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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Courtesy of James Tamplin

Science sit down with Google Firebase founder James Tamplin

UW-Madison alumnus James Tamplin spoke with The Daily Cardinal about his creation of Google’s flagship platform for app development.

When most people open an application on their phone, they don’t think about what went into creating it. But there is an entire process behind the scenes pioneered in part by University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus James Tamplin.

Google's Firebase redefined the landscape of app development by providing developers with an adaptable platform that simplifies back-end development. The platform is renowned for its real-time capabilities, resilient authentication system and seamless cloud integration, according to back-end developer Back4App.

Firebase made waves in how applications are conceived, constructed and deployed, being adopted by industry leaders such as Duolingo, The New York Times and Venmo. With a staggering three million-plus apps developed using the platform, Firebase's influence reverberates throughout the digital landscape.

Tamplin, who graduated from UW-Madison with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in industrial and systems engineering, is one of the founders of Firebase. Tamplin told The Daily Cardinal he and his business partner started with smaller companies like SendMeHome, KeepSecurity and Envolve before their technology career soared.

“I ventured into the tech industry with my friend Andrew Lee and moved into a garage in Menlo Park,” Tamplin said. 

Throughout this period, Tamplin referred to their financial situation as “ramen profitable.” This meant their startups were able to sustain themselves financially, but only at the most basic level. In Tamplin and Lee's case, their budget was so tight that Lee calculated they were effectively broke, surviving primarily on a diet of yams. 

Tamplin said Envolve software was “used by various sites on the internet, but a small number of companies paid for their service.”

The lack of revenue inspired them to consider a crucial question: how could they build a product that people would not only use, but would pay money for?

“We thought to rip off the interface for the [Envolve] platform and release it as an Application Programming Interface (API),” Tamplin said.

He investigated 52 potential investors for their pursuit but was only able to secure two. One investor was a fellow UW-Madison alum, while the other was his landlord, who Tamplin said “felt bad for me as he saw my dedication to this project and how I often was working late into the night, until 2 a.m.”

Their determination paid off. The duo transformed Firebase into a distinctive platform that gathered significant attention within the technology sector. The heightened interest led to Google's acquisition of Firebase in 2014 for an undisclosed sum of money.

However, the transformation did not come without challenges. 

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“Interacting and motivating people in a positive manner was definitely the most challenging part,” Tamplin said.

He went from a two-person startup to working with executives and having around 500 people working on Firebase by the end of his tenure with Google.

Furthermore, when Tamplin assumed the role of Group Project Manager for Firebase at Google, he found himself in an environment where corporate politics were prevalent. 

“I was forced to change Firebase’s start-up ideology of thinking customer-first to business-first,” Tamplin said. “I had to worry about competitors like Facebook, Amazon and what the startups were doing.”

A clear example of this internal pressure came in 2013, 18 months before Google acquired Firebase. During this period, Facebook purchased Parse, a back-end service similar to Firebase.

Tamplin said the acquisition “triggered worry and even fear in Google,” forcing Firebase to pioneer within their field by developing 12 new products within a single calendar year. This represented a 400% increase from their original three products. 

“Our team was working seven days a week, for 16 hours a day, for an entire year,” Tamplin said. 

Their goal was surpassing Parse in the realm of mobile app development and included interacting with executives from “Android, Youtube, Google Ads and Google Analytics,” according to Tamplin.

In the end, Tamplin noted he was successful in creating a Google platform which “powers a very large percentage of all apps; multiple-billions of people use Firebase-powered apps daily.”

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