One man’s holiday light display helped land him a featured job at Roku

On a cold December afternoon, engineer Mark Robins, 54, opened a laptop in his son’s bedroom to demonstrate the software he uses to control the 10,000 lights that adorn his home and garden. They illuminate an assortment of candy canes, gift-wrapped boxes, and animals, including a flamingo, an owl, a reindeer, and a small dog that looks just like his old man, Oscar. A button at the front of the patio invites passers-by to sync the lights to one of 25 Christmas, pop and rock songs.

Robins pulled the song “September” from Earth, Wind & Fire, which is connected to 16 “channels” tied to strings of lights around his house and garden. For every minute of music, he takes an hour to program exactly how he wants the lights to flash.

“All these little symbols here say the light comes on at that point in the song,” Robins said. “I like to build things, and then if you can build something that other people can appreciate and enjoy and get some happiness out of it, that’s even better.”

Inspired by a Christmas light display he saw at Walt Disney World years ago, Robins thought he’d sprinkle some pixie dust in his Silicon Valley neighborhood. And the reward was more than holiday cheer: it helped him land a senior job at a high-profile streaming company.

“I wasn’t trying to get a job when I did this,” Robins said. “But, you know, serendipitous things happen all the time. It’s kind of like making your own luck, isn’t it?”

Homeowners across the country have spent big on holiday displays during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A man looks at a computer by a window in his decorated garden.

Children press the play button on the red table to start the musical light show while Mark Robins, left, checks the computer program in Palo Alto.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

This year, consumers are expected to spend $67.10 per person on holiday decorations, about $4 more than in 2021, according to the National Retail Federation trade group. A YouTube search shows a number of houses with elaborate synchronization, including one in Riverside, where music is transmitted via a radio frequency that viewers can tune into their cars.

Robins spent about $3,000 on his light show, which did more than impress his neighbors.

In 2020, Robins, then head of Intel’s corporate AI strategy, wrote in his family’s Christmas letter that he was automating his home in Palo Alto with a smart irrigation system, a thermostat and a grill. At the same time, her light show was becoming more popular: That year she won the city’s people’s choice award, beating out former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Robins said.

The light show and the letter caught the attention of Anthony Wood, chief executive of Roku, who lives in the neighborhood.

The San Jose-based company is known for its devices and operating software that connect TVs to many streaming services. Wood emailed Robins, congratulating him on his light show and mentioning that Roku had an ambitious smart home project underway and that the company was looking for someone to lead it. Was Robins interested?

Charlie Brown Christmas Lights.

Musically synchronized holiday lights at Mark Robins’ home in Palo Alto, California.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

“He brought those two things together and saw my passion for this space,” Robins said.

Already a Roku user, Robins was game to meet for coffee. The job would be leading the company’s new smart home division, launching an entirely new category of items that Roku hadn’t sold before, including smart bulbs, security cameras and doorbells.

A risky bet for some, but not for Robins, who previously co-founded and led a startup that was later sold.

Red and yellow lit candy canes and a Christmas tree in the front yard.

Musically synchronized holiday lights at Mark Robins’ home in Palo Alto.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

“Building companies, creating businesses, creating something from nothing or very little is really exciting to me,” Robins said.

After a rigorous job interview process, he joined Roku in May 2021, overseeing a team of hundreds of employees worldwide. Roku launched its new smart home products in October at Walmart.

“It was clear that the dedication, passion and creativity that Mark displayed with his light show, along with his impressive professional resume, would be a great addition to the Roku leadership team,” said Mustafa Ozgen, president of the company’s devices, who is Robins’ boss. . .

Robins says his inspiration for the light show came after a memorable visit to Walt Disney World in 2013, when he, his wife, Kim, and their three children saw the light show from Osborne family dance.

The show, which was synchronized to music and millions of lights in several buildings, came to Disney World after the company struck a deal with Jennings Osborne, whose light display in Little Rock, Ark. , attracted so much traffic that it was sued by its neighbors. . .

Robins asked her children if they would like to see a light show like that at their house. They shouted, “Yes!”

It took a few years, but in 2017, Robins brought its first light show to Palo Alto.

His oldest daughter, Gillian, turned to him and said, “Wow, you said you would and you did” — a moment Robins cherishes.

“So I guess there’s some kind of life lesson,” he said.

Putting on the show is an elaborate process.

Three weeks before Thanksgiving, Robins gets to work, stringing lights out of six plastic containers and spending 12-hour days over several weekends putting it all together. His wife holds a ladder for Robins as he climbs onto the roof to ride the ice skating Charlie Brown and other Peanuts characters. He also gets help from his daughter Krista, who wraps strings of lights around one of the big trees in the yard.

Deer figures with Christmas lights.

Musically synchronized holiday lights at Mark Robins’ home in Palo Alto.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

The system is so complex that it needs a google doc to map sockets and
extension cords that connect 16 strands of lights and decorations to a main control box outside your home. An Ethernet cable links the controller to a designated laptop inside the house that runs the light show.

A short cable from the laptop’s headphone jack goes to a nearby amplifier, and the amplifier’s cables are connected to two speakers hung outside under the eaves. Power is fed to the amplifier via a Roku Outdoor smart plug located on the sidewalk, where an illuminated sign invites passersby to press a button on the plug to start the show in increments of up to 15 minutes.

On a recent weeknight, neighbor Lisbeth Winarsky drove by the Robins’ home with her husband and their dog Stella and said, “Oh, let’s push the button.” Red, white and green lights flashed as Mariah Carey sang, “I don’t want much Christmas, there’s only one thing I need…”

As Winarsky listened to the music, a man walked past the light show. Winarsky introduced himself, and both remarked how the man’s name was similar to their father’s.

“I think one of the most valuable things you can do with your civic life is bring people together and create a sense of community, so I’m always very grateful to them for doing that,” Winarsky, 70, said. . .

The joy of seeing people push the button also extends inside the Robins’ home. Sometimes when family members are watching a movie on their television, Robins’ mother who is visiting from New Jersey exclaims, “We got a booster!”

Over the years, he added more songs to the mix. When he hears a Christmas song on the radio, he imagines how he would program it with the lights dancing in his head. Sometimes after a late night programming session, he’ll excitedly come out at 1am and demo (with the music turned down) to check his work.

Sometimes he wonders how his hobby turned into a job.

“I would encourage people who have a hobby that potentially others can appreciate to make an effort to get it in front of as many people as you can,” he said. “And who knows what will happen?”

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