Sitting across from Susan Morrow in an office on one of the high floors of the Ask.com building with views of the Bay in the distance, it’s easy to feel the dot-com vibe. The art on the walls is vaguely Asian, the colors in the offices are studiedly neutral, and the look of the staffers walking the halls is closer to Silicon Valley nerd (think monogrammed SWAG shirts from tech vendors and start-ups) than to downtown hipster. And yet, we’re in Oakland, not in San Francisco’s South of Market strip or Mountain View’s tech campuses, and the woman sitting across from me, early 40s, casually dressed, is the new VP of Product for Ask.com, the international tech company that started life in the ’90s as Ask Jeeves.
With as many lives as a cat — and a longevity that would shock many start-up founders — Ask has morphed from a search engine (1996) to a question-answering search engine (2010) to the creators of a much-hated toolbar (2011-ish) that many users found impossible to uninstall.
Currently owned by InterActive, one of the larger web conglomerates, Ask reportedly has roughly 100 million global users per month. However, in many ways, the company’s tried different strategies over the past few years, building mobile apps, niche products for kids, international versions of its platform, hyper-local (Seattle’s 2012 “You Asked,We Answered“) and niche vertical (Nascar) products.
Now, in 2013, the job of continuing to evolve Ask falls to Morrow, an accomplished digital media executive whose experience working in educational technology suggests that Ask.com’s next incarnation will be content-rich, and focused on mobile. A former Vice President of Content at Leapfrog and one of the first creators of educational tech tools and toys for very young children, Morrow has also done stints at Reading Rainbow, where she developed a mobile app for reading recommendations, and Macromedia (she worked on “Dreamweaver”).
But Morrow is not your typical Silicon Valley executive. A a self-described community activist and long-time Oakland resident, Morrow took time out from the tech world to build, and self-finance, launch, and run The Urban Green, a Solano Avenue eco-furniture, plant, gardening supply and flower arranging shop that lasted from 2006 to 2008. She then went from running a small business to being VP of Product at Blurb.com, an online photo-book publishing platform whose revenue exploded during her tenure, according to Inc.com.
A long-time Oaklander (8 years), Morrow has nothing but kind words for The Town, and a visible passion for her work. Over the course of an hour, we had a wide-ranging conversation on everything from mentoring young women, to where to eat in Oakland, to the business opportunities at Ask.com. What follows is an edited Q&A of our conversation.
OL: So you’ve lived in Oakland for a while. Where do you like to go hang out and what do you like to do here?
SM: I’m an avid Oakland person. One of my favorite things is to go to the farmer’s market in Jack London Square on Sundays. I love the live music that is always happening there. I also love to walk around the lake and doing the gondola rides, I love Fairyland — but can’t get any kids to go with me — and I like all the biking paths and bike accessibility. I always say I am going to bike to work, but I don’t do it as often as I should.
OL: Oakland’s a food town. What are your go-to spots?
Oh, so many! On the higher end, my dream spot is The Wood Tavern. I love it there. I also enjoy the beignets and cocktails downtown at Pican, it’s a great place to go with friends. In the neighborhoods, I like Burma Superstar in Temescal, and Adesso in Piedmont, and there’s a new sushi spot near Oakland Tech that I keep going back to again and again.
OL: How did your career evolve into this head of product job at Ask.com, in hindsight?
This feels like the opportunity I dreamed of, really. Not only is it in Oakland and I can bike to work, it’s a tremendous platform that has huge global traffic and a brand people really recognize. The organization is filled with very talented people and everyone wants to build better products that customers want and need.
OL: Pando Daily said hiring you was a “big step toward relevance.” What did they mean; why did they say that? What different skills do you bring to Ask? What fresh viewpoints?
Well, I think they meant that I will help Ask focus on getting closer to serving customers’ needs. I am very much about user-centered development, user testing, and understanding your audience as the starting point for product. Back in the day, they were a tech-driven search engine company and now they’re evolving in a new direction.
OL: How current are the back-end systems at Ask? Do you have multiple platforms that you need to integrate, given Ask acquired About.com, etc.?
I am fortunate to work in partnership with tech leaders in the company. I don’t like to waste people’s time so if we are running systems that need to be retired, then we need to do that. I’m open to using open source and SAS and shared APIs as part of our product suite. As we redefine the product future going forward, we will have lots of opportunity to update and innovate.
OL: What is the biggest critical dependency in making your goals work in this new job?
One issue is that we need to define the product offering really well, and then use systems that keep us shipping products. I am fan of AGILE and the SCRUM iterative development process, and of systems that help teams care about the customer and what they are delivering for them. I want everyone to see the customer and focus on them as they do their role.
We also happen to have a terrific UX team (user experience) and we’re going to put them front and center as we move development forward.
OL: Where do mobile and tablets fit into your strategy?
We started a big process that’s product-intensive in May, focused on understanding and listening to the voice of customer. The first day was recruiting friends and family to talk about it, field research with tablets, and smart phones. The goal is to become fluent in customer problems, regardless of the device they are starting from. At the same time, I am super-interested in understanding how we optimize for interface touch. That swipe and tap experience totally changes things.
OL: What’s your timeline?
Timeline’s for new products by 2014 — I want us delivering product that drives toward a customer-centered experience by early next year.
OL: What is your advice for entrepreneurial women who want to succeed in the tech world?
I’d stress the importance of mentors and seeking mentors. And also reading: the world of books can open many doors. Young women should find people they’d like as mentors and ask. You’d be surprised how open many people are to helping.
June 7 UPDATE: The Ask team points out: “The toolbar technology existed at a company called ISH (Interactive Search Holdings) before Ask acquired it in May of 2004. And while we realize there have been frustrations with the toolbar, we have completely revamped the Ask Help Center to offer assistance for all of our products.”