The last session of the SIGIR 2009 Industry Track was the enterprise search vendor panel. Originally, I’d hoped to have CTOs (or the equivalent) from Autonomy, Endeca, and FAST–specifically, Peter Menell (CTO of Autonomy), Adam Ferrari (CTO of Endeca), and Bjørn Olstad (formerly CTO of FAST, now a Microsoft Distinguished Engineer).
Since it would have been inappropriate for me to moderate a panel that included my own manager and representatives of two of Endeca’s competitors, I recruited Liz Liddy, who not only is the chair of SIGIR, but also whom I felt was uniquely qualified to understand both the research and business sides of this field. As if that wasn’t enough, James Allan managed to procure Bruce Croft, whose volume of achievements includes both a Salton Award and a Research in Information Science Award, the highest honors in information retrieval and information science. And I recruited our very own commenter-in-chief Jeremy Pickens to serve as a time-keeper. I wish I’d also enlisted him for the panel I moderated!
That, at least was the plan. Plans, of course, are subject to change. Only a couple of days after I reached out to Bjørn, I saw that he was promoted to replace former FAST CEO John Markus Lervik. He suggested Øystein Torbjørnsen, chief architect of FAST’s core search. Fine by me. Two weeks before the conference, however, Bjørn wrote to inform me Øystein had to back out for personal reasons. But he offered senior product manager (the acquisition shaved a notch off of his former title of VP of Product Management) Jeff Fried as a substitute. All good.
Fortunately, I knew that I could trust my manager to live up to his commitments. I did have to fill out his online registration form on site at 7:30am, but he more than made up for it by buying me drinks after the conference. Two down, one to go.
Then there was Autonomy. Strangely, despite having working in this space for nearly a decade, I’d never actually met anyone from Autonomy. That meant I’d have to cold-call someone to have any chance of getting them to participate in the panel. Who to call? I decided that, since industry conference participation was probably under the umbrella of corporate marketing, I’d try their head of PR, one of the few Autonomy employees whose contact information is published on the open web.
Success! Or so I thought at the time. She told me that Peter Menell would participate in the panel, and, with my roster complete, I proceeded to start publicizing the Industry Track. However, a week and a half before the conference, she calls me to let me know that Peter can’t attend, and that in fact no one from Autonomy is available to take his place.
I was on vacation at the time, but of course conference organizers don’t get to take vacation, at least not when panelists cancel at the last minute. I started mulling over my options.
Including an empty chair on the panel would have given me the satisfaction of exposing Autonomy’s snub (both to me personally and to the information retrieval community), but I realized that wouldn’t be at all fair to the attendees.
Instead, I started going through the short list of possible panelists, favoring those who lived in the Boston area. And then, by fortuitous coincidence, I received an email from Raul Valdes-Perez, Executive Chairman and co-founder of Vivisimo: “If by any chance you need any last-minute help or stand-in, let me know.” I made a mental note to investigate Raul as a possible psychic and then happily welcomed him on board. And breathed a sigh of relief.
For all of the upheaval in bringing the panel together, the actual session went like clockwork. The panelists were respectful, disciplined, and yet not afraid to take risks in their stances. They talked about the challenges of holistically evaluating search applications, the interplay between relevance ranking and faceted search, the pros and cons of federated search, and much more. HCIR was a major theme, though perhaps that’s not surprising given the participants. As usual, Mary McKenna took more detailed notes.
I take pride both in the overall quality of the panel and specifically in the performance of my manager, whose background is more in systems and databases than in information retrieval. Of course, I’m biased, and he does sign my expense forms. 🙂
Regardless, I think I can muster enough objectivity to say that the panel was a huge success. Bruce Croft’s response, which also ended the Industry Track, was a fitting valedictory address: he urged us not to just walk away from the conversation. I am proud of the success of the Industry Track as an event, but I hope it is only the beginning of a deeper mingling of researchers and practitioners.
To James Allan and Jay Aslam, the SIGIR 2009 co-chairs, I thank you for the privilege and opportunity to organize the Industry Track. And, to whoever takes on such a responsibility at future SIGIR conferences, I hope you can benefit from my experience without having to relive it!