On making data meaningful, working hard at being lucky, and improving search discovery.
FORTUNE — Erin McKean always wanted to work on dictionaries. Lexicography is not usually the first choice of hobby for an eight-year-old, but no matter — neither friends nor family tried to talk her out of it. The North Carolina native grew up to become the editor-in-chief for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, picking up a pair of degrees from the University of Chicago along the way.
At OUP, McKean began to question how effective paper dictionaries were for the English language. Every word is a data point that has no meaning unless it is put in context, she believed, and a digital medium was the only way to link them together. If the printed dictionary is an atlas, she reasoned, the digital dictionary is a GPS device.
McKean’s idea was to create an online dictionary, dubbed Wordnik, that not only defined words but also showed how words related to each other, thereby increasing the chance that people can find the exact word that they are looking for. Today, the technology behind Wordnik is used to power McKean’s latest company, Reverb. Reverb’s namesake product is a news discovery mobile application that recommends stories based on contextual clues in the words of the article. (Even if that word is “lexicography.”)
McKean, 42, spoke with Fortune.
1. Who in technology do you admire most? Why?
Dame Steve Shirley has been incredibly inspiring for women in tech. She’s amazing. She was one of the first computer programmers in the U.K., and her given name is Stephanie but she goes by Steve to avoid prejudice and bias. She started a company of all female software engineers and I.P.O.’d for one billion pounds in the 1990s. She set everything up so that the women could work from home. They used tape recordings of office noises that they could play when they were on the phone so people wouldn’t know that were working from home.
She’s a kickass software engineer and basically had to work twice as hard as everyone else, but she made it work. She was also a refugee from the Holocaust and was sent to the U.K. as a child.
2. Which companies do you admire? Why?
I admire O’Reilly Media. They’ve democratized access to technical publications. Their Safari Books Online site is amazing. Also in publishing, I admire The Atlantic for what they’re doing with Quartz. It’s a cool way to connect people and ideas and an interesting concept. I think it’s really important for companies to have a strong voice, and one company like that is [the online clothing retailer] Betabrand. They’re really funny. I don’t wear 90% of the stuff they make, but I read their e-mails every week.
3. Which area of technology excites you most?
I really feel like we’re making huge strides in discovering relevance out of the mounds of data that we’ve accumulated. It used to be amazing just to have this amount of data, but now we’re like, “What do we do now?” I think that the next round of innovation — and what we’re building [at Reverb] — is around having to find what you need out of the haystack of stuff that you have accumulated and the even bigger haystack of content that exists out in the world.
It doesn’t do you any good if you can’t find it. We’ve all turned into data hoarders, in a way, and there has to be some way to re-organize our overflowing garages. And I’m really happy that where the future is going is based on text and meaning more than metadata or secondary signals, such as “likes.”
4. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?
I think people should work hard at being lucky. It sounds like a joke, but research indicates that people who take the time to be open to new experiences and take the time to be more observant are provably luckier than people who don’t. People should make time to be lucky.
I think I was forced into being lucky, because as a dictionary editor, my job was to read everything. People who want to build something new have a tremendous advantage if they can make analogies with other industries. It may seem like you need to focus on one little problem, but you need to see the connections between other problems and yours and make the analogies. Don’t say no to new opportunities unless you absolutely have to.
5. What is the best advice you ever received?
I don’t know who told me this, but there’s something that’s attributed to Maya Angelou that gets repeated a lot, and that’s that “People don’t remember what you did or what you said, but they do remember how you made them feel.” It’s really important.
I make a point of answering our customer service e-mail because if people take the time to let us know about a problem, I want to thank them. I want them to feel good. I don’t want them to feel that the time and effort that they put in was a waste. Sometimes I have to tell them that their suggestion is not something we’re going to do, but I thank them for their feedback.
Sometimes the solution to the actual problem isn’t as important as how you make people feel about the problem.
6. What’s the next big project you want to tackle?
I think that we’re emerging from the age of search. It was this fantastic hammer that could be used on every possible thing that could be nail-shaped. Now I think we’re entering into another age, one of discovery. So what we’re really trying to tackle — and I’m evangelizing for it and so is Reverb as a whole — is trying to show people how much more fun their lives can be when you add discovery back into it. How can you demonstrate to folks that they can learn what they didn’t know they wanted to know? We want to make people’s lives richer and connect them with the right information at the right time, even when they didn’t even know it existed.
7. What challenges are facing your business right now?
Ironically for a company that’s focused on discovery, getting people to discover what we can do is one of our challenges. We’re focused on distribution for the Reverb app, because we know from experience that once people see it and play with it, they’re like “Oh, I didn’t know I wanted this!” We’re carving out a new space in a new mode in a new category, so it’s in the app store under news, but it’s a discovery reader. It’s a big challenge, but it’s a surmountable challenge.
8. If you could have done anything differently in your career, what would it have been?
I think I would have spent more time coding. I took a computer science class in high school and then another in college. In my first job, my employers saw that, so they dumped a big coding project on me, which I loved, but there were never enough hours in the day to do the editorial work, managerial work, and then the coding work. I always did a little coding, but coming to work with real engineers [at Reverb] was eye opening.
I’ve learned so much in the last five or six years. It’s really exciting, but I wish that I had done more earlier. People who love language don’t think about coding because they get in their heads that it’s all about math, but it’s really all about magic. It’s just like Harry Potter. You type a string of words, and something happens in the real world.
9. What was the most important thing you learned in school?
This is going to piss off all of my teachers, but I’m going to say typing. When I see people who cannot type, I know that they are reducing their productivity by some unknown percentage every day. I spent a summer in junior high learning how to type to get it out of the way. Also, in high school in North Carolina, I competed in extemporaneous speaking which is a great tool in the land of elevator pitches. You pull a topic out of a hat, get a couple of minutes to prepare, and then you have to talk about that topic for five minutes straight.
10. What is one goal — either personal or professional — that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?
I really would like people to think of words as the tools of meaning and not necessarily the units of meaning. People get angry if certain words change, but it’s only by treating words as data points that we can unlock vast storehouses of content that’s out there. They should be thinking of words not just as literary objects but as handles that we can use to manipulate meaning. If I could just convince people that words are not just fluffy cute kittens that aren’t good for anything but instead see them as the incredible resource of data that they are, that would be awesome.
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