An Interview with Kamran Khan
Search Technologies Corp., a privately-held firm, has distinguished itself in the enterprise search sector since it was founded in 2005. Over the last six years, the company has added professionals with deep experience in search systems such as Microsoft (SharePoint and Fast), Lucene/Solr, Google Search Appliances, and Autonomy.
On March 11, 2011, I spoke with Kamran Khan, the founder of Search Technologies. From him, I learned that his firm can assist clients with determining what information access services employees or users require, to procurement, through implementation and customization of a search solution. The company has more than 80 full time professionals who serve clients from offices in the United States and United Kingdom. The firm delivers its services from San Diego, Boston, Cincinnati, Ascot (UK) and San Jose (Costa Rica).
Search Technologies serves a growing range of corporate and government clients who value its independence, efficiency, and above all practical, straight-forward approach to implementing search software. Search Technologies has a solid professional services foundation and the company’s “Search Application Assessment Process” has been singled out for recognition of its excellence in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Another factor that sets Search Technologies apart is that the company is profitable and debt-free, and its business continues to grow at 25 percent or more each year. It is privately held and headquartered in Herndon, VA.
The full text of my interview with Mr. Khan appears below.
What was the reasoning behind making Search Technologies a specialist in search software implementation?
The founders and the management team are all veterans of the enterprise search industry with between 15 and 22 years experience. I entered the industry in the early 1990s. We all used to work for major search engine vendors. It seemed to us that most search engines contained great technology but were poorly implemented, and we thought that forming a company focused on helping people to implement search software made a lot of sense. Today, we have more than 80 staff, but implementing search solutions is still all we do. Word of mouth about our competence is another important factor in our success.
You have a touch of a British accent.
You have a good ear. Yes, I still have something of a Manchester (England) accent. I moved to the DC area in the late 1990s while working with Excalibur Technologies, and never quite made it back. My daughters were born here. Needless to say they don’t have Manchester accents. I’m now a naturalized US citizen.
Which search engines do you and your colleagues support?
We’ve worked with most of the leading search engines. Among our 200 or so customers, the most prevalent are Microsoft Fast (with and without SharePoint), Google Search Appliances and Solr Lucene. But we also provide services to customers using Autonomy, Exalead, Coveo, Vivisimo, and others.
Do you have a preferred system?
No, we value our independence, and so do our customers. Quite often, we engage with customers after a search engine has been bought and paid for, in which case we’ll work with whatever they have. Where a customer has yet to choose a search engine, we’ll start by understanding their business needs and data environment in detail, typically through a Search Application Assessment service which we provide for a fixed price. Horses for courses, when it comes to recommending search engines, understanding the data set and the customer’s business objectives comes first.
We maintain good working relationships with the leading search engine vendors. Customers get more out of search software and are generally happier if it has been professionally implemented, and our search engine partners realize that.
So, I can’t push you off the fence on that one?
If forced to name a particular one I’d say RetrievalWare which was the product I was involved with and sold to many companies and government agencies while at Excalibur Technologies/Convera in the late 90’s, early 2000’s. The product was acquired in 2005 and is no longer sold today. At that time, RetrievalWare was quite advanced, using semantic networks, and fuzzy search technology to overcome OCR errors in scanned documents, and back then, OCR made plenty of errors.
Interestingly, we recently implemented a similar fuzzy matching system on top of Solr to help a customer with some specific name-matching challenges.
Other than that, my favorite search engine is the one that works best for the customer’s problem.
What were the benefits of pushing into semantics before semantics became a household word in search?
That’s a great question. We learned a lot from working with RetrievalWare and the main reasons for choosing that particular search engine as my “favorite” are more to do with the fact that it was working with this search engine that gave our original team the experience in search upon which we founded the company. We thrive on solving challenging problems. Our deep experience, all the way back to the 1990s, is a big differentiator for us.
Many vendors argue that mash ups and data fusion are "the way information retrieval will work going forward.” I am referring to structured and unstructured information. How does Search Technologies perceive this blend of search and user-accessible outputs?
Absolutely. Many customers are demanding more than a laundry list of results. Mash ups, data fusion and other sophisticated approaches to information presentation will no doubt proliferate. In our experience, the importance of data structure creation is often under-estimated though. People get excited by cool new features but don’t follow through and plan properly to create the necessary data structures to support the cool features, or put processes in place to maintain data structure quality through time as their data set evolves. Data sets have an annoying habit of evolving, just when you thought you’d nailed the search engine implementation. So a substantial part of our business involves helping customers with existing search systems to address challenges, such as relevancy issues. A lack of attention to detail in preparing the data set for search is often the root cause. This has become a significant part of our business and we’ve established a specific services practice around something we call Document Preparation Methodology for Search. Maintaining data structure requires proven ongoing processes, and not just technology.
Without divulging your firm's methods, will you characterize a typical use case for your firm's services?
“Typical” is tough to define. We view each customer as having quite particular requirements. In order to understand the customer’s needs, we start every customer engagement with a detailed study of the customer’s business and technical needs, and their current situation. There are some “typical” elements to projects. As previously discussed, the need to prepare documents for indexing in a planned and organized way is one typical element. But, every customer’s data set is unique. Each customer has its own business challenges and have their own infrastructure, time, and budget constraints.
