Up Close with Alex Rudloff, Chief Digital Strategist with TEDx
By Eric Wright
Anyone over 50 recognizes that they are, at best, immigrants in the digital world. The realm of mobile devices, social media and soon to emerge self-driving cars is for them a wonderful and curious phenomenon, but for most digital is their second language, and many still live more or less in an analog ghetto. Certainly there were “early adopters” who built or helped build this age and technological behemoths like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon and Oracle and the list goes on. Looking forward, it is hard to fathom the world that digital natives like Alex Rudloff will create, and how they will reshape the way we learn, collaborate, gather and apply knowledge. A serial tech entrepreneur and soon-to-be-former chief digital strategist with TEDx, Alex’s journey says a lot about where our world is headed.
Growing up Tech
I was raised in Indialantic and when I was 8 or 9 I discovered the computer Bulletin Board System (“BBS”) scene. I was completely captivated by it. You would use your phone to connect to this completely virtual world filled with interesting people who had similar interests but were from all walks of life. That fascination grew into my first business experience, as my brother and I started our own BBs and a few years later it evolved into an early Internet service provider.
We started developing websites professionally in 1994 and I really learned a heck of a lot at a very foundational time and at a really young age. When you’re 13 and into computers back then, you don’t have much of a social life outside of that, so I would stay up late writing code. Later we started going to local trade shows to try and drum up business. Getting out from behind the computer and engaging people as they walked past is really how I developed my initial skills as a presenter and marketer.
In 1999, I attended college at the University of Central Florida (UCF). It was a phenomenal experience for me and I was really able to round myself out as a person. I didn’t really apply myself in high school, but at UCfFI dove in. I joined a fraternity and became a student senator and just really made the most of it. I chose a business major (management of information systems) instead of computer science, which really exposed me to a range of subjects that as a programmer you typically miss out on.
Starting out With Start-Ups
After college, I moved to Washington D.C. and worked for a software consulting agency. Somewhere in the process I fell in love with Information Architecture and Usability, and started to seek out more of a product focus. I enrolled at Maryland to pursue a graduate degree, but two semesters later I dropped out to do a start-up instead.
The company was Emurse.com, an anagram for ‘resume.’ The idea was to reinvent how people created and managed resumes and how they use them to apply for jobs online. We created an incredibly easy to use interface with some great analytics on the back end. The real break for me though was, because we were self-funded, and to pay the bills, I contracted with another start-up called Blogsmith. Blogsmith was the content management system that powered Weblogs, Inc., which was one of the first professional blogging networks. I was one of the three developers that built it all in those early days. Both companies were owned by Jason Calacanis and Brian Alvey, and I learned a tremendous amount from them.
Weblogs and Blogsmith were both bought by AOL. Jason took over Netscape.com and hired me as his lead developer for a social news experiment that we tried. Somewhere around the same time, Emurse found traction and started growing rapidly. A couple years later, Aol bought Emurse as well. By that point, I was no longer programming but on the business side of things, focused on growing and integrating Emurse, and later to general management of other verticals.
From TREP, to AOL, to TEDx
AOL was of course a lot bigger and a lot more bureaucratic than anything I experienced previously, but on the whole I had a great experience. In a 5 or 6-year period, I went from a software engineer, to a senior software engineer, to a principal engineer, to a director, to a vice president, all as a remote employee. I gained experience running and managing bigger teams than I was used to and had the opportunity to learn from some exceptional leaders. It was sort of my real world MBA.
The thing that I think I had figured out was how to apply my entrepreneurship skills to a corporate environment. “Intrapreneurship” is something that I think companies really tend to struggle with, but it can have a lot of upside when it’s properly supported.
A friend of mine introduced me to TEDx as something I might be interested in helping out with. TEDx is the global community initiative of the TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design). TEDx is where volunteers host ‘TED-like’ conferences in their community, completely independently of TED.
It’s an amazing phenomena filled with even more amazing people. It’s turned into this global movement centered on the simple idea that people coming together and freely discussing new ideas is enough to change the world. It can be a really transformative thing in some areas. A catalyst of sorts. It’s definitely working.
My title was “chief digital strategist” of TEDx, which is super weird but it’s what was on the offer letter. What I really did was think of ways to use technology to support our hyper growth. We have 3, 500 annual events in more than 150 countries, taking in more than 100 videos a day, and we have less than 15 full time staff members overseeing it all. The only way to sustain that is to use technology as your muscle. My last day was April 15th; now I’ll be involved in more of a consulting capacity. TED is something that I will always have an emotional attachment to, but I’ve really started to miss the excitement of building new things.
Most Memorable TEDx Experience, and What’s Next on the Horizon
There’s too many really, hosting a TEDx workshop at CERN in Geneva was a really cool experience, but talking to and taking a selfie with Edward Snowden on his telepresence robot at TED 2014 has to be the most surreal.
As for what’s next, I’m going to do some consulting and work through a list of start-up ideas that I have. I’ve also joined the METIL lab within the Institute of Simulation and Training at UCf, and will start spending more time over there playing with new technologies.
I believe there will be more change in the next 20-30 years than all of the last 100. I really believe that. There will be unforeseen and unintended consequences, like always, but there’s an enormous amount of opportunity in it as well.
For creative types who like to explore new frontiers, to invent new things and just generally love being on the forefront, it’s an incredibly exciting time. There really is “a great big beautiful tomorrow,” and I see it as an absolute privilege to not just watch it arrive, but to try and help craft what it will look like.