March 23

Gary Flake – Scientist, Author, and Former CTO of Search at Salesforce (#42)

Author, Founder, Machine Learning, Search, Software Engineering, Startup



Dr. Gary William Flake is an independent scientist, author, and inventor, that currently advises over a dozen startups, public companies, universities, and non-profits.

Gary was previously the CTO of Search and Data Science at where he managed salesforce’s entire search business unit. Prior to that, Gary was CEO of Clipboard Inc., which was acquired by in May of 2013. Before founding Clipboard, Gary was a Technical Fellow at Microsoft (2005-2010), where he was responsible for bridging Microsoft Research and MSN, and for helping set the technology vision and future direction of the MSN portal, web search, desktop search and commercial search efforts. In this capacity, he founded and directed Live Labs, Microsoft’s greatest investment in applied research focused on the Internet, which was responsible for groundbreaking technologies such as Seadragon, Photosynth, Deepfish, Listas, Volta, and Pivot.

Prior to joining Microsoft, Gary founded Yahoo! Research Labs, ran Yahoo!s corporate R&D activities and company-wide innovation effort, and was Overture’s Chief Science Officer. Before joining Overture, Gary was a research scientist at NEC Research Institute and the leader of its Web data-mining program.

Gary has filed over 150 patents and has numerous publications spanning over 20 years which have focused on machine learning, data mining, and complex systems. Gary has also appeared in leading national publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, Forbes Magazine, Nature Science, CNET News, Computer World, Fast Company, TechCrunch and Mashable, and has presented at leadership events such as the TED Conference.

Gary earned his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Maryland, has served on numerous academic committees and university advisory boards, and wrote the award-winning book, The Computational Beauty of Nature, which is used in college courses worldwide. Gary was also the 2010 winner of the World Technology Award in the category of individual achievement in software, and was named one of the “Creativity 50” in 2009.

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Episode Summary

“Your work can only go so far if you can’t communicate it. Your ability to communicate the importance of it can really make a difference between it having an impact that is tremendous versus nothing at all.”

—Gary Flake

In this episode we’ll cover:

  1. How Gary got a job doing research in college after sneaking into a graduate-level seminar and asking questions
  2. Why Gary got getting recruited into becoming the Chief Science Officer at Overture
  3. The difference between conducting research in academia versus conducting research in the corporate world.

Key Milestones

[2:05] – Gary’s career had a few phases: the first was academic where he went on to do research as a scientist. the second was working in search at companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft, and Salesforce. The last phase is moving on to become an independent researcher and inventor.
[4:51] – Flake was an inconsistent student and a jock. But what remained constant was his love for science and technology.
[5:45] – As a 13-year-old kid, Gary saved up and bought a Timex Sinclair computer. He basically taught himself how to code on it.
[8:15] – Gary’s first machine learning algorithm was a 1 bit sound digitizer. He would record his voice through it and it would sound like a 1940’s radio.
[9:50]- Gary went to college at Clemson University where he would get into all sorts of trouble. He talks about hacking and sneaking into graduate-level seminars. After Gary asked a few deep questions at one of those seminars, a visiting scientist offered Gary a job on the spot.
[13:11] – After working in academia and writing a book, Gary decided to make a shift into machine learning. A lot of research scientists were making this jump as well. In his own words, Gary was chasing ‘bigger data sets’.
[15:55] – After writing a few research papers, Gary got national press attention. From there, he was recruited and placed as the Chief Science Officer of Overture.
[18:41] – At Overture, the stakes became much higher, and change could happen quickly. One of Gary’s first projects was adding an automatic spell corrector to the search queries – this project earned the company tens of millions of dollars just in the first year.
[23:17] – Gary discovered that some search companies were using faulty algorithms to prop up their numbers. This led to some humbling discoveries. Who was it?
[26:05] – Gary talks about writing his book The Computational Beauty of Nature after getting his Ph.D.
[31:03] – Flake’s personal keys to a successful career:
a) Communication
b) Systems thinking
c) Hiring those who complement your skillset
[37:28] – Gary admits that he was naive working at Yahoo in its heyday. He was young and had trouble understanding people’s motivations inside the company. At Microsoft, there was better collaboration among teams.

Additional Resources

Selected Links from the episode:
Read more about Gary Flake on Wikipedia
Gary’s Book: Computational Beauty of Nature
Watch Gary’s Ted Talk





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