April 13, 2020: Alex Burka From Exyn On Robotics Engineering From Home

Good morning,

Two quick updates. First, WFH Times is switching things up, moving to a once-weekly post that is able to go deeper than the previous daily posts.

Second, today’s post kicks off a new series of interviews that explore how highly-skilled teams and fields are adapting to WFH. Today’s interview is with Alex Burka, a Principal Robotics Engineer at Exyn Technologies. Exyn makes super cool robots that fly underground in mines to make 3D maps accurate down to just a few centimeters.

Here’s a candid with Alex & “Spot”, the Exyn robot he’s currently sharing his home with:

On to the interview!

Alex Burka On Robotics Engineering From Home

[This conversation between Andrew and Alex has been edited for conciseness & clarity]

Andrew: Can you briefly describe your job and what you do?

Alex: I'm on the research and development team at a robotics startup. I mainly work on embedded software, meaning, device drivers, low-level software, and making devices work with other devices.

Andrew: And so when you are in the office, what physical things do you interact with?

Alex: As a drone startup, our office is pretty much arranged around a large flight-test space. It's in an old converted warehouse, and desks are around the edge of this big room where test flights happen. Sometimes once a week, sometimes a few times a day you'll get to watch and listen to a flight test. Might be my code being tested, might be something else.

Sometimes I have a ticket that I might be working on if I'm debugging my own code. But often I'll be running around helping set up a new robot or working with other firmware/embedded software engineers on firmware for a new device. This is on a desk with a bunch of wires and a power supply for testing.

What's been hard about suddenly switching to all remote?

My first question when they said we're going to work from home, which was a couple of days before it was mandatory, was "so can I bring a robot home with me?" And my boss said, "Sure, if that's going to help you get work done, then yeah."

So I have one here. This is "Spot" [editor’s note: Alex shows me a drone the size of a large pillow]. In the office, it’s called Robot 32, but that was a little too impersonal, so I named it Spot.

I tried to bring home what I would need for my setup, so I brought home the robot and the accoutrements like batteries and chargers and stuff, and some of those devices and wires and power supplies that I might be working on over the next couple weeks or months.

So there's now a bunch of stuff from my desk scattered around my apartment, that's one of the effects of working from home.

And so are you flying it in your apartment?

No, no, so, I can get to that later, but flight tests are a little bit more difficult now. 

So what's been hard?

So my first answer to what's been hard is what hasn't been hard. Because the company did a lot to try and make it easier. They set up a VPN, and they set up daily hangouts for lunch. They said, if you need a better desk or monitors at home, here's a budget for setting up a home office. So that was helpful and smoothed over [the transition]. 

I'd say what's hard about WFH is not being able to walk over to someone's desk. It's like if you want to help someone with something, or you want to consult with someone on something, first, you have to figure out how are we going to get together. Do we set up a video chat? Do we need a screen share? Do I need to set up a terminal session that you need to watch? So there's just that extra barrier to collaboration. 

One part of my setup that's unique is that the robots are generally controlled over wifi, which is great when you're in the same room. But now I'm not in the same room. Source control and stuff are on VPN, but I actually left a computer in the office so I can access and connect to wifi networks. 

So that's just a machine in the office that is able to join various wifi networks so that you can connect to various robots?

Yes. It's also forcing me to be more disciplined. Because there's that extra barrier to figuring out what's going on, before I just jump in and do something.

In theory, the discipline you develop here could continue even after you get back to the office, right? 

Yeah. And I think there will be a lot more WFH after all of this is over. 

What kind of creative solutions have you seen?

So, we now have a much more formal system for requesting and scheduling code to be flight-tested. Because we can't just do it all the time, so we have to line things up and check them off.

Sounds like adding structure for what has been a scarce resource.

Yeah, and that structure should persist after this is over.

Other than just adding discipline to it, how else has this helped?

It helps with scheduling things. For example, we just had a software sprint, so there are a lot of fixes that we would like to merge, but we haven't merged because they need testing. So now there is a process to say "what order do we do these in, what can be combined, what do we need to check off to approve all of these changes?"

What other creative things have you seen?

A lot of google hangouts. We usually have a communal lunch table in the office. We usually congregate there. Where anyone can join for lunch. And it turns out Google doesn't delete the hangouts, so it gets used for impromptu meetings. Where a slack channel gets too big, and someone says "let's just jump into a chat".

Have you hired anyone since the quarantine?

We did hire someone on the first day of quarantine. So they got to go into the office, get onboarded, and then [couldn’t come back].

What hasn't been solved yet that's really painful?

I don't think meetings are solved. And nobody likes meetings even when they're in person, but you know, figuring out who is going to talk in a virtual meeting, or who is going to share the screen, there are still hiccups with that. And also, buying things and getting them shipped to the office is not very easy anymore. So procurement isn't solved. 

So is there some employee whose home is now the procurement warehouse?

Right, so drones have to go to customers, drones have to be demoed to customers, and drone parts have to come here [to Philadelphia]. 

So one question is, are they coming from China? Because supply chains may be delayed. And then the other question is where do we actually ship it when it gets here.

So it's really this problem of distributed production. 

Right, and there's also social distancing. So if I build something and I want someone else to test it, I need to drive by and leave it on their porch or something. And we haven't had to do that yet, but we may have to.

if this were going to be a year of social isolating, what else would you need to figure out?

Hiring would have to be solved. And demoing. A big part of sales is packing up a robot and driving out to their site, or flying overseas to their site. Sending someone a video just doesn't get the same response.

I think a lot of it is [a customer saying] "I can see this working in my site."

So I wonder if this changes the sales model, for example from demo to free trial. 

Yes, possibly. 

And maybe the drone could just fly itself there!

Haha, yes. 

How about industry conferences?

Yeah, well a bunch of industry conferences were canceled.  For example, we had a booth at South by Southwest. And we rely on those to meet a lot of potential customers and collaborators. So that's an open question, how is that going to happen.

I went to an online conference. It was short. They were using Zoom and Matrix. They had a watercooler channel and a channel for each talk. It kind of worked.

I wonder if the nature of conferences fundamentally changes. Historically we've batched everything up because the travel costs are so expensive.

Which by the way is not good from a carbon emissions perspective.

And what nobody has solved yet is how you get back the hallway track.

When this is all over, how many days per week do you want to work from home?

Well I'm definitely less afraid of working from home. I think it will feel like more of an option to do regularly. But I'm hesitant to put a number of days per week because it depends on the type of work I have. If we're in a sprint and I want to put my head down and fix this [complex] bug in the logging code, maybe that's a day to work from home. But if we're shipping 6 robots this week and I want to be super involved in the flight testing, then I probably want to be in the office. 

And I like that my job has variation. But there are definitely people on the software team who are often working on those deep dive sorts of issues.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Ha, well I already showed you the robot. But I wanted to say that being able to fully work from home is a privilege. I'm happy to be in a position where I could make these changes, but I certainly didn't have a pandemic on the mind when working towards this career path. And there's a lot of people working a lot of jobs that aren't adaptable in these ways, and a lot more we could be doing as a society to support them. So that's something we need to figure out in the near future as well.

Thank you, Alex!

As a reminder, no daily posts for the rest of the week. If you miss me, you can always sign up for a virtual cup of tea: https://calendly.com/stromme/tea

See you next week!