papers by hand, only made worse by the various ways different authors reference their citations in papers (First letter of last name of each author, followed by last 2 digits of the publishing year? How about just a citation number!). Citation information already exists, so visualize it!

Google’s lack of this kind of tool for wading through research papers is perhaps made even more surprising when you consider that the original idea behind Google’s search algorithm draws heavily from a technique called citation analysis, which is all about considering the connections between academic papers.

It doesn’t actually surprise me that Google doesn’t provide this kind of visualization, they tend to be stronger with back-end problems than front-end, user experience type projects. But what they could (and should!) do is provide a Google Scholar API. In fact, considering the ridiculous amount of APIs they do provide, it’s a wonder one doesn’t exist! There is even a thread in the Google API issue tracker requesting a Google Scholar API that has been active since September 2008.

To be fair, the task of keeping track of academic research papers is made painful by the various paywalls that many papers sit behind, and perhaps Google isn’t confident enough in their data set (or, the data set is too inconsistent) to provide a robust API. Still, this application would not only be very cool, but could also make research in general more efficient.

There are already tools that basically do what I’ve described (e.g. paperscope for astrophysics papers) from smaller sets of papers. So once Google finally does provide a Google Scholar API to its awesome collection of many papers across many topics, it won’t be long before someone creates a citation visualization tool from it, and probably plenty of other cool mashups too.

P.S. Hey Google, feel free to hire me to work on this :)

Radiolab: What Does Technology Want?

I was recently turned on to the addictive Radiolab podcast by a friend; I ended up listening to 6 episodes in a row.

The episode titled “What Does Technology Want?” features guest Kevin Kelly talking about the idea that maybe technology has some intrinsic guiding force that pushes it in a certain direction, similar to how a tree grows toward sunlight.

It seems like a more common perspective on technology is that it’s guided by what people want from it. People wanted to be able to communicate over long distances, so we invented the telegraph. People wanted to haul things, so we invented steam engines.

Instead, the podcast presents the perspective that ideas are bound to occur to someone given the right conditions. The example of the light bulb is used: the concept of the light bulb was apparently conceived separately by several people, all around the same time.

This is a really cool way to think about innovation — as long as you don’t get caught up on the idea that maybe creativity isn’t so much creative, as inevitable; I don’t — and I think I can pick out some examples of it.

In the past 5 to 8 years (ballpark), there has been major growth in mobile computing, carried on the back of semiconductor manufacturing advances and growing data networks. This has led to huge amounts of people getting directions while driving, sending emails from restaurants, and playing scrabble in bed (this guyyy).

In parallel to this proliferation of portable computers, major progress was being made in the field of position, navigation, and timing. Specifically, the Global Positioning System (GPS). Some really smart people worked really hard to solve a surprisingly difficult problem: providing an accurate location of anything, anywhere in the world.

So now we have people traveling all over the place with internet connected phones. And we have a network of satellites in orbit allowing those phones to figure out exactly where they are. I can see a pretty reasonable argument that it was only a matter of time before the idea of location aware services began to occur to (probably many) people.

When I think of foursquare (which I just joined), it seems like an almost obvious idea. Where is a good place to go out tonight? Trending locations. Even better, check-in based specials. Super cool.

Perhaps another example is internet search. As the internet started to snowball, it got to the point where there was way more content than any person could keep track of. Again, it’s not unreasonable to think the it “just made sense” to come up with some way to find specific things. It’s a logical next step. Pepper in a bit of algorithms, courtesy of math and computer science, and soon you’ve got everyone’s favorite ubercompany, Google.

So considering this perspective, can we get some insight on what’s next on technology’s agenda? There are certainly plenty of entrepreneurs trying to come up with the next big thing, but from what perspective are they searching?

I don’t want to tip my hand, but if I ever decide a new idea is strong enough to fully commit to, it’s almost certain that I will have been led to it by things I’ve previously done.