Business

Five things you should know about Julia Austin

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

How do you take on a Goliath of cloud computing? For New York-based DigitalOcean, part of the answer was recruiting Julia Austin. The veteran tech executive, who previously helped Akamai and VMware through critical growth phases, joined the upstart last year as chief technology officer. She’s currently building out its Boston-area office, which should help DigitalOcean recruit bright minds as the company tries to compete with Amazon Web Services, the Seattle e-commerce company’s huge cloud computing business. The Globe talked with Austin about her career and her plans for the new outpost.

1. DigitalOcean has leaned heavily on building a remote workforce, partly because it’s difficult to find enough cloud-computing talent near the company’s Manhattan headquarters. But there’s plenty of that expertise around Boston, which made the area a natural fit for DigitalOcean’s new branch office. For Austin, establishing this beachhead is reminiscent of her work setting up VMware’s R&D office in Cambridge, which eventually grew to more than 200 people.

“It’s good to have a strong distributed team, but it’s also important to have these centers of excellence. I feel really excited about what we’re going to be able to do here. We also are exceptional in that we have a strong balance sheet that’s going to give us the opportunity to invest in the city. We’re only five years old. We’ve raised $123 million, and half of it’s still in the bank. And we’re making money.

“So we’re in a unique position of being a startup, but mature enough that we pay real salaries. We have a beautiful office. We can run great events in Boston, and we can sponsor a lot of the great things that are going on in the innovation world here in Boston.”

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2. Austin got a priceless early education in technology from her dad, a civil engineer and science fiction superfan who enlisted his daughter to help test out new programs he wanted to use for work.

“He used to buy Byte magazine, which was this big, fat magazine that had BASIC code in it and would have little snippets of code where you could do quick calculations or algorithms or whatever, which were helpful for his civil engineering role.

“What he used to do when I was around 8 is bring me into his office on the weekends, give my mom a break, and sit me next to a TRS-80 with the Byte magazine and say, ‘Type in this code, type run, and if it doesn’t give you an answer at the end, then you did something wrong and you need to debug it.’ He didn’t use the term debug, but that’s what I was doing.”

3. As a student, Austin was often bored by academics and dreamed of becoming an artist, despite her father’s instructions to learn a bankable skill. After two years of switching majors and loading up on business classes at UMass Amherst, she finally became an art major. But she couldn’t quite escape technology.

“I was literally with freshmen and sophomores my last two years of college, painting and drawing and sculpting. But I also was doing graphic design, which at the time was all programming. There was no user interface; there was no Apple II. It was BASIC code in a lab to make little stick figures jump across the screen. I was programming pretty significantly through my last two years of college, and a big chunk of my art degree was being earned through doing computing.

“That was really when I said, ‘Ah — maybe there’s a way I can combine my creative interests with tech,’ which I was always kind of interested in since I was playing with my dad’s computer.”

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4. After helping the newly formed Partners HealthCare roll out business-management software to thousands of employees, a friend told Austin she should check out a promising Internet traffic management startup called Akamai. Austin was an early advocate for standardized procedures and controls in the fast-growing Internet traffic manager, calls that went mostly unheeded until a fateful day when “we broke the Internet,” she says.

“It was very unfortunate. But it was also nice when everyone, literally in a big conference room, looked down to me at the end of the room and said, ‘Can we start doing what you’ve been talking about?’ And I was like, ‘Sure, whenever you guys are ready.’

“My role ended up evolving there to being vice president of engineering, where I was voted in by my peers. Akamai was looking outside for a VP of engineering, and they said, ‘Julia already tells us what to do every day.’

“I’m not tooting my own horn; it was a very deer-in-the-headlights moment for me. It was scary and cool at the same time.”

5. The recent headline-grabbing reports of sexism and harassment at Uber prompted Austin to blog about her own experience dealing with the sometimes-horrifying side effects of working in a male-dominated industry. It also prompted workplace discussions at DigitalOcean, where employees were buzzing about the news.

“It shouldn’t matter that I’m a woman in the C-suite, but it does help open the door for a lot of people because they feel like, ‘We know you’ve lived it.’

“I purposely did not talk about gender [in the blog post]. I just talked about people getting harassed. Because we’re kidding ourselves if we think it’s just women. It’s not. I’ve had male employees harass other male employees.”

Curt Woodward can be reached at curt.woodward@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.
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