Matt Bencke calls himself a paperboy. He started delivering newspapers, in their paper form, when he was 8 years old so that he could buy every video game he could get his hands on.
A lot has changed since he was a kid, including newspapers. But Bencke says that early job was a formative experience.
“Who I am can be traced back to the lessons I learned from those days as a paperboy,” Bencke said. “Work hard, form relationships, deliver one paper at a time, earn your due. Recently, I walked my 10-year-old daughter through my old paper route in Pittsburgh. I told her all about the families, how they liked their papers delivered, and who tipped. Those days were simpler, but formative.”
Today, Bencke is the founder and CEO of Spare5, a Seattle-based app that lets people earn extra money for completing basic tasks on their phones in their spare time. Prior to reaching the goal of starting his own business, he worked at Getty Images (product and customer experience); Microsoft (Xbox, mobile, and Windows); and Boeing (Airplane strategy, Superjet, Russia, International Space Station).
He spent 12 years in college figuring out what he wanted to do with his life, getting degrees along the way from Harvard (AB), Stanford (MA), and Berkeley (PhD).
Meet our Geek of the Week and continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
What do you do, and why do you do it? “Well, at work I’m the CEO of Spare5. Spare5 is a data solutions platform that solves our customers’ big data problems by pushing game-like tasks to targeted members of our community to complete in their spare time. For example, we are training computer vision algorithms to understand shoe catalogs; captioning Getty Images’ photos; training IBM Watson to understand conversations about golf; and enhancing Expedia’s knowledge about hotels’ amenities.
“Why do I do it? First and foremost, because I love our team and our culture. It’s a crazy-talented, humble, ambitious group that looks out for one another. Second, because we strive to achieve something big — to tap the world’s potential brainpower. That’s a fun BHAG. Third, because we feel lucky in terms of timing — we’re surfing converging “waves” of big data, artificial intelligence / machine learning, mobile, and cloud computing. Sure, those are buzz words. But they’re also businesses’ reality.
“Bring those three reasons together and we are having fun working hard to deliver a product that really makes a difference for our customers.”
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “There are a lot of misconceptions about AI. Personally, I blame the long line of (awesome) movies from ‘Terminator’ to ‘Ex Machina.’ Tl;dr, AI is helping humans, not replacing us. No computer can beat the combination that is the right individuals’ senses, soul and synthesis.
“At Spare5, we are in the data equivalent of the boiler room, finding the right humans to tell some of the world’s best AI and e-commerce teams what they need to know. The ‘mundane’ reality of AI is less ‘Tron,’ more pragmatic. Businesses of all sizes, in all industries, are applying machine learning and AI to turn reams of unstructured data into something actionable.”
Where do you find your inspiration? “Lots of places. I’ll name three: our two daughters, who blow me away with their unconditional love; my colleagues, who humble me daily with their genius, humor, and productivity; and my heroes and mentors, who show me that serving is actualizing.”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “My smartphone, because it’s my portal into a world of productivity, connectedness, and fun. That said, there’s something incredibly centering about going without it for days or weeks at a time.”
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “We have an open office space. It’s fun because we can crack jokes and stay ambiently aware of what’s going on. This reinforces our values around transparency and empowerment. Also Nijo’s downstairs has a pretty great happy hour.”
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “When I’m off work, I’m really, really off work. Also, I squeeze exercise in wherever I can.”
Mac, Windows or Linux? “Mac and Windows.”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Kirk.”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter. I love traveling. I even like plane rides (having been lucky to work with the awesome teams that created the Boeing 777 and what became the 787). But I could handle skipping the traffic and security lines. Plus, if I’m ever falling from a planetary drilling rig, I’d sure like to get beamed up.”
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Come on, that’s too easy: found Spare5!”
I once waited in line for … “I flew to NYC to stand in line for 10 hours at the launch of the the Xbox 360 Kinect in Times Square. The feeling was electric. There was a huge sorta kinda Dance Central party. I thought I was excited to buy my first retail Kinect — it was even cooler to be in line behind a family. The boy in front of me reminded me of, well, … me. Product launches are so fun because they bring out the kid in all of us — the joy of enjoying something new.”
Your role models: “Throughout my life I’ve benefited from a number of role models. I love history and have had some amazing bosses and mentors. My dad is one. He worked hard, rising from a small family farm to CFO in the Fortune 50. Another is Alan Mulally, who inspired, communicated clearly, and held very high standards. And Teddy Roosevelt, who explained the man in the arena so eloquently.”
Greatest game in history: “The Steelers-Raiders 1972 playoff game with the immaculate reception. I was barely born, but we all grew up watching that play over and over. That play made all of us Pittsburghers believe in miracles. The hapless Steelers hadn’t won a playoff game in their four-decade history; after that, they romped onto one of the greatest Super Bowl runs in history.”
Best gadget ever: “The seatbelt. So simple, saves so many lives. What the heck were we thinking, growing up without them?”
First computer: “IBM PC. Decathlon, word processing, and programming in BASIC. Line 10: CLS. Line 20: Print ‘This is awesome.’ Line 30: Goto line 20.”
Current phone: “iPhone 6+.”
Favorite app: “Spare5. : ) ”
Favorite cause: “Arms control.”
Most important technology of 2016: “Someday our children will look back at 2016 as the year all people finally resolved to preserve our planet. The Paris Climate Accord isn’t perfect, but it is overdue and an important step forward.”
Most important technology of 2018: “Machine learning and artificial intelligence will become as ubiquitous as the cloud, enabling more delightful, sophisticated, personalized experiences across all industries and activities.”
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Hug your family and friends, get your sleep, take your vitamins. So long, and thanks for all the fish!”
Website: Matt Bencke’s Blog
LinkedIn: Matt Bencke