On July 24, 2019, 200 girl geeks gathered at Aurora’s offices in San Francisco to learn about personal branding. Speakers included Jessica Smith (Software Engineer), Haley Sherwood-Coombs (Technical Operations Specialist), Elizabeth Dreimiller (Maps), Chethana Bhasha (Technical Program Manager), Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli (Head of Partnerships Products and Programs), and Catherine Tornabene (Head of Intellectual Property). Panel moderated by Khobi Brooklyn (VP of Communications).
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A self-driving car remains in the garage as the Aurora Girl Geek Dinner kicks off with drinks and networking after hours in San Francisco, California. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Transcript from Aurora Girl Geek Dinner:
Angie Chang: Okay. Thank you all for coming out tonight to Aurora. My name is Angie Chang, I’m the founder of Girl Geek X. We’ve been hosting these events in the San Francisco Bay area from San Francisco to San Jose for the last 11-plus years, and every week we really love coming out and meeting other girl geeks at different tech companies and hearing them give tech talks that we’re going to be hearing tonight, as well as hearing from them on how they’ve accelerated their careers.
Gretchen DeKnikker: Hey, I’m Gretchen, also with Girl Geek. So, whose first time at a Girl Geek Dinner? Oh. A lot. Cool. Well you should keep coming because they’re awesome. Like Angie said, we do them every week. We also have a podcast that we’d love your feedback on, and we’d love for you to rate it and all sorts of things. We cover mentorship, career transitions, imposter syndrome, getting the definition of intersectionality right, a whole bunch of stuff. So check it out and let us know.
Gretchen DeKnikker: Okay, and then we also just opened a swag store, and it’s a bittersweet story. So we have some really, really cute awesome stuff, and then we have this stuff, which is kind of cute, but poorly printed, so we’re going to find a different place. But in the interim, you can check out these really cool things. Okay, Angie, hold them up. Man, one-armed.
Gretchen DeKnikker: Okay. Water bottle. Cute, right? The little pixie girls? Okay. Notebook. That’s me on the notebook, by the way. That’s my pixie, so if you want to put me in your pocket, that’s the way you take me with you everywhere. And then the fanny pack, which I’m way too old for, but it is so cute. Everybody needs this fanny pack. Oh, and then there’s a little zipper bag. That’s my favorite thing, that’s why we have to show it to them. Look at the little zipper pouch for your pencils and you Sharpies and your Post-Its. Oh, we have Post-Its.
Gretchen DeKnikker: Okay, and iPhone cases. All this crap. Anyway, check it out because we put a whole bunch of work into it and we would love for people to have the stuff that they said they wanted. Okay. So without further ado, so we have got the CEO, his name is Chris Urmson, you can also call him Dr. Chris or Mr. Woke AF, so please join me in welcoming him.
Angie Chang: Oh, and really quickly, this is … okay, really quickly, this is a sold out event, so if you are liking this event, please help us tweet. The hashtag is Girl Geek X Aurora. If there’s something great that he says or any of the girl geek speakers to follow, please help us tweet and share the word that this amazing company is doing really interesting things. Okay do that thing again.
Chris Urmson: Thank you. After that introduction, I feel like I can only fall on my face. So first, thank you for Girl Geek partnering with us to pull this off tonight. Thank you all for coming tonight. This is my first Girl Geek event, and we’re just thrilled to have you here. We’re building something exciting in Aurora, we have this mission of delivering the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly. We’d love to share that with you.
Chris Urmson: What I’m really excited about is, a lot of time in the press, what you hear about around our company is our founders and about the technology, and I’m proud as hell that we get to show off some of our awesome people today. And I was told I’m allowed to be just blunt about this, we are hiring like crazy, and we are looking for awesome people. So if you enjoy talking to these people and hearing from them, and seeing the work that they’re doing, please come join us. I think you’d love it here, and we would love to have you.
Chris Urmson: So without further ado, I’m going to invite Jessie to come talk about cool stuff.
Software Engineer Jessica Smith gives a talk on what her simulation team is working on at Aurora Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Jessica Smith: I have a mic. So I don’t think I need that mic. Is my other mic on? All right. Sorry. Hi, I am Jessie Smith. I am on the simulation team at Aurora. And we’re going to find out if my clicker works.
Jessica Smith: So a little bit about me is my background is, I’m from Nevada, I’m from Reno, Nevada. I got a master’s degree from UNR in high-performance computing, that weird animation thing is a forest fire simulation, which is what I did my thesis in. I have some other experience in autonomous systems, mainly autonomous drones in grad school, and then on to Uber’s advanced technology group working on simulation, and now at Aurora working on simulation.
Jessica Smith: So I’m going to talk a little bit about what is simulation, and we have three main things that we do on the sim team. We are a developer tool, we do regression testing, and we do problem space exploration. So for developer tool, we build custom tests for developers to help enhance what they do on a day-to-day basis and make them faster at developing the self-driving car software.
Jessica Smith: And then as soon as they land these new features, we go out to make sure, just like every other regression test, that when you land a new one, you don’t break all the old ones. So we also do regression testing. And what I’ll talk about today is problem space exploration, which I think is one of the most interesting things that we get to do at Aurora on the sim team.
Jessica Smith: So, this video here is going to be an example of a log video, and you can see this pedestrian kind of walks into a car, opens the car door, and disappears inside of the car. And so what we’ve done in simulation is extracted the information about the spirit of the scene, and what we can do in sim, which is really, really powerful, is take this interesting encounter, where a man walked in front of the car, and instead say, “What if it’s a mother and a stroller?” And, “What if it’s a person with a bicycle?” And you can actually explore the problem space and make sure that the self-driving car does the right thing, given the insane variation of the inputs to the system.
Jessica Smith: So another example is, we can vary the behavior of the other actors in the scene just based on things like velocity or position, and so you can make sure that the car is capable of making a lane change, when it should lane change in front of another car, between two cars, or behind them, given the state of the other vehicles and what is the safest thing to do.
