In the 13 years that I lived on the southern coast of China, 10 of which were in Hong Kong working as a journalist covering IT, I met and interviewed scores of remarkably accomplished Chinese IT professionals and technology entrepreneurs. So it was a welcome return to one of my favorite comfort zones when I had the opportunity recently to interview Dr. Yue Zhuge.
With a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford and high-profile positions at Yahoo and Microsoft under her belt, Yue is tapping the power of advanced algorithms and machine learning to provide a service that’s as practical as it is cool: managing your photos. If that doesn’t sound like all that big a deal, think about it. If you’re like most of us, you have photos scattered everywhere—on your phone, on your computer, in Dropbox, in Picasa, and in any number of other places. Beyond that, you probably have the photo of the shopping list you texted to your significant other in the same place you have those precious photos you took of the kids and the family pet, which are right there with the photo you took of the humorous misspelling on that sign you saw so you could post it on Twitter. Wouldn’t it be cool if you had a smart way to easily organize that mess? Yeah, Yue thought so, too.
That’s why she formed a startup to create Ivy Gallery, an app that enables you to organize and manage all of your photos, regardless of where they reside. The current version relies largely on the photos’ metadata, including time and location. But the next version, the release date for which has yet to be determined, will incorporate advanced image processing technology that will recognize things like screenshots and what Yue calls “camera notes”—photos of random written materials like shopping lists, business cards, and menus that we take for various reasons, but never seem to get around to dumping when they’re no longer needed.
Ivy Gallery is a free app, so I asked Yue how she plans to monetize the service. She said there are a lot of potential revenue models:
For example, if you have all of your photos on your phone, and you want to share them with your friends, we could provide storage for that, and we could charge for it under a premium model. We could provide a photo printing service by connecting to a printing company. There are a lot of ways we can make money later, once we have the users.
Yue left Yahoo last year to start Ivy Gallery. She had worked as an engineer at two Silicon Valley startups from 1999 to 2002, and she said it was time to get back into startup mode, this time by doing her own thing:
I always wanted to do something on my own, and I saw a great opportunity in the photo space. I’m a very visual person—I really like images and photos myself. And I recognized this trend—not just that people are taking a lot of photos, but that they’re using photos very differently. And having worked at two startups before, I like the startup life.
I asked Yue how she would characterize the difference between working at Yahoo, and working at Microsoft. She said the experiences were quite different:
I was at Yahoo twice—in Sunnyvale for three-and-a-half years as a data engineer and architect, and then I went back to China, and worked for Microsoft for five years, and then I worked for Yahoo again for another year as a product head. The two companies are quite different—I learned a lot from both of them. At Yahoo, I learned a lot about building very creative products for consumers. I also learned that Yahoo is a very typical Silicon Valley company. Microsoft is quite different—I learned a lot about execution, about building high-quality products. People can have a lot of great ideas, but execution is what matters—you get things done on time, without many bugs, and you execute again and again with high quality. At both companies, the best thing was that the people were great.
Finally, I asked Yue about the challenges she’s faced as a female technology executive. She said being female has actually benefitted her and the work she’s doing:
Once you rise up to a leadership position, it’s actually a huge advantage. It may be harder, earlier in your career, but it’s an excellent position to be a female leader in technology today. On the one hand, as a technologist, I enjoy the intellectual challenge, as well as the privilege of working with the best people, men and women. At the same time, women are the major force behind consumer needs and spending. So with a product background, and a real understanding of those needs, I think it’s a great benefit to leverage technology, combined with the product and consumer understanding. Lastly, if you’re a female leader in technology, you actually get noticed, and that’s a real benefit. So it’s more positive than it is a challenge.