The rise and fall of Amit Singhal, the former Google star just fired by Uber

Searching for answers.
Searching for answers.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Amitabh Kumar Singhal spent a childhood obsessed with Star Trek. On his parents’ black-and-white TV, Singhal would compulsively watch reruns of the science-fiction franchise and dream of building starship computers that could answer questions instantly. It was a bit of a long shot for a kid born in Jhansi and growing up in the foothills of the Himalayas in the 1970s.

But Amit Singhal, as he’s better known, pulled it off. By 2000, he found himself helping re-engineer the algorithms at the heart of Google’s all-powerful search engine. Google’s employee number 176 spent a decade-and-a-half at the company before leaving in February last year.

In a Feb. 03, 2016 post publicly announcing his exit, he wrote:

My life has been a dream journey. From a little boy growing up in the Himalayas dreaming of the Star Trek computer, to an immigrant who came to the United States with two suitcases and not much else, to the person responsible for Search at Google, every turn has enriched me and made me a better person.

But now, that dream is unravelling.

On Feb. 27, Recode reported that Singhal, who joined Uber in January 2017 as senior vice president of engineering, had been asked to leave. The reason: He reportedly failed to disclose to Uber a “credible” sexual harassment allegation made against him while at Google. This charge may have been the reason he left Google, according to Recode.

It’s been a tough few days for Uber, which has been battling charges of sexism and sexual harassment after Susan Fowler, a former engineer at the ride-hailing company, published a scathing blogpost on Feb. 19.

Brought in to head Uber’s maps and marketplaces divisions, Singhal has denied the allegation. “I certainly want everyone to know that I do not condone and have not committed such behavior,” he said in a statement. “In my 20-year career, I’ve never been accused of anything like this before and the decision to leave Google was my own.”

Searching star

Singhal’s rise to Silicon Valley’s stratosphere began at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee, one among India’s elite engineering schools. Founded in 1847, the institution was called the University of Roorkee when Singhal graduated in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences.

“After Roorkee,” he wrote in a biographical sketch for his Ph.D a decade later, “Amit decided to quit school forever and took up a job as a database programmer in a software consultancy company, just to realise that school life was much better than real life.”

So, Singhal went off to the University of Minnesota Duluth to pursue a master’s programme in computer science and began his research in the area of information retrieval. The backbone of online search engines, this is how information retrieval is defined (pdf) as a field of study:

Information retrieval is finding material (usually documents) of an unstructured nature (usually text) that satisfies an information need from within large collections (usually stored on computers).

“After graduating from Duluth (in 1992), once again deciding to quit school forever, Amit started working for West Publishing Company as a systems analyst,” he wrote in the sketch. “By now Amit had developed a habit of being in school and didn’t last too long in a real job. He quit West and joined Cornell’s Computer Science department to pursue a Ph.D in Information Retrieval, a field he had developed a strong liking for during this MS degree.”

At Cornell, Singhal studied under Gerard Salton, a professor of computer science who some describe as the father of digital search. By 1996, with a Ph.D in the bag, he once again moved out of academia, this time joining AT&T Labs, where he worked on projects like SCAN, which combined speech recognition, information retrieval, and user interface technologies.

But Singhal lasted only about four years in the job, eventually moving to Google in 2000, at the insistence of his friend Krishna Bharat, an IIT-Madras alumnus who went on to develop Google News. Coming on-board only two years after Google was founded, Singhal got to work on rewriting the algorithms that founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had developed. As Nicholas Carlson describes in his 2015 bookMarissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!:

Soon after joining, Singhal decided the code Google used for figuring out how to rank its search results needed a major overhaul. It had been written by Sergey Brin, and it was very sloppy. Singhal rewrote the whole thing in two months, adding huge improvements to relevancy and speed. In 2006, Singhal was named a Google Fellow, an award with a prize in the millions of dollars. He earned a nickname around campus: King of the Ranking

For 15 years, Singhal was at the centre of the action at Google’s flagship search function, which remains one of the two biggest revenue generators for Alphabet, Google’s parent company, formed in 2015. In his farewell post last February, he wrote:

It fills me with pride to see what we have built in the last 15 years. Search has transformed people’s lives; over a billion people rely on us. Our mission of empowering people with information and the impact it has had on this world cannot be overstated. When I started, who would have imagined that in a short period of 15 years, we would tap a button, ask Google anything and get the answer. Today, it has become second nature to us. My dream Star Trek computer is becoming a reality, and it is far better than what I ever imagined.

Almost exactly a year later, Singhal is seemingly trapped in a rather different reality. And, somewhat ironically, countless people across the world are using the search engine he helped build to find out why a former Google star has just been booted from Uber.