Impacting the World Through Electrical Engineering
He never wanted to be known or famous, but he always wanted to do big things. And he liked to build things. As a kid, it was intricate worlds created from his own imagination out of a massive Legos box filled with plenty of blocks, but no instructions. Later, he said, it was building software for “the super powerful computers everyone carries around in their pockets” that was enthralling. But he always knew he wanted to have an impact on the world and he wanted to scale that impact. He also knew that his contribution was limited to what he could do with his own two hands, but if he could get people together to work toward a vision, he could scale what he wanted to create.
And, boy, has he ever!
Alex Austin ’07 (B. S. electrical engineering) is co-founder and CEO of Branch Metrics, a mobile software company founded in 2014 and now employing 300 people at offices in 12 countries. Branch software runs on 98 to 99 percent of all smartphones in the world, teleporting users out of one app and into another at lightning speed, taking us just where we want to go and making it easier for us to use our mobile devices to buy products online, or check out a restaurant discovered on Yelp, or a zillion other things we do on a daily basis without ever wondering how we’re doing them with such ease. “You interact with us a lot, even though you don’t know it,” Alex said with a laugh.
But, as is so often the case, this mega-company came about in a rather roundabout way. After interning at NASA, earning his electrical engineering master’s degree, and helping to grow a solar startup from fewer than 50 employees to about 700 just to see it decline when the solar market crashed, Alex was more convinced than ever that he wanted to start his own company. Designing software was a hobby of his and he taught himself to build mobile apps, but after numerous failed attempts to launch a business, he enrolled in Stanford University’s MBA program. During that two-year span he started nine different products or companies. He also met his future co-founders.
“It was nearing graduation and we had been working on a product for a year, but it wasn’t one I was passionate about. We were running out of time, the app wouldn’t have the kind of impact I wanted, and I thought we’d have to stop and get real jobs,” he recalled. At the same time, though, the team was trying to fix a problem that every app developer faced: pointing users to specific content, rather than just to a homepage. Mobile apps are standalone entities, Alex explained, disconnected from one another. In order to give the mobile user the same experience of accessing information from the internet, his team was working on a version of a link that would interconnect apps like the web. Maybe their solution could produce the kind of impact he was seeking.
The team met with an investor who gave them enough funding to last a few months. “Over the next three months, things starting working and we had a clear opportunity. With our deep linking technology, we solved a problem that so many others were facing, and Branch was born. It was so easy to grow, we could reach out to anybody and say, ‘You need to link users to the right pages? We can solve that.’ And since mobile is completely international, we had adoption all over the world very early on,” he said. In fact, in just a few months they had 1 million users; a year later, 280 million!
At first, as CEO, Alex had to do it all—software development, sales, account management—but now, he said, “we’ve hired people who are really good at all those things—we’ve hired people for all my jobs, so I have no actual responsibilities. My role is to help them prioritize and work well together. I still write code because it’s my passion and I try to contribute to Branch’s code base at least once a week. If I had to stop, I wouldn’t be having fun.”
Alex credits his electrical engineering education for getting him where he is today. “A lot of CEOs were EEs. Electrical engineering trains you to solve problems and helps you think through things others struggle with. I had seen that the path of EE to leadership was one done many times and it was a role model for me,” he said. He also appreciates the value electrical engineers bring to software development. “We’ve hired 80 software engineers, and those who have a deep understanding of hardware and computer architecture—the ones who know what’s happening underneath—are 5 to 10 times more productive than those without that knowledge. The way you design software has to take architecture into account because it affects speed and cost. If we build a new feature designed to be efficient on our hardware, it could mean the difference between us paying Amazon Web Services an additional $100,000 per month instead of $1 million per month,” he explained.
It’s this insight and passion that led SCU’s Department of Electrical Engineering to invite Alex to join their advisory board. “Having the opportunity to help build how future engineers are educated is very cool,” he said. And his advice for first-year students? “Now and throughout your entire career, ask yourself what really matters to you. When you’re in a situation that makes you happy, think about the characteristics that feed that happiness and find things that align with those. I knew the thing that made me happy was to create something that has a big impact. I’m over-the-moon happy. Working on Branch isn’t work for me; I feel like this is what I was put on Earth to do!”
Jan 30, 2019
Alex Austin '07, Co-founder and CEO of Branch Metrics, at the Redwood City headquarters