Facebook internship: check. Personalized job offer from the co-founder of YouTube: check. Featured in New York Magazine: check. Undergraduate degree? Feross Aboukhadijeh ’12 isn’t quite there yet.
Born and raised in Sacramento by a schoolteacher mother, and an electrical engineer, father, Aboukhadijeh credits his parents with sparking his love of computers and electronics at an early age.
“When I was younger, my dad always had all these electronics parts lying around the house, and so in my garage there was all this stuff I could play around with,” he said. “Half the time I didn’t understand what I was doing, but I would pretend that I was building something.”
The breaking point occurred years later when his dad bought the family a computer.
“It was a really junky old machine, but he allowed me to do whatever I wanted on it,” he said. “I did a lot of things like download games. And I didn’t know that I’d get viruses if I did that sort of thing, so I basically ruined the computer. I was worried I would get in trouble, so I worked really hard at getting rid of the viruses. I couldn’t tell my parents about it, so I basically did it all on my own.”
While dealing with such frustrations might turn some off to programming, it only encouraged Aboukhadijeh. At age 11, he made his first website. In high school, he created Study Notes, a program similar to Spark Notes that provides free study materials for students taking AP classes or prepping for the SATs.
Then, one night during spring quarter of his sophomore year, he was faced with a difficult decision: complete a dare by his friend to put together a functioning website in an hour or watch a movie. He chose the former, and even though he lost the dare, he succeeded on a whole other level.
At 9:32 p.m. that night, Aboukhadijeh launched YouTube Instant– and the rest is history.
“I woke up at 8:00 a.m. the next morning to get a glass of water, and on the way to the kitchen, I checked my phone and I had a bunch of texts and voice messages,” he said. “I saw one from The Washington Post that Google Voice had transcribed automatically. I thought maybe it was a typo, but when I listened to the message, I realized it was real. I went on my laptop to see what was going on, and I didn’t leave my computer until 5:00 a.m. the next day. I never got that glass of water.”
After the site went viral, a discussion thread on Hacker News, a popular site for programmers, made Aboukhadijeh realize just how lucky he was that he launched the site almost instantly instead of waiting to fine-tune it.
“Someone [on the site] wrote that he had been working on his version of YouTube Instant for months, but he didn’t release it because he wanted to add all these complicated features,” Aboukhadijeh said. “He let all those features get in the way of launching his site, and because of that, he missed the boat.”
Even though he’s thankful for the attention the site has received, Aboukhadijeh is still trying to get his head around the whole experience.
“I feel like a three-hour project that I built and the amount of media it generated was sort of unbalanced,” he said. “The reaction to the project was really crazy, because the co-founder of YouTube offered me a job, and it’s sort of the story that everyone wants to hear.”
Aboukhadijeh spent the summer following his sophomore year working for Facebook as a software engineer intern, learning the ins and outs of programming at a major company.
Recently profiled for New York Magazine and nominated for a .Net award, Aboukhadijeh is hopeful that he will not be forever labeled as the “YouTube Instant guy.”
“It’s been really life-changing for me,” he said. “This whole magazine profile really started this wave of interviews, but I’m sort of ready to move on to my next project and do something else.”
Last winter, Aboukhadijeh and Jake Becker, the friend who dared him to create YouTube Instant, launched a new project, Instant.fm, a site that specializes in creating music playlists out of YouTube videos. Although it was a fun project, Aboukhadijeh is looking forward to breaking new ground on the Web.
Aboukhadijeh is already broadening his focus, having spent three months of his summer interning at Quora.com, a question-and-answer site that he feels provided him with the experience necessary to eventually run his own startup someday.
Aside from programming, computer science section leading and serving as president of the Stanford Association for Computing Machinery, Aboukhadijeh plays intramural basketball and enjoys watching anime with friends.
He says that his Stanford experience has nurtured his passion in computer programming, specifically citing his CS106L instructor, computer science lecturer Keith Schwarz, as an inspiration.
“[Schwarz] was so passionate about what he was talking about that he would literally bounce up and down while he was lecturing,” Aboukhadijeh said. “I’d never been that excited to attend class, and it made me want to become a section leader.”
As for life after graduation? Aboukhadijeh isn’t certain. Choosing between pursuing a coterminal degree in computer science and starting his own company, he is keeping his options open.
Nevertheless, Aboukhadijeh attributes the bulk of his success to a combination of luck, diligence and not being afraid to fail.
“The fact that I chose to actually build YouTube Instant instead of watching a movie was something that was in my control and that was my decision,” he said. “I think that you can create your own luck.”