One of the drawbacks of running a global software developer is that people assume that you are based in California's Silicon Valley. For Mike Lynch, the academic chief executive of Autonomy, that assumption means regular wake-up calls at four in the morning from customers in Asia who assume he works on Pacific standard time. Since Autonomy purchased its main rival, Verity, last year, the company has headquarters in both Cambridge and San Francisco, as well as an office in Beijing - cities eight hours apart. As a result, Mr Lynch now works around the clock.
Although he was spared the early-morning wake-up call yesterday, the first thing he does upon waking is check his e-mails for any issues emanating from Asia. "The laptop lives by the side of the bed, I'm afraid," he said.
Irish-born but raised in Essex, Mr Lynch is one of the last men standing from the high-profile UK technology boom at the end of the last decade. Seen as somewhat of an evangelist, Mr Lynch's unwavering faith in the value of the company's context-based search technology has helped to steer the Cambridge-based company through hard times over the past few years. "The cult of personality is important in technology," he explained. Yet unlike in the US where the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison are household names, Mr Lynch said that it can be a slight disadvantage in the UK, where people are a bit more wary of someone being too dominant within a company.
With revenue growth now more than 20 per cent, Mr Lynch's position at the top of one of the UK's five largest software companies looks strong. His name is synonymous with Autonomy - in which he holds a 12 per cent stake - as the software is based in part on his Cambridge doctoral thesis, one of the most widely read pieces of research at the Cambridge University library. The thesis was submitted in 1990, and Mr Lynch founded Autonomy in 1994, with financial backing provided by an anonymous music-industry executive. In 1996 Autonomy became fully independent, and was listed in 1998. A decade later Autonomy is valued at about £725m, and Mr Lynch is still steering the ship.
A meeting with new investors is not as straightforward as pointing to revenue growth and future prospects. Mr Lynch, who turned 41 in April, spends much time and effort explaining what exactly his company does.
"People associate us with search, but search is just the beginning. When you meet new investors, they have a whole load of questions about what we don't do. It takes about three meetings before they fully understand what we actually do," he said.
Over the past 10 years, Mr Lynch's technical explanations have occasionally missed the mark. "One reporter once wrote that we were investing in biscuit tins for some bizarre reason," Mr Lynch laughed.
Autonomy is often painted as a Google-type product used by the US government and the UK police for homeland security and counter-terrorism projects. However, the company's contextual search technology is much more complex than a basic search engine. It enables customers - which range from BP to the US government and Ford - to use the vast volume of unstructured data that sits dormant in an organisation's databases. While search engines find documents available on the internet, Autonomy enables organisations to search across e-mails, internal documents and even voice calls to collate information that can then be used for commercial purposes. The technology also enables contextual search of that data. That means a user does not need to know what specifically to look for as the technology collates data related to the query. The technology automatically processes that information and removes the need for a human being to actively retrieve and process the data.
This is particularly useful in areas such as policing and counter-terrorism, when authorities often do not know exactly what, or who, they are searching for, and when language barriers also present challenges. "With homeland security projects, by definition you don't know what you are looking for until you find it. Meaning-based queries are much more effective in investigations. There is no Miss Marple moment," Mr Lynch explained.
The technology also has significant appeal for corporate customers that can use unstructured information to identify product problems at a very early stage. Mr Lynch said that a car company could discover a fault without waiting for it to become a major problem. "A global car company could instantly discover that a report has been filed in Sweden, a complaint has been made in Saudi Arabia, while a test problem has arisen in the US, all around the same issue. Without needing to search for it, the technology can cluster the relevant data automatically. This is an incredibly powerful tool," he said.
Meaning-based queries would also be used to comply with regulators, particularly important in the financial services sector.
Mr Lynch argues that about 80 per cent of a company's data takes the form of e-mails, internal documents and recorded phone messages, but often that can prove the most interesting and useful information. "There is valuable information flying around organisations every day. That presents an opportunity and a threat. Automating and processing that information represents possibly the biggest change in the IT industry."
Mr Lynch holds regular internal meetings with his "bright young staff," to discuss new ideas. "Apparently the brain peaks at 22 if you are a mathematician," he explains, but joked that older hands need to temper the enthusiasm of the "nimble young minds".
"Sometimes you look like a genius for pointing out a flaw, but it is only because you have made the same mistake 10 years ago," he said.
Mr Lynch believes that after 10 years, companies have started to recognise the value of the unstructured information in identifying problems. "It has gone prime time now," he said. Yet he is careful not to characterise the technology as only applicable for businesses and enforcement organisations. Consumers can also benefit. Autonomy's technology powers the largest video search engine in the world, answering 5 million searches a day. But it is the context-based search capability that could soon change the way people use the internet.
"It is marvellous that you can log on to a search engine and find the address of a florist, but it is very clunky, and you have to know what to look for, and where to look for it. Using implicit query, consumers can log on to a supermarket's website and search for a product and the technology will immediately detect whether that product is cheaper using a different site. The user does not need to search for that."
To demonstrate the power of context-based searches, Mr Lynch loads a BBC story about the rock legends The Who on to his laptop. Immediately, a drag down menu enables Mr Lynch to access a plethora of other stories from a variety of sources, videos and sound-clips of the concert as well as e-commerce sites selling The Who products. He does not need to search for this content as it is automatically linked.
Mr Lynch, however, is not the biggest fan of the band. "I am more of a Motown man myself," he points out, adding that he was a keen tenor saxophone player in his youth.
As is often the case with technology, some people use it in ways that not even Mr Lynch could have envisaged. He explains that one of his employees was sitting next to a Mormon on a plane recently and discovered that Autonomy's software was used to scan scriptures to find passages in the Bible related to specific queries.
Mr Lynch has grown accustomed to working late into the night, hunched over his trusty laptop. After dealing with the slew of phone calls and e-mails as the Californians awake at about 4pm, he gets home at 7pm, only to go straight back online.
"I have to try and balance my dinner on one knee and my laptop on the other. It is a great way to make sure you get a new laptop every six months because invariably, the dinner ends up in the computer."Reuse content