Featured Alum: Ben Gomes

Since he helped launch Google's Instant search feature last fall, ICSI alum Ben Gomes has been dubbed Google's "diplomat of search." Gomes, one of the few people to carry the title Google Fellow, worked at ICSI under AI group leader and UC Berkeley Professor Jerry Feldman during the early 1990s.

Born in Africa and raised in Bangalore, India, Gomes and a school friend, Krishna Bharat, learned about computers by playing around with a ZX Spectrum, an eight–bit home computer released in 1982. "We were both chemistry geeks, and we used to have contests to push the limits of this tiny computer" with very little information on how it worked, he said. He received his bachelor's degree from Case Western University in Ohio, and began graduate studies at UC Berkeley in 1990, joining ICSI in 1991 and earning his PhD in 1997.

While at ICSI, Gomes worked on the development of pSather, a programming language that enabled easy parallelization. Several students who worked on pSather and related projects have gone on to work at Google, including David Stoutamire and David Bailey. "There's a lot of stuff at Google that mirrors the range of interests in Jerry's group," Gomes said — from low–level programming to higher–level questions about human–computer interactions.

His interests spanned that range as well. Feldman said, "Ben was the only person who was active in all aspects of parallelization that were going on at the time, from neural modeling and hardware architecture to high level parallel programming and optimization. It was the best possible preparation for what he ended up doing."

Professor Srini Narayanan, who joined ICSI as a graduate student soon after Gomes and has since gone on to lead the AI Group, said Gomes helped create the collegial spirit in Feldman's group: "Everybody liked everybody, and Ben was largely responsible for that."

After leaving ICSI, Gomes was working at Sun Microsystems on the Java programming language when a classmate called him to tell him he had joined a small start–up in Mountain View. "He told me it seemed like a really good place with really good people," Gomes said.

Gomes and Bharat, his childhood friend, now work together at Google. Bharat invented Google News, and Gomes has been responsible for a range of changes to the search engine, from adding interface features such as spelling corrections in the world's major languages to improving how search results are ranked — what he calls "the bread and butter of what we do." Last year alone, Google introduced around 500 improvements and features to its search engine.

Google's newest feature, released last fall, shows users an image of pages returned by a search term. In order to show a relevant preview, Google has to break down the Web page and reassemble it to provide a snapshot of the most relevant parts — the heading and the portion of the page that contains the search terms. Instant Previews, developed by Gomes's team, are the next generation of "snippets" — Google was the first search engine to return results with search terms in context. Also last year, Gomes helped roll out instant search, a feature that updates search results as a user types.

Gomes said he and his team look at 200 different factors in figuring out how to get a user of Google to the best result as quickly as possible. "This company really has a strong sense of mission," he said.