Feross Aboukhadijeh likes to tell the story of how he got famous. It happened last fall, as he was beginning his junior year at Stanford. Google had just unveiled a feature called Google Instant, which shows search results in real time, as you type. “I thought it was kind of gimmicky,” says Feross. But it gave him an idea: If Google could pop out instant search results, why couldn’t YouTube produce instant videos? He bet a friend he could slap something together in an hour. “I lost the bet,” he says. “It took me three hours.”
The result was YouTube Instant, a site that lets you flip through YouTube videos in real time. Say you type in the letter A: The top video that begins with that letter—currently the music video for Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”—starts playing. Add a B to spell “Ab,” and you see a stop-animation set to the alphabet song. “Abd” gives you the trailer for the Taylor Lautner thriller Abduction. And so on.
YouTube Instant went live at 9:32 p.m. on a Thursday. When Feross woke up at eight the next morning, he had a bunch of missed calls. One of his transcribed voice-mails said, “interview washington post.” “I was like, Nah, that can’t be right,” he says. By the end of the day, YouTube Instant had tens of thousands of views, Feross’s name and grinning face had appeared on dozens of websites and TV shows, and YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley had offered him a job over Twitter.
Feross politely declined. He wanted to continue his schoolwork at Stanford, plus he had other projects gestating. But the experience put him in the crosshairs of Silicon Valley’s heavyweights, if he wasn’t there already. He’d just finished a summer working at Facebook, where he and Mark Zuckerberg had hit it off. (Zuckerberg later came to speak to a Stanford class Feross was T.A.-ing and called him out by name.) After YouTube Instant launched, a Google recruiter made it clear its door was always open. “If there’s anyone more heavily recruited, I’d want to know their name,” says Sean Holbert, course adviser for Stanford’s computer-science department last year.
Feross wears his celebrity well. He speaks rapidly but exudes calm, like a presenter at a TED conference. “YouTube Instant changed my life,” he says. “People don’t talk to me the same way. It’s like I gained twenty badass points. Whether I deserved it or not, I don’t know, but I’ll take it.”
YouTube Instant hasn’t changed the world—it hasn’t even made money. But its story describes the template for Silicon Valley these days, which may be a bubble, but it hasn’t popped yet: If you have an idea for an app, do it now. Throw it up online. Find an audience. Worry about quality later. Best-case scenario, you create the next Facebook. Worst-case, you try again. Even then, chances are you’ll get a job offer you can brag about rejecting. Right this minute, Silicon Valley is America’s opposite: House prices are soaring and demand for young talent far outstrips supply. The ongoing cyberspace race between Facebook, Apple, and Google, among others, means computer engineers enjoy more freedom—and power—than ever before. The barriers to entry for web programming are almost nonexistent. Angel investors are blessing start-ups left and right, and launching a software company is cheaper than ever. Do I take the offer from Google, or take the venture capital to start my own thing? Only in this one little quadrant do people have the luxury to ask such questions. For Feross, the son of a schoolteacher and a Syrian-born electrical engineer, the forecast is bright, though indistinct. He may become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs; he may not. But while most of the country is in economic darkness, the American Dream is beaming bright in Palo Alto.
It’s one of the first Saturday nights of spring, and a couple dozen students—overwhelmingly male and unseasonably pale—are packed into the student union at Stanford University, hunched over laptops, chugging Diet Coke and devouring Red Vines. The occasion is the inaugural “Happy Hacky Hour,” an event organized by the computer club (Feross is the president), where programmers are invited to hang out, eat pizza, and do lines (of code). The thump of music and the laughter of females pipe in through the open windows, signals from a far-off universe.
Three kids huddle around the computer of David Fifield, a grad student and former Eagle Scout. Fifield has a window open that displays all the Internet traffic passing through Stanford’s wireless hub. Anytime someone visits a website, the URL—say, http://www.facebook.com—and the person’s IP address pop up on Fifield’s screen. With the right powerful technology, Fifield explains, he could snag their Facebook logins and hijack their accounts. But he chooses not to. “We don’t do that kind of thing at Stanford,” one kid says with a verbal wink.