From Uber’s First Full-Time Engineer to Nillion’s Founding CTO

Conrad Whelan
12 min readMay 12, 2022

My name is Conrad Whelan and I was the first full-time engineer on the Founding Team of Uber. I’ve now joined Nillion as the Founding CTO.

I’m writing this not just to introduce myself to the community, but also to give you a sneak peek into what we’re building at Nillion.

Oh, and if you want to get involved with the team… there may be a way for you to do that. We’re in rapid “build mode” right now, and if you’re interested, you could join us. But first, let me introduce myself!

Part 1: Every start-up story begins in a dingy, small office… this was ours at Uber

CAPTION: Working at our glorious Uber office in San Francisco when it was just me, Ryan Graves, and Garrett Camp (taking the photo) working full-time.

When my ex-college roomie Garrett Camp (Co-Founder of Uber) approached me in 2010 to become Uber’s first engineer, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was moved by his passion for what sounded like a very ambitious project.

So I packed up my things in my hometown of Calgary (Canada) and made the move to San Francisco. At the time it felt a little bit risky, but also exciting. Little did I know, this one decision would change my life forever.

When I arrived in SF, Ryan Graves had just found our first office. It was a tiny room near the Transamerica Pyramid.

It’s funny how every start-up’s humble origins begin in a dingy, one-room office. But it was in that room we built the foundations of Uber.

I originally signed up for a 3-month sprint to help get Uber launched — but when I started using the prototype I immediately knew this was going to change the world as I knew it. That’s when I signed on full-time as employee #2.

(Fun fact: when we rolled out the prototype in April 2010, there was ONE Uber car on the road.)

CAPTION: The OG crew surviving Uber’s first year of operations

Upon joining, we went right into “build mode.” I helped build the prototype PHP back-end and put it into live production, which kicked off the Uber journey. I was also tasked with building the earliest customer sign-up flows.

Because of my background in mathematics and computation, I also worked on rewriting the Uber dispatch algorithm. This was extremely important, as it would match riders and drivers efficiently, which Uber is known for today.

Luckily for me, this was right in my wheelhouse, as the marriage of mathematics and computation has always been fascinating to me.

My background in Scientific Computing within the Microwave Engineering space gave me a unique perspective to tech start-ups. And although seemingly unrelated, my research into the FDTD Algorithm proved helpful in forming a different approach to the challenges presented to us.

(For the engineering nerds: FDTD Algorithm is basically a brute-force mathematical solution to Maxwell’s Equations of Electromagnetics that can be used as a software tool for designing high frequency components related to light, electricity, or magnetism.)

And as you’ll see in a moment, my background in both math and computation would prove useful in my future endeavors in the distributed computing space. But back to my time at Uber…

Over the years, my role evolved from working as an engineer on products to working as an independent contributor on technical infrastructure.

Eventually, as many technical careers do — it led me to managing a team. The team was dedicated to Uber’s analytics platform, which at that time was leveraging the incredibly talented and hungry special operations task force that had been assembled to take Uber global.

6 years flew by, and although they were super exciting times… it was also 6 years of nearly constant work. I needed a break…

… so by 2016, I was ready to move on to the next chapter of my life.

Part 2: My (not so degen) life after Uber

CAPTION: Our baby Uber all grown up… me at the Uber IPO at the New York Stock Exchange in 2019

After exiting Uber in 2016, I realized I needed a break.

So for the next year or so, I went into semi-retirement, where I focused on my health. And by health, I mean I went skiing. A LOT.

I also invested in tech and film, and sat on the board with one of my favorite companies from my hometown in Calgary (pK Sound — they build robotic loudspeaker technology). Down the line, I got involved in philanthropy, and even dabbled in some non-tech passion projects.

While I was happy with my semi-retirement, I always kept my feelers out for the “next big thing.” Of course, I knew it would have to be significantly groundbreaking to pull me out of my comfortable sabbatical.

It was around 2017 that I met Andrew Masanto at Burning Man. We instantly connected, and shortly after, he sent me a paper he thought was super interesting. I too found that paper fascinating… but I wasn’t deep into blockchain technology at the time. And the timing just wasn’t right for me, so I didn’t get involved any further.

Later I learned Andrew took that paper and built Hedera Hashgraph with it, which is now one of the top 30 cryptocurrencies in the world. Andrew and I stayed in touch and chatted about all sorts of interesting things over the years.

Near the end of 2021, I reconnected with Andrew again about another innovation. But this time… it ended up pulling me out of retirement, like an irresistible siren’s song.