Jessica Smith: We can also do some sensor simulation, which helps us determine what are the capabilities that our sensors need to have, and what is the fidelity that we need to have of those sensors? Like, do we need to be able to detect … you can’t really see it in this picture because it’s tiny, but you can detect the tiny individual bike spokes on this bicyclist in this sensor simulation. So what we get to build moving forward, and what my team is hiring for, is scaling out simulation. We need thousands and thousands of these tests, and we want to build realistic world modeling, and that’s better act of behaviors in the scene, but also better 3D representation of the world.
Jessica Smith: And then we want to crank the fidelity way up and do really interesting high-fidelity camera simulation. And this image on the far left here is purely synthetic, but I certainly can’t tell the difference.
Jessica Smith: So now I’m going to hand it over to Haley to learn a little bit more.
Technical Operations Specialist Haley Sherwood-Coombs talks about machine learning datasets and the perception platform at Aurora Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Haley Sherwood-Coombs: Hey there, I’m Haley, I’m going to talk about machine learning datasets, and our tricks here at Aurora. A bit about me, so I’m in technical operations here and I work under perception platform. I have a background in operations management and information systems from Santa Clara University, and I’ve been here at Aurora since April of 2018.
Haley Sherwood-Coombs: So our team mission is to provide abundant, high quality machine learning datasets to fuel machine learning. And I want to pause on the word fuel. At Aurora, we talk a lot about fueling rockets, which [inaudible] off the saying, “Don’t try to build a ladder to the moon.” What this is getting at is that building a ladder makes very small progress. Small progress which is gratifying to see, but will never practically reach the goal.
Haley Sherwood-Coombs: At Aurora, we believe the way to actually get there is to build a rocket. It will initially appear to make little visible progress, but once carefully built and tested, it will cross the quarter million miles in a matter of days.
Haley Sherwood-Coombs: So how does this fit into the scheme of perception platform, and where I do most of my work in machine learning datasets? So the machine learning datasets are the rocket fuel for our rocket. The metrics are the launch pad, and the models are the engine. So in the machine learning datasets, it’s the creation of meaningful data. So what can we do to input the best data into our models? Metrics is the offline assessment of perception, so making sure and double-checking that the machine learning datasets are going to be great for our models, and accurately assessing these models and having value identification on these.
Haley Sherwood-Coombs: And the models is real time. It’s our Aurora driver. It’s real time action machine learning. So jumping into machine learning datasets. In order to get this data, we have to look at cameras, radar, and LIDAR, and this is where we get the returns for these labels. Our sensors are strategically placed all around our cars to eliminate blind spots and optimize our field of view. Most of the times, we put these so that we never have any blind spots.
Haley Sherwood-Coombs: So looking into data curation a bit more. Our tools allow us to collect high quality annotations, and we care more about high quality and fewer, within a larger amount of lower quality annotations. To curate the best data, we align across our organization. We look across teams, and also organization-wide to see what is feasible, and what will provide the most impact.
Haley Sherwood-Coombs: Diving into a bit of the models here. So here are two examples of our Aurora perception system. Right here on the left, you can see our car. Well when it rolls again, it will then yield to a pedestrian right here. It’s able to track it, stop, and yield, and wait until it passes, and safely drive again. You can also see that it then starts picking up all these other cars that a normal human driver wouldn’t be able to see until it was like mid-way.
Haley Sherwood-Coombs: On the right here, our perception system is tracking cyclists 360 degrees around the car. Normally if you were driving, you would have blind spots and wouldn’t be able to see your cyclist here or here, but having an autonomous system, it’s able to do that.
Haley Sherwood-Coombs: Metrics. This is the quantitative language that binds everything together. So we have our models, we have our data, now we need to make sure that these are doing the best they can. So we look at the impact that every single piece of data has on these models in the machine learning, and identify confusion and what changes need to be made. If something’s right, if something’s wrong, we go back and run another model on it.
Haley Sherwood-Coombs: So finally, where we culminate is the Aurora Driver. As you guys know, it’s our goal to put self-driving cars on the road safely, quickly. Here we go. Thank you. Next up is Elizabeth.
Mapping Operations Lead Elizabeth Dreimiller talks about the work of the mapping teams at Aurora Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Elizabeth Dreimiller: Hey everyone. So I’m going to be talking a little … pretty briefly about Aurora’s work with high-definition mapping. So a little bit of background around me. I grew up in Ohio, and as a kid, I absolutely loved maps. So whenever I got the opportunity to go to a park or go to a different state, I would just grab a paper map and literally would go home and put it on my wall. And the funny thing about this is, I actually never had a map of Ohio, because it’s so flat and boring, there’s no reason to.
Elizabeth Dreimiller: So that kind of led me on my career trajectory today. I went to school for GIS, geographic information systems in Pennsylvania. And then after school, I went and worked with the mapping team over at Uber before moving on to Aurora.
Elizabeth Dreimiller: So here, you can actually see our mapping software in work. You can see the operator is placing down points, and they’re going to be drawing lines that show the curve placement, where are the paint lines that we need to be paying attention to? So that’s the yellow center divider down the middle. And you’ll see as this image goes on, they’ll be placing lanes that our car pays attention to.
Elizabeth Dreimiller: And a lot of people, when they think about maps, they simply think of how to get from point A to point B. Our maps are that, but also a lot more. Our Aurora Driver needs our maps to understand how it works, or how it relates to the world around it, what it needs to pay attention to. So we’re placing traffic lights and a ton of rich information.
Elizabeth Dreimiller: So a little bit of breakdown about our team. Our mapping team is broken down into two different core teams. We have our engineering team, and they kind of work on making sure the logic is in place, that the Aurora Driver can understand and actually create the tooling that we use. So in the image to the right, you can see an operator moving a lane around to make sure that the trajectory of the lane is appropriate for the vehicle.
Elizabeth Dreimiller: On the other side is our operations team. And operations team is pretty neat. A lot of people think that it’s just creating the map content you see. And you can see all the different rich layers that we have. So we have the ground data, that’s actually LIDAR-processed data. And then we go into traffic lights and all the different lanes and paths. And then finishing off with remissions logic. A lot of rich information.
