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Allo? He’s looking to make Google’s new messaging app the next big hit

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by December 27, 2016 General

One of Google’s longest-serving Singaporean employees, Lim Jing Yee has worked with the tech giant for 14 years. — TODAY picOne of Google’s longest-serving Singaporean employees, Lim Jing Yee has worked with the tech giant for 14 years. — TODAY picSINGAPORE, Dec 27 — He worked on Gmail when it was still an unknown entity, and on Google Maps before it became available in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

Now, software engineer Lim Jing Yee, 46, is looking to clinch a hat-trick by helping Google make its new messaging app Allo the next big hit.

Lim is one of the longest-serving Singaporean “Googlers”, having spent 14 years with the tech giant, just one year shy of the 15 years of service put in by his ex-classmate from Hwa Chong Junior College, Tan Chade-Meng, who left the company last year.

Even after all these years, the Cornell and Stanford alumnus still finds working at Google “exciting” as it means “tackling some of the toughest problems in technology”, said Lim.

The Allo project, which he took on only this year, reminds him of his Gmail phase, which he described as a time of “forgetting about existing processes” in emailing platforms so that his team could “re-imagine” a revolutionary platform.

Back in 2002 — when Yahoo and Hotmail were the bigger players in mail — Lim was part of the initial team of engineers tasked with “reinventing email”.

“At that time, it was called mail, and (there were) a few Webmails that had very little storage and were not very good … We wanted to try to make (mail) easy to search, easy to use, and use it anywhere through a browser,” said Lim, who has at least 15 patents to his name in the United States.

He worked on improving Gmail’s user interface, and implemented much of the foundational javascript still found in today’s Gmail inboxes — notably, how emails of the same thread cluster into a single conversation.

“Through several iterations and different designs, we tested it internally many times. We found patents from ideas that we had. One of the patents included the ‘conversational view’, where we clustered emails of the same conversation in one view,” he said.

The man who saw the beginning of Gmail knew early on that it would be a success when the product was “well-loved” by Google’s “fussy and difficult” engineers. Today, Gmail has more than one billion active users each month, announced Google in February.

With Allo, Lim is going back to the drawing board of reinventing a relatively new communication medium that people are increasingly adopting to gather information: Messaging apps.

He is working on the Google Assistant part of Allo, where people can write to a bot to get information such as movie timings, flight information or restaurant locations, or to tackle tasks such as turning on the alarm.

“I try to find ways to make the Google Assistant better at understanding natural language so a person can express themselves as though they’re having a conversation, and still get good answers to their questions,” said Lim, whose office is at MapleTree Business City II in Pasir Panjang.

Before Lim became part of the Google family in 2002, he had a brief stint with Excite.com, once a well-known search engine, in Silicon Valley in California.

He was previously with ST Electronics in Singapore, where he had worked on 3D chip design.

It was Tan, his ex-classmate, who encouraged him to join Google from Excite.com’s parent company, Excite@Home, after the firm filed for bankruptcy in October 2001.

“It was the right timing for me … Google was still a very young company at that time (with) a lot of potential … It was a company that wanted to continue to improve the search engine at a time when a lot of companies had given up on search,” Lim said.

In 2008, the father of three returned to Singapore to launch Google Maps for South-east Asia as he found it “a lot easier to raise my children in Singapore with the support of my family”.

Google Maps was a challenging project as “we had to navigate the diversity in the region” by working with data providers and governments to resolve technical issues and licence data, said Lim.

“Not every road might have a name, some houses might not be numbered, or in certain places like India, people might use landmarks to identify a place — for example, ‘the house next to 7-Eleven’ — instead of a specific address,” he added.

The things that he had to do to launch Google Maps may deviate from an engineer’s typical job description, but for Lim, a good engineer is also one who is versatile and able to take on different roles.

And being versatile has helped Lim since his primary-school days, where he taught himself programmeming through manuals he had borrowed from the library.

At 12, the Maris Stella Primary pupil had his first programmeming experience when he built a calculator of sorts — one “that lets you add numbers” — on his first computer, an NEC. Later at St Joseph’s Institution, he started to programme games, with his first one inspired by Pacman, which was all the rage then. His game involved “monsters … chasing you, and you will have to manoeuvre to avoid the monsters”.

“You look at what other people have done, other games, and you want to build it yourself, to customise and outdo it,” Lim said.

This spirit of exploration has allowed him to thrive in Google.

“As kids, we explore different ideas … Some worked, some won’t. The important thing is to open up to new ideas,” he added.

With ideas key to the success of any new enterprise, Lim is encouraged to see entrepreneurship growing in Singapore, as can be seen by the growing number of start-ups that have been popping up in recent years.

“You have to be passionate about what you are doing … (and have a) sense of making products that are good for the world,” he said. — TODAY

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