Car washing. Wearing donated clothes and shoes. Working at the local public library. Surviving on state welfare to put food on the table. Taking care of his younger brother while his mother took on two jobs at a gas station and supermarket to keep the lights on at home. Thuan Pham arrived in the United States from Vietnam as a refugee when he was 11 years old.
Pham was born in Vietnam in the late 1960s, to parents who barely finished high school. Due to the political situation in Vietnam, it became increasingly unsafe for Pham and his family to stay in the country, and hence his mother made a decision to leave the country. Pham's mother sold everything they had in order to pay for the journey but failed a couple of times to escape as the arranged boat did not show up. The boat finally showed up; but during the journey, Pham and his family were pirated twice.
They finally landed at a refugee camp in Indonesia, where they lacked shelter and sanitation for weeks, and ended up spending 10 months there. Pham would swim to nearby islands to buy candies, which his mother would use to trade for bread for the family. Pham's mother believed that it was better to take a risk to leave the country than to grow up without opportunities for a better life. Eventually, Pham's family arrived in suburban Maryland in the United States where Pham started a new life.
In Maryland, Pham worked hard and hustled as a teenager to do well in school, to overcome the language barrier, and to work to support the family. He quickly became the adult in the family, taking care of his younger brother and household chores, while washing cars and working at the local public library. Often, he would be working long hours washing cars in the weekends to earn some extra money, even when it was cold in the winter. At the local library, he started to develop an interest in coding by fiddling around with the public computer terminals. This was when he started to realize he had a natural affinity for programming.
In order to further develop his interest in programming, Pham volunteered his services at the local government agency, National Bureau of Standards Publications, where using Lotus, he automated the entire accounting system for the team within 3 months. As a result of his extra-curricular involvement and excellent academic record, Pham was admitted into MIT to study computer science in 1986, and graduated in 1991. In the same year he graduated, Pham would see his father for the first time in ten years when he finally got a visa to visit the United States for Pham's MIT graduation.
From MIT, Pham went on to work for HP Labs, Silicon Graphics, DoubleClick, and VMWare. He joined Uber in 2013 as Chief Technology Officer, when the company was present in 60 cities and employed about 200 people. Pham had always favored working at smaller companies in his career. He started off his career at HP Labs, which was a research-focused and academic environment, and that allowed him to focus on learning the latest technologies. However, he soon wanted to explore something new. In his career, Pham always prioritized learning over other criteria. He was not afraid of a company failing, because as an immigrant, you knew that you could always start afresh if need be.
Finishing up our conversation on market street off downtown San Francisco, I was curious of how Pham gets around these days, and if Uber provides their CTO with ride-hailing services to make his journey to work more comfortable. As Pham stood up to walk back to his desk, he shared that he has been taking the Caltrain (California's public transport system) from San Jose everyday to get to San Francisco, a total of a 3-hour commute daily, but he spends the time wisely by clearing emails or doing one-on-ones with his colleagues for feedback.
Author's note: This is a series of articles featuring 1st generation and 2nd generation entrepreneurs in America to showcase their immigrant story and how they worked hard to start their businesses. The author himself is an immigrant entrepreneur who moved to the United States from Singapore.
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