I went on a manhunt to track down arguably the most famous and influential technology expert the South Sound has ever produced.
I found him. Off the grid. In a remote jungly retreat unserved by a power or water company, his only lifeline to the outside world coming from a satellite dish aimed from the hills 15 miles down to a friend’s home so he can hitch onto the friend’s WiFi connection.
What a difference 11 years makes. In January 2008, if you wanted to find Christophe Bisciglia, you had to do what I did — call him at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Just after his 27th birthday, Bisciglia made the cover of BusinessWeek under the headline “Google’s Next Big Dream.”
They called Bisciglia, who grew up on a small farm in Gig Harbor, a wunderkind, “a boy genius.”
Why? Google allowed its employees 20 percent of their work time to pursue approved personal passion projects. Bisciglia wanted to teach Google 101 to students back at his alma mater, the University of Washington. One of his lessons involved explaining Google’s newish extravaganza: cloud computing. How could Google provide instantaneous search results, analyze bazillions of data in a flash? By linking massive computer server farms from around the world and combining their capacity into beyond-eye-blink speeds.
To teach it, Bisciglia, a software engineer, bought 40 computers on Google’s dime — without asking permission — and linked their power together at the University of Washington in a model cloud computer. He blew his students’ minds — and Google’s.
Today, of course, you and I store just about everything “in the cloud” so we can access our documents, photographs, and files instantly from anywhere on any of our devices. Corporations, universities, and government agencies around the world routinely draw on cloud computing power for mining massive amounts of data. Not back then. Bisciglia earned credit for opening cloud computing to universities and, ultimately, the masses.
“I didn’t realize he was going to change the way computer scientists thought about computing,” Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt told BusinessWeek. “That’s a much more ambitious goal” than teaching a college course.
Fortune magazine named Bisciglia one of the Top 10 Googlers of 2008. Bisciglia also changed my life — although he didn’t know it until the other day. I asked him in 2008 about the future of my industry: newspapers.
“Well, I hate to tell you, but newspapers are a dead industry,” he said. “What you’ll have in the future are online guilds of writers who create content designed to draw eyeballs (readers) to their online sites so they can sell advertising. If a writer isn’t bringing enough eyeballs to the site, they’ll be kicked out and replaced by someone who brings more eyeballs.”
Shortly after that conversation I began looking for work outside the newspaper business.
I recently searched for Bisciglia to find out whatever happened to the wunderkind — and to thank him.
He owns The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls — a combination experiential nature preserve, farm, hotel, retreat center, and non-tech business incubator with its own 120-foot-tall waterfall in the hills above Hilo, Hawaii. It operates on hydropower from the waterfall and solar panels. On the rainiest side of the Big Island, Kulaniapia repurposes rainwater. Bisciglia calls himself a business coach or mentor rather than a boss. The others who farm the land or lead rappelling adventures down the waterfall or run the restaurant operate their own businesses on Bisciglia’s 42-acre property “like apps from the app store,” he said.
Bisciglia left Google in 2008 and founded two technology companies — one of which hit big. Not billionaire-buy-your-own-jet-big. But big enough so he could travel the world, looking for the next thing.
“I needed a place to fill me back up with as much as I gave it,” he said. “I could have been a venture capitalist, but that wouldn’t have done it. I could have bought a commercial apartment building with a healthy return on investment.” That wouldn’t have filled him up either.
Then one day he switched his automated Zillow search parameters to Hawaii. Bingo. The owner of the waterfall retreat wanted to retire. In 2016, Bisciglia negotiated to buy out the owner over time because, well, Bisciglia didn’t know how to manage that kind of business. He needed a mentor.
“I’m still a workaholic, and I wanted to create something that 20 years later I could look back on the community I was involved with and be proud of it.”
You can thank Bisciglia for keeping your stuff accessible in the cloud. I thanked him for getting me out of a dead industry.
You can learn more about Bisciglia’s new adventure at waterfall.net.