Elizabeth Dreimiller: But not only are we producing that, but we’re also coordinating all of the collection of this data. We’re making sure we’re running through quality assurance as well as maintaining hundreds of miles of map, and making sure they never go stale.
Elizabeth Dreimiller: So a brief overview of the challenges we face. I’m not going to over all of these, there’s a lot. I’m going to focus on three. So the first one is safety. So we’re producing all of these miles, how do we know that what we’re producing is of quality? And that’s when automatic validation comes into play. So our engineering team and our operations team is working on making sure we have a very good set of validations in place, both automatic and human in the loop, to make sure we’re catching everything.
Elizabeth Dreimiller: So second is quality, and with that comes speed. We want to make sure these hundreds of miles, obviously, are the highest quality, if possible. But also with that, we want to make sure we’re not sacrificing speed. So we want to make sure we’re creating tools and processes that allow us to speed up while maintaining that bar of quality.
Elizabeth Dreimiller: And lastly, policy. As you know if you’ve driven outside the state of California, every state kind of requires a little bit different interaction from their drivers. There’s laws. So we focus on trying to understand how we can create a broad policy on a highway map to fit a large geographic region. And at the essence of it, safely, safely, quickly, and broadly, is all about Aurora. We work on [inaudible] maps.
Khobi Brooklyn: How about now? Oh great. I’m Khobi Brooklyn, I’m on the communications team here at Aurora, so now in the technical part of the business, but in the part of the business that does a lot of work to reach out to folks like you and make sure that you know all the good work we’re doing here at Aurora.
Khobi Brooklyn: So I’m going to bring up a panel of Aurora women who come from all parts of the business, and we’re going to talk a little bit about brand, which is something I know a lot about. That’s what I think a lot about. But the reality is, every single one of us has a brand, and it has a huge impact on our career and how we show up at work.
Khobi Brooklyn: So I’d like to bring on some Aurora folks. We’re getting mic’d up, so it might take just a minute.
Khobi Brooklyn: Okay. All right.
Chethana Bhasha: I can get you … oh, yeah. I’m on.
Khobi Brooklyn: Is that pretty good?
Chethana Bhasha: I think so.
VP of Communications Khobi Brooklyn talks about personal brands, citing examples like Beyonce, Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio, and Nancy Pelosi, at Aurora Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Khobi Brooklyn: Okay, cool. So we’re going to talk a little bit about brand and building a personal brand, and what that means, and how that can have an impact on your career. And I think what’s interesting is, a lot of us have a brand, but maybe we don’t think about it because what is a brand? Right? We often think about companies and what a brand is at a company, but the reality is is that we all show up in some way, and so really, when it comes down to it, it’s how you show up.
Khobi Brooklyn: So here are three women that have incredibly strong brands, right? Beyonce is perfection, many would say. Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio, I think, is really real, right? She tells us all that she makes mistakes, but she also is unapologetic. And Nancy Pelosi is a great example of, I’d say, in the last year, she’s done a lot of work to reshape her brand. To be a boss, I would say.
Khobi Brooklyn: But we’re not here to talk about them, we’re here to talk about them. So we’re going to start with … well, and then a woman is really anything she wants to be. So at the end of the day, your brand is whatever you want it to be, and I thought that we could start by talking to these four women, and hear about who they are, and how they think about their brand. And ultimately how, as they’ve shaped their brand through their career, it’s helped them end up at Aurora, and helped them end up in the careers that they’ve had. All of them have really interesting work experience, and have taken very different paths to get to Aurora. So Chethana, we’ll start with you.
Chethana Bhasha: Sounds good. Thanks Khobi. Hello everyone, and welcome to our Aurora space, and then into this space where exciting things happen, as you can see one of the products right there.
Chethana Bhasha: Me, my brand, I should say, if you see me, I’m walking around the whole office talking with cross-functional people, interacting and then building things. I’ve been always curious, I wanted to know where, when I’m building some items, where it ends. So I want to see the end product. So that said, being a controls background engineer, I have worked on many products. And building those products, so I’ve been in the auto industry for the last … or a decade, I should say. And I’ve seen different transformations in the technology, and it’s still transforming, and this is right here. Like me here at Aurora, because we are building the self-driving technology, the Aurora Driver.
Chethana Bhasha: So here, the company, the best part is it’s sort of like an institution, as I’m passionate about learning more and more new things, exploring new spaces, and then be part of the technology, that is what Aurora has provided me. And I’m so excited to be here because, as I said, you can see me everywhere. I’m in packing, and then I have got so many opportunities in my role as a TPM or assistant engineer, or call me anything, I wear different hats every day, every hour, and it’s pretty good to learn things, be challenged, and then make it happen safely, quickly, and broadly. So thanks for that.
Khobi Brooklyn: Cool. Jessie, what’s your brand?
Jessica Smith: So you all heard a little bit about my background. I love simulation. I was kind of bitten by the bug, if you will, in grad school, and I work a lot in a semi-social role at Aurora and in my professional life. But when I go home at night, I usually have to decompress and not talk to another human being, because I’m pretty introverted in general. And so I wear a much more social hat at work, and I do a lot of work in trying to make sure that my team is communicating effectively with our customers who are the motion planning or the perception team. And that isn’t necessarily something that comes incredibly naturally to me, but it’s a role that I fill really well at work.
Jessica Smith: And then I do have to go home and only talk to my dog for a couple hours. So I think that what drew me to Aurora was that we have a lot of opportunity for people to really be themselves and to thrive in whatever environment that they thrive in. And you can find a niche here no matter what your personal brand is or your strengths are.
