How I Became a CTO
I always wanted to build products and businesses from the ground up. Now, I’m the CTO of a new geospatial data company. Here’s how I got here.
By Barry Nagel, CTO, UP42, previously Engineer, BCG Digital Ventures
I recently took a Chief Technology Officer position at an exciting new geospatial venture, UP42. Just a few years ago I joined BCG Digital Ventures as a software developer.
People leaving DV to lead ventures is a key sign of its success. It shows that the company takes talented people and gives them the knowledge they need to succeed even after they’ve left. DV gave me the leadership skills and technical nous I needed to reach my current role and perform well in it, and the experience of being a CTO in a context where I could learn the necessary skills with the support I needed. DV engineering alumni have gone on to become CTOs and beyond after their time at DV has set them up for success.
Before I talk about my current work as a CTO, here’s how I got here.
Looking back on my career from my current role as a CTO, it’s clear that what’s been most important to me is building products and businesses — turning ideas into reality. What I love about technology is the possibilities it offers for creation, and I want to be in a position where I can use it to make the greatest possible impact.
I’ve always been one to try things out for myself to see the results rather than sit back and watch. I’m a software developer by training, but most of this training took the form of experimentation, of building things and learning from what worked and what didn’t.
In most regards, I’m self-taught. I was lucky enough to have an early introduction to software design and development from my older brother. In school, I focused mostly on the arts rather than math or computer science.
I started my career as a web designer and developer for a small agency before moving into game development. What I liked most in these experiences was seeing whatever we’d built out in the world and getting feedback from those using it, whether it was a website or a game.
Throughout my career, I’ve always made sure to actively keep learning, finding out about and testing new technologies and working out how I could use them to my advantage. Aside from new tech, I also learned how to build and manage teams — a more important skill than any cutting-edge coding language.
The next move was to start my own company with friends. This was my first taste of life as an entrepreneur, coming up with a business idea and doing everything I could to make it work.
Growing at DV
Following this, I moved to DV in 2015, joining the core developer team. It’s here that I was really able to deploy what I’d learned most effectively. My technical skills were obviously vital, but just as important was my ability to think in terms of business and product, and of course my leadership skills. I’m a generalist with a deep understanding of a wide variety of technologies, but my passion for building products is still what drives me.
One of the things I loved about working at DV was the wide variety of projects you‘re able to work on. You get the chance to build one company from scratch. Then, once it’s reached a certain size, you can start again on something completely fresh. You get an insight in a huge variety of topics, from FinTech to automotive to agriculture, and you learn new things every day.
The first bigger venture I worked on at DV was Coup, a mobility startup which offers ridesharing on electric scooters. It was a wild journey. We started with the idea, built a prototype and kept growing, eventually ending up with a fleet of 1000 scooters. We later expanded from Berlin to Paris, and Coup scooters are now also available in Madrid and Tübingen.
After a year of working as an engineer on the project, I became CTO of Coup — the first time I’d held the role. As CTO, I travelled to Taipei to talk with scooter manufacturers, assembled the company’s tech team and made key decisions about the direction of the product. One of my favorite things about working on Coup was using the product myself and witnessing the real-life application of the lines of code that my team and I had written. I loved the challenge of starting with a blank page and figuring out the right structure to make a product work, and then adapting to problems and figuring out solutions.
The Learning Curve
Becoming a CTO for the first time was a steep learning curve, but DV provided me with the help and support I needed to perform and build a successful company. When you work for a DV venture, you’re working with really bright people — from DV and from our corporate partners — and there is always someone to talk to if you need support or feedback, including other DV CTOs. Towards the end of my time at DV, the company introduced a specific training program for senior engineers who are set to become CTOs in order to make the transition as smooth as possible. This is in addition to the training that’s already offered to help you grow as an engineer and as a person.
DV is in a unique position to give opportunities to budding CTOs. Most companies will only have one CTO, and that path is blocked until they leave. DV builds multiple companies at the same time, and the growth of those companies means there are a wealth of new opportunities for engineers to progress.
In my new role as CTO at UP42, which was initially built out of DV in partnership with Airbus, I’m leading the build of a platform for geospatial data acquisition and processing. It’s a completely different challenge, but that’s what I like about it. I get to build another company from the ground up, and engage in a completely different area, with brand new challenges: We need to build a solid ecosystem, targeted at developers, make it globally scalable while working in an untapped market.
A recent article suggested that, on average, it will take someone 24 years from leaving higher education to becoming a CTO, working in four companies in a total of eight positions. My journey has been far shorter. I’m excited to get started with my new company and I’m grateful for the experience that’s helped get me here.