Inspiring students to work in Open Source Search

I’ve recently been asked to join the Industrial Advisory Board for the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at the University of Essex and will be talking to students there on Monday 5th February, repeating a similar talk I did last year. The subject is ‘Working in Open Source Search’ and I’ll describe how we founded Flax back in 2001, how we’ve built, tuned and implemented open source search engines and some of the client projects we’ve worked on. It’s been a fascinating journey.

My main motivation for talking at Essex (and at City University a couple of weeks later) will be to inspire students to consider working in the world of open source software and more specifically the commercial applications of what academics call information retrieval – search engines.  It’s an interesting field to work in – we have clients in a huge variety of sectors including e-commerce, law, publishing and government; we deal with both small startups and multinational businesses and help build systems indexing a few thousand to several billion items. It’s constantly changing as new requirements, ideas and innovations appear. It’s taken our staff around the world (Singapore, Malaysia, the USA, Denmark as a small sample from the last couple of years) and led to us gaining a global reputation and becoming part of a select group of independent search specialists. From being somewhat of a curiosity when we started, open source search engines have now gained huge acceptance and have changed the search market beyond recognition – no longer can vendors charge six or seven figures for mysterious black boxes (and more to make them actually do something useful).

However our sector needs more people – not just developers, but business-focused search managers who understand how to build search engines that truly deliver value to employees and customers. As I’ll say to the students next week there’s a skill shortage, plainly illustrated by the plaintive slide that ends nearly all search conference and Meetup presentations – “We’re Hiring!”. Time to learn to code, download Lucene/Solr or Elasticsearch, try out the examples, read our book and look forward to a great career in search!

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