Khobi Brooklyn: Thank you. And Lia, you had an interesting career. Maybe we could even say you’ve reinvented your brand throughout your career? It’s a leading question.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: Sure. Oh boy. I don’t know if I’m prepared for that one. Yeah. So I … let’s see, what is my brand? I think one thing that I’ve always been really fixated on is making sure that I am authentic, and true to who I am. And in some cases, that can be a bit serious in the workplace, and I hold myself and everybody to a pretty high standard. But I also make sure that we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: And another piece of that is also, I think that it’s really important throughout your career to focus on getting to know people as people. And a big way of doing that is … or, a big benefit of being able to do that is ending, is being in multiple roles where you kind of straddle a line between very different organizations, between very different sort of jurisdictions in some cases in my career between very different countries or political parties. And it’s really kind of evolved over time from when I was in government to when I’ve been doing product and a variety of different companies and scenarios. But the thing that’s tied it together is really being able to connect with people and translating between different worlds. And so that’s what led me here. I had an incredible opportunity to sit at the nexus between, between business and product and technology and to be able to build out a team and a function to really kind of bring all of those pieces together. And so even though I’ve had a lot of different pieces of my career and experiences, all of that has kind of come together to be able to really deliver, I think, something pretty effective here at work.
Khobi Brooklyn: Thank you. And Catherine, you have a very interesting career in spending some time on the engineering side and now on the legal side. And how have you thought about your brand as you’ve changed and evolved?
Aurora girl geeks: Khobi Brooklyn, Chethana Bhasha, Jessica Smith, Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli and Catherine Tornabene speaking on “How to Accelerate Your Career and Increase Your Impact” at Aurora Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Catherine Tornabene: So, hi, I’m Catherine, my role here is head of intellectual property and the legal team, but it should be mentioned the, I started my career in engineering. In fact, I was a software engineer back at Netscape back in the day and then went to law school and also obviously worked as a lawyer. And you know, when Khobi asked me this question, my first thought was, well I don’t even remember my Twitter handle. Like I don’t have a brand. And, but you know, thanks to talking with Khobi and her team, I realized, well actually I do. And that there’s really not a lot of people who have, it’s out of a niche expertise. There’s not a lot of people who have the background I do. And so my brand really is that I have a background in engineering and in law and I use both of them really every day in my job. And so it was very interesting. I appreciate Khobi even bringing the question forward cause I think it’s a very interesting question to think about. You know, I encourage you all to think about it. I thought it was a good thought exercise.
Khobi Brooklyn: Well I think building on that often, you know, part of what a brand is, is an emotional connection, right? So it’s how you’re perceived. It’s how we’re perceived in the workplace. And I would say as a woman in business and as a woman and often at tech companies, a lot of, we get conventional methods, right? We get [inaudible] whoa, sorry about that. You know, you’re either too nice or you’re too aggressive or you’re too mean or you’re too sloppy or you’re too proper or whatever, right? The list can go on and on. And I think for me at least, and I think for a lot of us up here throughout our career, we’ve found a way to find that balance of how can we show up at work in a way to to be super effective and so that people listen and we can do really good work. And how do we stay true to who we are? Right. I think, I’ll give you one personal example. I spent the first part of my life being an athlete and every coach I ever had said, you need to be really serious. You’re here to win, put your head down and win. And I literally was told not to smile because it would waste too much energy and I needed to be putting that energy into winning the race.
Khobi Brooklyn: And so that’s how I shaped my brand in the beginning. You know, I was very serious. I never smiled. I was heads down. I was there to win. And then I got into communications and I ended up in meetings with other people and I got feedback that I was way too serious and then I needed to smile. In fact, I was literally told I needed to be a ray of sunshine in every meeting. And I thought to myself like, I’m not a ray of sunshine, that’s not who I am. Like of course I don’t want to be bitchy, but I’m also like, I’m not the sunshine at the table. And it was conflicting. Right? It was super challenging for me to find out how can I be true to who I am, but clearly I need to smile more if I’m going to be effective in the workplace.
Khobi Brooklyn: And I think that’s just one example. I’m sure everybody in this room has some anecdote of a time where they felt they got conflicting messages or they weren’t quite sure like how do I show up in this meeting? Everybody else in this meeting is in sweatshirts, but I love to wear floral prints or you know, seriously or you know, everybody else in this meeting is, is super serious and I like to crack a joke every so often. Is that okay? And so I think that’s something that we all think about. Have any of you ever had conflicting messages and how you work through that?
Chethana Bhasha: I think I can just speak as Khobi just said, I mean she, I’m too serious. Like, and for me like it’s quite opposite. It always worked. I mean keep laughing maybe and get things done. That’s my mantra. But if it needs to be done, I mean it needs to be done. And it’s sometimes like I’m in in the workplace, being like a person. I mean I feel like I need to be straightforward and open, communicate, but the opposite person might not perceive it in a good way probably. But so I have been given an advice from my superiors at my previous company that “Hey, you’re doing a very good job, you get things done but make sure you are a little bit peaceful when talking with people.” And get, okay. So I’ve tried to balance that and then try to balance those emotions and then tried to read and then get at the end, make everyone happy and then work at that same place where you see each other, talk to each other. And that’s that. That has been working so far.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: Yeah, I’ve definitely gotten that conflicting advice as well. It’s interesting. So I started out my career as a negotiator for the government and I made the mistake of sending an email to a foreign negotiating counterpart that had an exclamation mark in it. And immediately my boss came into my office and said, never put an exclamation mark in an email, you will not be taken seriously. Do not show emotion. You should never have emotion on your face unless it is intentional for the objective you’re trying to get across. Right. And so that was very different from then coming out here to tech. And it’s funny. So I was kind of chiseled into this very aggressive and intense negotiator, which I’m sure none of you can imagine given how effervescent I am right now. But all of the people who work with me, you probably definitely know that I have that in me. But it’s so funny because then I started in tech and one of my first bosses in tech, maybe a month in, sat me down and said, hey, you should really think about like smiley faces, exclamation points, just to soften your tone a little bit because it kind of overwhelms people.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: And so it’s this funny like, Oh, okay, that is what success is here. And so I think what I keep kind of going back to is what is true to myself as, yeah, I’ll say different days, there’s, there’s a lot of balance that we all have to strike. But I just try to keep coming back to being authentic and being okay with the fact that that version of myself might not be what people expect of me and definitely might not be what people expect of a woman. And so it’s really important to just be OK with the fact that you’re different and not necessarily try to blend in. And so that’s what I’ve tried to hold, hold true to.
Khobi Brooklyn: And speaking of attributes, all of you are building teams and so as you build a team and you meet new people and new candidates, what do you look for? Like what kind of brand are you looking for? Catherine?
