How to Work in Robotics When You're Not a Roboticist
It’s hard to overstate the impact that robotics is poised to have on the world within our lifetimes. The industry has the potential to completely reimagine our economies, our politics, and our daily lives. From applications as wide sweeping as self-driving to as specific as burger-flipping, robots are already transforming how we navigate our lives.
Which makes it no surprise that so many people’s imaginations have been captivated by this field. The thought of “working in robotics” seems glamorous in a way that almost no other tech sector currently does. But despite the overwhelming interest, robotics maintains a long-standing reputation as an esoteric industry, accessible only to the select few who received formal training in artificial intelligence, machine learning, or hardware. Talented applicants exclude themselves from the field all the time, based purely on their preconceived notions of what it takes to work on a robotics team.
The reality, however, is that you don’t need to have this hyper-specific background or to work directly on some component of the robot itself to succeed in the field. Robotics is an extremely cross-disciplinary endeavor, and it’s very likely that your professional experience in tech or any other industry translates to this exciting new frontier.
Below are several ways you can cultivate a long-term career in robotics – even if you don’t have a master’s in computer vision or a PhD in AI.
While writing algorithms to run on a robot may require specialized machine learning knowledge, that work makes up only half the battle. People often completely overlook the many tools that robotics engineers need to do their job at all.
That’s where developer tools come in. Robotics data visualizations, in particular, are crucial to helping teams analyze the data their robots gather. With the help of web-based tools, roboticists can now dive into the inner workings of their robot and more deeply understand what it's seeing, thinking, and deciding while out in the world. Understanding their robot’s current strengths and weaknesses, in turn, helps them iterate more intelligently towards a production-ready robot.
As a front-end web developer working in the field, you’d be responsible for building these rich interactive interfaces for roboticists to debug their work. Foxglove Studio is a prime example of a web-based visualization app that does exactly that. Because it portrays data in a digestible visual format – all from the comfort of a browser or desktop app window – it empowers engineers to diagnose problems and formulate possible solutions efficiently.
Back-end development is one of the most relevant and in-demand skills for robotics teams today. Robots generate huge amounts of data – while communicating with each other, with their operators, and with the world around them. Operators need to manage fleets, assign tasks, and track issues. In turn, robots need to receive new tasks, share their plans, and provide results to operators. In order to deploy a successful fleet, teams not only perfect their robots’ capabilities, but also prepare an infrastructure for managing and housing this formidable amount of data.
Data management is an often overlooked, but clearly significant, aspect of robotics development. Ingesting and sifting through petabytes of data can be time-consuming, labor-intensive, and expensive. As time goes on, data accumulates, gets lost, or is unintentionally duplicated – making it increasingly difficult to know what information lives where. In addition to the actual stored data, roboticists also need an intuitive interface for storing, retrieving, and organizing this data.
With robust back-end support, robotics teams can successfully wrangle the data that so centrally drives their development. As a team grows, so should the number of people working on back-end systems to coordinate between all these moving parts.
UX and UI designer
With the sheer breadth of robotics products, the industry serves a wide array of customers – both technical and non-technical, internal and external, consumer and enterprise. Roboticists need developer tools, sales associates need metrics dashboards, and QA engineers need debugging utilities. Once robots are deployed, their operators need fleet management software, troubleshooting support, and specialized training.
Since robotics use cases vary so wildly, the industry needs designers who are undaunted by the opportunity to solve problems that have never been solved before – for entirely novel workflows and niche customers. Because the product criteria and design standards are so unique to this field, designers will have no shortage of interesting challenges to unlock. By understanding their users’ pain points and finding creative solutions for them, designers will play a pivotal role in defining the best practices for this budding industry.
We recently redesigned Foxglove Studio's Plot panel to help users compare each series' current values at a glance.
Educating the public about your product comes with the territory of working in a bleeding edge industry like robotics. Earning trust and building rapport with your potential customers is a huge part of this education process. As with any new technology, people can often be hesitant, confused, or even outright fearful of trying a solution for the first time – whether it’s as trivial as ordering a cappuccino prepared by a robot or as serious as introducing a robot companion to your child. In addition to teaching them what your product does, you need to demonstrate in concrete terms how they will benefit from (and enjoy!) using it.
Many self-driving car companies, for example, plan years-long campaigns to build public trust in their technologies – by sharing demo videos, hosting community events, and inviting journalists to try beta versions of their technology. Their marketing can also come in more traditional forms, from advertisements that reveal under-the-hood details about the technology, to op-eds about the transportation industry. They expound on their stringent safety standards, on the benefits of going autonomous. All this marketing ensures that by the time they have a production-ready vehicle, they also have excited customers that trust their brand enough to pay for the product.
