Lindsay Roberts has been with Starship since the beginning – and is the company’s ninth employee. “It was me and my friend Andy and the Estonian engineers. The first six months were very quiet: the average number of words spoken per day was about seven.”
Lindsay is from Sydney, Australia and has lived in Estonia for the past 10 years. Tallinn is his home, and he says working with Starship is like living his dream: “As an engineer, working on robots is a hideously unrealistic dream. I’ve always wanted to work for a company with an actual mission, and I feel like, at Starship, we’re putting robots on the streets, getting close The future is from the future.”
Lindsay is currently the Head of Autonomous Driving at Starship. He was among the first to establish the world’s leading provider of standalone delivery services and saw the company grow from a small one-room office, and from 10 to more than 500 employees.
You were one of the first Starship employees, how did you cross your path?
My journey in Estonia began when I switched to Skype in 2011. At that time I needed to change almost everything, an adventure. One job that popped up was at Skype in Stockholm, but during the interview process they asked if I was considering moving to Estonia instead. Wikipedia had to. I was with my roommates at the time, and from YouTube we got the clear impression that Estonians don’t do kiking (an extreme sport) all the time, and the first thing my roommates asked me over the years was if I “signed up” So now, how many times a day do you kiik?
Though, at first, I thought I was going to stay here for a year or two, somehow without my planning or knowledge, I crept into Tallinn and became my home. In 2014, I decided to leave Skype and went on vacation to Australia. On that break, I had a goal to take some time and think deeply about what I really wanted to do in life. The second day I got a call from a friend who asked if I wanted to talk to my mother about a bot job at the cryptic startup now known as Starship. As soon as he mentioned robots, he dropped every idea of soul searching like a lead brick.
What is your first impression of the Starship?
A little strange. Skype has had hundreds of people from all over the world and a constant social activity. The Starship’s first office was five people crammed into one small room in Tehnopol. It was a big thing when I joined two adjoining rooms, a little smaller.
The first six months were very quiet: the average number of words spoken per day was about seven. Andy and I and about five Estonian engineers were in the office. We just worked. We didn’t have anything, which meant we desperately needed everything, so we just sat there in silence, wrote software, mechanical engineers designed parts for the robot, and tested it outside in the cold and humidity.
Although I’ve been used to working with (and being) an introvert as a software engineer, the biggest difference I’ve noticed is that Estonians don’t seem to show off, and that can actually be a problem in major international organizations. At Microsoft, much of their work screamed from rooftops while Estonians quietly achieved greatness. Without looking deeply at the output, management could get the impression that the loudest were doing the most. Overall, I feel Estonians are really loyal, enthusiastic and very honest. That when you see feelings or warmth, it’s definitely something they’re really feeling and thinking about. It is not, for example, the product of social expectations. And knowing that the way people act is honest, and that you don’t need to filter, is actually very comforting.
What was the hardest part for you when moving to Estonia?
Not much really, it was an easy place to live. The hardest part was the bitter cold that first winter, but that got a lot easier when I stopped caring about fashion. I thought I’d be able to wear jeans and a stylish jacket but when I started putting on a nice pair of thick boots and arctic survival gear, things got a lot smoother. Those days were -30 degrees still intense, but in a way that makes you feel alive rather than dead.
In Starship, you’ve had many different roles: You started as Head of Localization, then as a Fleet Team Leader and you are currently Head of Autonomous Command, now. What was the most difficult part so far?
Honestly that first year. I started working on (robot) localization with a colleague, and it didn’t work out for a long time. We had something that led to a result, but not reliably. It took months and months of working on it, and for most of that time, without any visible signs of progress, there were any signs we were aiming in the right direction. By the time we succeeded, the frustration was on an insignificant level.
At some point, the company got big enough and I became the leader of the localization team, great people, really great years. After that, I moved on to lead the Fleet Orchestration team, and that’s because, every now and then, it looks like my flair [Heinla] He comes to my office and asks if I’d be interested in trying this other role. And while these roles are almost always extended, I tend to say yes more than no, and each change was challenging, new, and fun.
What is the main aspect that attracts you to Starship?
So here is an amazing mission, doing deliveries with robots in the streets, crazy sci-fi dream of it. And in fact, to change something, it is only likely to make a significant impact on the world. But, on top of that, working at the Starship was a very useful learning experience. Each time I thought I learned a little bit about how to be effective, efficient and realistic, Starship had more to teach me. And the culture is a big part of that: it’s the most realistic, lowest BA place I’ve ever worked.
Engineers, more than anywhere else I’ve been, are empowered and expected to figure out what they have to work on. To investigate and browse data, reason and set priorities. We encourage independence, critical thinking and independence, I would even say it’s a requirement. Working at Starship made me realize that if you hire such smart people, you should let them use all that thought. When you actually get five team members to not just execute, but to think critically about what they’re doing, to decide what to work on, you’re basically employing five times the intelligence. This means not just asking for input, but spreading responsibility for decision-making, setting priorities, so that people really train, learn, and get used to the habit.
It also made me realize that the best people are the ones you can leave on their own for long periods of time and will not only continue to do an impactful job but also surprise you positively.
In terms of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
I’ve written a huge amount of software over the years, some of which are even still in use. But on top of that, I’d like to say that if I inspired or helped anyone here to grow, that’s what I would be most proud of.
What does the future hold?
Starship affects a lot of people around the world, but as much as we’ve accomplished, there’s still a lot more to do. We have to improve everything, we have to develop a better app, make the bot behave in a more humane way, able to cope independently in the most extreme situations, say more cool things, the list is huge and hugely exciting. And of course, we have to expand and bring our bots to more and more places.
In the end, I would say that the world is changing very quickly, and it is changing in many ways. But this crazy, improbable journey of getting robots doing street delivery, to automating the local transportation of an item in the same way the Internet uses for information, this is a space where real change is possible. In this, one person in a Starship can make such an amazing amount of change in the world. To round out the future a little.
Would you like to join the extraordinary journey? Cool, we’re always on the lookout for extraordinarily talented people. Find your next career Here. “