Catherine Tornabene: You know, I think, Oh, a lot of my personal career has been driven by that. That sounds really cool. And I look for that. I think intellectual curiosity is wonderful. I love when I get people who are really interested in the world around them and who are interested in how they can have an impact on the world. You know, one of the things I love about Aurora is that we are very mission driven here and that’s something that I look for and that’s some, a lot of people who care about the world around them, it is part of a personal brand and that is something I personally look for and that I enjoy very much in my teammates. We’re lucky to have that here.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: Yeah. Similar on a similar note, I would say really people who have a growth mindset, you’re not always going to find somebody who has the exact experience and fit for the tasks that you plan to have. But really having somebody who wants to grow and to learn and is willing to challenge themselves, not just in work but who also kind of shows that they want to be better. And it’s okay that maybe some things haven’t done, they haven’t done well in the past. And it’s not that they haven’t done them well, it’s just that things didn’t work out. But they learned from that. I think that’s a really important trait in somebody on the team.
Khobi Brooklyn: Jessie?
Jessica Smith: Yeah, I think, I mean for software we focus a lot on can you program, can you program, can you program? But I also really appreciate it when I ask a candidate something and they don’t know the answer if they’re just honest about like, I don’t know what that is. And then I think it provides an interesting opportunity in an interview to work through a problem together and you get to see a little bit more about is this person teachable and can we actually have a good back and forth? And if I give you a, like a hint or put you on the right path, can you actually go and ask for enough guidance to get to the right answer? So I think I really appreciate honesty in, in the interview environment.
Khobi Brooklyn: And maybe just generally.
Jessica Smith: And generally, yeah.
Khobi Brooklyn: Cool. Chethana?
Chethana Bhasha: So on the same lines, it’s person’s willingness to learn and then also at the same time contribute because it’s on both sides, right? Like you bring your own expertise. Yes you are not expert in all but you are trying to learn more but at the same time you are trying to contribute. So that that’s what most of the time we as a team look forward for like, hey the candidate is willing to learn, have the confidence, but at the same time I mean can contribute what they have learned in their past. Bring those lessons learned. So that’s what we are looking for more to build this awesome product. Yeah.
Khobi Brooklyn: Great. I’ll just add in one for myself. You know, not working in the kind of tech space. Sometimes it’s a little different what we look for, but I would say presence is really important. It’s something that I definitely try to pick up when I meet somebody new. Presence and self awareness. And I think in the tech industry broadly, we’re all doing something new, right? We don’t know the answers to everything. And so there’s a lot of mistakes. So there’s a lot of like, Ooh, we need to rethink that. And I think that takes incredible presence to have the confidence to say “I didn’t do that quite right and I need to do it better.” Or “I think I can do it differently.” And, and I think that that can be a hard skill to build because, it’s intimidating, right? It’s, it sucks to be wrong, but the more that you can get comfortable with it and use it in a positive way, I think makes us even more valuable. We’re gonna open this up to you all, but one more thing before we do is I wanted to ask each of you to share a piece of advice, either a great piece of advice that you’ve received in your career that’s really helped you along the way, or a piece of advice that you’d love to share with this group. Who wants to start? Chethana, go ahead.
Chethana Bhasha: I think what I’ve learned from like in the past was like the, or the mantra. What I usually follow is do the things, do the things in the right way, do it takes time or you face some failures, but at the end you know every single detail of it because if so if you are building a new product then you know, oh it’s the similar lines what I did in the past, this could come up and then there is mistake but that’s fine. I can do it. So that’s one thing which I would like to just as a my, my piece of advice is whatever you are doing, be confident and do it in the right way. Do I take some amount of time and failures.
Khobi Brooklyn: Yeah. Jessie.
Jessica Smith: I think the best piece of advice that someone gave me when I was thinking about a career transition was I was trying to decide should I, what should my next thing be? And it’s really hard to look at where you should go next. And a product manager that I worked with told me you shouldn’t think about your next job. You should think about your next, next job and what jobs do you need to get your next, next job. So you look a little bit further ahead and it’s actually easier to build a roadmap to where you want to be. You know, when your next next job. And so that’s really helped me build out a much more clear picture of where I want to go.
Khobi Brooklyn: Lia.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: Now I’m going to change [inaudible] ripping it. In terms of kind of looking for next jobs actually and this was, good advice for me as I was thinking about coming here. You know, you can think about is the work interesting and can I make an impact and what will this look like on my resume and all of these things. And all of those are important. But one big thing that is really important is thinking about who are you spending the majority of your waking hours with, right? We’re spending a lot of time together and so think about the people and the culture and the environment and are you going to learn from these people? Are these people going to let you be that authentic self? Are you going to be better? And when things don’t go well, do you feel like these people are going to support you and find the right solution? And so I hadn’t always focused on that. It was important, but I was always kind of blinded by the what is the most interesting, best stuff. Good news is Aurora has all of those things. So it just so happens that the people piece was like the cherry on top. But, no, really, I think, I think the people pieces is really, is really important and that, that was good advice that I received before coming here.
Khobi Brooklyn: Catherine.
Catherine Tornabene: So I think that, I think in this one, one of the most important pieces of career advice I received was once you start down a path, that doesn’t mean you’re fixed on it forever. And sometimes those meanderings that you take along the way actually turned out to be very valuable. So if you want to, if you’re debating a choice in your career or your job, you can always give yourself the choice of saying, you know, I’ll try this and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll try something else. Because I think a lot of the times we feel often like, oh my gosh, if I do this I am down this path and I am never stopping and I’m never off that route. But that’s actually not really how things generally work out. There are very few career paths that are absolutely fixed and you can generally take another route and sometimes you might find that the meandering part is the best fit.
Khobi Brooklyn: Thank you. So we’d love to hear from you all. So if anybody has any questions, please raise your hand. We’ve got mikes I believe around, so maybe you could stand up and just introduce yourself. You want to? Hi.
Claudia in the Aurora Girl Geek Dinner audience asks for book recommendations for women looking to accelerate their careers. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Claudia: Hi, I’m Claudia. Claudia [inaudible] and I have a question related to books that you guys have have read in the past that are really impactful. I’m a sucker to to learn more about what you guys have in mind around books that will help career growth.
