Feeling puzzled? Ask Google

by Clark Zhang '21 for Silver Chips

Was it “enivroment”? Or “enviroment”? Or “enrvioment”? Let’s ask Google.

With the tap of a few keys and the click of a button, Google analyzes the intended meaning of the words in this search, matches them to billions of potentially relevant results on the web, ranks them based on what is most helpful, and, in 0.81 seconds, about 4,890,000,000 results pop up in a neatly-organized page—all next to a little link which reads, “Did you mean: environment?”

Huang’s interest in puzzling and board games took roots early in his youth. “I liked board games as a kid, but I always played [them] with myself and imagined what it might be like to play with other people,” Huang said. Unbeknownst to his younger self, his wish would soon be realized.

In his junior year, Huang became one of four members on the U.S. team for the World Puzzle Championship and won the championship four times by his college graduation. Even now, he is “in the top six or seven [puzzle solvers in the country],” Huang said.

On top of his puzzling, Huang picked up even more extracurriculars during his time at the California Institute of Technology. He participated in the Putnam Math Competition, a prestigious national math competition for undergraduates, and was awarded the rank of Putnam Fellow (given to the top five puzzle solvers in the country) in his freshman year.

By the end of his freshman year, Huang had gained clout within the small school and was approached by a fellow student who was running for the position of school newspaper editor. With a team of five, Huang and his fellow students won the election. “I thought I was just going to do the computer-y stuff, like layout and choosing the typeface,” Huang said. However, as the pressure from schoolwork fell upon his team of five, one by one, Huang saw his fellow editors quit the newspaper, drop out of school, or transfer. Soon, Huang found himself the sole editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. He felt his academic career suffered greatly from his commitment to the newspaper, but “some amount of pride kept me from giving up,” Huang said.

After graduating from Caltech, a friend from Huang’s high school math competition days reached out and landed him a job in California. “I was probably the 500th employee in this small startup that was challenging these search engine giants like Yahoo, trying for a search engine that actually gave good results,” Huang said. This startup was Google.

Huang was accepted and found solace in solving problems on Blair’s math team and coding in Blair’s computer science club. However, Huang’s greatest adolescent achievements stemmed from his passion for puzzles.

Settling in Maryland, Huang dove into MathCounts, a national middle school mathematics competition, earning a position on the Maryland state team. “Everyone else was from Takoma Park and they were like, ‘Who is this kid?,’” Huang says. Seeing his potential, his math coach recommended that he apply for the Montgomery Blair Magnet Program.

One of the people behind the search engine that has become so integral to our lives—whether it be finding the correct spelling of words, Pride and Prejudice Sparknotes, or tips on how to write a college essay—is Wei-Hwa Huang.

Huang spent much of his childhood traveling for his family’s work. By the time he reached eighth grade, Huang had lived in five states and two countries.

Now, over eleven years after leaving Google, Huang hasn’t taken up another job. Instead, he “spend[s] time turning [his] hobbies of puzzle design and game design into fun projects.” He has authored books on puzzle design, published his crosswords in the New York Times, designed award-winning board games, and corresponded on Blair’s very own Puzzlepalooza puzzle hunt. With his royalty checks from his games and investments in Google, Huang currently lives comfortably with his wife in San Jose, California, taking care of their two-year-old twins, Titus and Zwyla.

This article was written by Clark Zhang and published in Silver Chips (November 14, 2019, page E3). Illustrations by Shashi Arnold.

At the same time, After the The Da Vinci Code project ended, Huang wished for more puzzle projects and “didn't enjoy as much the other normal programming-type things.” At the same time, the company relocated, extending Huang’s commute time from 10 minutes to 90. “My productivity was low, my morale was low, and that's when I left,” he said.

As the company grew in size, the environment that originally drew Huang to Google began to fall away, such as the sense of community being replaced with corporate hierarchies. “When I joined Google, you could just walk over to the head of engineering and just chat about stuff,” he said.

Starting in the search quality division, Huang focused on improving the relevance of search results, specifically building the foundations of auto-correct. “Adding features where the search engine could guess at [that], maybe you didn't actually mean to spell it this way or add spaces this way, was something… we had to solve,” Huang said.

From there, Huang helped integrate Google Search with East Asian languages, prevent bot spamming, and even wrote a series of 27 elaborate online puzzles to promote the movie The Da Vinci Code.