There has been a surge in interest in putting "everything" in a repository and then manipulating the indexes to the information in the repository. On the surface, this seems to be gaining traction because network resident information, such as shared drives, can then "disappear". What's your view of the repository versus non repository approach to content processing?
We see this happening too. A lot of large corporations are serious about Microsoft SharePoint. We witnessed a straw poll at a seminar recently which suggested that more than 80 percent of organizations are going down the SharePoint path.
As with any content management system, the more information that is pumped into SharePoint, the more difficult it will become to find anything, regardless of which search engine is employed. This is a simple, linear function, and a fact of life. The more data put in, the more difficult it will become to find data. We see demand for expert implementation services increasing in such an environment. In many cases, the issue of improving data structure for the purpose of enabling modern search engine functions will be an important part of the solution.
Is XML a silver bullet?
I am not sure any information access technology is a silver bullet. We do have expertise in XML and we help customers who wish to consolidate their information into XML. We can help to transform the data into that format and add value and additional structure during the conversion process. For example, we are the lead contractor for search and related tasks on the award winning FDsys project.
That was part of the Government Print Office initiative, right?
Yes, it is the GPO’s flagship Federal Digital System, which recently became the system of public record for Federal information. We’ve transformed to XML, and greatly enriched, more than 40 large Government data sets as a part of the project.
What are the benefits to a commercial organization or a government agency when working with your firm?
Not every search implementation needs our level of expertise. Our customers tend to be companies for who important, sometimes mission-critical business processes depend on search engines. In these circumstances, our value can be huge. For example, tuning a search system to provide great search relevancy to a given user community, searching over a specific (and unique) data set, often makes the difference between achieving ROI and getting stuck with an unloved, under-used system. This requires expertise and experience, as well as technology.
We have that experience and expertise, and we deliver it to customers in an independent, pragmatic way.
How does a Search Technologies engagement move through its life cycle?
As I said, we like to begin with our Search Application Assessment, what we call an “Assessment”, regardless of whether the customer requirement is for a new search implementation or the improvement or expansion of an existing system.
The output is an Assessment Results document. This can be used by the customer’s in-house team as a blue-print for the implementation project, or the customer may choose to further engage Search Technologies to provide implementation services.
The Assessment process is not purely technical. It captures and documents the business requirements behind the search project and ensures that these remain in focus.
The Assessment Results can be used to produce a Statement of Work. This is a project and staffing plan which details every task necessary to the implementation including all aspects of design, installation, quality assurance, testing and production launch. The Statement of Work, once agreed upon by the customer, can be used as the basis of a professional services agreement under which the implementation can be delivered.
Conducting an Assessment and delivering the results document typically requires 10 or more consultant-days of effort. An Assessment is led by a Senior Search Technologies Consultant who has access to a wide range of specialist colleagues. The process is overseen by Search Technologies’ Chief Architect and approved by the VP of Technology before delivery to the customer.
How do you price what is like a service from Accenture or McKinsey?
We provide blue-chip service; however, we provide the initial Assessment service at a subsidized, fixed price, because it gives us an opportunity to showcase our expertise to the customer.
Is search disappearing into enterprise applications?
Remember we’re not pitching a specific technology set. Horses for courses. Embedded search—sometimes call a search enabled application, or search based application--is a good way to describe this trend. With search “inside” enterprise applications, users often benefit because the needed information is “at hand.” For me, search enabled applications make use of the flexibility and adaptability of modern search engine indexes. Search engines can do things that databases can’t.
What do you see as the most significant developments touching the enterprise search business?
Tough question. I think it will be very interesting to see how the general move to SharePoint 2010 will affect the search engine market. We’re well positioned for that with our focus on search and deep Fast Search and SharePoint experience.
Although the differences between the capabilities of the leading products still exist, in terms of the capabilities that customers generally use, the gaps are narrowing. Consistent best practices are emerging. These are the signs of a maturing market. We know those best practices. Implementation quality and proven ongoing processes, rather than raw technology, are increasingly a differentiator.
Also, I think open source search—Lucene/Solr especially—is getting pretty good. We’ve some big customers now using it. In addition, the world’s two most powerful information technology companies, Microsoft and Google, are seriously engaged in the enterprise search space, they have deep pockets, capable products, and a competitive drive that will make the search space quite dynamic.
All signs of a maturing market. As a services company, we’re confident that we can prosper in such a market.
Where should a person looking for more information about Search Technologies go?
My suggestion is to navigate to our Web site at www.searchtechnologies.com.
Search Technologies has emerged as one of the leading firms in providing engineering and technical services to licensees of search-and-retrieval systems. The firm has experience with systems from many vendors, including Exalead and Vivisimo, open source solutions, and a number of commercial systems. With the strong interest in SharePoint, Search Technologies’ expertise with the Fast Search & Transfer Enterprise Search Platform gives the firm “magnetic appeal” to organizations looking to get the best from Microsoft’s technologies. Our view is that you will want to become familiar with the capabilities of Search Technologies.
Stephen E. Arnold, 15 March 2011