Why American women are too smart to become robotics engineers

The lack of women in robotics is quite palpable.  I’m not going to quote statistics about the lack of women in robotics because the readers of this blog have been in robotics engineering shops and have eyes—it is that bad.  This is a loss for all of us.  Not only do the women in robotics often have a disproportionate impact, but also the missing women are indicative of a deeper cultural problem that hurts both male and female participants in our industry.

Beyond the issues of opportunity, fairness, and attracting the best and brightest in our field, a lack of women is an indicator of a deep seated cultural problem that is impairing our efforts to make the world a better place.  This insular culture, which robotics shares with many other engineering-centric industries, harms and alienates many men too.  The lack of women in robotics should be viewed as a flashing red warning light of a much deeper problem that affects everyone, rather than just a women’s problem.

Another Knowledge Industry Grapples With A Similar Challenge

While I was at Deloitte, the firm was endlessly bragging about its Women’s Initiate, they called WIN.  Before the turn of the millennium, the partners realized that they had a problem.  At all the ‘working’ ranks of the firm, Deloitte was doing a great job hiring and retaining talented people of both genders.  However, when it came to senior managers and partner level positions, the women all disappeared.

What Deloitte discovered when they looked into this problem was not discrimination.  The problem was that all the top women that the firm wanted to promote were leaving, even though they were being offered the same deal as the men.  Becoming a partner or principal at Deloitte today is arduous, but before WIN it was grueling and brutal.  Basically, becoming principal at Deloitte requires a huge commitment to have consulting be one’s life, but before WIN there was pretty much one way this commitment could look.  Women knew what was required and were more than capable, but they were saying, ‘Screw this, I don’t want to put up with your abuse just to sit at the top of the pyramid and perpetuate it, I want a family (or an impact in the world, or a life).’   So they were leaving the firm.

Deloitte took a hard look at the firm and decided that the path to becoming partner was counterproductively rigid.  They launched WIN and made the workplace much more humane for everyone.  The firm started retaining more talented women and they have thousands of women principals today.  But more interestingly, they also started retaining more of the talented men who had been leaving too, but ‘just weren’t cut out for consulting.’  Deloitte fervently believes—and their impressive growth in the last decade testifies—that they created a much more effective organization.

What had showed up as a women’s problem was actually a firm-wide culture problem.  It turned out that many more men were willing to compromise their performance and risk losing their marriages, families, and personal lives over the firm’s culture problem.   There was nothing ‘wrong’ with the women, nothing they needed to be taught or given to help them get ahead.  They were just not willing to put up with such an unnecessarily inhumane system, while many men were willing to live with it.  As a result, the firm got sub-optimal performance.

The question that Deloitte should have been asking was not, ‘What’s wrong with our women that they’re not making partner?’  Or even, ‘What’s wrong with our men that they don’t help the women make partner,’ it was really, ‘What’s wrong with our men that they’re willing to make partner under sweatshop working conditions?’   I fear that we’re at a similar impasse with respect to the engineering fields.

The Deeper Cultural Problem In Robotics Engineering

Isn’t it odd that we don’t need to make a special effort to interest women in law, accounting, medicine, or the like?  These fields have similar intellectual requirements and levels of drudgery to engineering.  Yet despite comparatively massive efforts to interest women in engineering, they are not entering the field in anything like the numbers we would expect.  And why are American students—including men—not enrolling in engineering fields at the rate that foreign students do?

There is strong social signaling in undergraduate schools that discourages most women and many men from even attempting the study of engineering.  Perhaps they realize that getting an engineering degree can be a long, unrewarding slog when compared to the experience that most undergraduates have.  Perhaps, they have a sense this narrow technical view is carried on beyond undergraduate.  I do not believe that being willing put up with this kind of experience is necessary, and is perhaps counterproductive, to being a great robotics engineer.