Khobi Brooklyn: Anybody? Top of your head?
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: I just read a book called The Growth Mindset, which might influence the fact that I look for people with a growth mindset. I found it to be really interesting. Actually. I’m going to be honest, I didn’t read it. I listened to it at a very fast rate. But I found that to be really interesting because it was kind of a way of describing different frames of mind of different people, which helped me to think about how I interact with others. What is my way of approaching things and being open to the fact that I can change that, so that’s a good one.
Khobi Brooklyn: Cool. Anybody else?
Catherine Tornabene: I read a ton, but very few career books.
Chethana Bhasha: That’s what I was going to say too.
Catherine Tornabene: I actually, in a sense. My answer, quite frankly, my answer is that the books that I often finance inspiration from are stories of fiction or I actually pretty much read everything, except I really don’t like brutal murder mystery. But beyond that, and so stories that I’ve read recently have been like for instance stories about, I’ve read a series of stories about Vietnamese immigrants who come to the United States or I actually read recently a story about you know, a mom who gave her child up for adoption. I like just getting in someone else’s mind for a while, I think actually is very good for teaching you mental flexibility in general. So my general advice is not actually a specific book but that the exercise of reading something that describes and gets you into someone else’s life experience is very good.
Khobi Brooklyn: Great.
Shavani: Hi, my name’s Shavani. I just had a quick question about, we talked a bit about all of your brands and what your brands are today, but you know, as you guys mentioned, you come from various backgrounds. How do you guys continue to build your brand? ‘Cause as we all know, it keeps changing every day. So if you guys like, you know, networking or any tips or bits of advice for that?
Chethana Bhasha: Yep. Yep. So, good question. So it’s again as we said, right? Like it’s you who you are. Like I’m in the more, you know, over the years that’s how you know, you get to know yourself like, Hey, who am I or what, what finds yourself like I mean, have your happy. So that kind of, I mean it’s sort of exploration and at one stage you find that Hey, this is me and this is where I have to do. Like for my example, like I started my career, as I graduated from a controls background, I started in the auto industry working on the diesel engines on a small center. But now I’m building the whole vehicle by itself. So because that tended like, I mean, Hey, who am I? Because I’m curious. I want to learn more and then I want to pick, put things together. I want to know where the end product is. So I got to know who I am. So say I’m a system architect or an engineer, now I know like that’s my basis. So that’s what I do, I interact with and collaborate with different stakeholders too because I like it. And then I want to build a product so now I know who I am and what is my passionate. So over time that gets you right there on your path like you know you’ll be happy in what you would be doing.
Khobi Brooklyn: Yep. I think go ahead.
Jessica Smith: That also helps. One of the things that I always find is that if I’m, if I’m too comfortable, I don’t really, I stagnate a little bit and I get, not bored, but I get too used to everything and I have to find something that pushes me out of my comfort zone. And so I will usually target something that I am kind of interested in but like really scares the crap out of me. And then I will go for it and add something to my plate that is completely outside of my comfort zone. And that really has forced me into a lot of situations I never thought I would be in. And it’s made me find out things about myself in terms of what do I want from my career. And the answer has surprised me quite a few times.
Khobi Brooklyn: Yep, absolutely.
Xantha Bruso asks the Aurora Girl Geek Dinner panel a forward-thinking question about the future of jobs. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Xantha Bruso: Hi, my name is Xantha Bruso. The autonomous vehicle industry didn’t exist that much longer before. And some of you have experience in other autonomous vehicle companies, but some of you didn’t. So how did you leverage the experience you had to enter this industry when in the future? You also know that the jobs in the future that you may have may also not exist currently. And how can you also stay relevant with what you’re doing now for those future jobs?
Catherine Tornabene: Well, I think that, I think that at the end of the day, being able to be comfortable learning things that are outside your comfort zone is really important. And when I look at my career spanned a lot of, I was at Google, I was at Netscape, there’s a lot of, I was often in situations where I didn’t actually know the, I didn’t have an expertise necessarily. And so I think that my general answer to that is that you just have to be comfortable with learning and being comfortable with saying like, you know, I don’t know the answer here, but I can figure it out. And that, you know.
Catherine Tornabene: I think the thing is in the AV space is there’s a great opportunity to learn and it’s developing very quickly. So I think that my answer to that is that I think taking a step back and looking less at the oh, the specific thing is not something you know. And more at, well, you know what? This is a thing I think I can learn. Is how I would approach it at least.
Khobi Brooklyn: Yeah. I think to build on that, I think part of what’s exciting about being in an industry that’s just shaping up and being at a company that is young and growing and shaping is that it’s less about saying, I know exactly how to do this one thing and I do it this way and I’m on this line doing this one thing. But these are my strengths. Here’s what I’m really good at. Here’s the value I can bring and different perspectives that I can bring. And together all of these different experiences and perspectives are shaping a company and helping to shape an industry. And I think that it will continue to evolve. Which one, keeps it super interesting for all of us or anybody in the industry. But also you find new ways to apply your strengths, right? And I think that that’s what’s super exciting about this industry is that you get to think differently all the time.
Chethana Bhasha: Yeah. And just to add, I think I can give my example clearly because I’m coming from a conventional automotive industry. I’ve worked on trucks and on highway and off highway which is completely a conventional [inaudible] was part of it now interspace where we are building the technology to do integrate in those platforms. So I get to see both the sides because I know how it works in the [inaudible] space and which is the technology we are building and how we integrate. So I get my own strength from the industry. At the same time I’m learning like what this technology does and how can we integrate together to have a great product. Yeah.
Audience Member: Oh, social media. Do you do that? What do you do? How cognizant of it are you? What’s your kind of strategy on developing your brand on social media? Thank you.
Khobi Brooklyn: This may sound weird coming from the comms person, but I don’t think you need social media to build a brand. I mean, I think if you want to build a big public presence brand, yeah, you should have a voice and you should find some channels to get your voice out there. But I think you can do a lot of really important work around building your reputation and being known in lots of different ways. I think it’s everything from how you show up to a meeting to what’s your tone over email to going to networking events and meeting people and sharing your thoughts and hearing new people’s thoughts.
