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I Joined Uber 11 Years Ago. I Quit Last Week, Again.

Uber’s first app developer explains how the company grew from three people in a coffee shop to 30,000 people around the world.

Dear Friends,

I imagined I’d have multiple last drinks with my Uber co-workers, but they will have to wait.

Six years ago today, Thuan Pham (Uber’s CTO) called me and proposed that Uber acquire my company, Moop, and I could kick-start the Amsterdam office with my friends. We grew our team from 10 to more than 300 people where we worked on numerous redesigns, growth hacks, and futuristic projects. There are very few places where someone can learn so much and have such an impact as Uber.

April 30 was my last day at Uber. I decided I needed to do something different some time ago, but it’s not easy to say goodbye to this extraordinary group of people and amazing company. I know, because I’ve done it once before. (I quit one week ahead of announcements that the company was laying off 3,700 people in response to the shifting business realities for Uber.)

The last time I said goodbye was nearly 10 years ago. Back then, we could still have intimate drinks with the entire company of four. Nobody knew the impact our work would have or the adventures I would miss out on by leaving early.

The story started more than 11 years ago.

I met Oscar Salazar, Uber’s first CTO, in a Starbucks overlooking Astor Place in New York City. Garrett Camp, Uber’s co-founder, was on Skype where he pitched me on the idea of a mobile app to order a cab.

Looking out the window overlooking the square, I could easily count 50 yellow cabs. Just raising your hand would get you one in seconds. I was skeptical of Apple’s slogan, “there is an app for that.” Not every problem needed an app solution, I thought. Still, this idea was more exciting than the myriad of pitches I would receive in my inbox during those early days as an “app developer” and the people involved seemed more experienced than most. I had to think about it but ultimately I decided that this was likely a better learning experience than my classes at NYU.

I remember discussing the value of seeing your car arrive on a map, and the potential impact of accepting payments via a credit card on file. We researched the viability of using GPS to track a route by calling each other whenever one of us jumped in a cab to see if the GPS signal matched the streets as we were driving.

User research was done with paper prototypes. I confused many Yellow Cab drivers by asking them to just drive around the block and then look at my drawings. Few of them had a smartphone at that time.

Screenshot of the first Uber design
Screenshot of the first Uber design

Implementing Google Maps wasn’t trivial for third-party developers. It involved using a WebView and JavaScript to register touches. It was clunky and slow. Apple had a revolutionary Maps application pre-installed on the iPhone. Tapping a place in the Maps app would drop a pin, beautifully animated. For the first Uber prototype, we opted for a quick-and-dirty solution where the pin was fixed in the center of the screen, and you’d move the map. It turned out to be a much more precise way to pinpoint a location, and it is still the standard in most apps today.

We made mistakes as well. I’m still not sure why we believed that the Driver and Rider app had to reflect each others’ state. Or why we spent time on developing an SMS-based interface.

We did not have an office back then. We challenged ourselves to find a different coffee shop every time we met. On my way to a meeting, in the back of a Yellow Cab, I read about the New York City taxi industry. I imagined the amount of pushback we would get from entrenched players. At the meeting, I was told “that’s where Travis comes in,” but I wasn’t sure what that meant.

It was an exciting project, but it was still a side project for most people involved. Garrett estimated that, if we were successful, we could sell the company for $80 million a few years later. Now I’m not sure if he was tempering my expectations or pitching a grand vision. Either way, it wasn’t enough to make me stay. When Booking.com called and asked if I wanted to do their first app, it was a relatively easy decision. I founded my company, Moop, and we built a whole lot of Mobile apps until 2014 when Thuan called and proposed a second stint at Uber.

After months of negotiating (I’m still in awe that Thuan put up with me for so long and didn’t call it off), the final detail that had to be decided on was my role. Half of my team would become engineers; the other half would be product designers. “You will be an engineering manager and report to me,” Thuan said. I replied that “engineering manager” would likely be too technical for me. “Okay, then you’ll be a design manager.” That’s how decisions were made at that time. And, while I did not have a clue what a design manager did, I have never regretted the decision.

It feels like I have worked at three different companies in the last six years.

The first Uber was all about hustling. A relatively small team taking on the world, with Travis as the fearless leader. Weekly growth rates were higher than at any company ever before, and the growth seemed to always be accelerating, especially in China. The company doubled in size every six months. Sleep was lost while redesigning the Rider app, which we eventually presented in Vegas. I got to drive in a self-driving car for the first time, and I thought the technology would change the world before 2020.

Screenshot of the 3rd Uber design, codename “Helix”
Screenshot of the 3rd Uber design, codename “Helix”

In 2017 I would lose sleep not because of the work, but because a new scandal seemed to hit the news every evening, just before I was about to go to bed. Books have been written about it, and I bet a movie or even a multi-season Netflix show would do well.

Dara changed the course of the company. He introduced financial discipline, a path to profitability, and an IPO. But, more importantly, the company is taking more responsibility and doing it more publicly, while at the same time having a bigger impact than ever.

You know, I might have a good track record when it comes to joining companies at the right time, but I don’t have a good track record when it comes to leaving companies at the right time. Usually the biggest things are yet to come.

And who knows, maybe I’ll join again in a few years.

In the meantime, all the best,

@jelleprins

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