The YouTube Guy

  • Originally printed in IUP Magazine, Summer, 2007
    By Karen Gresh

    As an IUP student in the late nineties, Chad Hurley didn’t focus on finding a career that would make him a lot of money.

    “I always believed,” he said last spring, “that if I enjoyed what I was doing, it should work out.”

    It has, apparently, worked out. Last fall, Hurley and his partner sold YouTube, the video-sharing website they developed and launched in late 2005, to Google for $1.65 billion. Hurley continues to serve as YouTube’s chief executive officer, while partner Steve Chen is chief technology officer.

    The majority of YouTube’s users are outside the U.S. Along with their American counterparts, they can upload, view, and share thousands of video clips. Traffic to the site—like the number of people that work there—has grown explosively in the past year; millions of videos are streamed each day.

    The April 15, 2007, issue of Parade magazine ran Hurley on its cover, along with a score of the famous and not-so-famous, in conjunction with its annual report of “What People Earn.” Under Hurley’s photo was the caption: Chad Hurley, 30; Co-founder, YouTube; San Bruno, Calif.; $341 million.

    Chad Hurley

    During his time at IUP, Hurley focused on computers, art, cross country, and track. He had graduated in 1995 from Berks County’s Twin Valley High School. Four times during that decade, Twin Valley won the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s state championship in boys’ cross country. Hurley was on two of the championship teams.

    “I found Chad by way of a tip from one of my former runners,” said Ed Fry, who has coached men’s cross country at IUP for more than forty years and has been PSAC Coach of the Year four times. “Don Wilhour [’75] introduced me to him at a state track meet. It was the last weekend in May, and Chad was a senior, looking at various schools.”

    “I came to IUP because I got a letter from Coach Fry,” Hurley said.

    Hurley ran track and cross country all four years at IUP. His specialties were the 1,500 and 800, and, according to Fry, his cross country performance improved markedly his first two years at IUP. “He was a good student,” Fry said. “Very conscientious and kind of quiet and unassuming.”

    Hurley at first majored in Computer Science but in his second semester switched to Fine Arts. His main use for computers was graphic design, he said, and a new computer laboratory had just opened in Sprowls Hall. His minor was printmaking, and his faculty advisor, Patricia Villalobos Echeverría, “helped me a lot,” Hurley said.

    “Chad was very nice, very polite,” Villalobos Echeverría said. “The web was fairly new then, and he was in my HTML class called Art and Technology. The class taught students to think about the medium in a different way. Chad was really very well versed in HTML coding [the formatting language of the World Wide Web]. He had taught himself most of the coding.

    “Artists are particularly enabled to think creatively about possibilities, because that’s what artists do,” she said. “Today, YouTube challenges our ideas about how to access culture. It’s a continuation of what we talked about in that class.”

    In addition to being Hurley’s advisor, Villalobos Echeverría was also his teacher for a printmaking class. To her, his later success was not unexpected. “I’m never surprised when our students do well,” she said.

    In his freshman year, Hurley lived in Scranton Hall. By his second year he was a resident of what was known for decades as the cross country house. One of the best features of the big, yellow-brick house on Washington Street was a backyard for hanging out, Hurley said. Much to the occupants’ chagrin, though, the house was sold to the university and by Hurley’s junior year had given way to a parking lot.

    He and his friends moved down the hill to 1122 Washington Street. Hurley bought a Dell computer and began working in his room, teaching himself HTML and becoming conversant with the web. “I spent a lot of time on the computer,” he said. “I was free to use my design skills and my instinct to find ways of making a page come together.”

    He turned a big closet into a computer room and spent a lot of time inside. “My roommate thought I was crazy,” he said. “I guess it worked out.”

    One of Hurley’s designs from college has endured and, in a manner of speaking, spread. For cross country and track shirts, he designed a runner with the IUP letters. Not only did the emblem show up on t-shirts—its intended use—but when Hurley came back to campus after college, he said, “Some guys had the design tattooed on their legs.”

