In the midst of many tech events in Toronto you will often see (or hear) a passionate young French woman cheering on crowds of geeks to follow their dreams. Not only does Leila Boujnane push the boundaries on the job, she can routinely be found on Twitter praising the challenges of cold water surfing and welcoming the frigid Canadian winter running season. However, for most in the wired world, Boujnane is best known for breaking new ground in the area of image search.
Her company, TinEye, has created what is called reverse image search. Once you submit an image into the tool it will tell you where that image has been published on the Web, even if the image has been altered. If you're a photographer, for example, this is a dream application that will help you discover where your work has been used online.
"Our approach to image searching - and that's the exciting part for me - uses image recognition to analyze the image and derive a unique fingerprint for each image we index for search," says Boujnane.
There are currently more than two billion images in the TinEye database, but Boujnane explains this is just the tip of the iceberg. They have big plans for how image recognition will be embedded in consumer products such as cameras and mobile devices. She is also surprised daily with stories of how people use the software. "Every day we receive e-mails about people who have used TinEye in ways we never expected them to use it ... checking dating profiles, finding the source of an image on a book cover, finding an image to use on a book cover or simply solving a quiz question," says Boujnane.
After moving from France to Canada, Boujnane started working for a software company "by accident." She fell in love with the ability to build great teams and use technology to solve complex problems. She describes the industry as the most exciting on earth, "unless you become an astronaut."
After two decades in this space, she explains that she is optimistic about the opportunities for women and is proud of the work women have done already to change the landscape of the workplace in North America. Today, Boujnane is now setting her sights on mentoring and helping women in developing countries where girls don't have easy access to education.
As for her own mentors, she thanks two women. One of them is "powerhouse" Diane Greene who founded virtualization software company VMware in 1998. "And because of my educational background," says Boujnane, "Esther Takeuchi is pretty much up there for me. Her work on sophisticated power sources for implantable biomedical devices has impacted the lives of millions of people. She is one of my heroes."
Her advice for other women working in technology is, like Boujnane, to the point. "Get involved fully in your community and excel at what you do. Period."
(In full disclosure, many of these women I'm featuring are friends as we've supported each other in the tech industry for years. I helped Leila create a special how-to video for TinEye back in 2006.)