Entries from May 2008 ↓

A new job on the other coast

After spending most of my life in school—I’m now in the 21st grade—and working for the last half-decade on a Ph.D., my career as a student is nearly at an end. It’s time to find a new one.

For a while, I seriously considered life as a professor, but as a graduate student I saw how the sausage was made, so to speak. It’s not all teaching and research. Professors spend a large portion of their time searching for funding, performing administrative tasks, and struggling with departmental politics. For some, these chores are a small price to pay for the chance to live on the cutting edge of science, train talented students, and possibly become famous in their chosen field. For me, however, having to write grant proposals and surrendering to the publish or perish system takes the fun out of academia.

Instead, I decided on an industry job. It wouldn’t offer as much flexibility and independence as being a professor, but it pays a little more and the hours are more predictable. (I’d never have to kill a weekend grading papers, for instance.) Plus, industry offers something academia can’t: instant gratification. With academic research, I may have to wait ten or even twenty years to see whether my ideas lead to a genuine scientific advancement or just another chapter in the annals of obsolete academic research. I can’t be sure that my hard work will ever have an impact on people’s everyday lives.

An industry job, on the other hand, offers immediate impact. Think about the engineers who built, say, Gmail or the iPhone. These products aren’t exactly technological breakthroughs, but their creators have the satisfaction of knowing that their work benefits millions of people every single day.

I had that feeling once, many years ago, when I worked for a tiny startup company in St. Louis. We were building a handheld medical device for early diagnosis of hearing problems in newborns. It was a remarkable feeling to know that my work would soon end up in the hands of pediatricians all over the country.

In January, I started on a journey to get that feeling back. First, I updated my résumé and uploaded it to a few of the mainstream job sites like CareerBuilder and Monster. Soon my inbox was full of email from staffing agencies, but most of the offers were for web development, user interface design, and application programming, nothing particularly exciting.

Next, I contacted a few companies directly. I’ve always admired products from Google, Apple, and Sun, and just as importantly, they have a company culture that appeals to me. All three are very open-source friendly, for example. I sent them a copy of my résumé and was lucky enough to get a call back from each of them for a job interview.

My luck ended there. After the interviews, Apple said that my “interests and skill set lie elsewhere”; Sun told me that “your work and our needs don’t really match”; and Google somehow decided on the basis of a phone interview that my computer programming skills weren’t on par with their standards.

Eventually, I secured offers from a few other companies, but I wasn’t really fired up about any of them. By now it was April and I was running out of time. Not only was my fellowship funding set to expire, but I was nearly finished with my Ph.D. anyway. I needed to make a decision soon, so I pulled out my job hunting notes for one last look. Maybe I had missed something.

Mixed in with my list of prospective companies was a curious entry that sounded like something out of an Isaac Asimov novel: Perrone Robotics. I wondered why I hadn’t contacted them before. I knew I had planned to, but somehow I never got around to it. I sent them my résumé.

The next day, Paul Perrone called me, and we spoke for an hour about his company, my background, and where the two intersect. Soon afterward, he invited me to Charlottesville, Virginia, where Perrone Robotics is based, to meet the team and learn more about the projects they were working on. One week later, Paul offered me a job, and I accepted.

Even if Google, Apple, and Sun had all offered me a position as well, I probably still would have chosen Perrone Robotics. Getting paid to build bots and autonomous vehicles is more or less my dream job. The opportunity for this kind of career is exactly what brought me back to school as a graduate student in the first place. The work is also a good match for my skills because the company’s technology is built entirely around real-time Java, which happens to be the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation.

I’m not the only one excited about Perrone Robotics. Paul’s choice of technology has recently caught the eye of Sun, the company that created Java. For each of the last three years, Sun executives have invited Perrone and his team to present their work at JavaOne, the annual developer conference for all things Java. The executives probably believe, quite rightly, that remote-controlled helicopters and driverless cars are a more exciting demonstration of Sun’s technology than the usual fare of web services, mobile phones, and enterprise frameworks that have traditionally been Java’s purview.

You can judge for yourself by watching the videos below, where Paul gives the JavaOne audience a taste of real-time robotics. (The MC in these videos is none other than James Gosling, best known as the father of the Java programming language.)

Perrone Robotics — JavaOne 2006

Perrone Robotics — JavaOne 2007

Perrone Robotics — JavaOne 2008

The next step for me is to pack up my belongings and get ready to leave Irvine, California, which has been my home for the last five years. The trip will take me to the opposite side of the country, more than 4000 kilometers away, to a new home and, I hope, the start of a satisfying new career.