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

George Nott | Feb. 15, 2017
Brendan Spikes was Musk’s most trusted IT lieutenant for the next 15 years.

Elon Musk’s reputation proceeded 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 Brendan 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 x.com – where, at just 21, he was given a director role (and the world’s shortest email address: b@x.com).

“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.

 

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