Lunch with the FT

January 24, 2014 4:41 pm

Lunch with the FT: Nick D’Aloisio

The 18-year-old who sold his start-up to Yahoo for an estimated $30m talks to Jonathan Ford about the business of skim-reading and being a time-poor teenager
Illustration by James Ferguson of Nick D’Aloisio©James Ferguson

I am sitting in a restaurant in south London listening to a teenager telling me why he doesn’t read newspapers.

“I read traditional media on Twitter,” Nick D’Aloisio explains. “Like, I won’t go to FT.com and read off there, but if on Twitter someone shared an interesting FT thing, then I’ll read that.”

It is not that news is boring, he hastens to reassure me, perhaps noticing that I am wincing slightly. There just isn’t the time.

To illustrate the problem, D’Aloisio tells me how some time ago he took a subscription to the Economist, hoping to absorb the magazine’s content by downloading its weekly podcast: “I thought, I am going to try and be intelligent here by listening to the Economist every week.”

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It didn’t work. “It’s five hours if you want to listen to everything,” he says, his eyes widening. D’Aloisio tried downloading the shorter summary and even listening to it in bed before going to sleep. In the end he dropped it. “I didn’t have time in the day. I just couldn’t interact with it.”

D’Aloisio does read deeply into things when they intrigue or excite him. When he picked up George Orwell, for instance, he decided he had to read everything that Orwell had ever written.

It’s the same story when he consumes media: “So if I am interested in tech and someone has done a scoop on some tech founder, I want to read every inch of that article and then I want more.” As for the rest, he has a simple solution: “I just skim-read.”

People talk about the “fire-hose” of information that has been unleashed by the internet, and how it is changing reading habits. D’Aloisio has thought about these shifts more deeply than most. The tousle-haired 18-year-old has spent the past few years devising software that aims to let you sip from the flow without being drenched with information.

Skim-reading isn’t just his preference; it is his business.

Last year, D’Aloisio came to public attention when at the age of 17 he sold his start-up, Summly, to Yahoo for an estimated $30m (of which he is thought to have raked in more than a third). With backing from a glittering array of investors, including the Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing and the British comedian Stephen Fry, he designed a piece of software that compressed long slabs of text into a few summarising sentences.

Seen as a killer app in a world in which an increasing number of people surf the web on their mobile phones, Summly attracted huge interest and quickly gained about 1m users before being snapped up by the US internet giant. D’Aloisio now works for Yahoo improving Summly and developing new applications involving similar technology.

He communicates daily by Skype with his 10-strong team of software engineers, flying out to Silicon Valley to see them one week in every four. Earlier this month he was on stage with Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas launching Yahoo News Digest, an app that gives users summaries of the latest top stories twice a day.

D’Aloisio believes summaries are a way to bring to new media one of the more satisfying attributes of the old. “It’s the ability to get to the end and then you’re done,” he says. This sense of “completion” has been lost in cyber space. “The problem with the internet is that you can never finish an infinite stream.”

. . .

Surveying his schedule, it is easy to see why D’Aloisio is always pressed for time. As well as work, he is in his final year at school. We meet at the Light House, a restaurant just around the corner from King’s College School, the public school he sporadically attends in Wimbledon where he is studying for A-levels in maths, further maths and philosophy.

Although on an extended “sabbatical” from full-time education, he has continued with his studies, working mainly in the evenings and going into school for occasional guidance. It helps, D’Aloisio says, that he is studying maths because it’s a subject in which he can tutor himself. “I’ll go into school to make sure that I am doing the right stuff or do a test; it’s fun.”

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Published by Penguin, Lunch with the FT: 52 Classic Interviews, features encounters with, among others, Zaha Hadid, Angelina Jolie, Jimmy Carter, George Soros, Nouriel Roubini and Michael Caine, and illustrated with James Ferguson’s glorious cartoons. The book is available as a hardback and ebook. ft.com/125

At home, he preserves a veneer of normality. He still goes on family holidays, wears school uniform whenever he pops into King’s, and has a girlfriend who pre-dates his business success.

It can sometimes seem an attenuated version of teenagerdom, D’Aloisio admits: “My girlfriend can be quite angry because I am never able to chill out for a day and just do nothing. There’s always a hundred things I am doing.”

And while skipping lessons must be every schoolboy’s dream, it has sometimes been disorientating. “One minute I’d be in this frame of mind: I’m missing out on school, I should be there. I’m very nervous. Then I’d think, this is an amazing opportunity, what am I thinking? I should run with it.”

He hasn’t touched the capital he received from the acquisition and pays most of his Yahoo salary into a savings account. It is not a high salary, he insists: “I mean, your pay is linked to experience. I am only 18 and this is my first job.” Anyway, he doesn’t need much money other than “to pay for dinner or whatever or get a cab somewhere”. Could he buy a Ferrari? “Not unless I save for multiple years.” Do his parents charge him rent? “They don’t – they should! I probably couldn’t afford it!”

We have been havering over our menus and the waitress finally descends, forcing us to take decisions. D’Aloisio opts for pumpkin soup to start while I go for a blue cheese, pear, walnut and beetroot salad. For the main course he chooses the belly pork while I have the pheasant. I offer him a glass of wine (D’Aloisio turned 18 last November) but he declines, preferring a Diet Coke. I have a glass of house Rioja.

Most of us would, I suspect, struggle with the discipline necessary to juggle the commitments D’Aloisio has taken on. But he has always been good at setting himself goals and (more impressively) sticking to them. Born in Australia, he moved to Britain at the age of seven. Academically gifted, he did well at school and won the top scholarship to King’s. By then he was a keen self-taught programmer.

The young D’Aloisio would devote himself to building apps during his school holidays – often staying up half the night to do so. “I would spend six weeks developing an app and launching it,” he recalls.

