Alumni profile: Catherine Ulrich, A.B. ’05

Tuesday, December 20, 2016 - 2:30pm

At Shutterstock, this alumna uses technology to develop picture-perfect products

Picture this—you are a marketing professional searching online for a stock photo. You have a specific image in mind – an empty country road on a somewhat sunny day with a red bicycle leaning against a split rail fence – but can’t find exactly what you’re looking for using a keyword search.

The computer vision products being developed by Catherine Ulrich, A.B. ’05, and her teams of engineers at Shutterstock could help you. As chief product officer at the tech-driven creative online marketplace, Ulrich, a bioengineering concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, oversees development of cutting-edge products that help customers work more efficiently.

Shutterstock’s computer vision tool incorporates a series of algorithms that study the pixels in an image to pick out defining features, like colors or shapes. A user uploads a photo and the computer model identifies images within the Shutterstock database that have similar elements and composition. The machine-learning algorithms get better at recognizing defining features as more images are uploaded into the system.

“Computer vision technology is going to be a game-changer in our space. It is going to make it much simpler for our customers to find what they are looking for,” she said. “At the end of the day, our goal is to reduce the amount of time it takes a customer to find a creative asset and turn it into their end work product.”

This screen capture from Shutterstock.com shows the company's reverse image search, which lets users drag an image into the search bar and get results based on pixel data instead of the standard keyword data.

Product strategy was a career path Ulrich wasn’t even aware of when she graduated from Harvard. After launching a consulting career, her interest in bioengineering and public health led her to Weight Watchers, where she initially worked on strategy and financial planning. Drawing on her penchant for problem solving, she gravitated toward the product side of the business, eventually serving as Weight Watchers’ chief product officer.

In 2014, Ulrich decided to switch gears and break into a different industry by accepting the newly established CPO position at Shutterstock.

“Shutterstock is a tech company at its core, which drew me in,” she said. “During its first decade of existence, the company was disruptive in the marketplace for selling creative licenses for photos, videos, and music. I think Shutterstock is sitting in a perfect position to be disruptive again, and that excites me.”

The firm’s evolving customer base is driving the need for disruptive approaches, Ulrich said. As marketing firms and media companies face tighter deadlines due to the digital landscape, non-professional creatives, such as marketing managers, are becoming responsible for more design-oriented tasks like image selection and photo editing.

To meet these changing customer needs, Ulrich and her team recently developed an in-browser photo editing tool that enables customers to quickly crop, filter, and add text to an image. The idea is to provide easy access to the most commonly used features from complicated photo editing software packages, Ulrich explained.

“The biggest pain point our customers have is time; nobody has enough of it any more. Products that save people time are going to win,” she said. “As CPO, I listen to the pain in our customers’ lives. If we can understand that pain, we can develop technology-driven tools to alleviate it.”

And when it comes to saving customers time using computer vision, the company has barely touched the “tip of the iceberg,” Ulrich said. She is excited for how new applications of artificial intelligence could streamline processes long mired in minutiae. 

A glimpse inside Shutterstock's New York City office. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Ulrich’s engineering background equipped her with a problem-solving mindset that has enabled her to succeed. But the technical and problem solving aspects of the CPO role can’t be overshadowed by the need to build and maintain dynamic teams. She credits her experience as coxswain of the Harvard varsity men’s heavyweight crew team during her undergrad career with teaching her the value of teamwork.

“Our speed to market is dictated by how well each of our agile tech and product teams work,” she said.  “A great team will always win compared to a group of ‘the smartest people in the room’ who happen to work together.”

For Ulrich, who has built a rewarding career in a field she didn’t even know existed when she was a college student, her best advice is to keep an open mind.

“My career unfolded because I kept pursuing interesting challenges and problems,” she said. “If you maintain your curiosity about the world and what you can learn next, your career will evolve in unexpected and rewarding ways.”