Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a different high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet TANAY VARDHAN, a University of Illinois senior pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering with a minor in computer science. He's passionate about web development and working on a startup called Turkbox.
Tell us about Turkbox.
Turkbox is a content-monetization platform that allows blogs and online publications to embed widgets containing simple data-annotation and -classification tasks. Readers complete these tasks and get access to articles that they would have to otherwise buy subscriptions for. Turkbox pays websites per classification task. These tasks are provided by organizations that need human input to train or validate their machine-learning models, and so we're creating this ecosystem that is crowd-sourcing data classification to keep content on the internet free and accessible.
What has made you an entrepreneur?
I think I'm drawn to entrepreneurship because it allows me to come up with solutions to problems without having to worry about the tiniest of details. Being an entrepreneur allows me to put effort into solving problems that I really care about, while constantly exploring the problem and finding things I hadn't previously considered.
What kind of customers is Turkbox working with? Why do you think they're important?
So right now, we're working with blogs and small online magazines to conduct user testing. Through this, we want to understand how inclined users are to perform data-classification tasks and try to develop a lot of our user-interface elements from the insights we get. We're also reaching out to different research groups on campus in search of unlabeled datasets that are in need of classification. Working with them will help us in designing and implementing the processes by which data is uploaded to our platform and served across our widgets across different blogs and websites, which is a crucial part of the ecosystem we're trying to create.
You say you are passionate about user-experience design. What are some challenges you've faced while building Turkbox?
One of the things that is key to sustaining the whole Turkbox ecosystem is convincing users to complete tasks on our widgets. It's incredibly important to persuade users that the tasks will be quick and they will have access to their article quickly.
How do you start off?
We make this information available up front, before users get into solving the task, and try to give blogs and publications the option to customize our widgets so they match the website's style guide and blend in well. With user testing, we're hoping to validate these design decisions and gather more insight on what we can do to improve user retention. Another thing that we're now beginning to think about a lot is how these tasks could be completed by individuals with disabilities, and how we can make our widgets compliant with web-accessibility standards.
You were a software engineering intern at Amadeus. What did you learn from that?
Amadeus builds technology for the travel industry, and a lot of their solutions for airlines have to deal with millions of transactions every second. So being mentored by engineers with experience in making web applications that thousands of users are using at any given time gave me a lot of insight into some of the considerations and trade-offs that need to be made when implementing designs at scale.
And you got to work in Nice, France?
Yes, staying and working in Nice over the summer was an amazing experience, and the whole French Riviera is a really beautiful area. It was difficult for me at first because I know next to no French, but eventually, everything worked out fine.
Do you have a mentor at the UI?
Now that I'm a senior, most of my peers whom I consider mentors have graduated. Shubhankar Agrawal, who started the autonomous-submarine team here, is a close friend, and he gave me a lot of tips on how to manage coursework with extracurricular pursuits. I've also learned a lot from team leads I've had the chance to work under when I was active with Illini Motorsports, the university's Formula SAE team.
You seem to be someone who works on a lot of different projects, such as a live translator for French rap music, or a new design for in-flight entertainment systems. What interests you most right now?
I'm very interested in the problem we're trying to solve with Turkbox. I think finding a way to keep information and news on the internet accessible and free is a really profound challenge, because that is what the internet was created for. The decline in advertising revenue due to ad-blockers and other causes bring unprecedented challenges to publications and blogs that don't have a large readership, and I'm hoping to find a solution that works well for both readers and content creators.
Have you made any mistakes you've learned from?
One of the things I struggled with was receiving feedback. It's very easy to switch off when feedback on something you've put in a lot of effort on is not that good, and it was one of the biggest mistakes I used to make. By being hostile towards negative feedback, you miss out on a lot of valuable insight that you can learn from and use to make your project better. I think taking feedback well and being able to give good feedback are two things I'm constantly working on.
TECH TIDBITS ... from TANAY VARDHAN
Do you have a favorite app? Spotify: I listen to a lot of music, so I use Spotify to curate all my songs and also discover new music and artists.
Would you rather read on a book or on an electronic device? Definitely a book because I tend to get distracted on electronic devices fairly easily while reading.
Do you have any wearables? Not sure if this counts as a wearable, but I have a Google Cardboard, which I used for a web virtual-reality hackathon a long time ago.
Any heroes from the world of web development? David Heinemeier Hansson. He created the really popular Ruby on Rails web framework. He's also an amazing race car driver, and finished eighth in the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in 2013.