Khobi Brooklyn: I think social media is really cool and a whole other conversation, but I think when we think about building our brand, that’s one way to share your brand, but it’s not necessarily fundamental to having a strong brand is my perspective. I don’t know if any of you have big social media presences.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: I think I tweeted this.
Audience Member: Thank you.
Khobi Brooklyn: And there we have… yeah.
Audience Member: I guess I have more of a practical question. How do you get feedback on if you’re presenting the right brand? Because I found out I’m like a very nice person, but I’m introverted so when people meet me they’re like, she doesn’t like me.
Khobi Brooklyn: I think that’s a great question. I would love to hear how any of you have received feedback. I think, yeah. Let’s hear from you guys first.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: Trial and error. This is really where it is. It’s like something’s not going well here and I think just really trying very hard to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and to be aware of how different people are reacting to you. Right? And trying to kind of read the room or read the reaction and realize that, okay, that didn’t feel like it went well. Either I can ask why it didn’t go well or I can just try it a little bit differently this time. Right? So it depends on kind of what your comfort level is. But I think there is no silver bullet here. We all just learn as we go and, you know, that’s my take.
Khobi Brooklyn: Yeah, just to build on that. Kind of paraphrasing what you said, but a lot of it is self awareness, right? And being intentional, right? If you’re like, I’m going to think about how I show up, this matters to me. You start to realize that and pay attention. The way I acted with this person, is it resonating? Am I bringing them along in the way I wanted them to or what have you? I think is a really important thing to pay attention to. I’m sure we’ve all received advice. I know I’ve received tons of feedback on my brand and some of it has been great and some of it I’ve completely disagreed with, right? And so I’ve always had to come back with like, well, what’s true to who I am? What feels right?
Catherine Tornabene: I think the build on that, the piece of that I think is listen to people’s feedback but also have the confidence to say like, no that’s not for me. Because there’s a lot of people who will give feedback that you know, not right for you. I have an example. I remember being told, this is years ago, well you should never as a woman have a picture of your kids on your desk. I remember I took that and I listened… I had a picture of my kids on my desk. I took that and then later I was like, you know, no. That doesn’t work for me. That’s not who I am. I’m not going to do that. So I think be open to it, hear it, but also be true to yourself and say like, no, that’s not who I am. And I’m not going to listen to that.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: And don’t apologize for who you are.
Khobi Brooklyn: I think we had a question right over here…
Chico: Oh, hi. I’m Chico. And I think my question’s more about like have you ever had imposter syndrome or things like when you get disillusioned with your job because there’s some stressful scenario going on, something like that. So how do you deal with those scenarios and just get over that realize like, okay no I’m actually good at this thing and I can do the thing. So just trying to get over that big hump.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: What’s imposter syndrome? I’ve never heard that. I don’t think any of us have had that.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: I think like best advice there for me is assume everybody around you is holding kittens. No, I’m just kidding. Actually somebody did give me that advice and it was great. So I imagine that of you guys sometimes. What I would say is nobody knows everything and you know who you are and you know your experience and what you’ve learned throughout your life better than anybody else and that has made you into who you are. Right? So if I think of everything that’s happened in any of our lives, good or bad, failures, like sometimes we just do things really wrong, right? But that chisels you into who you are and you’re better for it. Right? So think of yourself as like this combination of all the experiences that you’ve had that only you know what those are, right? So nobody gets to say what you’re good at and what you’re not good at and just go for it.
Jessica Smith: I think it also takes a single catastrophic breaking of everything to realize that like, Oh, they didn’t fire me, it’s okay. I’m still breathing, the world still turns. I ruined everything for everybody for a little while, but it’s still all right. And it’s like a learning experience and… not that that ever happened to me in my early, early career, but it made me realize that like it’s going to be okay. Like even if something terrible happens and if you mess up and fall on your face, it’s really going to be okay and it’s okay to make mistakes because everyone does.
Chethana Bhasha: And as Catherine and Jessica and Lia mentioned it’s getting out of your comfort zone, right? Like if you don’t know yourself, like what you are good at or what you can do more. You have to do that. Like, I mean like as, yeah, sure, you didn’t get fired, but like you had to be like present a report in front of the upper management. Own it and then fix it so that builds your confidence.
Khobi Brooklyn: I think also somebody once told me, if you’re in the room, you belong in the room, you know? And I think it’s important to remember. If you’re sitting at the table, if you’re part of that project, you’re there for a reason. So own it and you belong there and somebody else thought you belonged there too. And so it’s just about kind of having that confidence again and just saying like, yeah, I’m here and I belong here. And being there.
Audience Member: I have a question. I guess sort of referring back to the question before this one, which is parsing through feedback, right? You get all sorts of feedback. Someone told Lia to put smiley faces in her email, things like that.
Audience Member: And this is kind of, I guess a tough subject because I think about this a lot. But as a woman, right? We’ve all heard that women get the whole, you’re aggressive feedback or you’re this way. You need to smile more. That type of feedback way, way more like the statistics show that that’s what happens. But sometimes there may be some validity to it. Right? It’s possible. And I think in my head I have that question a lot. If I’m getting the feedback that I’m too aggressive, is that real? Do I actually need to change my behavior? How do I think about this? How do I actually take that advice because it’s showed up in my performance review, so clearly I got to do something there, right? What do I do? And if I suspect that maybe it’s gendered, what do I do about that? Like how do I navigate that? That’s something that I would love to hear how you guys handle.
Jessica Smith: I have also received, “You’re really mean in code reviews.”
Chethana Bhasha: Yeah I think all of us. Yeah, yeah.
