Interview with Solo Class – Senior Electronics Engineer, Starship Technologies.
At Starship’s headquarters in Mostama, Tallinn, the world’s leading delivery robot is being developed as a solution to the last mile delivery challenge – a six-wheeled robotic vehicle, similar to a lunar walker. A specialist, who is in-house in both electronics and software, has been invited to join the Robotics Platform team, which combines these two areas of expertise in one role.
Do not expect a complete knowledge of many technologies. The catch is that this new member of the team has a passion for learning on his own, and for finding a solution to every challenge. Because there are so many challenges that need solutions that no one in the world has created before.
What is the Starship offer for this new team member? Senior electronics engineer Solo Class, who joined Starship in its early years, has the answers.
Why Starship? There is intense competition for employees in the technology sector. How to attract talent to join you?
We are doing something that was said to be impossible just a few years ago. We are the global leader in robotics for last mile delivery; Provide an alternative to traditional services. We are not just one of the leaders, but we are the leader, and no one has come this far.
We have a clear purpose and vision that our employees understand and feel – our work has tangible impact and results. We listen to our people. They have a lot of freedom and there is no top-down chain of command. Everyone can express their opinion and provide the solution.
What made you most excited about this job and what part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I like that the decisions in Starship are reasonable. It would be difficult for me to work in an organization where management does irrational things. We have a common goal: to solve the challenges posed by last-mile delivery services and reach every corner of the world with our robots. The whole team is working towards it.
The founder of the company, Ahti Heinla, is an engineer and still creates the software himself. He is a very talented and creative software engineer with extensive software experience. Ahti has managed to keep the company focused on what is most important – product and service development.
I also like that everyone has the opportunity to influence the development of the company. The people I come into contact with on a daily basis are really nice. There are some of the smartest brains working here, you could even say that every second person here is some kind of genius. And of course I’m interested in what we want to achieve.
What is your Starship team doing and what are the most exciting challenges for you so far?
I work on a platform team that connects two regions. On the one hand, mechanical engineers deal with the mechanical part, and on the other hand, software engineers write artificial intelligence, navigation, machine vision, and other software. We deal with electronics, hardware and software.
We are not writing the AI code that makes the bot do something. Instead, we provide a technology platform for that. We design the electronic units ourselves and do not use standard electronic solutions.
There is no doubt that there is a great deal of programming involved with the electronic modules. Our platform team secures a working operating system, we develop drivers and create other necessary support for the software that controls the robot, so that it can communicate with hardware and sensors. We do embedded development at a deep level as well as non-embedded development.
Does this mean that you often have to hold the soldering iron?
Indeed, a soldering iron is a common tool, but we do not solder new models ourselves. Even our first factory-ordered prototype, electronics are no longer “homemade” these days. But when the prototype comes, it rarely works flawlessly right from the start. At first, we make a lot of additions and corrections, and the soldering iron is definitely needed.
Some of us are adept at both hardware and software. For example, some driver writers need to know a lot more about hardware than regular programmers. Traditional software developers are usually unfamiliar with hardware. Generally, our team works in the area where software and hardware meet.
Who do you want to add to your team and what should they know?
We are not looking for a specific person with specific skills, but rather a talented engineer interested in working in the mixed field of hardware and software. If they are strong in electronics, we are interested in them. If they are strong in software, we are interested in them too. If they can do both, all the better.
Inevitably we are dealing with completely new things on a daily basis, and we do not have suitable ready-made solutions on hand. Therefore, we are creating new solutions that have not been there before in this form before. This requires people who simply do not do what they are told to do. We need creative professionals who understand what the need is, and can find a solution that meets that need. Sometimes you need a solution with simple electronics and complex software, sometimes it’s the other way around.
We are looking for an open minded person who always finds a suitable approach. We are basically looking for an open minded engineer. Someone who sees finding a solution to a problem as a challenge, rather than seeing problems as obstacles. In fact, we have a variety of problems that need good solutions. To give some examples, this new member of the team might be a programmer with network experience, or an electronics engineer who can solder analog electronics.
How does a new employee improve himself and learn new skills?
Only a person who can learn by himself can be successful in this field, although there are also training opportunities. In our company, training does not mean something classic, like participating in various courses. Skills are also developed through mentoring. We have a mentorship program every year. We teach newcomers, and employees can choose mentors themselves.
What personality traits should a person who joins your team have and what should he be prepared for?
In theory, it is possible, but not a single person in the platform team today can do their job alone, because we are facing really difficult challenges. You should always communicate with others. We need to make sure that the needs of the platform users are met.
You have to communicate with programmers and mechanical engineers. A good example of this is bot locks. In robotic locks, electronics and software are needed to understand whether the door lock mechanism is closed, open, or jammed.
To date, Starship bots have made more than 2 million deliveries. There have been failures during that time, and we need to investigate and resolve them in our interactions with other teams; Including, by and large, the maintenance team. Since we offer last mile delivery, we have to make a robot that is durable enough for daily use and easy to maintain. We are looking for someone who is a communicative and independent thinker, capable of creating great solutions.
What are the most complex solutions your team has come up with?
The main task was to transfer the breadboard that connects cameras to computers, to the modern PCI Express. This was our biggest solo project ever. It is a PCI Express expansion card that allows you to connect more than ten cameras and other high-speed devices to a computer in a robot and make them available for the operating system and application software. However, I can’t post very detailed details of all of this.
Cameras, radars, motor controllers – we make the electronics for all these components, and these tasks were also very complex. To be more specific, we created the card based on FPGA. The PCI Express FPGA card helps transfer data between sensors, cameras and the onboard computer, especially quickly.
What do team members do in their spare time, and are their hobbies from a different field?
The platform team tends to be interested in similar topics at home as well. These all have an engineering passion of some sort, and do more or less the same things in their spare time, like some cool electronics, mechanics, or computer hobby.
But that is the case in this region. If you want to combine your hobby with work, this is the best place for you.