Five Years Out: From App Developer to Managing Director, Ben Johnson ’11

The series “Five Years Out” catches up with Bowdoin alumni to learn what they’re up to and where they’ve been since earning their diploma.

Ben Johnson ’11, with fiancée Michaela Calnan ’11

You might say it all began with Bowdoin Dining.

Ben Johnson, who graduated five years ago from Bowdoin, was the first student to create an app for the College back when smartphone apps were just starting to take off. He chose a subject many students might find interesting—what’s for dinner—and, with support from a Bowdoin Gibbons grant, spent the summer of 2009 building an app that would, among other things, allow students to check out Thorne and Moulton’s menus.

Buoyed by his success, Johnson launched an customized app development company while he was still a student. With his friends Nathan Merritt ’11 and Houston Kraft ’11, he ran Two Fourteen Software, named for his first-year dorm room, Osher 214. One of their apps, a calendar tool called Free Time, was recognized by Apple as a “new and noteworthy iPhone app” when it came out. (The Bowdoin Orient also wrote a story about it.) Johnson also helped to design the first mobile app course for Bowdoin’s computer science department.

Despite his early achievement in a rapidly growing technology field, Johnson, like many seniors, was unsure and anxious about what he would do after graduation. During his final year at Bowdoin he made a fortuitous connection, via Bowdoin Career Planning, with Andy Palmer ’88, a Boston-based entrepreneur. Palmer put Johnson in touch with Greg Raiz, the founder of a small Boston start-up that was making mobile apps. “I found an event they were hosting and demo-ed the Bowdoin Dining app and the calendar app. I met the CEO, had an interview two weeks later, and had a job lined up before I left Bowdoin,” Johnson recounted.

A college discovery
Majoring in computer science at Bowdoin was a “dramatic departure,” from what Ben Johnson ’11 originally thought he would study. “I came to Bowdoin [from Jackson, Miss.] thinking I wanted to major in English and work in theater,” he said. Then he took a computer science class with Associate Professor of Computer Science Stephen Majercik. “It completely changed my perspective on what I could do and how I could use technology to create something,” Johnson said.

Though he was initially hired by Raizlabs to develop apps, Johnson quickly discovered that his true talents lay elsewhere. “The first project I joined I ended up taking on a lot of project management parts,” he said. In its younger days, when the company had just eight staff (today it has 80), “people wore many hats,” Johnson explained.

As product manager, Johnson delighted in talking with clients about how technology works and how they could leverage it for their clients or customers. “I loved it a little more than I loved being a developer, and I also realized I was far better at communicating and translating than developing!” he admitted.

After nine months at Raizlabs, Johnson got promoted to a full-time product management position. A year later, he was promoted again, this time to oversee business development for the company. Meanwhile, Raizlabs was doubling its business every 18 months and attracting big-name clients like Costco, Six Flags, B&H Photo and others. Raizlabs also works with the Perkins School for the Blind, developing an app to help blind people know exactly where to stand to catch Boston-area buses.

“I was super fortunate to join a small company at the right time and to get the chance to help build it over the last five years,” Johnson said. “It’s been fun to see the growth and to be part of all the different changes.”

This July Johnson stepped into yet another new position, as managing director of Raizlab’s Boston office. In August, he will marry Michaela Calnan ’11 at the Bowdoin Chapel. She’s studying at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Johnson is not the only Bowdoin grad at Raizlabs. The company also hired Rob Visentin ’14 (“the smartest developer I know,” Johnson said), and would like to hire more, according to Johnson. He said his coworkers make fun of him for the number of times he name drops Bowdoin into his workday conversations. “I am always happy to talk to anyone who is interested in a technology-related field,” he promises to current students or other Bowdoin grads.

Johnson’s willingness to work with other Bowdoin alumni comes in part from his gratitude to the College, and to people like Andy Palmer, who helped him along the way. “I never would have done this without Bowdoin,” he said. “[As a student] I was able to take on so many diverse activities, interact with people in so many fields, and study so many things, it set me up for a consultant mentality and client-interaction mentality,” he said. “I have Bowdoin to thank for my entire career.”

thumb: