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In Conversation With Craig Silverstein, Khan Academy

Arun Saigal

Craig Silverstein was the first employee hired by Google's founders and created many of the original IT components to support Google's deployment and growth. Silverstein  joined the Google team while doing his Ph.D  in computer science at Stanford, where his  focus was on information retrieval and data mining. Silverstein contributed his expertise in compression algorithms to Google while it was still a research project at Stanford. His other academic pursuits include super-efficient versions of basic data structures such as hash tables as well as efficient clustering of large data sets using Scatter/Gather and latent semantic indexing as it relates to clustering, which he explored at Xerox PARC.

Silverstein graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Harvard College, from which he also received Phi Beta Kappa distinction, the Microsoft Technical Scholarship, and twice received the Derek Bok Award for Teaching Excellence.

Recently he left Google to join Khan Academy where he is focused on the infrastructure that supports Khan Academy, from its databases to its developer tools.

He spoke to Arun Saigal, an intern at Khan Academy, about his work and his reason to join Khan Academy.

What motivated you to join the Google team ?

I was interested in search (or "information retrieval" as it was called then) even before I knew about Google. When I saw a demonstration of it at Stanford and saw how much better it was than existing products, even commercial ones, I wanted to be part of it. This was all before Google was a company; I started working on it when it was still a grad student project.

Did you know right in the beginning that Google was going to be the mega success it is?

Definitely not -- I knew even then that luck plays a huge role in the success of a company.  I joined because I was excited by the potential, but I recognized that that potential may not translate into success.

If there are three things that you could point to that made Google a huge success, what would they be?

First is that Google came along at the right time: when the web was getting big enough that search was becoming an essential way of using it (even for a while after Google started, arguably, the web was small enough that a directory listing like the original Yahoo was enough), but not yet so big that a new start-up couldn't practically download the entire web.

Second, the founders were both technical and business savvy. That's a rare combination, but served Google very well.

Third is that the focus was on culture and products rather than money and success, which helped a lot as the company grew. In particular, we were very worried that the IPO would "destroy" Google, or at least be very distracting, but it was almost not noticable in the day-to-day working of the company.

Google has a very unique culture. How did this culture emerge?

We basically set up Google to be the grad school of our dreams: free food, lots of opportunity for play, collaborative, time to focus on big ideas.  And we defended this culture vigorously, sometimes rejecting job candidates that were good technically but did not fit the culture well, for instance were too aggressive or negative.

What was the best part of being a super successful entrepreneur?

Getting to see an idea that you're passionate about making a real difference in people's lives.

What motivated you to quit and come to the Khan Academy?

My projects at Google happened to all draw to an end at the same time, and when I was looking around for what I wanted to do next, I looked both at projects within Google and those outside.  While there were lots of possibilities, the one I found myself drawn to the most was Khan.

I see lots of reminders of the early days of Google, in particular that I think online education now is a cresting wave in the same way online search was in Google's early days.  There are lots of exciting changes afoot, and lots of exciting ideas in the air, and I found Khan's approach and style to be very appealing.  I'm excited to be in this area now.

What do you think are the major challenges in the education space?

Education is obviously very difficult to do well -- people have been complaining "education is failing our kids" for decades now.  When you see such long-lasting complaints about a problem that everyone agrees is important, that's a big tip-off there are no easy solutions.  In fact, there's not even any easy agreeing on what the problems are!

Khan Academy can, I think, be part of a solution, in that it takes advantages of some of the real benefits of technology: letting students set the pace and direction, providing an infinite number of problems for students to try before they've mastered a concept, providing great analytics so teachers and coaches can see at a glimpse the easiest way to help a student move forward.

Are there opportunities for start-ups in this space?

Well evidently, since there are many start-ups in the space right now, and several of them are doing quite well.  Nobody knows what approach to online education is going to be most successful -- if any -- so there's room for lots of companies and organizations to experiment.

South Asians love to know about family background. Could you tell us about your background?

I am generic East European Jewish.  I was born in Guam, but grew up mostly in Gainesville, FL.  I went to public high school.

How did it prepare you to become a success?

How to separate nature and nurture?  My parents never pushed me to do more academically, but I always wanted to do a lot, so they never really needed to.  I think just being in an environment where education was valued, and where I could feel comfortable trying, was what helped the most.

Any advice for youngsters aspiring to be entrepreneurs?

Don't focus on "being an entrepreneur."  Find something that you're passionate about, and figure out the best way to make it happen.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you.

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