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A love of space, science and Lego: John Hammersley

Having worked on the world’s first driverless taxi system, John Hammersley (MPhys Mathematics and Physics, 2004) has always steered towards innovation. He’s now CEO and Co-Founder of Overleaf, a cloud-based LaTeX editor for collaborative working on scientific documents, with over nine million users and 150 university customers. Discover John’s journey from Physics at Warwick to becoming a successful entrepreneur.

Why Maths and Physics, and why Warwick?

I’ve always been interested in science and space. My sister was born on the same day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, so space always played a part in our family life. Maths and Physics were two of my stronger subjects during my A-Levels, so to discover I could study both at Warwick was appealing. I liked the campus and the general feel of the place. I grew up in the countryside so Warwick felt more familiar to me than other city-based universities.

Your favourite memory of Physics at Warwick?

I met some great friends who I’m still in touch with. I really enjoyed the lectures and the variety of teaching styles. Professor David Leadley was a great tutor in my first year. He was incredibly supportive and helpful as I was adjusting to being away from home for the first time.

How did your course and experiences at Warwick help you in your career?

I studied for a group project with some course-mates, which gave me valuable experience of working on a project with others in a business-like environment. While at Warwick, I entered a European Space Agency competition called Success 2002 where I had to design experiments onboard the International Space Station. I was shortlisted to the final ten applicants and invited to the awards dinner at the European Astronaut Training Centre, which was fantastic for my CV. The attention to detail and planning skills I developed during my degree have certainly helped me during my career. And my time on the Darts Society Committee prepared me for leading teams by essentially running a mini business.

What motivated you to set up Overleaf?

At the time, I was working on a project to build the world’s first driverless taxi system (ULTra) at Heathrow Airport and used several systems such as LaTeX and Etherpad to document research papers. Conscious that these didn’t entirely suit our collaborative needs, my cofounder John Lees-Miller created a piece of software, which was the precursor to Overleaf. As the product grew, we both left our jobs and focused our attentions towards building a business. It was good timing in my personal life, I liked the appeal of being my own boss and the excitement of running a business and from there, Overleaf was born.

What skills or attitudes have helped you to make Overleaf a success?

Optimism really helped me. If you think too much about all the things that could possibly go wrong, you’ll never start. It’s important to look at the long-term strategy for direction but equally important to tackle each challenge day by day. John and I didn’t have much business experience at the start, so we joined a startup accelerator for additional support, which was also very helpful in developing my presentation skills.

Who has been the biggest influences on your career so far?

In my first job after university at ULTra, I worked with Professor Martin Lowson, who was the President and Founder. I found his infinite curiosity to be inspirational. Having worked on some amazing projects throughout his career, including the Saturn V rocket programme, he was still so passionate and knowledgeable about his work. I’ve tried to take that inquisitive mindset with me to Overleaf and develop a culture where it’s ok to try things and fail.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

We have a great team of people at Overleaf. I think we have an open, approachable way of working that isn’t hierarchical. It still has a small company feel even though we’ve grown to more than 50 team members. We’ve also received some great testimonials at Overleaf and it’s nice to play a part in those special moments for early years researchers and students completing their first theses or research papers.

What are your plans now?

With Overleaf, we’re continually trying to grow the product and make LaTeX more accessible to everyone in the scientific community. Personally, I’m excited to spend more quality time with my two young daughters as the world begins to open after the pandemic. I’ve introduced them to my love of woodwork and Lego and can’t wait to take them to the Science Museum in London.