uShip CTO Nick Parker on scaling a tech team, international expansion — and Austin's brand of quirk

Written by Kelly O'Halloran
Published on Mar. 13, 2017
 uShip CTO Nick Parker on scaling a tech team, international expansion — and Austin's brand of quirk
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uShip has had a busy 2017. With a move to a new headquarters along East Riverside and a big 'ole Series D funding to accelerate their enterprise logistics automation solution, the Austin-based tech company has a momentum most startups only ever dream of.

Much of that growth can be attributed to the tech savvy and leadership of CTO Nick Parker. 

Parker joined the uShip team 12 years ago, building both the code base and the development team from the ground up. His team has grown from just a few members in 2005 to over 80 individuals today — and he has plans to continue expanding the team. 

Nick Parker
CTO • uShip.com

What technologies play the biggest roles at your company this year?

There’s nothing game-changing about the technology we use at uShip, it’s more in the application of how we use it. While we aren’t particularly zealous about the technologies we use, we do believe it is critical to understand what you’re using, and choosing the right tool to get the best results.

Our application is built on .NET, but it isn’t tied to Microsoft tools. We use a good deal of open-source tools — React, MongoDB, SOLR, Redis, HAProxy, NGINX, etc. — with our goal being to write as little software as necessary to get the job done well.

What are the biggest tech projects your team is working on this year?

Right now, the team is working on accelerating the development of Drive4Schenker, an online freight matching platform uShip powers for DB Schenker, one of the world’s largest logistics providers. We spent the second half of 2016 developing the platform as part of our relationship, and in early February, we launched in Germany.

It’ll now go live across Europe in the coming weeks and months, allowing DB Schenker dispatchers to more easily and automatically communicate with transporters, carriers and drivers all across Europe. It’s part of DB Schenker’s freight digitization strategy — and uShip is powering this for them. This type of partnership is really capturing the freight industry’s attention and is a hot topic in a lot in publications, including the Wall Street Journal.

What are the biggest technology challenges you’ve faced in the past? How did you overcome them?

It’s super easy to be fast and nimble when you first get started as a company or team. Everyone is in a room together, you all are (generally) on the same page, product changes take no time, and the results are visible. The trick is taking this process and making it scale. As time goes on the product gets more complex, more people are involved in its production and technologies change. You have to figure out how to keep up with that change and try to keep the best parts of the early process close: simplicity, open communication and early feedback.

As CTO, it might be a little bit of heresy to say that the technology is less important, but if you focus on cultivating the right process and assembling the right team, the technology part is not so hard.

Our contract with DB Schenker called for us to build the Drive4Schenker platform. What we discovered after the contract was signed was that product scope and requirements kept unfolding and expanding. The challenge was to remain true to the contract but build a useful product, not just developing a product that checked off deliverable boxes in a contract. We relied heavily on the agile methodology and its process and opted to eschew the Gantt chart beloved by the C-Suite. This approach was central to what has made the uShip-DB Schenker relationship such a success and allowed us to deliver a viable, working product on time. And they’ve now become an investor, leading our Series D round with $25 million.    

What are lessons you’ve learned about working in Austin that other local entrepreneurs can learn from?

When we first started uShip in 2003, Austin offered the right environment at the right time. The consumer internet space was still pretty nascent. Nobody was doing continuous deployment (gasp!).

Austin’s quirky nature made its way into our uShip culture from the very beginning. For example, First Thursdays on South Congress lead to uShip’s First Friday tradition, where we take the whole company out for an afternoon to get to know each other. Austin is pretty easy to navigate, and we’ve grown close with several other startups in town, even to the point of banding together to launch the Austin Startup Games, which brings startups together to compete in office games like ping pong and darts to raise money for local charities.

Lessons that I’ve learned from working here include that being genuine with people, trusting them and treating them with respect will deliver you with loyal, honest and open employees. 

What are the top characteristics you look for in a potential hire?

Engineers are engineers because they’re smart. But they’re also creative. How many of your engineers are also musicians? More than you probably thought. So — you have creative smart asses (in the endearing sense) who love to solve problems. Get them as close to the problem as you can. We recently sent two of our engineers to the field for our DB Schenker rollout in Europe. Their understanding of the real world problems and the empathy that it gives them are invaluable to tying real world value to the day-to-day jobs they do. 

How would your team describe working with you?

From the direct feedback I’ve seen, my team describes me as a hard working, passionate and dedicated person. Being a part of uShip has taught me the importance of finding time to engage with my team to ensure everyone is on the same page, while also getting to know them individually. As a manager, I have also learned that providing clarity and direct feedback on the state of the company and our projects earns the respect and trust of the team, which has created a workplace atmosphere focused on growing and pushing the boundaries.

Photo via uShip. Some answers have been edited for clarity and length.

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