Cracking the Code: The Inspiring Career Journey of a Woman Engineer | Shilpa Gulati

In 2019, Waymo began testing their fully autonomous cars in Phoenix, Arizona. Driverless cars might be well known now, but a handful of years ago they were nothing more than a possibility. Shilpa Gulati, director of engineering at Waymo, was crucial to the team that made this happen. On the first test drive, Gulati took her six year old son along with her.

“Even though I wrote the software for it, I have 100% confidence in the safety, and how we validate the system… It was couple of moments of, oh shit, there is no driver.” Shilpa recalls, laughing.

Fully autonomous cars took long years to go from dream to reality. Shilpa Gulati’s path to becoming a roboticist was similarly long and took many ups and downs.

Science Fiction, Science Reality

Shilpa recalls reading Isaac Asimov’s Sci-Fi novels as a child. In one of the novels, a woman runs a robotics lab. At that moment, something clicked. The book had revealed a path for Shilpa, and her sole focus became entering the world of robotics. At the time, there weren’t any robotics courses in India, but there were engineering courses. The problem? The best engineering courses were notoriously difficult to get into.

Imagine the IIT-JEE as the ultimate battle royale of exams for aspiring engineers in India. It’s like trying to conquer a mountain of brain-teasers and problem-solving challenges. Now, add another layer of complexity: for women, it’s like scaling that mountain while carrying extra weights of societal expectations and stereotypes. Even in 2023, 47,773 candidates qualified out of the 180,372 people who took it. Of these forty thousand, only 7509 women qualified. The first time Shilpa took the exam, she didn’t qualify. She studied hard for another year and made it.

“It doesn’t matter if I failed once, I’ll learn more. And I did.” Shilpa says.

“My father was supportive, my brother was supportive, it was a good environment.”

The challenges of her undergraduate didn’t end there.

“I can tell you a story about my first day… So my dad walks me to a room and I see that I am the only woman in a class of ninety nine”. Shilpa laughs at the memory.

Not having a peer group made completing academic assignments more challenging. Shilpa had to complete difficult tasks entirely alone, with few people to rely on for help. Now, Shilpa aims to support women who may also be feeling isolated.

“I am trying to be the sounding board and mentor for many women now in my company.”, Shilpa stated.

Shooting for the Moon

During her PhD, Shilpa truly came into her own as a roboticist. Although she started by studying mechanical engineering, she made a switch to computer science.

“I knew his lab knew something I didn’t know and I wanted to learn that.” Shilpa recalls. Her quest for pursuing the unknown and acquiring new skills has led to some of her most fascinating experiences.

By chance, Shilpa came across an email detailing an internship opportunity that would alter the course of her career. A tiny startup was running a NASA funded project, trying to create a robot that could reach Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Europa might be Jupiter’s smallest moon, but scientists think it hides a big secret – a vast, salty Ocean beneath its crust. Where there’s water, there may be life.

NASA was funding projects that could provide insights into creating a robot that could survive Europa’s harsh conditions. The startup was looking for star programmers, but Shilpa wasn’t quite there yet.

“I was not a star programmer. I taught myself programming. I’m a mechanical engineer by training… but I was like ‘Yeah, I got it, don’t worry.’”. Shilpa said, smiling. “We had some software that the boss didn’t even know how to set up. So he said, ‘Go figure out’. I spent long hours. I stayed there till midnight to run it. I figured it out. And then we started testing the robot.”

How do you test a robot that’s meant to traverse a landscape covered in ice, with water underneath? The closest analog the startup found was Antarctica.

“We took it to Antarctica and we stayed there for two months camping out on a frozen lake!” Shilpa exclaims.

Although programming was out of Shilpa’s comfort zone when she started, she knew it was a skill well within her reach. It also came with the opportunity of a lifetime. She advises young people to push themselves similarly.

“Our brains are very capable of figuring things out. If you give it a task and try it, it’ll figure it out.”

Learning from Failure

After completing her PhD, Shilpa made the difficult switch from academia to industry. It meant focusing less on research, and shifting the focus onto creating a profit and useful products. At her first company, she had an excellent manager who saw potential in her and made Shilpa a manager too.

“At the time, I didn’t understand how to build great and lasting relationships with people, what motivates people…And so that ultimately limited my success because after a point, it is not about you, it is about how many people want to work with you and how you can take all of them to the next level of success… It took me a while to find my way again after that.” Shilpa stated.

From failing the IIT-JEE, to struggling at her first startup, Shilpa has had many failures. But she doesn’t take them as failures at all – she views them as learning experiences. She worked on her soft skills, and worked at another startup before finding a more permanent home at Waymo.

“Learn by doing.” Shilpa says, smiling “If you’re scared of something, take a small step. Worst case, somebody will be a little bit rude to you, you know, like big deal. Not the end of the world.

“And some failures are also not the end of the world. That’s how we learn.”

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