We were thrilled when genealogy website Mocavo‘s chief scientist, Matt Garner, agreed to be quizzed by Genealogy Insider columnist Sunny Jane Morton for the “Five Questions” Q&A in the May/June 2014 Family Tree Magazine (now mailing to subscribers and coming soon to Family Tree Shop).
Garner has one of the brightest minds in the genealogy technology field. He leads the team developing “intelligent character recognition” software, which eventually will be able to “read” handwritten records—making them (relatively) quickly and easily searchable online.
Journalists typically ask more questions than they think they’ll need, to elicit the most interesting information. We had a hard time limiting Garner’s answers to just five for the magazine, so we’re sharing them all here:
You’re the chief scientist at Mocavo now. Do you wear a lab coat, use test tubes or anything like that?
While my title may conjure up images of Bill Nye, or perhaps a mysterious, maniacal laugh, it simply means that I oversee the research and development team at Mocavo. We work on exciting things like electronically detecting and transcribing handwriting from historical documents, improving the accuracy of documents read by optical character recognition (OCR) and generally using technology to both accelerate the pace and the usability of historical data that is brought online.
What’s your lab like?
My “laboratory” is pretty amazing: a supercomputer, containing more than 2,000 high-end CPUs. At the helm, my desk rivals NASA’s mission control. My walls are covered with additional screens displaying up-to-the-minute data, surrounded by oversized white boards containing copious amounts of detailed scribbling from our most recent brainstorm.
How did you land in the genealogy industry?
I remember spending full days alone in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City when I was only 9 years old. Every time I have left the family history industry, my heart finds its way back. I’m just as passionate about a document that contains hundreds of names as I am about, say, a handwritten letter that may only relate to a single individual. I know that to someone, somewhere, that document has great value.
I’m also passionate about using technology to solve large-scale challenges and problems. I’ve worked in a number of IT-related positions and have been lucky to be able to find a number of positions where both my engineering skills and my passion for family history have aligned. Every time I have left the family history industry, my heart finds its way back.
What historical writing style just about drives you—and the computer—crazy?
Interestingly, it’s modern handwriting that is disastrous. The advent of the typewriter (and subsequently the computer) has lowered the standard of handwriting beyond recognition and utility. Centuries-old handwriting, with a bit of practice, is still largely legible by both man and machine.
Some of the bigger challenges surround cases where script is handwritten on preprinted forms and overlaps printed lines and text on the forms. It is more difficult to read such documents accurately than freeform, handwritten letters.
What’s the coolest historical document you’ve ever seen? OR Do you have a favorite historical font, type of writing, etc?
I’m very fascinated by the RMS Titanic. While working at FindMyPast in London, I was involved in bringing online the complete, handwritten passenger lists for her fateful voyage. Also, I later got to take a look at the original, handwritten personnel file of Edward Smith, her captain, which was from the personal collection at the private home of the Commodore of the present day Cunard White Star line.
In a past job you handled credit card megadata. What’s more fun, Mastercard accounts or genealogical documents?
The last position I held prior to making the jump into the family history industry was in the Chief Technical Officer role at a large credit card processing company. I was responsible for making sure that literally millions of dollars got from point A to point B on a daily basis and especially, that no hackers invited themselves into the mix. The security protocols were stringent and extreme. I was on-call 24/7. The position was exceptionally stressful and demanding.
I recall once a split-second-long glitch in our system caused a six-figure sum of our clients’ money to disappear into thin air. Luckily, after some considerable, and painstaking, around-the-clock effort, we got every penny back to its rightful owner.
I certainly don’t miss even an ounce of the day-to-day stress of that much responsibility. Luckily, all the gray hairs I gained from that position have since regained their color.
What do you do when you’re not at your computer?
I pretty much spend all my spare time entertaining my twin 3-year-old daughters, which is undoubtedly the highlight of my day. Other than that, you might run into me at the local home improvement store. I’m always in the middle of two or three DIY projects around the house.
You’ve flipflopped between leading companies and providing brainpower behind the scenes. What role suits you best?
I’ve enjoyed my time at each company in the industry that I’ve had the privilege of contributing to. Pretty much all of my roles have been similar—working simultaneously in product design, software engineering and R&D, in one way or another. I’ve also founded two of my own companies in the family history space. Both were acquired by bigger companies in the industry and became integrated into their respective products.
Much to my wife’s chagrin, I think I really am an entrepreneur at heart. I prefer small, nimble teams and am always on the lookout for the next big thing in the industry.
Mocavo features a genealogy search engine, historical records (free to search one collection at a time) and family trees. Want to see how you can find ancestors with Mocavo? Watch Family Tree University’s Making the Most of Mocavo video course, available in Family Tree Shop.