Well-rounded alumnus is square

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Tristan O’Tierney ’08

It’s not every day that Jack Dorsey, the creator of Twitter, asks you to start a business with him. But for Tristan O’Tierney ’08 (computer science), that’s what happened.

They co-founded Square — the electronic payment service that allows people to accept credit cards with only a tablet or mobile phone and a square-shaped card reader that attaches through the headphone jack.

Today, the company is valued at more than $3 billion.

The roots of O’Tierney’s success were nurtured in Computer Science House at RIT, where he was able to jump from one obsession to the next. From Linux to Objective-C to human computer interaction to Macs, he would stay well-rounded by finding something new to master every year.

Before landing at Square, O’Tierney worked at Yahoo! on the Messenger for Mac, at Apple on Safari for Mac OS X and at software company VMware Fusion. He also had the opportunity to work on the official Obama ’08 iPhone app and for Twinkle, one of the first Twitter client apps on the Mac App Store.

“I initially met Dorsey through Twinkle, because he loved the location software embedded within our app,” O’Tierney says. “He was so impressed with my work, that later on down the road when he was looking to start a new company, he asked if I’d be interested in joining.”

In early 2010, Dorsey and O’Tierney began brainstorming along with Jim McKelvey, a computer science engineer and glassblower, who happened to have the problem that would cement Square’s future. McKelvey’s glass blowing studio in St. Louis was losing sales because he could not accept expensive charges from American Express.

“Jack realized that everyone has mobile computers in their pockets and everyone carries credit cards,” says O’Tierney. “He thought, ‘Why can’t we level the playing field for small businesses by letting everyone accept credit cards?’”

After about 18 months, the company had something users could download, sign into and swipe. By August 2012, Starbucks announced it would begin processing all credit and debit card transactions using Square.

“We are continuing to perfect and add on to Square’s capabilities,” says O’Tierney. “In the future, we’d like to raise the bar by reinventing the way people think about digital payments.”