Engineering courses are used to screen out anyone who is not willing to devote long hours studying tough courses that do not reward students just for their interest in the subject.  Those who are considering law, business, or medicine as an alternative career may not want to risk their GPAs even trying engineering courses.   No one would bother becoming a robotics engineer unless she had an innate sense that she had a special calling in robotics.  This sense of calling is common among the engineering superstars, both male and female.  Though the current method of engineering education may be adequate for the superstars, this method of education likely alienates many people who could make great contributions to engineering.

We now realize that training medical residents more than 80 hours a week is not productive—engineering isn’t different.  Silicon Valley is starting to see sunlight, humane schedules, leadership opportunities, and pleasant workplaces that promote social interaction as the minimum conditions for engineering productivity.  Colleges such as Olin which have experimented with new (read more people centered) ways of teaching engineering have seen many women enroll.  These are all signs that there is another way to do engineering.  We are starting to see that engineering can be altered to treat engineers and students like social beings, without sacrificing technical rigor.

By attracting people to engineering who are sensitive to the way that others treat them, we will also attract people who are sensitive to their colleagues, customers, and business partners.  Without these engineers who understand their impact on others, engineering will forever be solving the wrong problem.  Engineering education and culture are far too important to all our futures to be left only to left-brained males.  If we let engineering be a secret club that no woman without an extreme commitment would want to join, we will fail to harness engineering’s full potential to improve our society.

 

Avenues for further investigation:

How can robotics companies accelerate the production of an inclusive engineer culture?

What benefits and employee flexibilities have measureable results on engineering output?

How concentrated among the ‘usual suspects’ schools is robotics engineering hiring?

Does hiring outside of the engineering department’s immediate network improve or degrade performance of the engineering organization?

Do robotics engineering organizations with more women tend to do better?  (Hypothesis:  There is positive correlation, but not to be confused with causation.)

Four Steps to the Epiphany: the Moby Dick of start-up books

Image: Front Cover; Source: Amazon

If your experience of Moby Dick was that you were constantly aware that you were reading one of the best books of all time that was opening your mind to new ideas if only you could keep your eyes open, you understand.  Four Steps to the Epiphany is the great white whale of start-up books for a reason.  Although it is not nearly as easy to read as his disciple Eric Ries’s more famous book, The Lean Start-up, it is much more systematic.  This books has some profound insights about understanding why some start-ups can do it one way and others need to do it completely opposite.

Instead of abstracting and generalizing the insights, Blank focuses on the issues of managing under extreme uncertainty in their native context.  He tackles every aspect of the non-engineering side of the business.  Most of the book is about how to systematically eliminate the market risk for your product, this will be somewhat familiar to you if you’ve read the Lean Start-up.  However, seeing the original idea and seeing it laid out in full detail, in the context it originally sprang from adds a lot of richness and practicality to the idea.  Blank devotes a good deal of time to understanding how to make technology push and market pull work together.  He covers when to go for broke spending money to enter a market and when to hold back and let the customers come to you.  Most importantly, this comes with some practical steps to discover when to do each.  He even covers how to start converting to mature company once you’ve almost made it.

Much like Melville, Steve Blank will say something really profound and insightful, then launch into a description of whaling–er, uh–start-up processes that are needed to implement that idea.  This can make the book a tough slog, because reading a process description around bed time can definitely have soporific effect.  However, this tough slog is absolutely worth it if your a practitioner in the world of technology start-ups.  You can’t hand it to your cousin that works at a big company and expect him to read it.  This is meant for the start-up community.  If you are a start-up practitioner, get this book and make yourself read it.   You will not be disappointed.  I expect my copy to become much more dog-eared than it already is before it gets confiscated for some future company museum.

So how does this relate to robotics…

Reading this book will further persuade you that many if not most management teams of robotics companies don’t have a clue.  You’ll even be able to look at robotics success stories and realize–wow–compared to software our industry’s state of management practice is pretty dismal.  Many successful robotics companies just fell bass-ackwards into their success.  Many were product driven companies to a fault that were able to expensively keep trying until they finally hit a success.  This is not the same thing as systematically eliminating and consciously balancing market versus technical risk to produce the greatest chance of creating successful business that uses robotic technology to make money and make the world a better place.

