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Linguists in Business

By Lauren Marcus
Printed in Anthropology News
Volume 41, Number 8, November 2000

Not all linguists follow the traditional career path into academia. A growing number are finding jobs in the information technology industry. The AnswerLogic company, based in Washington, DC, is a case in point.

As a software company developing applications that use natural language to allow people to find information, AnswerLogic has a fundamental need for skilled linguists. AnswerLogic’s linguists make up about one third of the 90-person company and have educational backgrounds ranging from BA degrees to PhDs in linguistics. The linguists also represent an impressive range of experience. Some have worked primarily in academia, while others have had careers in industries requiring specialized linguistic knowledge. Some are experts in natural language processing and/or computational linguistics, while others have experience in areas such as finance or information technology. Collectively, AnswerLogic’s growing linguist staff helps to promote a more human interaction on the Web by creating software that understands English.

How did our linguists make the transition from graduate school to industry? Three of them tell us their stories:

Tony Davis

I graduated in linguistics from U C San Diego and immediately embarked on a PhD at Stanford. Partway through the program, I took a leave to work as a computational linguist. This experience taught me that I did not enjoy spotting bugs in someone else’s Lisp code. I returned to Stanford, completed my PhD and joined Cycorp, which was developing a huge AI system embodying commonsense knowledge and reasoning. My work there was language-related but mostly I had a chance to learn more about knowledge representation and engage in lively discussions with bright colleagues. The latter is a feature that I enjoy in my current position as well.

I joined AnswerLogic early in 2000, after answering an ad posted to the LinguistList ( AnswerLogic offered positions for linguists in NLP-oriented startups (not strictly computational linguists, either, though it didn’t hurt me to have that bent). I moved to DC because the work seemed solidly linguistic – right up my alley in syntax and semantics – and the company’s business model seemed shrewd. My expectations have been met in both respects. As a senior linguist, I’m a resource for colleagues who do not know as much formal linguistics as I do. I work with others on adding linguistic knowledge to our system. Among the projects I’ve contributed are: analyzing question types and indicators of good answers to each type, developing strategies for interpreting noun-noun compounds properly and representing the participant roles of verbs and their syntactic realizations.

Conventional wisdom points to academia as the place for intellectual stimulation. I’m not so sure. Many academics are so focused on their narrow specialties that they don’t talk much with colleagues. Although I have not completely ruled out an academic job, I am also not willing to sacrifice other things in life to procure one. I enjoy the team atmosphere in industry, where I can bounce ideas off people who are on my side. One drawback is that I can’t choose my research as freely. But my work at AnswerLogic isn’t completely divorced from my research interests. With luck and planning, I hope this state of affairs will continue.

Chris Ruhlen

I played by the rules from the start. I finished my PhD in five years, landed a tenure-track position, received great teaching evaluations, published in top journals and earned tenure. A few years later I found myself disenchanted with funding formulas driving administrative decisions and education taking a back seat to the whims of a state legislature. When the Florida university system implemented a teaching awards program from which 50% of the faculty were automatically eliminated, based on the number of student credit hours they produced, I knew it was time for a linguist teaching small graduate classes to seek career fulfillment elsewhere.

I initially assumed what many academic linguists do: we’re trained to be teachers and scholars and we’re not qualified for anything else. I soon realized that my cognitive skills as a linguist transferred easily to the thought processes involved in writing computer programs. I began studying.

A year later, I saw an ad for linguists with some technical background. AnswerLogic was a natural language software company looking for people with exactly my background. Two weeks after the spring semester ended, I was working in a great new city – with a better salary and benefits than I had after twelve years of professional life.

As a technical linguist, I’m involved in discovering and categorizing the technical lexicon, new words from the information technology domain that our software needs to understand. The work is exciting, the employees are bright and energetic and I feel like I’m involved in something that will revolutionize the way people interact with computers. And here the value of linguistics, and linguists, is never taken for granted.

Kemp Williams

During the course of my undergraduate anthropology work at American University and my studies in linguistic anthropology at the University of Arizona, I had the good fortune to work with faculty members who forced me to think in terms of how to apply specialized knowledge and skills to real-world problems in marketable ways. These instructors consistently went to great lengths to apprise students of new and creative employer demands for such skills in different workplace environments, emphasizing the limited domain of academic jobs and the rising number of students finding work outside of academia.

I found myself suddenly confronted with these realities in the summer of 1999 when I decided to put my graduate studies on hold. Faced with the necessity of obtaining gainful employment, I hoped to find a job that would make genuine use of my educational background. Happily, I found AnswerLogic on my first look through the classified section. Even though the company was in its infancy at the time, I knew I had found exactly the kind of unique opportunity that my advisors had encouraged me to consider.

By virtue of joining the company early on and participating in its active growth, I have had the opportunity to contribute to a constantly evolving and dynamic work situation that has kept me engaged with my field of study while cultivating my professional skills. I have had a hand in figuring out how to use theoretical knowledge in practical and productive ways and in translating ideas into actionable and achievable goals. Most satisfyingly, however, AnswerLogic has given me a chance to work with theory in a way that produces observable results and has fostered an environment that constantly promotes my academic interests.