The end of the year is fast approaching and, along with it, the time when many take a step back to ‘pull together the pieces’ or more grandly, ‘reflect upon’ everything that happened (or didn’t) over the last 12 months. I’m not usually prone to this annual exercise but, quite frankly, 2017 was so decidedly different, even extraordinary in many ways, that I decided it was worth making an exception.
Our research organization, Xerox Research Centre Europe, which had spent all of its 20 plus years as part of one of the American B2B icons (‘Xerox’) was put on the market (first big change) and the acquirer we chose 6 months down the line was no less than the #1 South Korean B2C Internet giant NAVER (even bigger change!). We are delighted with the result. It’s a huge shift in culture in its broadest possible sense and one that we’re nowhere near having fully understood. However, after the first few months of getting to know each other, the common impression is that we feel decidedly privileged to be part of a company that has vision, very talented people, marked success in Asia and an attitude we like. The kind of attitude that mixes high standards with respect, willingness, risk and desire. We also know that, in Europe, our team has something special, something that can make a difference – and hey, that’s why they wanted us so badly right! So, here’s a bit more of what we’re about.
To be more specific, the European team joined NAVER LABS, a fully owned subsidiary of NAVER that focusses on Ambient Intelligence. We naturally became NAVER LABS Europe (NLE).
The vision of NAVER LABS is that of a future where we’ll be surrounded by intelligent agents that provide us with helpful, intuitive services we can trust. These services will make our lives not only easier but also more enjoyable. You can check some of them out from the videos at DEVIEW2017, the annual NAVER developer community event. This vision was a perfect fit for the competencies we’ve developed over the past two decades, notably around Artificial Intelligence (including machine learning, deep learning, computer vision and natural language processing), but also ethnography and more recently, mobility.
It’s not all about change (although there’s quite a bit of that!).
Starting with change, the biggest impact in going from a printing and business process outsourcing company to an Internet one is simply the pace at which we’re now moving. Multi-year contracts and renewal rates have been replaced by millions of end users who, with a click or a swipe, can switch from your services to your competitors’. There’s no other option but to constantly innovate.
This change from B2B to B2C obviously means we now work for millions of end users instead of interacting with a business group in between. This user-centric focus that permeates everything and everybody is a great source of motivation, a fabulous resource for ideas and feedback and the raison d’être of NAVER.
Korean companies are often considered by the West as organizations where individuals have limited initiative. NAVER either proves this wrong or is decidedly an outlier.
Created in 1999, NAVER now has thousands of employees but still feels like a start-up, okay a big start up, where taking the initiative is clearly encouraged and employees are empowered to do so.
In the European lab, we devote a lot of our time to NAVER centric projects, but we also propose projects we deeply believe in within the lab, even if there’s no immediate return on investment in sight.
As NAVER starts to expand in Europe, its focus is still clearly in Asia including Korea, Japan, Thailand and Taiwan. With our user-centric focus, that means we’re also learning about a very different market. Although we’ve barely scratched the surface it’s been enough to know that we we’ll never understand all the nuances of Asian cultures but it’s a fascinating and refreshing journey to be on.
Diversity is something we’re very familiar with and it’s something that, quite the opposite from changing, we will be reinforcing – whether it’s discipline, language, culture or gender diversity.
In the European labs there are about 25 nationalities for approximately 100 employees so each team has members from 5 or 6 different countries. NAVER as a whole has about 30% of female employees in engineering which is well above any average you’ll come across in Europe or the Americas. We uphold a fundamental belief that diversity, in all its different forms, is the essence of our creativity and our relevance.
As the team in Europe adapts and grows, our core activity around which everything else revolves, will remain the same. We will perform excellent research and engineering and settle for no less. We’re also hiring more talented people to help us do so. You’ll continue to see us in the best community conferences and forums including CVPR, ACL and NIPS, year after year. It’s not the only way, but it’s an important one in ensuring we remain at the top of our different fields. In this pursuit we’ll continue to openly conduct our research and innovation in partnership with academic institutions and other organizations. We’re fortunate this openness it’s in our DNA because it’s also the only way to keep up the pace at which we need to advance. It’s also one of the reasons we’re so excited about the NAVER/LINE start-up program ‘Space Green’ at Station F, the world’s biggest start up campus in Paris of which we’re a founder. We’re spending more and more time with the start-up community there and enjoying the interactions and mutual opportunities. It’s definitely a space to watch.
With more than two decades of experience, NLE is rather ironically in its infancy – a childhood with a bright future. Right now we’re shaping what we want that future to be and refining our mission. If you’d like to be part of our adventure, take it from me, there’s never been a better time!
Open positions at NAVER LABS Europe are posted here.
Florent Perronnin is Director of Science and Engineering at NAVER LABS Europe. Florent was previously the Director of the Facebook AI Research (FAIR) Lab in Paris.