Why Elon Musk's trusted tech chief grew a beard and waved bye-bye to SpaceX

Why Elon Musk's trusted tech chief grew a beard and waved bye-bye to SpaceX

Branden Spikes spent nearly 15 years at Musk's companies. Until an experience at a house party attended by Silicon Valley's elite changed his life forever.

Elon Musk’s reputation preceded him.

Back in the mid-’90s at first company Zip2 – which sold software packages to newspapers to provide online city guides and directories – Musk had hit a load-balancing problem.

The concept of taking requests and distributing them across multiple servers was quite new at the time, so Musk called in the engineer he’d contracted to help.

“Elon was asking him some hard questions and the engineer didn’t know the answers. He just didn’t know how the algorithms worked and how it spread traffic around,” remembers Branden Spikes, then a junior colleague of the engineer.

“So Elon got frustrated and fired him. Quite a reputation, right? Well I was the next guy to go in there."

Spikes, at that time still a teenager, was able to solve the issue, quickly earning Musk’s approval. He became and remained Musk’s most trusted IT lieutenant for the next 15 years, sticking by his side from Paypal to SpaceX.

Until an experience at a house party in San Francisco prompted him to quit Musk’s empire and go it alone.

Coolest. Thing. Ever.

Tall and softly spoken, Spikes earned his education, he says, at the ‘school of hard knocks’.

“If I had gone to college it would have been in 1995 and that was essentially when the web was just becoming a thing,” he tells CIO Australia at start-up hub Stone & Chalk in Sydney. “And I was in love with it. I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”

A Silicon Valley native he enveloped himself in the budding tech and start-up scene.

“I saw the stuff that computers were made from when they were being invented, in their earliest infancy, and got to hands-on play with them,” he remembers.

“I owned a few of those early computers and learned how to program them and hack them. It was, for me, all around. You’re surrounded by technology innovation and I thought that was just normal. And I kept digging in as fast as I could.”

The arrival of the internet sparked something in Spikes.

“I was like an activist – how many people can I get on this web which is the coolest thing I ever seen?” he says.

Bagging his first desk job at 19 as a systems administrator at Zip2, Musk took Spikes with him to Paypal – initially – where, at just 21, he was given a director role (and the world’s shortest email address:

“I was given the ability to manage and build a team for the first time. To do my job I needed people to follow my directions. It was hard to get people rallied behind me when I was young and looked young. It was hard at me to garner the sort of authority or respect that I would need to do my job,” says Spikes.

The solution was a simple one, Spikes explains: “So I grew the beard. Which added years to me.”

A boom in the bust

Paypal’s rapid rise came while the rest of Silicon Valley was being devastated by the bursting of the dot com bubble.

“The market was collapsing at that time right. It was kind of remarkable,” remembers Spikes, who still sports his facial hair. “The engineers at the company at that time may have felt lucky to have a job. A lot of my friends were losing their shirts. All this stock they thought had all this value. I had had Alta Vista stock – I literally sold that for a dollar, the whole lot of it.”

Paypal was acquired by Ebay in 2002 for $1.5 billion.

Spikes then joined Musk’s cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive – who founded SolarCity which was acquired by Tesla last year – at remote servicing and desktop management SaaS firm Everdream. He later joined SpaceX as its chief information officer and spent close to a decade with the company.

Then came the Paypal 10 year reunion party.

Hello mafia, goodbye Musk

Paypal’s alumni list – the so-called Paypal Mafia – is impressive. There is Musk, of course, and the likes of venture capitalist Peter Thiel; Steve Chen and Chad Hurley, the founders of Youtube; Yishan Wong, one time CEO of Reddit; Russell Simmons who co-founded Yelp; to name but a few.

“A lot of these guys I sat next to in cubes writing code and building systems, went off to create some of the greatest companies that exist today. And getting back together with all these guys and hearing the stories was just so inspiring,” says Spikes.

“That was the moment that I started thinking about what I might do next.”

So in 2012 Spikes founded Spikes Security and raised around US$15 million from investors. The company merged with Aurionpro's Enterprise Security Division late last year and rebranded as Cyberinc. It’s flagship product is a malware isolation appliance called Isla.

The idea is that a user’s browser session is remotely presented from a browser server running on-premise or delivered as a cloud-based service. Since browsers are a key vector for malware, the technique keeps malware from the endpoint and corporate network, isolating the risk in the server session.

The first challenge, Spikes says, is in explaining what isolation technology is. However, that is about to change. Gartner named it as one of the top ten security technologies last year. A number of Australian customers – in media and publishing, government, financial services and education – are already using the technology, Cyberinc said.

“And next year is going to be a game-changing improvement,” says Spikes. “If we succeed on this it could actually be more compelling to use our technology than to use a traditional browser.”

What have I done

“Starting a company takes guts,” Spikes says. “It takes courage right? And sort of irrational optimism.”

The transition from CIO to CEO was “big”, he says. Learning the financial aspect of running a business was a steep learning curve for the “engineer type”. The need to raise capital and keep check on the costs of running a business gave Spikes an even greater respect for his former boss.

“I think 'oh shit what have I done' all the time! It’s a constant thing,” he jokes. “But being an entrepreneur is awesome. It’s scary right and it does take a certain amount of bravery. And confidence. But should you? Yeah. It’s a great adventure.”

And the biggest lesson learnt from all those years at Musk’s side?

“That it’s never about the idea really. It’s about the execution,” Spikes says. “I’ve seen startups that aren't doing anything like what they set out to do initially. In fact SpaceX is one of those. Don’t let the idea be why you would start a company. Let the desire to have that adventure be the reason to start the company.”

Branden Spikes
Branden Spikes

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