From fleeing Vietnam in a refugee boat to becoming Uber’s CTO: the journey of Thuan Pham
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Thuan Pham, Chief Technology Officer at Uber Technologies, Inc. Photo credit: TheInformation

Thuan Pham, Chief Technology Officer at Uber Technologies, Inc. Photo credit: TheInformation

Thuan says his life spent as a kid in Saigon erased his fear of death and he takes everything, which includes building Uber, as a learning experience

Tech in Asia

It was in 1979 that Thuan Pham left on a refugee boat from Vietnam, a country torn by a two-decade long war. On the 60-meter boat were 10-year old Thuan, his mother, a young brother, and about 370 other people, with no life jackets.

When they landed in Malaysia, Thuan and his family were rejected as refugees. Unwilling to go back to war-ravaged Vietnam, Thuan’s mother decided to take her two kids on another boat, to the island of Letung in Indonesia, where they spent 10 months.

The young Thuan used to swim to the nearby town to buy candies. His mother would then sell those candies in the refugee colony to earn bread for her kids.

“We used to make 10 cents of profit a day, and that would be a luxury. We could buy fresh fish,” recalls Thuan, who is now the chief technology officer of Uber. We met in Delhi, where he was meeting entrepreneurs as part of an UberExchange program.

Going back to the story of how he made it out of Vietnam, Thuan says there was just a 50:50 chance of survival in those boat journeys across oceans. During the journeys, Thuan and his family were pirated twice.

“We would not panic. In fact we would be calm and surrender ourselves. That’s the way a startup journey is. Even if you lose all one day, you can build all over again if you retain your calm.”

Playing with bullet shells during war

Thuan says his life spent as a kid in Saigon erased his fear of death and he takes everything, which includes building Uber, as a learning experience. “We would close our windows and spend nights, under a table, whenever there was an air raid.” In the sunny mornings, Thuan and other kids would go out and play with hundreds of bullet shells, exchanged during the night.

Vietnam War images. Photo credit: Wiki

Vietnam War images. Photo credit: Wiki

“It taught me that life is ephemeral. I advise young entrepreneurs to treat their startups as a learning experience. Even if it all fails you can rebuild it again. You’re in a free world,” he adds.

Even if you lose all one day, you can build all over again if you retain your calm.

From Indonesia, Thuan’s mother applied for asylum in the U.S. The family’s application was approved and they landed in Maryland, where his mother worked as a ledger keeper at a gas station during the day. In the evening, she would work as a grocery packer at a supermarket.

Thuan was enrolled in school. On the weekends, he would work at a car wash station. “I strongly encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to educate themselves, even if they don’t wish to graduate. College education opens doors for you,” he says.

MIT. Photo credit: Creative Commons

MIT. Photo credit: Creative Commons

Thuan was admitted to a bachelor’s program of computer science at MIT in 1986 and graduated in 1991, when the internet was just emerging. From MIT, the boy from Vietnam went on to work at HP Labs, Silicon Graphics, DoubleClick, and VMWare. He joined Uber in 2013, when the company was present in 60 cities and employed about 200 people. Now, it’s present in about 400 cities.

“I am against spending precious years of your life doing a PhD, unless it contributes something to human lives. Instead building a startup can add value,” he says.

Thuan’s father, a soldier turned teacher in Saigon, had stayed back in the country. Thuan could meet him only after a decade when he completed his education and became a legalized citizen.

When Uber crashed across the world

In its early days, Thuan has seen the Uber app crash multiple times just because of a coding error by a single engineer or a bug in a single machine. “Now we don’t crash, because we have done that in our early journey. Entrepreneurs should fail fast in the early days.”

At Uber, Thuan has rebuilt its architecture in such a way that even if something goes down somewhere, the platform will still run.

Photo Credit: PR/ Uber

Photo Credit: PR / Uber

The Uber CTO is introducing a hybrid scalability model for the taxi app company. Uber is building its own server farms as well as relying on third party vendors such as Amazon Web Services to manage the load.

For some countries such as China, the requests are bounced off local servers, which makes the app more responsive.

Solving a planet level problem at Uber

Uber this week launched a technology center in Bangalore. It aims to solve India-specific problems such as correct location mapping, cash payments, and making the app work on low bandwidth.

The company is also adapting to introduce new services such as UberEat.

Uber is thinking at a mega scale. “We envisage a platform for on-demand consumption at the planet scale. It excites me to build a platform that can bring anything to you within minutes,” he says.

Tips for startup entrepreneurs

During his India visit this week, Thuan Pham also took time to mentor a few startups as part of an UberExchange program.

Here are some tips from him for entrepreneurs:

1. Money will come when you do something that impacts a lot of people. If you chase only money, you will be really unhappy.

2. Building something that can impact and change people’s lives across the world will always keep you motivated.

3. Don’t take yourself too seriously and you will not hesitate to take bold risks in life. Have fun along the way.

4. Give back. Developing people will really make you satisfied at the end of it. Developing young ones in your teams who can lead and impact hundreds of lives – even after you’re gone – will leave you satisfied.

Editing by Malavika Velayanikal & Meghna Rao

This post was originally published on Tech in Asia

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Harsimran Julka

About Harsimran Julka


Exposing India’s entrepreneurs to the world. Writer on ‘Startups and Entrepreneurship’ – the Indian way. Way to reach? Just ping on Twitter!

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