A tech star comes home

Paul Buchheit ’98, MS ’98, said he came back to Case learn from today’s students. They had plenty of questions for him, too. 


They know he’s part of Internet history. 

They know he created the email application they grew up with.

And they know he earned his computer science degree from the Case School of Engineering, just as many of them are striving to do. 

Paul Buchheit, Google’s 23rd employee and the creator of Gmail, did not disappoint when he returned to his alma mater. He engaged in a friendly Q&A with more than 100 engineering students in the Foster-Castele Great Hall of the Linsalata Alumni Center Wednesday night, October 10. Earlier, he had lunch with student startup founders and met with members of engineering student groups. 

“It was just an amazing experience,” said senior Prince Gosh, who lunched with Buchheit at Sears think[box]. “Paul is like a living part of modern history--the birth of the Internet. Plus he’s a super cool guy.” 

Third year student Elias Suarez, one of several student group leaders to meet with Buchheit in a group setting, said the tech star from the class of 1998 seemed most interested in learning the likes and desires of today’s Case students. But he also freely shared his own experiences and observations. 

“I definitely appreciate it,” said Suarez, the president of two student computer science clubs, HackCWRU and the Association for Computing Machinery. “Twenty years ago, he was in the same position I’m in. We need role models. These alumni are not just abstractions, far away. They can connect with us.” 

Buchheit connected with the largest number of students at the alumni center, when he sat back in an armchair at the front of the hall and fielded questions from audience members, who were lightly prodded by Professor Frank Merat, the evening’s moderator. 

Buchheit, a venture capitalist and a managing partner at the California startup accelerator Y Combinator, was dressed tech casual in jeans, a t-shirt and pink Nike sneakers with lime green swooshes. His advice ranged from practical to philosophical, much of it aimed at people not intimidated by computer code.

 Although he began his career at Intel, he told the students they did not need to go to work for corporate America--not if they knew software engineering. 

“Right now the demand for CS people is just so high, who cares if you work at Amazon? You can work for any startup,” he said. “If you’re just really good, you’ll get a job.” 

He advised them to mix in liberal arts with their engineering education, to be sure they can engage both their right and left brains. 

“Apple products are not just technically good,” he said, “they have these emotional hooks.” 

And he told them to try and work for people smarter than themselves. 

“Find the best, fun people to work with. People who, when you talk with them, you’re like, ‘Wow!’ They end up creating these magnetic fields,” he said. “You bring in all these smart, creative people, and they feed off each other.” 

That’s akin to what happened to him early in his career, when he joined a Google staff of fewer than two dozen people, three years out of Case. He had an idea for a better email program--a free, web-based, searchable application--and hammered out a prototype before anyone really knew what he was doing. 

Gmail went public in 2004 and today is used by hundreds of millions of people around the world. 

“I really wanted it to be awesome,” Buchheit said, adding that his vision dismayed and upset some Google colleagues, who thought he was trying to do too much. A rough draft gave him the evidence he needed to say, “It is possible. I just did it.” 

Buchheit returned to that thought later, telling students that a product--or a prototype--beats an idea in the startup game. 

He noted that the founders of Airbnb discovered their concept when they needed cash to pay the rent, so they threw up a hasty website inviting visitors to sleep on air mattresses on their floor. The initial experience was positive and that shaped their convictions, maybe better than any investment could have. 

If you have an idea, he said, “Try it out” at a feasible scale. “Like, what can you do over the weekend?” 

There will never be a better time, he added. 

“A lot of the value of college is just having time and space to explore and fail and figure out what you want to be doing,” he said. 

Buchheit planned to spend Thursday on campus and then head home to California. He came at the invitation of administrators of the Case School of Engineering, who had asked him to share his insights with students. 

Later, he described a mutually beneficial experience. 

“I kind of had the feeling, 20 years ago, that I knew where things were going,” he told Case Alumnus. “I was pretty confident and optimistic. I don’t feel that way anymore, so I’m trying to fish it out.” 

Laughing, he said curiosity drew him back. 

“Maybe the students know,” he shrugged. “Hopefully, this is beneficial and fun for everyone.”

For more information on computer science at CWRU go to http://engineering.case.edu/eecs/.