Part 3: Why Nillion is the first “zero to one” innovation I’ve seen in a long time

Andrew told me about Nillion and showed me an early draft of the Nillion whitepaper. I also met the inventor and Chief Scientist of Nillion, Dr. Miguel de Vega. After meeting Miguel and reading the whitepaper, I was hooked. (P.S. — if you want to experience the same paradigm shift, check out his talk at Cambridge University).

At its core, Nillion is a mathematical solution to a long-standing problem — how to efficiently, scalably, securely, and verifiably run decentralized computations on decentralized computers in the presence of bad actors.

I’ll explain what this means in just a moment — and how solving this problem has the potential to impact billions of people world-wide (i.e. potentially a true “zero to one” innovation).

Given Nillion’s technical nature — I had a sense my background in mathematics, scientific computing, and scaling technical infrastructure would be a perfect fit.

As I delved deeper, what I realized is that Nillion’s whitepaper outlined a new way of approaching decentralized computation and processing that could be the foundation of many new web3 or collaborative applications.

The problem being solved was that blockchains were not inherently or originally built for running computations — they were built for (and do a great job at) public ledgers and immutable storage. This means that they typically process and record both value AND the order of data, which can slow processing down considerably.

But Nillion presented an innovative mathematical model that powers a public network that is purpose-built for decentralized computing. This significantly expands the design space for existing decentralized ecosystems. To summarize without getting into excessive technical detail…

(a) Nillion’s NMC network approach takes arbitrary sensitive data and particalizes/shreds/“horcruxes” it into masked particles. Nillion then distributes those particles across a network of decentralized, trustless, and permissionless nodes.

(b) The particles enjoy the security of being held in a decentralized, unrecognizable, fragmented, and Information-Theoretic Secure (i.e. post-encryption and post-quantum) manner BUT the underlying data can still be processed/computed on by nodes at commercially viable speeds without the need for data reconstruction or inter-node messaging. Moreover, the nodes have no idea what they are computing.

(c) This new method of Information-Theoretic Secure, commercially fast, and non-blockchain decentralized computing paves the way for a myriad of new use cases that involve sensitive data storage, transfer, and computation within existing distributed systems. It also creates a vast number of compelling new use cases as a native public utility.

The implications of the Nillion innovation are big (I’ll show you what the future use cases might look like in a second). And the idea behind Nillion was so powerful it literally ripped me out of retirement.

Part 4: I think I’m falling for you, Nil

That’s when I engaged Nillion in a stealth assessment period to spend some time kicking the tires of the tech (and the team) from the inside.

I wanted to dig into the math, as well as both review and help put together the technical team that could bring its vision to life. Finally, I knew I had the relevant experience from my time at Uber, but I also wanted to see if I would still have fun working intensely on something like this. Over this assessment period, I realized I HAD to be a part of this.

As I mentioned earlier, I realized Nillion could truly become one of those “zero to one” innovations that the whole world could use, not just in web3 or crypto. But I also realized that I really liked the team. These were just really good, fun, hard working, and smart people working together to create one of the coolest technologies I’d seen.

Needless to say, I was excited. But we have to stay rooted in reality and not get carried away with the grand vision. One step at a time! So… we are building Nillion in a phased approach where each domino builds up to the next. There will be several “lead domino” use cases for Nillion. Let me show you some of them.

Phase 1: With the growth of web3, personal ownership (and security) of data will be paramount. And as decentralization grows, security becomes even more important.

Imagine being able to store highly sensitive data like your private key or seed phrase conveniently and securely in a decentralized cloud (not a single-server or centrally controlled “cloud,” like Lastpass or 1Password). You could use/compute with that data anytime you wanted without having to worry about security. You wouldn’t have to worry about your hardware wallet dying. Or being hacked because a sysadmin forgot to apply the latest patches.

With Nillion your data is owned and controlled by you — BUT secured by a decentralized public network that can’t see the information that it is holding! It’s a brilliant design. You essentially have a decentralized cloud of computable data that only the rightful owners can reconstruct, use, and access.

We call this phase of the network the “Fort Knox of the Metaverse.”

Phase 2: The next phase of the Nillion roll-out activates the unique decentralized compute ability of the network. This is where things start to get really interesting.

By attempting to stand up the first ever NMC network to run commercially fast Turing-complete computations in a truly decentralized way, Nillion enables things like private smart contracts, gated and private NFTs, novel interoperability and scalability solutions, and much more (you can read more about NMC and our “go-to-market” approach here).

For example, imagine being able to create a KYC solution for Uniswap that can verify someone isn’t a terrorist without finding out any actual identifying information about the person. Or imagine being able to privately take out a loan on AAVE, with your transaction details protected from prying eyes by Nillion technology.

We call this blockchain enhancing phase of Nillion the “Meta Layer.”

