Ben Cole on his career in technology and how the Gates Biennial inspired his new start-up.
When I visited Cambridge I met people and had conversations about engineering and the Arab Spring. It opened my mind. If I had gone to the other university I would just have talked about computer science.Ben Cole
Ben Cole developed an early interest in computers. He started computer programming at the age of seven and by eight was helping local businesses with their computers.
It’s an interest that has seen him work at some of the top technology companies, such as Facebook, become a Google “technology pioneer” in Africa and launch various technology products before starting his own company – the result of a collaboration that sprung from the first Gates Cambridge Biennial this summer.
Ben  was born in New York. His father, an electronics teacher, was an early adopter of personal computers and Ben had a computer from the age of five. He says he had limited space to play at his apartment so he gravitated towards the computer. By the age of seven he was programming and by eight he was spending the summer advising local businesses on, for instance, how to use Word.
Ben created an imaginary computer company and became fascinated by tech entrepreneurs. “I was an unusual kid,” he says. “Very few people were into that kind of stuff at the time.”
It was a foretaste of things to come – years later he worked for Google, helping local businesses get onto the internet. “They were still struggling 15 years later,” he says.
At high school he put his computer programming on hold and focused on his academic work. He was torn between business and computer science and did a lot of business-related activities as there were more opportunities than in computer science.
When he applied to university he was not still not clear if he would go for business or computer science. In the end, he decided to go to Cornell and do a four-year course, majoring in information science, which included design, policy and psychology and focused on computing in its human context.
From the beginning he got stuck into research projects, for instance, on large scale data analysis and in his final year he worked part time as a social network analyst with Facebook. He did two summer internships at Google and worked as a teaching assistant at Cornell. In his third year, in 2009, he did a semester at Oxford University, which he describes as “life-changing”. “I had never travelled before and I fell in love with the UK and the Oxbridge set-up,” he says. He also got to travel around Europe and says the experience opened his eyes and gave him an appetite for travel and for taking a year out.
After graduating, he decided he wanted to go to Africa and found a job as a technology pioneer with Google in Ghana which involved him travelling eight months out of 12. His job was to help organise the emerging markets team, launch products for small businesses, come up with product strategies and liaise with journalists and activists. One project invoved him organising the first flash mob in Ghana for a product launch.
It was while he was in Ghana that he applied to do his MPhil in Advanced Computer Science at Cambridge University. He did his interview via Skype from Google’s Lagos office.
He was keen to go back to university and he wanted to do something that would be relevant to the developing world. He decided to work on a proof-of-concept Android app for search and rescue workers in disaster situations. The app could inform workers who were trying to find their way out of difficult situations.
After Cambridge, where Ben was communications officer on the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council, he went back to Google as Mobile Product Lead, joining the One Today app team two weeks before launch. One Today is an app that makes exploring and donating to social causes more engaging, on Android, iOS, and the web. Ben says that, since he had never worked on mobile development at Google before, he would have been out of his depth if he had not had his time at Cambridge.
In total he had been working on and off with Google for eight years. Over that time the company had grown a lot and he says he is very grateful for being able to do the work he did at such a young age. However, he felt it was time to move somewhere smaller and more flexible. So in October 2014 he moved to Kickstarter as Product Manager. Kickstarter is the world's largest funding platform for creative projects. Over his time there Ben launched the company’s first sophisticated project recommendation engine and worked on the consumer testing of products.
Last November he left and moved in January to a smaller company, KnowMe, a start-up which specialises in enabling authentic self expression and meaningful connection through the medium of video.
As Director of Product in a start-up he enjoyed the chance to be very hands on.
Over the summer, Ben attended the first Gates Cambridge Biennial where he met up with a fellow Gates Cambridge Scholar who specialises in machine learning. The two got talking and came up with an idea for a software solutions start-up. Ben left his job in September and is working on the start-up and doing consultancy work.
He says: “The Biennial was two of the best days of my life. It is so rare to spend time in that environment again. The panel debates were great with panellists from different perspectives talking deeply about a topic. It is very much in the spirit of Gates Cambridge. They were multidisciplinary and insightful. Before I came to Cambridge I was thinking about going to another university. When I visited Cambridge I met people and had conversations about engineering and the Arab Spring. It opened my mind. If I had gone to the other university I would just have talked about computer science. It is important to have that diversity of perspective that you get at Cambridge and with the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.”
Ben hopes the start-up will launch in the next several months and will show the impact a Gates Cambridge collaboration can have.
*Picture credit: DARPA and Wiki Commons.
- United States
- 2011 MPhil Advanced Computer Science
- Trinity College
Ben Cole matriculated at Cambridge as a Gates Scholar in 2011, where he was a member of Trinity College and served as the Communications Chair for the Gates Scholars Council. Before Cambridge, Ben was a Technology Pioneer for Google's emerging markets team and a data scientist at Facebook. Since graduating, Ben has worked as a product manager and product strategy consultant at a wide range of organizations including Google.org, Kickstarter, and a number of startups. In his spare time, Ben has enjoyed acting at the Metropolitan Opera of NY, serving as a driver in President Obama's motorcade, and hosting events in NYC and the Bay Area. He currently splits his time between San Francisco and Palo Alto, where he leads product at an AI startup called Instrumental.