James is a systems engineer and entrepreneur who has fundamentally transformed and greatly simplified mobile and web applications development.
What is a highlight of your professional career since you graduated from UW-Madison?
Starting Firebase, growing the company, raising venture capital, selling it to Google, and growing it inside Google. Now it powers most of the mobile phone apps in the world.
Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?
I think specifically the company culture at Firebase. Most of the folks—especially pre-Google—would say it was the best job they ever had. I’m really proud of the way we treated our people, of the way they treated each other, and of the way we treated our customers. And I think that intensive care showed up in the product as well and allowed it to be successful.
Why did you choose engineering, and how did you decide on your major?
I bounced around a lot of majors. I thought I was going to do psych, then comm arts, chemistry, business—and then I got to my junior year and realized I needed to pick something. Industrial engineering is a really interesting blend of psychology and engineering, and how humans interact with systems. One of my strengths is the people side—leading, managing, inspiring and connecting with people. I think that’s why I ended up in that particular engineering discipline. But I always knew I wanted to build a company or be an actor!
As a student, how did you spend your free time?
I spent a lot of time traveling to tournaments with the speech and debate team. I was a member of an organization called The Lodge, and I spent a lot of time there holding several roles. I spent a lot of time at the Terrace drinking beer. I also helped start a student organization focused on promoting and enjoying electronic music.
Can you share are a few of your best memories from your time at UW-Madison?
I remember the IIE conferences every year. We went to Lincoln, Nebraska, and Fargo, North Dakota. The industrial engineering students were really tight, close friends, so from singing on the bus rides to exploring the local bars in each town, we had a good time.
What advice would you give students today?
Back then, there was only one computer science class. And so I would encourage them to get really familiar with computer programming and software engineering, and take a few classes there. Everything comes down to how well you can manipulate software and data.
What are your hobbies or interests?
I’ve kind of attempted to view life as just one big hobby; if you view work as this thing you have to do, it’s less enjoyable. Meditation has been a big activity in my life these past couple of years, and physical and emotional health generally. I have a really nice bike that I shuffle around the hills of San Francisco on. I do a little bit of photography; I shoot with a Sony a6500. Between my sabbatical, leaving Google and starting COVID Act Now, I traveled quite a bit. I’m passionate about the environment and treating the earth well. And then also looking at artificial intelligence, and that I think will be the biggest sea change that any of us will see in our lives, so how do we ensure that that gets ushered in safely?
Anyone you’d like to mention?
My mom, Sally dad, Cliff; and brother, Giles, were always huge influences in my life. I’m eternally grateful for them giving me the gift of a great education and a great childhood.