So why did I choose to interview Tim and Shiwei together? It’s all about cats. Not Hello Kitty or any cute cat video stars, but the cats they were co-creating and drawing together sometime last year. It was two-weeks of endless cat drawings that would pop up all over our office. And what was so cool about it was that Tim and Shiwei inspired and encouraged each other; one got going and then the other built on what was initiated. And this is the kind of thing that happens in our work and play together at Rethink Robotics. It’s all about goading one another to keep thinking bigger, crazier stratospheric, and bringing all that to fruition.
In their work, Tim is a Senior Software Engineer and with a great sweep of capabilities. At this point he’s focusing on user interface challenges. Shiwei is a super adept Software Quality Assurance Engineer and works with the developers to make sure the code is performing the way we want it to. Both came to us initially in temporary roles, and their work was so impressive, we asked them to please stay with us for a long time.
The first question for you both, of course, is…what’s with the cats?!
Shiwei: I decided that the whiteboards around the office were too dry and technical. They were full of diagrams and code, but there were absolutely no cats. At the same time, we were in crunch mode releasing Intera 3.1, so I wanted to draw some cool cats to inspire my coworkers. I had a cat before, and cats are the perfect, whimsical creature.
Tim: Well, it’s not just cats. There are a lot of random characters, and some internet memes, too. Shiwei usually starts the drawings fairly normal, but I will morph her drawings into funny and weird things. Replacing Pikachu’s face with the troll face, for example. Then they kind of spread all over the office. I think internet culture can be really funny at times. It’s even better when you can work in robots like Baxter and Sawyer. People get a laugh out of it.
Shiwei, you play a starring role in several Baxter and Sawyer videos, and you look completely at home in the presence of robots. What drew you to robotics? Tell us about your journey from your childhood in China, choosing to study at WPI and being a part of the team at Rethink Robotics.
Shiwei: Thank you! My coworkers enjoyed calling me “Hollywood” for a few days after that.
I was very curious with high-tech things when I was very young. I opened a broken hard drive and used the disk inside of the drive as my mirror; I broke the extra CPU chip by using a small hammer because I wanted to figure out what was inside of it. After some similar experiences, I learned to discover things without breaking them. I have to give a lot of credit to my parents and professors, as they helped to guide me in the right direction. I went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, working on a project related to path planning by using a Clearpath robotic vehicle. I first saw Baxter when I was at a conference before I joined Rethink, and now I am working on Baxter, to make it a safe and user friendly robot. Life really is full of choices and their consequences.
Tim, a teacher once told me with a twinkle in her eye – when she caught me in the hallway without a pass (do they still do that in high school?) – that “still water runs deep.” I’d say the same about you! Share what you love about computers and robots?
Tim: I’ve been interested in robots ever since I was a little kid. In those days, my exposure was mostly through media like cartoons, video games, etc. I didn’t have access to actual robots, but they were very much in my imagination. Then my family got our first real computer (a Gateway, with a Pentium 3) and I became really interested in making things with computers. That eventually lead to teaching myself how to program in C++, and then taking some computer classes and an independent study in high school.
I went to college for electrical engineering at Lehigh University. During my junior year I started working at the VADER Robotics Lab. We were working on an autonomous wheelchair, and some other projects with small mobile robots like the Pioneer 3-AT and iRobot iCreate. Around that time ROS was gaining popularity, and we started using it in the lab. We did all sorts of fun robot experiments, often trying to make the robots do something they had never done before. And that’s pretty much when I got hooked, I decided I wanted to work in the robotics industry.
Talk about how your work and your teams interact. Give us “a day in the life” for each of you. And what excites you most about what you’re trying to accomplish on your own and collectively.
Shiwei: We have morning scrum every day in our group. The meeting covers new features, user experience feedback, bugs, automation development, updates, things to do. We are the people who see bugs first most of the time, we need to have a quick reaction capability, we’re working very closely with Product Management, Embedded, Controls, Brain and UI groups, so the sooner we figure out the bugs the faster they get fixed. We even talk about bugs, features, methods and fixes a lot during lunch time but in a more relaxed way.
We’re in a fast-paced working environment and we strive to maintain this efficiently and effectively. For my work I feel like it’s a great accomplishment when I convert the manual (testing) work into automated testing, which increases the testing efficiency and saves on testing cost and time.
Tim: A day in the life? I get to work by riding the T, Boston’s subway, which is usually very easy. Like many programmers I am addicted to caffeine, so I grab a coffee. Or I’ll make one at our espresso machine. Once I’m actually at work, I am doing things like writing code, talking to teammates to coordinate work, designing new features based on customer feedback, learning new tech, fixing bugs, etc. Teamwork is key especially between the various groups. For example, the software group needs to work closely with PM and Support to make sure we are meeting our customers’ needs. And of course, we need to work with QA to make sure our software is top-quality.
Finally, I ask everyone this question in one way or another: what makes you optimistic about the future? Or not? What do you love in your life and what do you hope for others?
Tim: I think robotics is the perfect blend of hardware and software. I really like programming, and writing software is interesting on its own, but it’s even better when code gets to interacts with the physical world. I think it’s the same reason why the Internet of Things is so popular. Obviously, at Rethink Robotics we get to play with really interesting hardware, too. Baxter and Sawyer are capable of so much, often it’s just a matter of thinking of a good idea and writing code for it. There are so many possibilities, and our SDK users are a good example of that. Anyway, collaborative robotics continues to be a really active and innovative field, and I’m happy that I get to contribute to it through my work.
Shiwei: I feel very positive about robotics because it has so much potential. In the next few years robots will be doing new, exciting tasks. As a robot maker, I feel excited about how I’ll be able to contribute and make my mark on the industry. I’m very excited to see what the future brings.
About the Author
Ann is a co-Founder of Rethink Robotics and VP, People & Culture. She has developed strategic and tactical expertise in the operational and human resources domains, creating an engaging, vital culture in which corporate objectives are achieved and employees flourish. Prior to co-founding Rethink Robotics in 2008, Ann held high-level administration and communications roles in educational, philanthropic and life sciences organizations. Her past affiliations include MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the David Rockefeller Jr. Family Office, Millennium Pharmaceuticals and PAREXEL International Corporation. Ann holds a BA from the American University and an MBA from Babson College. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees for the Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School and previously served on the Senior Advisory Board of Cellanyx Diagnostics.