(This letter is modeled after Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.”)
A few weeks ago, I made the tough decision to leave Neya Systems to return to practicing law full time. I was fortunate to have a unique role at the company where I was the company’s attorney, director of commercialization, and also senior engineer. It was an amazing two years, where I was able to reunite with some of the smartest people I’ve ever known and meet some great new people. I wanted to leave you a few parting words of wisdom as I move on to the next phase of my career and as you start your career. I assume that you have all of the technical skills to be a great roboticist, so my words to you cover the so-called soft skills. These lessons are learned from my time working at a few companies, and from things I’ve learned from some of the great mentors I’ve been fortunate to have advise me over the years.
Don’t Be a Jerk You will soon learn that the robotics community is a very small community. You might be working in Pittsburgh, but I can assure you that there are only a few degrees of separation between you and almost every other roboticist working in this country. Seriously, the community is that small. This can be great for networking, but it can also bite you. I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing people, but I’ve also worked with some who were complete jerks. Word gets around about the jerks. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but you are probably not the smartest roboticist ever. You should be confident in your abilities, but you should also endeavor to be humble and eager to learn from those more senior than you. That said, you are your own person, and you bring your own unique personality, experiences, perspectives, and talents. This is what makes you a valued member of your team.
Dream Big Dr. Robert H. Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, once said that “[i]t is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.” The rapid advancement of embedded system technologies has led to some amazing developments in the robotics space. Look at what’s been happening with driverless vehicles and small UAVs. However, chances are the development teams for those technologies heard from some jaded roboticist that what they were trying to do couldn’t be done, would take too long, or cost too much. Have the patience to listen to that person, but follow your passion. You may end up falling on your face, but you could also end up developing the next big thing in robotics. Which leads to my next point…
Reach for the Stars You have a great career ahead of you in perhaps one of the most exciting areas of technology. However, the reality is that you probably will not be working at this job in five years. Not because you’ll be asked to leave or because the company won’t be around. People move on. People seek new challenges. This is perfectly normal. Whatever you do, push yourself to be a better roboticist and a better person. My grandfather would always tell me to reach for the stars. If I failed, he would remind me, there would be a long way before I hit the ground. You will take many calculated risks throughout your career. Some will work out, some will make you question your abilities. This is part of growing. You’ll be fine.
Have Fun My last piece of advice is to have fun. You are working in a field where you get to play with some really amazing (and expensive) pieces of equipment. I’ve been interested in robotics since I was a kid and had a great time working in the field. Many people would love to have done some of the things I’ve done in the past. However, there were times when I forgot just how fortunate I was to have such a cool job. This will happen to you. You might not believe me, but it will happen. Find a great mentor who can help put things into perspective for you.
These are exciting times for you and for the robotics community. I wish you all the best. Let me know if I can ever help with anything.