Marketing specialists with a technical background would be especially successful in this field, but anyone who is passionate about advocating for innovative products and their users will do well. Having both the empathy to understand users’ challenges and the creativity to present possible solutions for them is paramount to succeeding in this role.
Because the business of building robots is such an inherently cross-disciplinary endeavor, many previously siloed roles must redefine themselves in the context of robotics. Nowhere is this more apparent in sales. Since robotics deployments are often so technically complex, robotics solutions providers need a sales team that is deeply familiar with how the underlying technology works. Equipped with this expertise, they can then educate and ultimately persuade their customers – both upper management and technical operators – to adopt their robotics solution and reap the benefits.
A sales engineer is not only responsible for educating potential customers on how a product will be useful, but also helping those customers reach their full potential with that product. For example, sales engineers may walk a team through the benefits of adopting Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) in warehouses – how it will mean less work for more throughput, a safer working environment, and a future-proof technology that will eventually pay for itself. But after that initial sale, they will also have to teach the AMR operators an entirely new set of skills – like how to manage multiple robots from one command station, how to assign specific robots certain tasks, and how to troubleshoot common issues.
Seegrid’s Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) do everything from transporting, spearing, and horizontally and vertically handling goods – effectively reducing downtime and increasing output.
Since they partner so intimately with customers during onboarding, sales engineers are at a crucial juncture between the public and the rest of the robotics team. They're privy to valuable feedback that the rest of the company is not – the problems users have, the solutions they wish they had. Robotics teams can then use this information to determine what to prioritize next on the roadmap, thus ensuring that the their focus is always closely aligned with their customers’ needs.
Though the humanities are usually far from one's mind when thinking about robotics careers, there's a real need for good technical writing in this industry. In addition to the educational writing that comes with marketing your product to potential customers, technical writers are responsible for describing how these products work for an internal and technical audience. They catalog the relationships between various systems and services, document API endpoints and other interfaces, and essentially make it easy for members of their growing engineering team to understand, contribute to, and maintain these projects.
Great technical writing empowers your entire team to get involved in aspects of the product that they may not have built themselves. It also reminds us that our user base is not just the customer who will be operating our robots. They are also our teammates who need to get quick context on our ongoing work; they are the customers who will have to read our documentation when troubleshooting issues. With thorough documentation, we bridge the knowledge gap between the people who built the product and the audience for whom it was built.
In many sectors of the industry, roboticists are working on problems that have never been solved before. We’ve never had fully autonomous robots successfully transport commuters, harvest our produce, or assemble homes – at least at significant scale. These are all work-in-progress ideals, and so we need imaginative leaders to help us navigate this uncharted territory and get at the essence of what this new generation of products needs. Synthesizing information across different verticals to successfully deliver a solution to the public is an extremely difficult, and thus valuable, skillset to have.
Applying robotics technology to agriculture could make our means of production safer, more efficient, and more resilient to climate change.
If there's one cross-disciplinary role in robotics and beyond, it's that of the product manager – by necessity, they must be both technical and user-obsessed, interested in building new features and also listening to the market. Because this role is such a mixture of so many different skills, it's especially possible to transfer your existing skills across fields.
Product managers work with sales engineers and developers, designers and marketers – all to serve the customers' interests. Some may even take on higher-level program manager responsibilities – like coordinating between teams to stay on schedule, adjusting the scope of deliverables to adapt to new information, and constantly assessing roadmaps to ensure they're doing the most important work for any given moment. If you enjoy the challenge of incorporating learnings from different teams to deliver a solution to your users, a product manager role may be a fit for you.
Join our team
As we’ve seen, robotics is an extremely cross-disciplinary and creative field. There are a wide array of problems – that we are still uncovering! – that we still need to solve. Finding the best talent out there in the world, whether that talent has yet been applied to robotics problems or not, is crucial to our collective success. If you’ve had experience as a web developer, marketer, or writer, you likely have the transferable skills needed to contribute to the bleeding edge of technology.
If you’re interested in envisioning a world enhanced by robotics technology, the industry would love your experience and passion. Job boards, like the one run by Silicon Valley Robotics, are a great place to start. You can also peruse robotics publications like The Robot Report to find companies working on problems that excite you, and then check out their career pages.
To learn more about the data and internal tools that these companies may use, check out our sample self-driving data in the Foxglove Studio app. For ways to get involved with the Foxglove team, you can sign up for our newsletter, join our Slack channel, or check out our own careers page.
Explore a rich self-driving car dataset with Foxglove Studio's latest demo layout.
Loading mesh resources inside Foxglove Studio’s 3D panel.
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