We’ve got a long way to go as an industry.  Luckily, now that we know that there’s nothing inherently ‘capital intensive’ about the robotics industry we can start addressing why we have so often screwed it up before.

DARPA is about to show the Navy’s shipbuilding plan is bull****

What is a powerful enough word to describe how the Navy’s shipbuilding plan is wasting thousands of man years and hundreds of billions of dollars on prejudices, untested assumptions, and bureaucratic inertia?

Luckily, DARPA is doing exactly what Congress created them to do way back in the Sputnik era: they are creating and protecting against technological surprise.  It would be fantastic if the Navy would jump on board and run phase 7 of this recently awarded DARPA contract.

Source: DARPA

For those of you who do not come from defense, here is my take on the conflict between how the traditional Navy looks at ships and how DARPA and the embattled progressive minority in the Navy look at naval platforms including unmanned naval vessels.

The big, traditional Navy believes–and they have some experiences that gives rise to this belief–that naval ships ought to be flexible, broadly capable, and completely independent assets.  Take a modern Arliegh Burke class destroyer (DDG-51 class), the backbone of the U.S. fleet, as prime example.  It can deploy itself to the theater of operations, maneuver tactically, sense targets, make engagement decisions, engage the target, and retrograde tactically and strategically from the operation.  Moreover these ships can do almost every mission that they might be called on to do.  They are among the most capable ships at anti-air, surface, and anti-submarine warfare.  Additionally, they respond to things like pirates, search and rescue, and humanitarian relief operations.  Sounds pretty cool, right?  And it is.

However, being able to do everything comes with two main drawbacks.  First the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ phenomenon is far more likely to be true because of design compromises in engineered systems than it is in people.  Second, adding all this capability costs a lot of money.  These destroyers are about $2B a copy and on the order of $1M/day to operate if you add in everything.  This means that we can only have so many and they cannot be everywhere.

DARPA and the progressive faction within the Navy believe that there is a fundamental change at hand in naval warfare.  Looking at how the Army/Air Force team conducts operations and the improvements in automation and communication technologies at sea, the progressives believe that the tradition of having big capital ships that do everything is outdated.

In contrast to the completely capable Navy platforms, Army units often only do one or two things.   Almost no Army units have strategic mobility.  Most can only do one or two things.  Intelligence units often only have the ability to sense. Artillery units only have the ability to do tactical maneuver and fire, but cannot sense.  Transport units move other units and equipment but cannot fire or sense; sometime they cannot even maneuver tactically.  The Army has huge staff units that do nothing but process information and make decisions to keep all these specialist pieces working in coordinated fashion on the battlefield.

DARPA and the naval progressives believe that a similar future is in store for the next globally dominant navy.  Which we hope will be, but does not have to be from the Unites States.  They envision swarms of inexpensive specialist vessels such as the one DARPA is building running around coordinated by a few manned ships.  The components of these fleets would be optimized to do a couple things well, be relatively–we’re talking about defense here–cheap, and be deployed in large numbers.

The reason that this is an urgent argument is that there is wide consensus within the U.S. Navy, across both the traditionalists and the progressives, that the Navy will not be able to meet its strategic obligations to our allies and American political leadership in a decade or two.  This is a ways off, but still within the service life of all the ships commissioned in the last decade.  The traditionalist seem to hope for a larger budget and the chance to ditch some missions (the Obama administration just took steps in this direction in their last budget), while the progressives say that if the Navy is receiving half of global naval spending it should be able to keep all its obligations by changing the way the Navy is organized.

The problem is that the traditionalists point out, correctly, that the progressives have not proved their scheme will work.  Then they say that they cannot cut even one ship or submarine which would build about a hundred of these future systems so that this alternate path can be tested.  It sounds to me like someone’s rice bowl is about to be overturned, and deep down they know it.

