Becoming an Autonomous Vehicle Engineer – Part 3: Beyond Coding

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to revolutionize transportation as we know it. This tech is also creating new and exciting jobs in the fields of engineering. In part one of this blog series, we outlined how to get started finding a career in the space. Part two discussed some of the most important coding languages to learn in order to find your niche in AV engineering. This final blog in the series is about a success metric that is harder to define: personal development.  

Self-driving vehicles are literally driven by software. What could be more important than code? 

The human factor of creating autonomous vehicles cannot be downplayed. Behind the robotics, there is a team of people who have a passion for technology and making the world a better place. Creating autonomous systems means working in a fast-paced environment, collaborating with peers on complex challenges, and creating solutions to problems that no one has attempted to solve before. This kind of work is exciting, and it requires more than just coding know-how. 

At Torc, we don’t just hire good programmers. We hire people with a consistent drive to accomplish great things. We look for those who don’t let ego get in the way of teamwork, and understand how to communicate with a diverse group. 

We call these core values Hungry, Humble, and People Smart. 

We asked Torc engineers to go beyond the code and describe the skills they found that were just as important as coding prowess and how their expectations of working in the AV industry differed from reality. 

torc employee demoing vehicle at virginia tech

Phil Repisky, Systems Integration Engineer

Coding is probably only a fraction of actual work that goes into development. Before anything is typed, many hours have already been spent finding an appropriate architecture for a set of problems that need to be solved. Any one component will be expected to interact with the whole system to drive a vehicle under challenging conditions. The only factor that makes this possible is the consistent communication among teams, from synthesis through all stages of development.

A common stereotype in this field is one of the “anti-social genius” that knows their field inside and out. In the autonomous vehicle industry, there are plenty of questions that still need to be explored, and no one person knows all the answers. Becoming very comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing an answer is the best asset I’ve used. In a classroom there is a huge penalty for getting an answer wrong, which prompts students to never take a risk. In this industry, asking will never put you behind. My experience is that a knowledgeable person will always enjoy talking about the topic they love, so ask away!

My advice to someone trying to enter this field is to be ready to make mistakes, lots of them! If you’ve never made a mistake, you’ve never really tried to do something new. What may look like a huge complicated problem is always a series of smaller systems that can be assessed and fixed on their own. The person who can isolate and solve a networking, hardware, electrical, or programming issue is already an asset to developing technology like ours.

Torc engineer parissa at her desk

Parissa Fathalipour, Director of Operations for Defense/Defense Program Manager

Beyond code, the most important skills are ambition, drive, and collaboration. A lot of our success comes from how our teams work together. If we don’t know something, the team works together to find the answer. This ties into our ambition and drive to dig into problems when we don’t know the solution and finding creative ways to solve the problem.

In general, we don’t just look for the technical expertise, we want you to be part of the team. Having the right skillset is good but having the people skills needed to work with a group is very important too. You can be an individualist, which is great, but the way we work – and the success of Torc – comes from working in teams. Balancing the technical aspects with being personable and being able to relate to other people embodies the ideal Torc’r.

Scott at his desk at torc

Scott Schlacter, Embedded and Controls

The ability to communicate both technical and non-technical information effectively is one of the most important skills that has helped me succeed at Torc. 

My expectation of “real-world” work in general was that I would be a cog in a machine and be shoehorned into doing the same thing over and over. Torc has let me work on all sorts of different problems and get hands-on experience that I never thought I’d be able to get. 

Cody McClintock, UAV Software Team Lead

Forward thinking and communication are two important skills needed to work in this space.  Being able to have an idea, present a plan to accomplish it, and communicate it in a way that turns complex goals into straightforward topics is extremely powerful in the workplace.

I expected be a part of an ever-changing industry where last month’s “cutting edge” is already being revised and improved. This turned out to be true.  The result here at Torc is a beautiful culture where everyone is constantly learning and helping each other. It provides endless opportunity for the most driven to become the expert in tomorrow’s technology and have real impact on the direction of the company. 

Sherman Jones, Hardware Team Lead

Sherman Jones, Hardware Team Lead

Communication skills are the non-technical qualities that has helped me the most in this field. Other important qualities are humbleness and drive. You could be the best programmer in the world, but you will not go far without being humble and having the drive to push yourself. If you think you are the best, you will become complacent and will soon fall behind others who continue to push forward.

In the end, you could be one of the smartest people in your field, but you must also be passionate about what you are working on. If working on a self-driving vehicle is your passion, you will find a way to make it happen.

If autonomous vehicles are your passion, Torc is the perfect place to take your experience to the next level. Click on our careers page to learn more and see our job openings.