Thuan Pham ’90, SM ’91 began life in the United States as a refugee from Vietnam and rose to chief technology officer of Uber, a post he left last year. He credits MIT with helping make his successful career possible.
“MIT taught us how to think, and that was very, very important,” he says. “An MIT education is rigorous, and when you survive, it gives you a sense of grit that is very applicable in the workforce.”
The technologies Pham learned as a computer science major at MIT are very different from those he works with today, but he says the education he got at the Institute remains relevant. “The skill MIT gave us was the way to solve problems.”
Beginning his post-MIT career at Hewlett-Packard, Pham soon learned where and how he worked best. “I seek out smaller companies; I tend to get bored at large companies. I continued to develop and grow new skills and went from one company to another to succeed,” says Pham, who worked at VMware, NetGravity, and Silicon Graphics, among other companies, before joining Uber in 2013. “Getting through MIT gave me the agility you need.”
Now Pham and his wife, Nicole, are philanthropists, recently establishing the Thuan and Nicole Pham Professorship Fund in the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. “I was always very clear that I was going to endow a professorship in the computer science area,” he says. “That’s my profession, and I love technology.”
Why choose MIT as the recipient of their first substantial gift? “MIT has given me an amazing education and also opened so many doors for me on my career journey,” he says. “This is the least that I can do to give back and to pay it forward.”
Even before MIT, Pham felt lucky to be in the United States, since his family had a harrowing escape from Vietnam in 1980. “You didn’t just get on a plane,” he explains. “You sneaked out in a rickety boat.” Many thousands died on such journeys, but Pham’s mother was determined to get her children to the United States.
Unfortunately, Pham’s father had to stay behind. “He didn’t come for a decade,” says Pham. “He came the year I graduated from MIT, so I grew up without a father.”
En route, Pham, his mother, and brother spent months in a refugee camp in Indonesia. “There was no infrastructure,” he says, and no schooling was available. “The only way I could study was listening to the man right next to us who spoke English very well.”
Once safely in Maryland, the Phams doubled up with another refugee family in a two-bedroom apartment. “My mom had to work two jobs,” he says. “We hardly ever saw her.”
Still, Pham excelled in math, science, and computer science. He was accepted at MIT, but at first assumed it would financially be out of reach. Then, his financial aid package arrived. Pham and his mother were stunned to find that with the help of a scholarship, work study, and a Pell Grant, his mother could make it work. “I never forgot that,” he says.
Pham enjoyed his years at MIT enormously. “I made a lot of lifelong friends.” But it was his academic experience that left the strongest impression: “I absolutely loved all the computer science,” he says. “I was able to take classes, some outside my major, with world-famous professors like [Institute Professor] Barbara Liskov, who won the Turing Award, and Robert Solow, [emeritus professor of economics] who won a Nobel Prize.”
Pham’s goal now is to sustain that level of world-class education for students. “What I want is to help the world by helping MIT students.”