PALO ALTO – On a chilly December evening, 54-year-old engineer Mark Robins opened up a laptop in his son’s room to show him the software he uses to control the 10,000 lights that decorate his home and garden. They light up a selection of candy canes, gift wrap and animals including a flamingo, an owl, a reindeer and a small dog that resembles his older mutt Oscar. A button at the front of the courtyard invites passers-by to sync the lights to one of 25 Christmas, pop and rock tunes.
Robins shouted out the Earth, Wind & Fire song “September,” which connects to 16 “channels” tied to strings of lights around his home and yard. For every minute of music, it takes him an hour to program exactly how the lights should blink.
“All these little symbols here say the light is supposed to come on at this time in the song,” Robins said. “I like building things, and then when you can build something that other people can appreciate and enjoy and have some fun with, that’s even better.”
Inspired by a Christmas light he’d seen at Walt Disney World years ago, Robins thought he’d sprinkle some pixie dust on his Silicon Valley neighborhood. And the reward was more than just holiday cheer — it helped him land an executive job at a high-profile streaming company.
“I wasn’t trying to get a job when I was doing this,” said Robins. “But you know, random things happen all the time. In a way, it’s like making your own luck, isn’t it?”
Homeowners across the country have been spending heavily on Christmas displays during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the National Retail Federation trade group, consumers are expected to spend $67.10 per person on Christmas decorations this year, up about $4 from 2021. A search of YouTube reveals a variety of homes with sophisticated dubbing, including one in Riverside where music is channeled through a radio frequency that viewers can tune into their cars.
Robins spent about $3,000 on his light show, which more than impressed his neighbors.
In 2020, Robins — then head of Intel’s AI corporate strategy — wrote in his family’s Christmas letter that he was automating his Palo Alto home with a smart irrigation system, thermostat and grill. At the same time, his light show was growing in popularity — that year it won the city’s audience award, beating out former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Robins said.
The light show and letter caught the attention of Anthony Wood, CEO of Roku, who lives a block away.
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?
“He kind of brought those two things together and saw my kind of passion for this space,” said Robins.
Robins, who was already a Roku user, was willing to meet up for coffee. The job would be to lead the company’s new smart home division and launch a whole new category of items Roku hadn’t sold before, including smart lightbulbs, security cameras, and doorbells.
A risky bet for some, but not for Robins, who previously co-founded and ran a startup that was later sold.
“Building companies, building businesses, creating something out of nothing or very little is really exciting for me,” said Robins.
After a rigorous application process, he joined Roku in May 2021, leading a team of hundreds of employees worldwide. Roku launched its new smart home products at Walmart in October.
“It was clear that the dedication, passion and creativity that Mark demonstrated with his light show, coupled with his impressive track record, would make a great addition to Roku’s leadership team,” said Mustafa Ozgen, the company’s President of Devices and boss of robins .
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 Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.
The show, which was synchronized to music and millions of lights in multiple buildings, came to Disney World after the company struck a deal with Jennings Osborne, whose Little Rock, Ark. lighting staging drew so much traffic that he was driven by his neighbors have been sued.
Robins asked his children if they would like to see such a light show in their home. They yelled, “Yes!”
It took a few years, but in 2017, Robins brought its first light show to Palo Alto.
His eldest daughter Gillian turned to him and said: “Wow, you said you would do it and you did it” – a moment Robin cherishes.
“So I guess there’s some kind of life lesson in there,” he said.
Building the show is a laborious process.
With three weeks to go before Thanksgiving, Robins gets to work, untangling strings of lights from six plastic containers and spending 12 hours over a couple of weekends setting everything up. His wife holds a ladder for Robins while he climbs onto the roof to mount skating Charlie Brown and other Peanuts characters. He also gets support from his daughter Krista, who wraps fairy lights around one of the big trees in the yard.
The system is so complex that he needs a google doc to match plugs and cards
Extension cords connecting 16 strings of lights and decorations to a main control box outside his home. An Ethernet cable connects the controller to a specific laptop in the house running the light show.
A short cable from the laptop’s headphone jack goes to a nearby amplifier, and cables from the amplifier connect to two speakers hanging outside under the eaves. The amp is powered by a Roku Outdoor Smart Plug located on the sidewalk, where an illuminated sign prompts passers-by to press a button on the plug to start the show in up to 15-minute increments.
On a weekday, neighbor Lisbeth Winarsky strolled past Robin’s house with her husband and 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 the two remarked that the man’s name was similar to their father’s name.
“I think that’s one of the most valuable things you can do with your civil life, it’s bringing people together and creating a sense of community, so I’m always very grateful to them for that,” Winarsky, 70, said.
The joy when people push the button extends to the Robins’ home as well. Sometimes, when family members are watching a movie on their TV, Robin’s mom, who is visiting from New Jersey, exclaims, “We’ve got a push!”
Over the years he has added more songs to the mix. When he hears a Christmas carol on the radio, he imagines programming it to the dancing lights in his head. Sometimes, after a late-night programming session, he’ll excitedly storm outside at 1am and run a demo (with soft music) to check his work.
Sometimes he is amazed at how his hobby has become a profession.
“I would encourage people who have a hobby that others might appreciate to make an effort to introduce it to as many people as possible,” he said. “And who knows what will happen?”