Jessica Smith: So I think my strategy for dealing with it is look at the people that I really respect in the company and who I would like to emulate and how do they give feedback and how do I maybe model my feedback on what they do in code review or in any of the communication that you’ve received feedback on and try and find ways to understand that your impact on other people might not be perceived in the way you expect it to be. And whether that’s from you know, a gender reason or you know, an experience level reason. I think that I’ve found success in changing the way that I speak to people by modeling it off of really successful communicators elsewhere in the company and it’s definitely helped me with this exact same problem. And you know, maybe giving like a little bit of positive feedback where you see… if you’re only ever writing like this is broken, this is broken, fix this thing. But you’re never saying like, wow, that was a really clever bit of code. If you have those thoughts, you can also share those thoughts and share the positivity, which helps make it so that you’re not being aggressive all the time.
Khobi Brooklyn: And I would say adding onto that is digging in a little bit. You know, like if you get feedback that you’re too aggressive, then ask why. Like, why? What’s happening or what’s not happening because of that? I think because at the end of the day, to be a good team player, to be a good part of your company and your team is to be effective. And if you’re doing something that’s not effective and maybe people like to call it being too aggressive, there is still something to fix, right? So maybe it’s the wrong label, maybe it’s sort of an offensive label because we women who sort of hear it all the time and it gets annoying. But at the end of the day, if there’s something that’s not working with the people you’re working with, then that’s fair. And that’s probably something to work on, you know? And so I think it’s a little bit of self awareness and ego and being like, okay, something’s not working I need to improve. But maybe pushing whoever you’re getting that feedback from on, well let’s talk more about that. Like let’s talk more about what it is that you’re really saying. I don’t know. That’s something that I have done.
Catherine Tornabene: I think that the other thing I would say is that I think it never hurts to assume positive intent when people are giving you feedback and assume that they actually really are trying to help you and maybe the words aren’t coming out right and maybe someone’s not really skilled at saying it or writing it or whatever. You know, nobody’s a perfect communicator and nobody can always say the right thing at the right time all the time. So sometimes, and of course there’s more career, you do wonder occasionally, you wonder, do you get feedback as a gender? But I think taking a step past and saying like, okay, well what’s the intent here? I’m assuming it’s positive and maybe there’s something here I can grow from and maybe it’s not the thing that was said to me. I mean it’s entirely possible that I’ll go in an entirely different direction.
Catherine Tornabene: But there is something there. And I mean, I don’t know, maybe I think I’m an optimist at heart, but mostly I think people want to help and they mean well and I think thinking in those terms can help you identify the thing that perhaps you want to take from it.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: One other thing I’d add is collect data, right? So similarly it’s like understand more where that person’s coming from, but then think, okay, if this is in my performance review, then maybe this came from multiple people. Maybe I should talk to a few people and not say, “Hey somebody wrote I was aggressive. Can you tell me if you agree or disagree?” But more along the lines of, “Hey, how do you feel like our dynamic is and are there ways that we could interact better?” Or things like that. And I think by having that with a few people and particularly people who you respect a lot, that will give you more context on something that’s more actionable than just kind of reading into what does this one sentence mean for me? Right?
Khobi Brooklyn: Yeah. Thank you. I think we have time for one more question, but then we have time for lots of questions just over drinks. So I think yes, you, go ahead.
Audience Member: First of all, thank you very much for all of your sharing, your experience and your perspective. It was really great to hear. Several of you here came from really different backgrounds and then transitioned into a new role and you talked a little bit about making those transitions and how your skills carried over and how you brought your backgrounds to your new roles. And I think it’s really great that Aurora is a company that values that and that sees that.
Audience Member: But I was wondering kind of from a branding perspective, if you guys could talk a little bit more about how you repositioned yourself when you made that transition. Because, as you said, you know your skills and your experience, but how do you reposition yourself to reframe that in a way, with your new role.
Khobi Brooklyn: I feel like you two should start.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: What? I think one way to go about it is to try to understand, okay, where do you want to go and what are the things that you want to do? Right? And then from there it’s trying to understand, okay, well what types of roles are interesting to you in that world.
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: And then the next step, this is my thought process… And then the next step is, okay, well what makes somebody really successful in that role? And that’s usually how I start a lot of conversations because that way you can understand, okay, what are the attributes of a person? What are the things that they can do that mean success for either somebody who’s hiring or even just somebody generally who works at a company that’s interesting or in an industry that’s interesting. And then I think, okay, do I do things like that or do I have experience that can contribute to that? And how can I provide examples of things I’ve done in my past that translate into that. Right?
Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli: And so I think one of the things about being in the self-driving space, is it hasn’t existed for that long. Right? And there is a finite number of people who have done this before. We have a lot of them here. But what I will say is there really is that openness to finding others because you… But finding people who have experiences that will help us to think about it in a different way. So that’s something Chris focuses on a lot is, how do we have a diversity of viewpoints? And so if you can think about, okay, yes, my perspective is different, but it adds value to whatever problem they’re trying to solve. Think about kind of explaining it in that way. That’s how I’ve thought about it.
Catherine Tornabene: You know, I think in some ways I would pivot it. And I think that the skills, obviously as I switched from engineering into law they’re sort of a different practical skillset.
Catherine Tornabene: But a lot of who I am is still the same. I mean, as a lawyer I’m not really all that different than as I was as a software engineer. And I think that rather than sort of focus on the external concept of necessarily rebranding, I think that I would view all of your collective experiences as you grow as part of your brand. And it’s just additive and it just adds onto your experience and who you are.
Catherine Tornabene: But who you are is you know, core to you and it kind of in a sense like which job you have. It’s just one facet of that. So I think that for me, I can’t say I thought all that much about necessarily repackaging myself as a lawyer. I just actually thought it was kind of interesting, which is how I ended up in law school. Then I thought that like this particular law job was kind of interesting. But in the end, like it’s always been like, oh, this is pretty interesting, but I’m still really the same person. And I think that the idea of brand is quite core to identity and who you are and your job is a big part of that, but there’s a lot more to you. So focusing necessarily, focusing on that will tell your story, I think.
Khobi Brooklyn: Well, thank you so much for coming. It’s been really great to have you and we would love to talk to you more. So stick around for another drink and maybe there’s even some desserts. I’m not sure. But thanks again for coming. We loved having you. And we will talk to you soon.
VP of Communications Khobi Brooklyn stays to mingle after the panel discussion at Aurora Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
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