This is why DARPA’s ACTUV program is so important.  It puts at least one of these vessels out on the water so that people can see with their own eyes that they work.  They will be able to see the SAIC team turning around the vessel in record time and the ship controlled remotely and also sailing autonomously.  They will get to see that anti-submarine warfare works when done with a robot instead of hundreds of men on ships.  DARPA will start smashing the traditionalists reality, or at least put some big cracks in it.

Three cheers to DARPA for their continued work pushing the United States forward whether we all want to go or not!

Which VCs are investing in robotics? Here is the list.

the instrument of venture investment

source: SEC.gov

My overview of the Firms Behind the Hizook 2011 VC in Robotic List has graciously been published at Hizook.

Bottom line:  We don’t have a cadre of dedicated robotics investors, but we can get investment from the industries that serve as our customers.

I wish you all luck in getting some of that VC Cash.  …on second thought, no, actually, I don’t–I  wish you all luck in signing up major partners who will give you progress payments to complete your product without diluting your investment.

But whatever your situation I hope that you use the appropriate capital structure to make lots of robots, lots money, and lots of good in the world.

Robotics capital intensive?! What are you smoking? Don’t believe it.

Robotic manufacturing is not capital intensive, contrary to the popular wisdom.  (Looking at you HBS.)

Unless someone can bring data to the contrary, we should treat this issue as thoroughly decided against the  conventional wisdom.  As we saw previously, robotics companies do not need a lot of fixed assets.  Now, we will see why people who blithely repeat the conventional wisdom that robotics companies are capital intensive are wrong–even if they claim robotics companies are hiding their true use of capital.

First off, robotics companies’ balance sheets look like technology companies’–the internet kind, not the aerospace/industrial kind.  Robotics companies have lots of cash and relatively little else.

Second, robotics companies have gross margins that even companies that don’t make stuff would envy.  The robotics gross margin would probably be even higher if iRobot and Aerovironment were not defense contractors.   There is a lot of pressure to bury as much expense as allowed into the cost of goods due to defense contract rules.   Intuitive and Cognex’s margins are around 75%.  They are even beating Google on gross margin!

Although, it does appear that robotics companies have a bit longer cash conversion cycle than the basket chosen for comparison here, their cash cycle appears to be in line with other complex manufacturers.  Plus, the robotics companies are holding so much cash their management may just not really care to push the conversion cycle down.

Look at the cash required to sell aircraft though!  Manned or unmanned it looks like it takes forever to get paid for making planes.

Although robotics companies have physical products, the value of a robot is in the knowledge and information used to create it and operate it.  The materials are nothing special.  Consequently, these companies look like part of the knowledge economy–few real assets, lots of cash, and huge attention to their workforce.   Next time someone tells you robotics companies are capital intensive, ask them to share what they’re smoking–it’s probably the good stuff–because they aren’t using data.

One thing that a venture capitalist may mean when he says that robotics is capital intensive is that it generally takes a long time and lots of money to develop a viable product in robotics.  This may be true, but it is not really the same thing as being capital intensive.   This observation should cause a lot of soul-searching within our industry.  What the venture capitalist is telling us is that we–as an industry–cannot reliably manage our engineering, product development, and business structures to produce financial results.

This is why the conventional wisdom is dangerous.  It suggests that the lack of investors, money, and talent flowing into our industry isn’t our fault and there’s not much we can do about it.  That is what needs to change in robotics.  We need to get better at management.  We need to start building companies quicker and producing returns for our investors.  If we do that the money, talent, and creativity will start pouring into industry.  Then robotics can change the world.

Notes on Data and Method
Data Source: Last 10-k

Method:

Accounts Receivable = All balance sheet accounts that seem to be related to a past sale and future cash, so accounts receivable plus things like LinkedIn’s deferred commissions.

Cash + Investments = All balance sheets I could identify as being financial investments not required to operate.   Assume all companies require zero cash to operate.

Did not account for advances in cash conversion cycle.