Today on I know smart people, Conrad Whelan. He’s a fellow Calgarian working at Uber, the app that gets people from A to B. The first time I hung out with Conrad, we made plans for coffee at 730. I assumed this meant am, he assumed it meant pm. Hilarity ensued.


Sarah: What do you do?

Conrad: I write dispatch and ops software for a startup in San Francisco called Uber.  I’ve been at Uber for a year or so, coincident with my moving to San Francisco.  My current days consist of implementing new systems for an upgraded architecture for our product to enable us to quickly roll out new cities.  I wear a lot of hats, writing code in a number of languages and administering a number of systems to keep Uber up and running.

Sarah: How did you end up there?

Conrad: I ended up where I currently am primarily because I wanted to change of scene from Calgary. I was working at an engineering focused scientific computing startup called Acceleware. The work was related very closely to the topic of my masters thesis (Electromagnetic simulation for cell phone antenna design), and we were on the forefront of writing scientific codes that made use of GPUs to speed up simulations. It was a great job, but after 4 years and a yearning to see someplace else in the world, I decided it was time to move on.  

A good friend of mine had built the Uber prototype and when I told him that I had resolved to move (rented out my condo and so on), he asked if I would be interested in helping to launch Uber (then called UberCab).  I said yes, and within three weeks was working in a tiny shared space inside an office with one other member of the team and we got to work on making the project go.  It was a bit of a change for me, as far as the technology stack was concerned, but we had a good year in 2010.  I had actually intended on staying at Uber for the short term, in order to look for another job in the bay area, but I realized that the product was too cool for me to not stay on for a while longer.

Sarah: Is this what you thought you would be doing when you were in school?

Conrad: I actually think I’m pretty close to where I thought I’d be when I was in school.  Engineering just seems to suit me, and through grad school, Acceleware, and now Uber, I think I’ve been able to work on some pretty amazing products with some really amazing people.

Sarah: What is your favorite part of what you do?

Conrad: The best thing about an engineering job is the feeling you get when you’re being really productive and making things happen.  Especially in the tech startup game, there’s a level of creativity that many people might not think about. A bunch of people with ideas building something out of nothing.  I actually enjoy the odd bit of crunch time because of the focus it can bring (though too much crunch time is not so much fun). 

My favourite task, maybe weirdly enough, is writing solid software testing code. It may sound lame, but it’s something that I never really learned at school, but now love to do it on a daily basis.  I have seen the two opposite ends of the spectrum where software testing can be considered essential. Scientific simulations often take hours or days to run, and if there are parts of the code that aren’t correct, that could be like wasting those days completely.  On the other hand, automated dispatch software is used to negotiate a complex transaction between two people in different locations who have never met each other before.  If something doesn’t work, it’s an immediate waste of time for these people and a missed opportunity for us.  Smart software testing just makes a person confident that their product is working as intended (and in turn, lets me enjoy my time off a bit more)

Sarah: What is the most tedious, boring or annoying part of what you do?

Conrad:  I guess there are certain kinds of software that I’m not super keen on writing.  I’m a math / physics guy, so writing UI code is not exactly my cup of tea.  Otherwise, configuration.  Always necessary, always slightly a headache.

Sarah: What are you most excited about?

Conrad: I think I’m most excited about my new life in San Francisco.  There are several parts to it. Playing a crucial role in a hot new startup is great.  The buzz and focus on technology companies in the media again is very exciting.  Trying to build a whole new set of friends in a new country is a great thing too. Plus, there are so many things about this place that make me feel right at home. Year round bicycle commuting is a new joy that I am finding every day; seeing so many shows coming through town; effing amazing coffee on every corner.  It’s hard to not be excited to be in Northern California right now.

If you’d like to know more about Conrad, follow him on Twitter. Also, check out Uber! He’d love for you to try it and give some feedback.