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Genius in the House: Career-making in the Time of the Machines

If there is a vanguard of professionals leading the fourth industrial revolution, it’s the engineers and scientists working on the most advanced robotics and machine learning systems and products. If there is a posterchild for these emerging industrial trends, it’s the intensely hot field of autonomous vehicles. Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with two Aerotek engineering practice leads specializing in the emerging category along with one of their star recruits, just back from a European trade show where some of the newest innovations were on display.

Hunting for geniuses

Brian Johnson and Bill Hild are Aerotek practice leads based out of Minneapolis. Their specialty is finding and placing the best and brightest engineering talent to work on robotics, Internet-of-Things (IoT) and embedded technologies like autonomous vehicles.  Brian first connected with Rod Dockter last Spring, right after Rod had just published his doctorate Ph.D. thesis: Dynamic Discriminant Analysis with Applications in Surgical Robotics. Brian knew immediately he’d discovered a rare talent, one ideally suited for a difficult role he’d been trying to fill with an Aerotek client partner.

Bill told us, “There are no more than 10,000 or so qualified smart people in the world to fill some of these positions in advanced research and systems design. For an increasing number of these positions, it’s like hunting for geniuses. That’s pretty much how we felt when we found Rod.”

What’s cool to a 10-year-old?

We interviewed a still-jet-lagged Rod Dockter the day after he returned from Agritechnica 2017, a trade show in Hanover, Germany this past November. Having learned a little about him from Brian, we asked Rod if he ever imagined himself working at the bleeding edge of science and industry when he was a little boy.

“No, I didn’t think I would be an engineer while I was growing up. I knew I was good at math and that’s what I studied as an undergraduate. Then, through research opportunities and internships, I was exposed to the world of coding, automation and robotics. The field instantly interested me as way to apply math and logic in the real world.”

>“Then I was completing my graduate studies just as the IoT and artificial intelligence fields started to expand. These concepts really captured my imagination, got me very excited about what could be possible in the future. This all has brought me to my current position developing autonomous solutions for agricultural vehicles which I certainly would never have imagined doing as a kid, however I like to think my 10-year-old self would think it was cool.

Working in a demand-side world

The demand for top talent is high and competition for the most brilliant engineers particularly fierce. We asked Rod if he saw this seller’s market leveling out anytime soon for engineers like him in robotics and IoT.

“I suspect there will continue to be a shortage of talent in robotics, IoT and other cutting-edge fields for some time to come. There simply are not enough students and new professionals who have a strong background in these specialties. What’s encouraging is more and more universities are incorporating advanced fields like machine learning and robotics into their curriculum.”

“But, there are two problems we need to solve for. First, the slim portion of students who are going to study STEM fields in the first place. Then, the even smaller portion of students that will choose to specialize in robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. If the growth in these fields continues like it has, the demand for talented developers in these emerging fields will continue to expand without any guaranteed growth on the supply side.”

Big brains for big projects

We were curious to learn what such an accomplished doctorate-level engineer like Rod was working on. He mentioned that he was attending a trade show in Europe where companies present their inventions and advancements in automation.

“Yes, we were exhibiting at one of the biggest global trade shows. Without giving too much away, my company is developing solutions for autonomous vehicles in agriculture. The goal is to not just develop a single product to bring to market, but instead a vehicle integration system which would allow us to outfit customer’s existing vehicle models with autonomous capabilities.”

“Our company is already well established in the market for providing electronics, controllers, and software to variety of manufacturers in off-highway vehicles. This project is a natural extension where we can provide the expertise to our customers and integrate autonomous capabilities directly into their vehicles. The product evaluation in Europe coincided with the Agritechnica trade show in Germany so we were able to show off our first autonomous test vehicle via a live video stream to the trade show and customers were able to remotely command the vehicle. It was pretty cool.”

The opportunity to learn — every day

It’s hard not to be impressed listening to a leading mind like Rod talk about the world of intelligent and autonomous machines. We asked him what kept him motivated and what the future looked like, for him and the industry.

“Since the project I am currently working on is still in the early phases I am most excited to see the different avenues we can take this project and the different products that come out of it. As far as career challenges I am grateful to work in a field where the cutting edge is always changing and there are constantly new algorithms and sensors to evaluate and integrate into your designs. One of the biggest challenges is staying up to date and well versed in these technologies.”

We asked him what was the most rewarding aspect of his work, and Rod didn’t hesitate.

“I find that developing new approaches and new functionality and then seeing those ideas come to life and actually work on a robot or vehicle is one of the biggest rewards to working in this field. I guess the biggest opportunity I look forward to in my career is to stay in a position where I can constantly innovate and explore new technologies.”

Tinkerers need apply

Given Rod’s take on the continuing lack of new students planning for careers in these emerging fields, we asked him what advice he might offer. Perhaps something to inspire them to choose a career path similar to the one Rod has blazed for himself in this brave new world of machine intelligence and internet-of-things.

“If you're curious and a tinkerer, you're already halfway there. That’s how I was. The most important part about this field is to just keep trying new things and exploring new ideas. I think maybe one of the misconceptions about robotics and machine learning is that you have to be a genius to do it. Most robotics developers I know are constantly trying out new ideas and most of the time those ideas will fail. But you learn from your mistakes and you develop tools and tricks that you can apply to the next problem. You just need to be comfortable approaching a problem with creativity and persistence.

We are always seeking leading minds like Rod’s to help the companies we work with power their growth across these emerging frontiers of advancing technology. If Rod’s story inspires you, we’d love to connect. Please check out our current job opportunities and if you haven’t already, we invite you to create a free Aerotek career account.