Jason Huggins on Startup Life in CA and CHI, and How He Scored Twitter Handle @hugs

Posted by Sauce Labs

Chicagoan Jason Huggins is many things. A founder. A coder. An ex-Googler. A robot builder. A fixer of Healthcare.gov.

Oh, and he's the owner of arguably one of the greatest Twitter handles: @hugs.

Huggins is a Chicago entrepreneur who has had one foot in the Windy City and one foot in Silicon Valley for the past decade. In the early 2000s he worked at ThoughtWorks, a Chicago-based software development company. There, Huggins created Selenium, a software testing tool for web browsers and applications. Basically, Selenium makes sure your code works on your site across all web browsers. Selenium earned Huggins what he calls his 15 minutes of tech fame, particularly from the software testing community, and in 2006 Google came calling.

Huggins moved from Chicago to Mountain View where Selenium was used mostly in-house to test things like Gmail and Google Maps. But even with the new gig, Huggins and his wife still couldn't leave Chicago for the Silicon Valley tech scene full-time.

"I always kept it as a short-term thing," he said. "I rented out my house (in Oak Park) and we rented a house in Mountain View. We always had this idea that we were going to come back to Chicago."

Then in 2008, Huggins met his co-founders for what would be Sauce Labs, a startup that basically took what Selenium was doing for Google but made it available for other startups looking for software testing. SauceLabs would be headquartered in San Francisco, but Huggins made it clear he would be working out of Chicago.

"I told (my co-founders), 'We can start this. I can totally be your implementor of these thing. But I’m moving back to Chicago.'"

So for two years Huggins worked as Sauce Labs' CTO from Chicago and traveled once a month back to California to meet with his team. Huggins is a self-described ideas man rather than a manager of talent, so he was happy to leave those duties to his co-founders. But co-founding a company from afar still brought with it some difficulties, he said.

"It's hard to describe exactly. Am I a Chicago entrepreneur, or am I a California entrepreneur that happens to live in Chicago? It was kind of complicated.

"My one strength is that I know my weaknesses. My one big weakness is that I love to create the first version of something, but once I’ve created it, I do kind of get bored easily."

The next thing for Huggins was actually two things: Testing robots, and fixing President Obama's Healthcare.gov (more on this in a future post). In the Fall of 2013, after being called to the White House to address the President's most pressing issue, he took a leave of absence from SauceLabs. He eventually left his role as CTO, and after the Obamacare website was fixed he shifted his focus to Tapster, a robot for automating applications on a smartphone.

Today Huggins continues his work with Tapster, which helps software developers test iPhone and Android apps with a robotic finger that touches the smartphone screen, saving programmers from having to manually test their apps

While developing Selenium, founding SauceLabs, and fixing Healthcare.gov are all impressive, the most interesting detail of Huggins' tech career might just be his Twitter handle.

Short Twitter handles are incredibly tough to come by, as they offer the ability to get the most out of your 140 available characters. Initially going with the @jhuggins account, Huggins stumbled across a dormant @hugs account in 2008. In its early days, Twitter had a policy that allowed users to request dormant accounts, but that policy was shut down just as Huggins wanted to make the switch, he said.

Then, a couple months later, Huggins was at a tech conference in Chicago and ran into Britt Selvitelle, an engineer and early Twitter employee.

"I told him about this dormant account and asked him what the process was to claim it. He just told me to grab him tomorrow and he'll just switch it over. I was like, you can do that?

"The next day he was like, are you sure you want to do this? Do you know what you’re doing? There was an implication of: Do you really want this? And I didn’t know at the time what he really meant by that."

Once Huggins got his @hugs account, it didn't take long to realize what Selvitelle was cautioning him about.

"Some people who use Twitter send hugs to each other. What they’ll do is put @hugs, not realizing thats that @ sign is addressing a person. They’ll send @hugs and @kisses everywhere.

"I get CC’d effectively on all these random hugs getting sent to everybody around the world."

The short, catchy handle is worth the influx of random Twitter mentions, he said, and he expects that a good portion of users follow him just for the name. Huggins said every now and then he jumps into a misdirected @hugs conversation, but for the most part he avoids it.

"Most of the time I stay out of it, because I suspect if I really interject myself into that I'll be signing up for more trouble."


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