As I finished my Masters in Robotics at CMU a year ago, I faced a big decision: What would I do next? The traditional route would be to join a research group and continue the work I started as part of my masters degree. But as I made my way through my search, I found that now, more than ever, robotics engineers have a whole variety of options -- making that important decision more challenging and exciting -- than ever.
I wrote up this list of possibilities:
Join a traditional research groups (e.g. JPL)
Launch my own startup
Join an early- to mid-stage startup
Join the research wing of larger company (e.g. TRI)
Take a traditional role in a large company
You may be facing this very same list of options. So how do you evaluate these choices and decide which path is best for you? Here’s how I tackled the process of making my decision. I hope that walking you through my process will be a help as you approach your own decisions.
I began my search sometime in the middle of my last year of Masters study. While I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to work at some cool, established tech companies. I enjoyed being part of a team of talented engineers, but I found myself looking for a place where I could have more impact and work closer to the frontier of research. After that, I worked in a research lab for two years where I developed a good sense of what life would be like in academia. I learned that while I loved being able to innovate on novel capabilities and push the state-of-the-art, I missed that feeling of actually putting a product into someone’s hands.
This search for a balance between research and product led me to look at early-to-mid stage startups focused on utilizing artificial intelligence technology related to my master’s work in robotics. I knew I wanted to work on commercial products with R&D still a part of the day-to-day. I felt I didn’t yet have the expertise to start my own business, nor did I want to be just another researcher at a larger firm. At an early stage startup, I would have the best combination of worlds: considerable ownership and the ability to push the state-of-the-art.
In terms of the specific company and role, I looked around a lot. And I am sure you will, too. But I ultimately focused my search on finding a company with a mission and set of values that aligned with my own.
From my own reading and talking to others, the first thing I learned is that there are many good options and your career will depend as much on what you do at your first job as on your commitment to your choice. This made it important to find a place where I could grow and develop as an engineer and as a person.
Choose a job that fills you with passion and drive. Passion is contagious and surrounding yourself with passionate people early in your career will give you the fire that you will need to pursue your goals. It is easy to choose a standard 9-5 job after working so hard in school - it almost feels like you earned it. But being complacent will stifle your growth and limit your future potential.
You’ve probably already been told to surround yourself with brilliant people; however, that alone is not enough. Unless they’re also kind and dedicated to helping you succeed, you won’t be able to benefit fully from their intelligence. Choose a place that emphasizes collaboration and putting teammates above yourself. Not only will this make the work a lot more fun, but it will also boost your productivity and learning.
Finally, find a company that is determined to make a difference for people who need it. Going into work everyday knowing that what you are building will help to protect lives is a powerful feeling. There are a whole host of interesting technical problems out there - why not solve the ones that can have a real impact on people’s lives?
My challenge was to find a place that actually offered everything I wanted. My initial filter was the website: the values they talked about, what kind of personality they showed. The most important part of my evaluation, however, came during the interviews. I wanted to hear how the managers talked to me and to their team members and how they spoke about their work. During the interviews I really learned about the culture and the leadership team’s role in creating it.
I went through the interview process with a variety of companies and, eventually, came across Shield AI. What hooked me were the people I met while interviewing at Shield AI and the way they talked about the company’s mission. It was clear to me how my everyday work at Shield AI would directly translate into a product -- a product designed to protect. The people I met during the interview process were beyond intelligent and clearly capable, and I could tell from my interactions with the leadership that this was a place where co-workers were truly passionate about helping each other grow.
A year into working at Shield AI, I can not only confirm that my early intuitions were spot-on, but I can also clearly see the positive effect being here has had on me personally and professionally. The people are inspiring to be around and the work that I do is fulfilling. I am glad I put so much thought into considering my options, and even happier I found a company that offered all I was seeking.