The waitress is waiting to take away our plates. My salad is long gone but D’Aloisio is still stirring his fast-cooling soup. I find myself unconsciously slipping into the role of parent: “Come on, finish your starter,” I chide.

Right from the beginning, D’Aloisio didn’t just want to build programs, he wanted to sell them. The first app he got Apple to market in its store made £79 on its launch day. “Yes, I thought, there’s definitely something in this. It gave me the appetite to do more. Each time I did a new app, I set myself a new task or a new challenge and it slowly developed.”

From simple games – an early effort was a treadmill for hands called “Finger Mill” – he moved on to more complex software. Before long he was playing around with summarisation technology – the germ of the time-saving idea that became Summly.

It was schoolwork that first led D’Aloisio to think there was a need for applications that could summarise text. “I had this experience when I was revising for exams,” he explains. “There is all this information on Google and Bing, but to find it you have to go in and out of the links on the results pages. It’s hard to determine what is relevant until you click through. That’s pretty inefficient, so I thought that if you could take the URL and show almost like a précis, it would give you a sense of whether you wanted to click on [the link].”

Building an app to do this was no simple task, however. D’Aloisio had to learn about natural language processing – how to break words down into “morphemes”, or their smallest comprehensible linguistic units, and then to write algorithms that categorised them in ways that teased out meaning.

His intellectual voracity helped him get to grips with some of the issues. “Language, algorithms, design and all that stuff, I have always loved learning – it’s my favourite thing,” he avers. But inquisitive nerdiness could only carry him so far. The first prototypes of Summly, then called Trimit, did not work well. It proved impossible to compress articles into mere tweets. And even when the summaries were expanded, they frequently did not make sense.

Pulling out his mobile phone, D’Aloisio shows me an early version of Trimit. He pastes in a story about last year’s financial crisis in Cyprus, which is basically about the banks shutting and people queueing at cashpoints. There is a paragraph low down – almost an aside – which quotes the Ministry of Defence saying there should be no effect on the British military bases on the island. But when the summary comes up, it’s gibberish. The software thinks it’s a story about the 3,000-strong British garrison.

How has it got the story back to front, I ask. “This was very primitive when I did it,” says D’Aloisio. “But basically it tries to evaluate a sentence on a number of different variants. Like the length of a sentence, what it contains, how many real nouns.” It turns out that the algorithm has simply sniffed out the sentence with the highest number of positive matches and made it the subject: “Cyprus, Ministry, Defence – that’s three proper nouns which is quite high for one sentence. It also contains the number 3,000, which is a statistic.”

Such glitches were only cleared up after the launch of Trimit in 2011 when, in spite of its shortcomings, the app attracted the interest of Horizon Ventures, an investment company owned by Li Ka-shing. A team from Hong Kong came to London, met D’Aloisio and his parents (“I had to tell them I couldn’t meet between 9 and 5 because I was at school”), and stumped up $300,000 in what D’Aloisio calls a “philanthropic decision”. All of a sudden, he was no longer a schoolboy programming from his bedroom; he was an entrepreneur backed by some of the shrewdest tech investors on the planet.

As I start my pheasant and D’Aloisio picks at his pork, I wonder how he coped with the switch. Horizon’s cash allowed him to hire some serious programming talent, including Inderjeet Mani, an artificial intelligence expert who is now head of R&D at Yahoo Labs. How easy was it to manage his new, much older, employees? “I wouldn’t ever be like ‘do this or that’,” he says, cautiously. “I didn’t have the guts and it would have been far too precocious.”

. . .

Instead of trying to dominate everything, D’Aloisio explains, he focused on one bit of the project: design. “That was the area I wanted to have full control over: the designers I worked with, the programmers I worked with.”

I now idolise polymaths, people like da Vinci ... their genius lay in piecing things together

As for the rest, D’Aloisio quickly realised that he didn’t have to understand everything about the underlying technology. “I would try as long as possible to keep up with the team, but there would come a point when I didn’t understand the code, the AI thing or whatever. That was fine because I discovered that actually you don’t need to know everything, you just need to know enough.”

Rather like giving up the Economist podcast, this epiphany came as a sort of liberation. “The best thing is that I now idolise polymaths, people like da Vinci and Michelangelo,” he says. “They weren’t just engineers, they were artists and scientists, mathematicians and philosophers. They weren’t even experts in their own domain. Their genius lay in piecing things together.”

We are now on coffee and I ask D’Aloisio about his next moves. Summly’s success has, after all, left him with an unusual dilemma. Should he stay with Yahoo and pursue a tech career or revert to normal adolescence and go to university?

“I need more data,” he says. “I need to see what happens at Yahoo in the next 12 months in terms of what I am going to be working on. I also need to finalise what universities and why.”

But if he does take a degree, he says he would most like to read philosophy and politics. “I am more interested in political theory and the philosophy of that than anything else.” He doesn’t even rule out combining university with Yahoo. “I don’t regard the two as mutually exclusive,” he says.

In the meantime, there is no let up for D’Aloisio, not even in the school holidays. When I ask him if he plans to spend some time just chilling out over the break, he simply looks blank: “I wish. My God, I would love two weeks of nothing.”

Jonathan Ford is the FT’s chief leader writer

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The Light House

75-77 Ridgway London SW19 4ST

Pumpkin, butter bean and ruby chard soup £5.75

Stichelton, walnut, pear and beetroot salad £7.50

Roast pheasant, red cabbage and turnip gratin £16.50

Roast pork belly, neeps and garlic greens £15.95

Still water x 2 £7.00

Rioja Montesc 2010 £8.00

Diet Coke £2.95

Latte £2.50

Filter coffee £2.25

Total (incl service) £76.95

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