    Chad Hurley

    The second semester of his junior year, Hurley enrolled in Mathematics professor Edward Donley’s Liberal Studies synthesis course Building Three-Dimensional Models for the Web. Through a grant from the National Science Foundation, Donley and his colleagues, Francisco Alarcon, Dan Burkett ’86, and Rick Adkins, had been able to acquire Macintosh computers and three powerful (for that time, at least) workstations manufactured by Silicon Graphics, Inc.

    Silicon Graphics had developed the language on which VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) was based. (Ironically, Hurley would later join a Silicon Graphics family; his father-in-law had been one of the company’s founders, although he moved on in the early nineties.) Using VRML, students in the course could create three-dimensional shapes on the World Wide Web.

    The students did projects for real clients, according to Donley. “We wanted them to learn how to meet someone else’s expectations,” he said. In consultation with the Steel Industry Heritage Corporation, Hurley’s four-person group constructed a VRML virtual tour of the Monongahela River valley, focusing especially on the Homestead Works, the last steam-driven rolling mill in the U.S.

    “We built a 3-D model of the valley,” Hurley recalled. “We had to use data for the region for different elevations in order to make it accurate.”

    Of the perhaps twenty-five students in the class, Donley said, “maybe a half-dozen would have known HTML before they took the class. Chad was one of them. He was definitely more prepared than most of the other students.” When Donley spoke that semester to Villalobos Echeverría’s Art and Technology class, he realized “Chad was in both classes.”

    After graduation, Hurley went back to eastern Pennsylvania. In the Science and Discoveries section of Wired magazine, he read about the impending launch of PayPal, which, the magazine said, “allows individuals to make [electronic] payments to each other, not just to retailers or financial institutions.” Hurley sent an e-mail message to the company in Palo Alto, Calif., offering to design PayPal’s logo. A few weeks later, he became one of the company’s first employees.

    The rest, as they say, is history. Hurley left PayPal after three and a half years, shortly after it was acquired by eBay (an acquisition in which Hurley prospered). He turned his attention to “frustrations with video”—frustrations shared with Steve Chen and another PayPal alumnus. “None of us had any experience with it, but we could see there was a need to be able to share clips from cell phones and other places.

    “If you were viewing on line,” he said, “half the time, it wouldn’t work. We decided to see if we couldn’t simplify the whole thing with Flash video.”

    The result was the video-sharing site YouTube, about which Hurley said, “We’ve adjusted things along the way and have tried not to make too many assumptions. Steve built the architecture so that it would keep running, even when there was a huge demand for a single video.

    “We hoped we’d build a great business,” he said, “and we feel fortunate to have a chance to do it again after PayPal. It has a lot to do with the environment of innovation we were surrounded by.”

    When YouTube was acquired last fall by Google, Hurley (and his partner) prospered again. “The money and the attention don’t really change you that much when you’re surrounded by people in the same situation,” Hurley said. He added that Google and YouTube made sense together: “The cultures were the same between the companies. They want us to preserve what we’ve created.”

    The attention has brought Hurley and his wife invitations like the one to the Vanity Fair party after last spring’s Academy Awards presentations. “You find out everyone’s kind of the same,” Hurley said. “To them, I’m the YouTube Guy, but everyone’s dealing with the same issues.”

    In his case, “everyone” has come to mean people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, with whom Hurley shared the spotlight at last winter’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “They are kind of inspiring,” Hurley said.

    It’s clear that Hurley prefers to talk about work. At YouTube, he said he is still constructing “the perfect video world and working out some new models.” He plans to spend the future doing what he has done in the past: “building a product or service, building a team, finding the right people to keep things going.”

    That doesn’t surprise Ed Fry, who recruited Hurley to IUP. “One thing I remember very clearly,” Fry said, “is what he said to me shortly before he graduated. ‘You watch,’ he said. ‘I’m going to do something. You’ll see.’”