Refine your search for “gunshot wound”

I tend to be a mostly forward-looking person, but there’s nothing like a bit of nostalgia once in awhile.

After finally putting together a pretty solid cold storage solution for the family, I spent a little time going through my own document folders to see if there was anything there I really didn’t want to lose. The structure there is an amusing recursive walk through the last fifteen years of my career — each time I get a new laptop I just copy over my old Documents folder, so it looks like this:

  • seanno99 – Documents
    • some files
    • seanno98 – Documents
      • some files
      • seanno97 – Documents
        • some files
        • seanno96 – Documents
          • etc.

Yeah of course there are way better ways to manage this. But the complete lack of useful organization does set the stage for some amusing archeological discoveries. Case in point, last night I stumbled across a bunch of screen mocks for the service that ultimately became the embedded “Health Answer” in Bing Search (this was a long time ago, I don’t know if they still call them “Answers” or not, and I’m quite sure the original code is long gone).

One image in particular brought me right back to a snowy day in Redmond, Washington — one of my favorite memories in a luck-filled career full of great ones, probably about nine months before the mock was created.

Back then, the major engines didn’t really consider “health” to be anything special. This was true of most specialized domains — innovations around generalized search were coming so hot and heavy that any kind of curation or specialized algorithms just seemed like a waste of time. My long-time partner Peter Neupert and I believed that this was a mistake, and that “health” represented a huge opportunity for Microsoft both in search and elsewhere. There was a bunch of evidence for this that isn’t worth spending time on here — the important part is that we were confident enough to pitch Microsoft on creating a big-time, long-term investment in the space. I’m forever thankful that I was introduced to Peter way back in 1998; he has a scope of vision that I’ve been drafting off for a quarter century now.

Anyways, back in the late Fall of 2005 we were set to pitch this investment to Steve and Bill. The day arrives and it turns out that the Northwest has just been hit by a snowstorm — I can’t find a reference to the storm anywhere online, so it was probably something lame like six inches, but that’s more than enough to knock out the entire Seattle area. There is no power on the Microsoft campus and most folks are hiding in their homes with a stock of fresh water and canned soup. But Steve and Bill apparently have a generator in their little office kingdom, so we’re on. Somebody ran an extension cord into the conference room and set up a few lights, but there’s this great shadowy end-of-the-world vibe in the room — sweet. So we launch into our song and dance, a key part of which is the importance of health-specific search.

And here comes Bill. Now, he has gotten a lot of sh*t in the press lately, and I have no reason to question the legitimacy of the claims being made. This bums me out, because Bill Gates is one of the very few people in the world that I have been truly impressed by. He is scary, scary smart — driven by numbers and logic, and just as ready to hear that he’s an idiot as he is to tell you that you are. For my purposes here, I choose to remember this Bill, the one I’ve gotten to interact with.

“This is the stupidest idea I have ever heard.”

Bill dismisses the entire idea that people would search for issues related to their health. He expresses this with a small one-act play: “Oh, oh, I’ve been shot!” — he clutches his chest and starts dragging himself towards the table — “I don’t know what to do, let me open up my computer” — he stumbles and hauls himself up to the laptop — “No need for the ER, I’ll just search for ‘gunshot wound’” — sadly he collapses before he can get his search results. And, scene.

Suffice to say that backing down is not the right way to win a debate with Bill. I remember saying something that involved the words “ridiculous” and “bullsh*t” but that’s it — I was in The Zone. Fast forward about a week, the snow melted and Peter did some background magic and our funding was in the bag.

A few months later, we ended up buying a neat little company called Medstory that had created an engine dedicated to health search. And thus were born the “HealthVault Search” mocks that I found deep in the depths of my archives the other day. The best part? If you’ve looked at the image, you already know the punch line: GUNSHOT WOUND was immortalized as the go-to search phrase for the first image presented — every meeting, every time.