Barra attended primary and secondary schools at local Colégio Pitágoras in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and in 1995 enrolled at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG), majoring in Electrical Engineering. In 1996, Barra transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), graduating with a bachelor's degree in management science and masters in electrical engineering and computer science. He was class president of the class of 2000 and student keynote speaker at MIT commencement 2000.
In 2000, Barra co-founded LOBBY7 with MIT classmates. (The company’s name was inspired by the lobby of building 7, the main entrance to the Infinite Corridor at MIT).
LOBBY7 provided mobile speech recognition software. The company was acquired by ScanSoft in 2003, which became Nuance Communications in 2005 via merger. Barra held various positions at Nuance in Product Management, Product Marketing, and Business Development, launching a number of mobile speech recognition products.
Barra joined American technology company Google in London in March 2008 as Group Product Manager for the Google Mobile team. In 2010 Barra joined the Android team.
From 2010 to 2013, Barra’s role expanded to include product spokesperson for the Android team, speaking at both press conferences and Google I/O, Google’s annual developer-focused conference. Barra’s product involvement included the entire Android ecosystem of software and hardware, including Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean and KitKat operating system launches, the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 smartphones, the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets, and other related products such as Google Now, selected in 2013 as Popular Science’s Innovation of the Year, and Google Voice Search, Google’s speech recognition service. He was promoted to Vice President in 2012.
In September 2013, Barra left Google for Chinese electronics company Xiaomi, serving as Vice President of International. The move was considered a ‘significant hire’ for Xiaomi, one of the fastest growing manufacturers in China, enhancing international legitimacy to the company by adding a key former Google Android executive to its senior management.
In December 2013, Barra spoke at LeWeb tech conference in Paris, France about his impressions of the Chinese economy and the opportunity it represented for tech companies such as Xiaomi, citing China's 600 million internet users, high market caps of recent Chinese IPOs, the massive scale of the top Chinese apps' monthly active users, and the size of companies such as Alibaba's Taobao, a shopping site more than double the size of eBay and Amazon combined. The talk was widely cited throughout the industry.
In February 2014, Barra announced the launch of the new Redmi and Mi3 smartphones in Singapore, then in India. Global expansion outside of China into surrounding emerging markets is a key initiative for Xiaomi, given the company’s business model to release high performance smartphone products at an affordable consumer price, generating revenue not only from the hardware itself, but the software and internet services provided to the consumer. According to Xiaomi co-founder and president Lei Jun, it is “entirely Barra’s job to figure out which region that we should enter next and how.” Barra has stated intentions to expand next into various countries.
In March 2014, Barra visited Foxconn, a Taiwanese manufacturing company with plants in Brazil and Mexico responsible for assembling products for various tech brands, indicating plans for Xiaomi to expand into Latin America.
In May 2014, Barra announced the launch of the MiPad, a 7.9 inch tablet. “We spent four years working up to the point where we thought we had the right hardware design and software capability to build a world-class tablet,” Barra said. “We think we are there, finally.” Barra described the release as part of Xiaomi's overall strategy to expand both its product lineup and into new international markets including Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. Barra also indicated eventual plans to enter the U.S. market.
In January 2017, Barra announced his departure from Xiaomi. Barra explained his decision had been strongly motivated by a feeling of detachment from his family and the life he had built up in Silicon Valley. "What I've realized is that the last few years of living in such a singular environment have taken a huge toll on my life and started affecting my health. My friends, what I consider to be my home, and my life are back in Silicon Valley, which is also much closer to my family. Seeing how much I've left behind these past few years, it is clear to me that the time has come to return."
He announced on January 25, 2017 that he will be joining Facebook to lead all their virtual reality efforts.
"I’m excited to share my next adventure as I return to Silicon Valley—in a couple of months I'll be joining Facebook as VP of virtual reality (VPVR!) and lead the Oculus team. Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun always says that the highest calling of an engineer is to make technology breakthroughs quickly and readily available to the widest possible spectrum of humanity. That will be my mission at Facebook and I look forward to building the future of immersive technology with Mark Zuckerberg, Brendan Trexler Iribe, Mike Schroepfer, and the visionaries in the Oculus team." Hugo Barra
In 2011, Barra was ranked #23 in Wired Magazine’s Wired 100. In 2013, Business Insider’s Silicon Valley 100 included Barra at #92. Brazil's Época magazine ranked Barra among the most influential Brazilians in both 2011 and 2013.