Best of the web: The secret beginning of Siri

By now, Siri has become part of the Apple lexicon. Since the company debuted the service at a 2011 press conference as a “personal assistant”, popular culture has been filled with plenty of parodies and jokes about it.

Yet there’s a reason Siri has become so widely known: Apple has attempted to do something with Siri few other companies have tried. A personal assistant on a phone carries images of artificial intelligence – it’s a sign technology is growing far beyond what we ever thought we could achieve.

But Siri didn’t begin fully formed. The story of how Apple integrated the technology into its own system started in 2010, when a company called Siri was created by a 24-person team.

As the Huffington Post chronicles, Siri was different then. The technology’s co-founder, Harry Saddler, said Siri was built with an attitude and a backstory – Siri had to be “vaguely aware of popular culture” and carry a “dry wit”.

It was important Siri carry a sense of humour, he said. It’s how users would respond.

Ask a question about HAL, the iconic artificial intelligence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and she fires back with a cold, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Siri even swore before Apple acquired the company.

One of the more fascinating revelations of this story is that Apple has chiselled back many of Siri’s features. Siri comes from a project funded by the Department of Defense to help create a personal assistant – and it was extremely powerful.

At its original debut, in 2010, Siri could connect with 42 different web services – from Yelp and StubHub to Rotten Tomatoes and Wolfram Alpha –  then return a single answer that integrated the best details culled from those diverse sources.

It had been able to buy tickets, reserve a table and summon a taxi, all without a user having to open another app, register for a separate service or place a call. It was already on the verge of “intuiting” a user’s pet peeves and preferences to the point that it would have been able to seamlessly match its suggestions to his or her personality.

Such was Siri’s power a mere statement like “I’m drunk, take me home”, could call you a taxi. A cancelled flight would automatically provide you with alternative transport options without even asking.

But as the Huffington Post points out, the Siri of the past points towards the Siri of the future:

“The Siri team saw the future, defined the future and built the first working version of the future,” says Gary Morgenthaler, a partner at Morgenthaler Ventures, one of the two first venture capital firms to invest in Siri.

“So it’s disappointing to those of us that were part of the original team to see how slowly that’s progressed out of the acquired company into the marketplace.”

This piece delves right into the history of Siri’s development at a separate company, and the journey to delivering the technology to the consumer. Its founders had lofty goals, and wanted its employees to share them – it asked each worker to keep a picture on their desk of whoever most inspired them.

If you’re at all interested in where Apple is taking this powerful technology, then you should have a read – and take a look at where the future is headed.

How Google’s HR department uses data to make the company better

Everyone knows Google has a casual workplace culture, one so famous it’s landed the tech giant on top of several “best place to work” lists.

But you may not know the amount of detail that goes into making the company such a great place to work. And it starts in the HR department – and a whole lot of data tracking.

In a new piece at Slate, the publication takes a look inside the Google HR department and finds some interesting and unique ways of monitoring employee happiness.

Part of the company’s focus on HR started a few years ago when it noticed more women were leaving the company. Google asked the HR department – People Operations (POPS) – to look into the trouble.

What they found was women who had recently given birth were leaving at twice the average rate. So in response, the company changed its paid maternity plan, offering five months off at full pay and benefits. It helped.

Some of Google’s perks are legendary, such as the rule that if an employee should die, their spouse or partner receives half their salary every year for a decade.

But as this piece points out, HR isn’t just about handing out perks. There is some serious data collection involved.

POPS rigorously monitors a slew of data about how employees respond to benefits, and it rarely throws money away. The five-month maternity leave plan, for instance, was a winner for the company. After it went into place, Google’s attrition rate for new mothers dropped down to the average rate for the rest of the firm.

The HR department has become such an important part of the company that Google hires a company to study it, running experiments on employees to find the best policies possible – and answer questions about how to work better.

For instance, the company studies whether managers have certain skills in common, or how to best go about giving a raise to an excellent employee.

One excellent example shows how Google rejigged its hiring process. Google is famous for its lengthy process, often calling engineers back for eight or nine interviews. But after some study, the HR department found after four interviews the talent drops away.

One big finding was more surprising – middle managers matter.

[Google] determined this by looking at scores the firm’s managers received from two-sided feedback surveys, taking into account both what a manager’s underlings and a manager’s manager thinks about his work.

When analysts compared the highest- and lowest-performing managers, they found a stark difference: the best managers had lower attrition rates (meaning fewer people left their teams), and their teams were much more productive across a range of criteria.

Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo! success story

Marissa Mayer has been at Yahoo for nearly three quarters of a year, and already she’s managed to improve the company’s performance. Downloads for services such as Flickr and Yahoo! mail are rising.

But as this piece on The New York Times points out, Mayer is doing much more than bringing profit back to the company – she’s improving employee morale.

She has also introduced several morale boosters since joining the company – including free cafeteria food and new iPhones and Android-powered phones – to staff members who were more accustomed to cost-cutting and layoffs.

In a further sign that the company was no longer considered a sinking ship, she lured another Silicon Valley tech star, Max Levchin, a PayPal co-founder, to Yahoo’s board last month.

The next several years will be hard for Mayer, and Yahoo, but it seems the company is on the right track. Take a look at the Times’ piece to get an idea of where Mayer is steering the company.

This article was first published on LeadingCompany’s sister site, SmartCompany. 

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