Maria Zhang, a software engineer and startup founder who has worked at companies including Microsoft and Zillow, knows a thing or two about gleaning useful information from huge volumes of data. She and her team are using that approach to help people find places to go, and things to buy.
Their new app, Alike, debuted for the iPhone this week. Users enter restaurants or other places they like, and the Alike app recommends other places that are similar nearby. It’s the first step in a broader vision for the startup, which aims to improve how people find and buy a wide variety of products.
Meet our latest Geek of the Week, and continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
What are you launching, and how did this particular product come into being? We are a bunch of big data geeks who love to shop. After working in the corporate world, we really wanted to spend our time building something that would help everyone make better purchase decisions in our lives. The current version of Alike is the first released product in our line.
Alike is a simple iPhone and web app that enables you to find more places you will love based on the ones you like. Input any place you like — a favorite restaurant or fun bowling alley — and Alike will find similar places that you’ll love. Our mission is to make searching on the go simple and easy so everyone will end up having wonderful experiences while out and about.
What can you tell us about the behind-the-scenes technology, and how it works? We’ve painstakingly collected hundreds of terabytes of data and crafted complex algorithms to really understand the essence of a place. We compare these essences to discover similar places. The great thing about this big data approach is that there is no waiting for a critical mass of 500 of your friends or 10 million other people for the service to be useful. Alike is instantly useful out of the proverbial box with the first person using it.
What are your future product plans? The next step is to extend our database and algorithms to cover all frequent purchases we make everyday. There are so many times we are unhappy with the little things we buy because it’s not worth the time to research them. We want to make sure the next time you buy a pair of shoes or a bottle of lotion you can do the essential research on the spot and be delighted with your purchase.
What do you do, and what does it mean to you? I founded and run a startup, and we build what I like to think of as intelligent mobile experiences. I’m really excited by this because I feel we’re in a new era. Smartphones are proliferating, information is exploding, and high performance computing is cheap and easily accessible. This lets us build mobile apps that are super smart and powered by huge amounts of data.
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field?
Information is exploding, and there’s an exponentially increasing need to find new ways search for or discover information. Search used to be about picking smart keywords and matching them to URLs. Now, it’s becoming more personal and takes all sorts of inputs, like scanning a barcode, taking a picture, or just picking something you already know in order to discover things you don’t. One day, our smart phones will be able to deliver what information we want, without the need to ask for it — hopefully in a non-creepy way!
Where do you find your inspiration? Cooking relaxes me and helps me think through tough problems or decisions, such as how to leverage resources, what the right content and presentation are, or how to deliver quality under time constraints. … And when that fails, there’s always good peach martini!
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Automatic Rice Cooker :-). While it’ll be tough to live without a smartphone or other modern gadgets, as a mother of two kids, the convenience of set-it, forget-it ricemaking cannot be overstated. See my answer below on gadget I couldn’t live without.
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you?
I work in a big open space with way-too-many computers, seven different brands of monitors, stacked on top of random boxes, and wall of packaged noodles. I share that space with the rest of my team. (Picture at right.) It’s great, we have a lot of fun.
Last week we found a baby squirrel near one of the old server racks. We fed it and kept it warm until animal control came—they said it was a protected sub species. So we’re not just building great software, we’re protecting cute members of the animal kingdom!
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I like to make a list at the start of the day, and then prioritize it to make sure I focus on what’s important. And I always reserve some time for myself, work out, take a walk or just veg for a few minutes.
Mac, Windows or Linux? Ubuntu Linux. Everyone knows that’s what the cool kids use. (I wish StarOffice was less ghetto, though.)
Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? Kathryn Janeway. She’s intelligent and much more curious than the other three, which is what a geek like me likes. That she’s a strong but feminine leader in a very techy world is just a nice plus.
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? No contest, definitely the Time Machine.
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Exactly what I’m doing now. That’s what happened, and here I am now. :-)
I once waited in line for … I hate lines. I don’t wait in lines. It’s a principle.
Except this one time when Jack Black and Tenacious D were at the Paramount. I waited in line for two hours. It was worth it!
Your role models: Has to be Hello Kitty. She’s influenced pop culture everywhere despite having no mouth, opposable thumbs, and having extremely short limbs. Besides, she pulls off pink so well!
Greatest Game In History: Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Most kids today don’t even know what it is! It was an awesome grand strategy set in China during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It had CGA graphics and ran from multiple 5.25” floppy disks. I played it on a hacked network when I was a student.
Best Gadget Ever: Rice Cooker. Keep your smartphone, give me some instant and perfectly steamed rice anytime.
First computer: Apple II
Current phone: Plural! iPhone 4S, HTC MyTouch, Nexus, Samsung Focus, you name it!
Favorite app: Besides Alike, I really like Pandora.
Favorite hangout: What does hangout mean? :-) I like hanging out in my office, we have a really cool place. Apparently baby squirrels like to hang out here too. (see answer above)
Favorite cause: Helping underprivileged kids get access to food, water, shelter and education.
Most important technology of 2012: I think 2012 was more about a lot of evolutionary tech changes. I’m excited about how wireless charging has made a lot of commercial strides this year. I’m hoping this is the start of a trend towards wireless power and gadgets that aren’t handicapped by the need for a large battery.
Most important technology of 2015: There’s a new tech I’ve been following they call “Strong AI’ – we’re talking sci-fi stuff. It’s about programs that can learn the way humans do, by observation and pattern recognition from random interactions, rather than humans training it. 2015 may be the dawn of a new robotic civilization, and I for one welcome our new machine masters!
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Always be curious. Always ask questions. And always know where your rice cooker is.