Phase 3: When the world begins to understand that Nillion can guarantee both privacy AND security (while allowing for commercially viable decentralized computing), the potential becomes scary big.

Because from there, Nillion’s features create unique use cases for large pools of data that MUST remain private due to their personal nature. Things that could NEVER be done in the past, but are now feasible on the Nillion network.

Scientific research could be conducted with genetic data, health records, and other private demographic data. This, for example, would allow researchers to use health records stored in Nillion to make massive strides in medical research — all without invading anyone’s privacy, and in a fully GDPR compliant way due to the Information-Theoretic Secure nature of the data on the network.

And when digital identities inevitably step into the limelight and need to be stored in the most secure manner… Nillion would be the natural answer. As it would be mathematically provable that while the identities were on the network, no amount of computing power could access those identities unless the person whose identity it was approved. It’s use cases like this where the Nillion network could feasibly be used by billions of people around the world.

We call this final phase the universal decentralized “Secure Processing Layer.” This phase is mind-blowingly exciting for me. It gives me the same tingles I got when envisioning the potential future of Uber.

Keep in mind these examples are just the potential opportunities identified by the Nillion team. What other creative use cases could entrepreneurs and engineers come up with? I’m not entirely sure, though I’m certainly excited to see that future come to fruition.

However, as exciting as this future looks… from a tech perspective, it means equally difficult challenges. The attack vectors on this project (and the web3 space in general) are greater than what you would see in an Uber or any other centralized web1/web2 product. And we would need an equally talented team to help us build this future at Nillion.

Luckily, the existing team at Nillion is just that. They are smart, down-to-earth, talented people — who see the collective vision for what Nillion could be. But we’re still missing some key members, and that’s where you come in.

Part 5: This is where your Nillion story starts

While our dreams are grand, the roadmap is rooted in reality — with achievable phases that create business value along the way. For example, starting with “privacy as a service” for the crypto space (like I mentioned above) is just one part of the early go-to-market strategy for Nillion.

As for me, my first task as Founding CTO is building out an all-star engineering team (again). We have a fantastic founding team, many of whom have built unicorns that have changed the world before. BUT, we still have so many roles to fill. And so many cool things to build together.

With that in mind, will you be joining us?

As you’ve seen now, the one decision to become full-time employee #2 at Uber changed my life forever. It’s crazy to think how saying “yes” to Garrett in 2010 led to me being where I am today. I believe a similar decision could be facing you right now.

And since you’ve read this far — if you are an ambitious engineer, hungry to make your mark on the world and reap the rewards of your work, I’d like to invite you to join us in building Nillion.

We will be working on difficult challenges together. But by nature, it must be difficult. Because, hopefully, Nillion will be used at a scale no other web2 (or possibly even web3) application comes close to. The good news is, the rewards will be equal to the great challenges we overcome.

So, Neo… will you take the nil pill?

The choice is yours. If you choose to take the nil pill, you’ll join us in wonderland… and I’ll show you how interesting, challenging, cool, fun, weird, and deep the Nillion rabbithole goes.

To take the nil pill, click the link below.

>> https://apply.workable.com/nillion

>> Or email us at: founding@nillion.com

I look forward to hearing from you.

C

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P.S. — Check out the resources below if you want to learn more about Nillion:

1) One-Pager Summary. This high-level overview is a great lead-in to the whitepaper: https://nillion.docsend.com/view/8nyuynnijsc2959c

2) Whitepaper. Here is the recently released whitepaper: https://nillion.docsend.com/view/zbij887cca9pznf8

3) Q&A. We also put together an extensive Q&A with our chief scientist, Dr. Miguel de Vega, broken down into different levels of understanding from beginner to advanced (this complements the whitepaper nicely): https://nillion.docsend.com/view/qpmnn7g39iyy4uz9

Here is some pre-launch YouTube/podcast content:

1) Soho House in London x Nillion. A high-level overview about Nillion with the founding team: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lrth9J8AAq4

2) Cambridge University x Nillion. A deeper dive into the technology at Cambridge University with Dr. Miguel de Vega: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRnJK3mGnE8

3) Hidden Forces x Nillion. A technical discussion about the technology with Dr. Miguel de Vega on the technology podcast, Hidden Forces: https://hiddenforces.io/podcasts/nillion-nmc-miguel-de-vega/

And here are the links to the Nillion community:

Telegram chat: https://t.me/nillionnetwork

Discord: https://discord.com/invite/nillion

Twitter: https://twitter.com/nillionnetwork

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Conrad Whelan

Founding CTO of Nillion and Founding Engineer of Uber. Seasoned Technologist and nice guy. I like solving hard problems with smart, fun and nice people.