Interview with Sulo Kallas, a senior electronic engineer at Starship Technologies.
At the Starship headquarters in Mustamäe, Tallinn, the world’s leading delivery robot is being developed as a solution to the last mile delivery challenge-a six-wheeled robotic vehicle similar to a small moon walker. An expert who specializes in electronics and software was invited to join the robot platform team, which integrated these two professional fields into one role.
We do not expect to have a perfect understanding of several technologies. The important thing is that this new team member is eager to learn by himself and find a solution for every challenge. Because there are many challenges that require solutions, and no one in the world has created them before.
What does Starship provide for this new team member? Sulo Kallas, a senior electronic engineer who joined Starship in the early years, gave the answer.
Why is it a starship? There is fierce competition among employees in the technology industry. How do you attract talent to join you?
We are doing something that was considered impossible a few years ago. We are the world’s leading last-mile delivery robot company; provide an alternative to traditional services. We are not only one of the leaders, but also leaders, no one else has done this.
We have a clear goal and vision, our employees can understand and feel-our work has an impact and tangible results. We listen to our employees; they have a lot of freedom and no chain of command from top to bottom. Everyone can express their opinions and provide solutions.
What motivates you most in this job? What is your favorite part of your job?
I like that the decision in Starship is reasonable. It is difficult for me to work in an organization where the management does not make sense. We have a common goal: to solve the challenges posed by the last mile delivery service and allow our robots to reach every corner of the world. The whole team is working hard for this.
The company’s founder, Ahti Heinla, is an engineer who is also developing software himself. He is a very talented and creative software engineer with extensive programming experience. Ahti managed to focus the company on the most important thing-the development of products and services.
I also like that everyone has the opportunity to influence the development of the company. The people I meet every day are very good. There are some of the smartest people working here, and you can even say that everyone here is a genius. And, of course, I care about what we want to achieve.
What is your team at Starship doing? What is the most interesting challenge for you so far?
I work on a platform team that connects two fields. On the one hand, mechanical engineers deal with the mechanical parts, and on the other hand, software engineers write artificial intelligence, navigation, machine vision, and other programs. We deal with electronics, hardware and software.
We don’t write artificial intelligence code that makes robots do something. Instead, we provide a technology platform for it. We design electronic modules by ourselves and do not use standard electronic solutions.
There is no doubt that electronic modules involve a lot of programming. Our platform team is working hard to ensure the safety of a working operating system. We develop drivers and create other necessary support for the software that controls the robot so that it can be connected to physical components and sensors. We also do quite deep embedded development and non-embedded development.
Does this mean you have to hold the soldering iron often?
It is true that the soldering iron is a common tool, but we will not solder new models ourselves. Even with the first prototype we ordered from the factory, electronic products are no longer “homemade” today. But when a prototype appears, it is rarely perfect from the start. At the beginning, we made a lot of supplements and corrections, and the soldering iron is definitely needed.
Some of us are proficient in hardware and software. For example, some driver software writers need to know more about the hardware than ordinary programmers. Traditional software developers are usually unfamiliar with hardware. In general, our team works in the field of combining software and hardware.
Who do you want to add to your team and what should they know?
We are not looking for a specific person with specific skills, but a talented engineer who is interested in the integration of hardware and software. If they are strong in electronics, we will be interested in them. If they are strong in software, we will also be interested in them. If you can do both, so much the better.
Inevitably, we are dealing with new things every day, and we don’t have the right off-the-shelf solutions at hand. Therefore, we are creating new solutions that have never existed in this form before. This requires people not to simply follow the instructions. We need creative experts who understand the needs and can develop solutions that meet them. Sometimes you need a solution with simple electronics and complex software, sometimes the opposite is true.
We are looking for an open-minded person who can always find the right way. We are essentially looking for open-minded engineers. People who see finding solutions to problems as challenges rather than as obstacles. In fact, we have a variety of problems that require good solutions. To give some examples, this new team member may be a programmer with network experience, or an electronic engineer who can solder analog electronic devices.
How can new employees improve themselves and learn new skills?
Only those who can teach themselves can succeed in this field, although there are also training opportunities. In our company, training is not a classic thing, such as participating in various courses. Skills are also cultivated through coaching. We have a coaching plan every year. We educate newcomers, and employees can choose their own mentors.
What personality traits should the people joining your team have, and what should they be prepared for?
In theory, this is possible, but today no one in the platform team can complete their work completely independently, because we are facing very difficult challenges. You must always communicate with others. We need to ensure that the needs of platform users are met.
You must communicate with programmers and mechanical engineers. A good example is the lock of a robot. In the robot lock, electronic equipment and software are needed to know whether the door lock mechanism is closed, opened or stuck.
So far, the Starship robot has completed more than 2 million deliveries. A failure occurred during that time, and we need to investigate and resolve it in the interaction with other teams; to a large extent, including the maintenance team. Since we provide last-mile delivery services, we must build a robot that is durable enough for daily use and easy to maintain. We are looking for a person who is good at communication and independent thinking, and can find a good solution.
What is the most complex solution proposed by your team?
One of the main tasks is to transfer the connection board that connects the camera and the computer to modern PCI Express. This is our largest single project ever. It is a PCI Express expansion card that allows you to connect more than a dozen cameras and other high-speed devices to the computer in the robot and make them available for the operating system and application software. However, I cannot post very detailed details of all of these.
Cameras, radars, motor controllers-all these components of electronic equipment are manufactured by us, and these tasks are also very complicated. More specifically, we created a card on the basis of FPGA. PCI Express FPGA cards help move data between sensors, cameras, and onboard computers, especially fast.
What do team members do in their free time, do their hobbies come from different fields?
The platform team is also often interested in similar topics in China. These people are people who are passionate about engineering. They do more or less the same things in their spare time, such as some cool electronics, machinery or computer hobbies.
But this is the situation in this field. If you want to combine your hobby and work, this is the best place.