Todd Miller founded WebFeat in 1998. Ten years later, in February of this year, Todd sold the company to ProQuest. During his tenure with WebFeat, Todd made major contributions to federated search that earn him the distinction of being a luminary in the industry, along with Kate Noerr, who I interviewed recently.
I emailed Todd a set of questions. I got back seven single-spaced pages worth of responses and it was all outstanding. So, I’m going to serialize the interview into a number of parts, publishing the first on Monday. In this article I want to list the interview questions and provide excerpts of a few of Todd’s responses; overall I find Todd’s writing to be intelligent, insightful, and at times quite witty.
- You had success early in your career with Information Access Company. You also worked for Knight-Ridder, and hit another home run there. Tell me about those successes and how they prepared you to start WebFeat.
- What motivated you to start WebFeat?
- Is there an interesting story as to how you came up with the the very catchy name WebFeat?
- What were the early days of WebFeat like?
- In 2002, Library Journal published this article about you. The article says that you didn’t feel that libraries were anywhere near their potential. Is that still true today? If so, what challenges remain and what technologies can help libraries to meet those challenges?
- What is WebFeat’s greatest contribution to federated search?
- How did WebFeat become so successful in the library market? How did it differentiate itself and win so much of that business?
- WebFeat has a very large collection of connectors. From my experience in developing and maintaining connectors, I know it is tons of work. How does WebFeat manage to build, monitor, and maintain so many connectors?
- What was your biggest accomplishment at WebFeat, the one you’re most proud of?
- So, why did you sell WebFeat to ProQuest?
- With WebFeat acquired by ProQuest and now with CARE assets being sold to LibLime, what is the state of the OpenTranslators partnership between CARE, WebFeat, and Index Data that I blogged about a while ago?
- If you could turn back the clock, what would you have changed or improved about WebFeat’s federated search products?
- In your mind,what are the biggest problems facing federated search now?
- As you may know, this blog is sponsoring a contest to predict the future of federated search. The winner gets fame and (a little bit of) fortune. I hope you’ll submit an entry although I’m sure you don’t need the money or publicity. In any case, do you have any thoughts on the future of federated search to share with those who are submitting essays for the contest?
- Your LinkedIn profile lists you as investor and entrepreneur. What kinds of ventures are you currently investing in?
- LinkedIn also tells that you’ve founded a company, Technicopia, another catchy name. Google doesn’t find much about it and I notice that technicopia.com is parked. What can you tell me about this new venture?
- What did I forget to ask you?
Some excerpts from the interview
From early in his career, Todd was very interested in simplifying the life of users and administrators. This would become a major factor in WebFeat’s great success. Reminiscing about his early career experience with Information Access Company, and its wildly successful InfoTrac product, Todd writes:
A key issue to success of the product would be the ability to ship a complete computer workstation with a CD drive and printer that were secure (from vandals, not viruses) and could be easily installed and maintained by library staff. I remember the day we tested the final product by dropping off a two hundred pound skid in our telesales department and asked the sales reps to assemble the product without assistance. The goal was to fire up InfoTrac within 30 minutes of the time the reps began putting it together. I clicked the stopwatch at 27 minutes when they booted InfoTrac for the first time.
Users fell in love with InfoTrac even though not all librarians were convinced of its value:
Once InfoTrac landed in a library, it was very difficult to extract. Believe it or not, IAC actually received letters from library patrons with small amounts of cash to be applied toward their library’s InfoTrac subscription. It was amazing!
A very true statement about how hard it is to get federated search to work well:
It actually took us several years to develop a technology that was robust and fast and economical. Some of the most challenging technologies were those involving authentication and session management, for which we were granted a number of patents. I think most of the other companies that got into the federated search business went through the same curve we went through: premature elation at the apparent ease of federated search, followed by the sobering realization of the actual challenges involved.
On the early days of WebFeat:
[W]e were a 100% virtual office. We rarely met employees prior to their joining WebFeat, so it was always interesting when we would eventually match faces with names and voices. One of my current projects is a book about our virtual company.
Amazement that some still question the value of federated search:
Interestingly, there are still many information professionals, particularly in academia, that question the value of searching many sources in tandem, regardless of how it’s accomplished. The view is that students’ brains will atrophy if you make it too easy to find information. To me, this thinking is similar to the 15th century reaction to the printing press — that minds would liquify because they no longer needed to memorize and regurgitate all the world’s knowledge.
On why he sold WebFeat to ProQuest:
It was for the same reason that most entrepreneurs sell their companies. I’ve generated a considerable amount of wealth for others over the course of my career with products like InfoTrac. It was time for me to ensure financial security for my family. That being said, it was important to me to find a good home for the company that would enable our clients to be well cared for. I feel that WebFeat found that home with ProQuest and Serials Solutions.
Stay tuned for the first of the interview segments on Monday. In the meantime, you may enjoy a 2005 Library Journal article by Todd Miller, BackTalk: In Defense of Stupid Users. Entertaining and oh so true.