The expression “never lose the child in you” takes on a brand new meaning when you meet Alessio Colombo.
A Computer Science PhD with “robotics-for-good” projects under his belt, Alessio stepped into Earth observation with the curiosity of a schoolkid and the dream of changing the world for the better. Yet, he can wear the cloak of a seasoned teacher when it comes to managing engineering teams and projects.
If you, like Alessio, are one of those who can’t decide between your left and right brain, coding and building, this story is for you. And no, you don’t have to pick one.
Q: Tell me about yourself. What's your role at UP42, and how did you get here?
A: I moved to Berlin in 2015, after finishing my PhD and postdoc in Computer Science and Robotics at the University of Trento in Italy. With my then partner (now wife), we wanted to live abroad. Fortunately, she found a job first and I followed her with just the promise of an interview. I ended up joining a small company working on automated driving, which was the perfect opportunity.
That’s how I got introduced to the geospatial world. I soon understood the importance of having accurate maps for safer automated cars. I started off as a software engineer, but when the company (a startup) was acquired by a larger one a year and a half later, I was given the opportunity to manage teams. Their role was to automate the creation of maps using artificial intelligence to extract relevant information from images such as traffic signs. It was a big change: from an individual contributor at a small company to a manager at a big corporation. So, another completely new adventure.
And six months ago, I started an even newer one: as the Engineering Manager for Data and Tasking.
Q: And why did you move to UP42?
A: It was the right time. I missed being part of a smaller group and had wanted a change for quite some time, but I also didn’t want to jump at the first chance. A recruiter reached out, and when I saw the company, the product, and the industry, I fell in love. I had no idea of all the different applications of geospatial technology. I didn’t know you could even help wildlife, for example, with satellites. I also wanted to be in a growing company with a solid structure, and UP42 had the right mix. So I joined!
Q: You mentioned that you’ve worked with maps before, but Earth observation was a new industry. What challenges did you have to overcome at the beginning?
A: I was close to the remote sensing laboratory during my PhD. Even though I had never really worked in this field, I was already familiar with topics like vegetation monitoring, but I still had a lot to learn. So, before joining, I did lots of reading to understand the basics. Fortunately, when I started, some colleagues introduced me and other new joiners to remote sensing. Soon, I realized everyone around me was speaking the same language – so even if you don’t want to, you end up speaking it, too.
Q: 6 months in: what do you like the most about UP42, and what excites you about your job?
A: First of all, the people. It’s impressive to see so many intelligent individuals in a company, and there’s something new I can learn from everyone. It’s not about titles or seniority. The density of talent that we have is amazing across all departments. Surprisingly, the second aspect is total transparency. There are no politics or hidden agendas, and Sean is bringing us forward with clear objectives, which I value a lot. Lastly, I would say the company itself. Seeing what we can do and what our customers can do with our platform to support sustainability or fight climate change is absolutely fantastic.
Q: You seem to have wildlife, climate change, and sustainability at heart. Where does this passion come from?
A: I often find myself thinking, “Hey, I live in Europe. I live in Germany. I'm a privileged person. How can I help others thousands of kilometers away, right?” This also enables people on the ground or in other companies to make a difference, even though I may never set foot in their country. I find it really inspiring to know that even though we’re sitting in a room, you know, coding and developing software, we have this massive potential to enable anyone to do good.
Q: What led you to study computer science and then robotics?
A: Right after high school, I knew what I wanted to do very clearly. I had been coding every day ever since I was a child. I used to spend a lot of time at one of my uncles’, eating pizza and playing games. He would let me use a Commodore 64, so he basically shaped my geek side!
I went on, wanting to study Computer Science and live abroad at the same time, but I tried to be pragmatic and found out that my hometown university ranked highly for their engineering department. After completing my BA, I continued with an MA in Embedded Systems, where I developed healthcare devices to help elderly people. I focused on this subject also during my PhD with the support of European funds - only this time, I was working on the robotic components to help the elderly move around in their homes.
This is where another uncle’s influence kicked in. He was a handyman, and when I was a kid, he helped us renovate our entire apartment. I watched him build all this crazy stuff on his own, and yes, it may not be related to computer science, but it helped me understand how things work and how to fix them. It didn’t take me long to get into Lego and then more complex constructions like Lego Technics.
Today, I still sit down at my table, and instead of building puzzles, I build my little cars or rockets to calm my mind, piece after piece. It's a great way to practice mindfulness.
Lastly, my father. He used to work in banking and would often take me to his office–the only place I knew of with a computer in the early 90s! I remember playing around with his colleague’s computer and changing some Windows settings. They often had to call technical support the next day…
Q: How do you combine your left and right brain in your job?
A: In my engineering management experience, I learned that the most complex part of building a system is not the technology itself but the people. It's about bringing people together and making sure they support each other. I'm definitely not an expert, especially now at UP42, where we have big brains, but I still try to combine my higher understanding of people with the more technical side.
Q: What lies ahead for you at UP42 and in your personal development?
A: I think the common thread in everything I do, is the feeling of doing it for the greater good. Whether it’s building aids for elderly people or developing software to help drivers, I'm not focused on my interests. If sustainability is one of my top concerns, doing something that supports it motivates me a lot.
As UP42 grows, I see my role growing too. I want to ensure that we remain a motivating and fun place to work. There may not be a perfect way forward, but there can be a good way to keep everyone on the same page.
Q: What would you say to engineers starting a new career in Earth observation like you?
A: Learn as much as you can from the start. Also, try to get in touch with others in this field. A big city like Berlin offers many opportunities for meetups and events to get to know the EO community. Build your own network and stay motivated. And if you were a Lego fan like me as a kid, just keep playing! You never know where being a geek and a DIYer can lead you in the future…