April 22, 2014: People of ACM: Yoelle Maarek
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Yoelle Maarek heads Yahoo Labs in Israel and India, and is a Vice President at Yahoo. Her team conducts research activities impacting products such as Yahoo! Mail, Yahoo! Answers and Yahoo! Search. Previously, as Director of the Google Haifa Engineering Center, which she opened in 2006, she led the team that launched "Suggest," Google's query completion feature on google.com and YouTube worldwide. From 1989 to 2006, Maarek was with IBM Research, first in the US, and then in Israel, where she held a number of technical and management positions, eventually leading the search and collaboration department and becoming a Distinguished Engineer.
She received a PhD degree in Computer Science from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. She graduated from the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees in Paris, France, and earned a "DEA" (graduate degree) in Computer Science from Paris VI University the same year. Her research interests include information retrieval, web search, web mining and web applications. She has published more than 70 articles in these fields and is active in the research community.
Maarek served as regular or senior program committee member at the most recent SIGIR, WWW and WSDM conferences, and as program committee co-chair of WWW 2009, WSDM 2012 and SIGIR 2012. She is a member of the Board of Governors of the Technion, chairing its student affairs committee. She was named an ACM Fellow in 2013.
How difficult is it to balance the stated double mission of your team to impact both products and systems and the academic research community?
We are particularly fortunate at Yahoo Labs since this double mission is not only a founding principle of Yahoo Labs but also the basis for evaluating our research scientists. When an organization "walks the talk" and takes both internal and external wins into account in its employee evaluation mechanisms, you know that it is real. Regularly publishing at top venues, earning a best paper award (we had four out of Yahoo Labs in Haifa in four years!), and chairing a program committee, are as valued and necessary as launching a Yahoo product feature. Very few industrial research organizations follow this double approach today.
How optimistic are you that your research in big usage data in web search will lead to the next evolution in this field?
I am optimistic by nature :-). All researchers need to think big, and be some sort of an idealist, in order to keep pursuing their dreams. I "believed" in information retrieval and search in the late '80s, when doing my PhD, and this was pre-Web. So I have been lucky enough to see at least one (technical) dream fulfilled! I also strongly "believe" that users are key to Web research, and we need to listen to their explicit requests and implicit actions while taking into account three conflicting factors: respecting privacy (for legal and perception reasons), personalizing (but not too much), and gathering the "right" size of usage data.
As an accomplished researcher and practitioner who merited academic as well as professional recognition in several countries, how has this global exposure influenced your career path?
I am not sure whether it is the global exposure or rather the remoteness that influenced my career path. I decided to move from IBM research in the US to Israel in the '90s. Being remote when most of the action happened in the US was clearly a challenge, but as with most challenges, it was also an opportunity. It forced me to be more focused, to work only on the most strategic challenges in order to be noticed, and to over-communicate in order to not be forgotten. One additional must, which I hope I naturally had, was being a trusted partner, appreciated by my colleagues. Without developing some chemistry with your partners who may be time zones away, they will have no urge for taking calls at odd hours.
As a renowned researcher, innovator and leader in Web search and information retrieval, what advice would you give to young people considering careers in computing?
Coming back to dreams and optimism, I would advise them to believe in their dreams, follow their instincts but at the same time remain humble and always question their hypotheses. I would also suggest they follow these best practices that I discovered while working remotely (focus, strategic thinking, over-communication, and "being nice!"), as these help in any configuration.