March 26th, 2010 | Published in Google Student Blog
Hi there! It's Caitlin again. I'm back for another episode of "Caitlin Talks to an Engineer." I tracked down Software Engineer Alice during a recent visit to the NYC office!
Remember - if your'e interested in becoming an engineer at Google, visit www.google.com/students. We're still looking for talented students to fill positions around the globe!
Caitlin: How long have you been at Google?
Alice: Five years. I started in February 2005 and transitioned to Google Maps in 2007.
C: What's your role within Google Maps?
A: I work on Local Search quality. Basically, my team ensures that the results you get via Local Search are relevant. The coolest part is that we work across many different countries, so we need to take a lot of cultural and geographical information into account--like addresses, for instance. In Germany, people use concatenated street names ('Widestrasse' with no space between the name and the street). Sometimes the number is at the front, sometimes it's at the back. We have to think about all the possibilities. Our work is linked to real life--the way people think and deal with situations and problems.
C: What's the weirdest thing you've discovered about another country or had to work into your plan?
A: Well, we were about to launch a new version when we suddenly realized that we were turning up bad results for the query "pub” in the UK.
C: That would not have gone over too well! 'Pub' is probably the number one thing people use UK Local Search to find!
A: Exactly, well, in other countries it might not have been so bad--but this is the UK we're talking about! My team doesn't normally encounter crazy emergencies like this because we don't implement new features--we just ensure that results are better. We spend a lot of time looking at and trying to understand data. For example, one of the big problems with the 'pub' query was that we didn't understand that in the UK 'inn' and 'pub' can actually mean the same thing. So, when people search for 'pub' we may want to return results with the word 'inn.' Of course, anyone without this insight wouldn’t understand why we return 'inn' when the search is for a 'pub'--but in the UK you have to. So, you need some local knowledge to help you understand.
C: And once you realized this, you were able to make the right adjustments to Local Search?
A: Yes--we found an optimal solution that worked for the UK and as many other locations as possible. When we think about quality we talk in terms of wins and losses. You can change something to work better for lots of queries but you may negatively affect a small percentage. There's always a trade off. In summary: while it's impossible to be perfect, we still need to strive for universal applicability. My job is to help ensure that we're providing the best results for every local query, no matter where the person is searching from or what he’s searching for.
C: What do you do when you're not being a Google software engineer?
A: Haiti is a big passion for me. I’ve done volunteer work with Haitian schools for the past several years--helping them install new technology, writing educational documents, etc. When the earthquake happened I joined with a bunch of Googlers from all over the world to work on our Person Finder tool. This application has allowed people in Haiti and Chile to find information about missing friends and family. Technology has had a massive impact on the disaster response. One of my friends was able to use his Android phone to relay SOS messages to local rescue teams, via the US Department of State (read about his story here). So, mobile phones and other technology have actually saved people’s lives. I think this is great--and there’s so much more we can do in this area.
C: Finally, I really need to know: pirates versus ninjas--who wins?
A: Ummm...it's hard to picture them together...maybe they'd meet and it would be like a love story. They would become best friends and take over the world--a combined force of pirates and ninjas.
C: They'd have to beat the cowboys first. Thanks for talking with me, Alice!
A: You're welcome, Caitlin!