This Udacity alum stayed receptive to new opportunities, and followed a unique path to career success in the self-driving car field!
Many of us have a general idea of what we want to do in our careers but we don’t know the specifics of how our career path will play out. There will be twists and turns along the way, and exciting opportunities that appear unexpectedly. That’s why it’s important to stay educationally curious and professionally receptive to fresh challenges.
We spoke with Kyle Martin, a graduate of our Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree program, to hear about how this approach has worked for him. Kyle has always kept his eyes open for new opportunities throughout his programming career in iOS development and data science. He has added to his skills and leapt at new challenges. Now he has used the skills he built with Udacity to land an amazing opportunity as a lead robotics engineer working on self-driving vehicles.
Thanks for talking to us today Kyle. Let’s start by hearing about your backstory. Have you always had a passion for programming?
I got interested in programming at a really young age, when my dad taught me how to make a macro in Excel. When I saw how it worked, I remember wanting to learn how to make computers do things. I started teaching myself how to program in my living room, and took Computer Science classes in high school. I’ve always really loved the problem-solving that programming involves.
You ended up getting really into building apps and had some success. Is that correct?
Yes. At college, I actually studied Electrical Engineering, but kept programming as a hobby. My friend and I started building apps just to see what we could do. I learned a lot about professional software engineering and built a whole portfolio of apps. One, called PaceWave, helped runners keep to a particular pace by mixing white noise into their music when they slowed down. We rolled it out and achieved around ten thousand downloads!
Did you expect to make a career out of this success?
No! But it turned out that all the apps I built DID qualify me for an iOS developer role. I just didn’t fully realize this until I decided to take a gamble and actually apply for a role. When I graduated, I felt like I should look for electrical engineering roles like the rest of my class, but none of the positions really thrilled me. I started seeing developer roles using all the programming skills I’d been building and they sounded MUCH more exciting. One in particular, for a lead iOS developer role in Houston, seemed like a far more exciting career direction. So I took a chance and sent them my resume.
That was a bold move. Wasn’t it a pretty big leap of faith to apply without any formal qualifications on your resume?
I knew my degree was in something completely different and my resume didn’t show any coding qualifications. But I also knew I could present a substantial portfolio of concrete work examples. These were apps the recruiters could actually download and use, so they could see my programming skills in action right in the interview room! They were really impressed I’d done it all in my spare time and offered me the job! I was even offered a higher salary and more responsibility than I’d seen with electrical engineering roles.
That was your first experience in the working world. Tell us about your experience with iOS development.
My first role was an education. I learned all the things you don’t learn in college—how to be a leader; how to handle people and office politics. There was a senior engineer I thought was really good. I watched how he interacted with people and drastically improved my own interpersonal skills by learning from him. So I worked for a few years in app development, building my programming skills in a few different roles.
At the same time, you were doing what you’ve always done—working on a side project. Can you tell us about what you were working on?
After a few years in app development, I started to feel like there weren’t many problems left for me to solve with apps. So I looked for a new hobby. l started reading a lot about how transformational self-driving cars were going to be, and I became really interested to learn more about how they worked. I did some research and the Nanodegree program seemed like the best way to gain that knowledge.
I saw the Nanodegree program as a really efficient way to pivot to a new interest quickly. I applied, and was so pleased when I got a place!
You were still working in app development as you studied. Did you realize that what you were learning would become a new career path?
Certainly not so rapidly! But during the first semester of the program, I’d started to informally meet with some data scientists in my office. I learned they were using Python skills similar to those I was building with Udacity, and that their work involved researching the self-driving car industry. I saw an opportunity to learn about their part of the business, so I started talking about what I was doing on the program and asking about their work. They saw I had a real understanding of the subject and, before long, they were coming to me with questions about self-driving cars. Then they offered me a data role in their department!
That’s incredible! But you didn’t stop keeping an eye out for other opportunities, did you?
I like to stay agile with how I approach my career. I’ve always thought of myself as a go-getter, and, as much as I liked the data science role, I knew I definitely wanted to make the move wholeheartedly into self-driving cars. So I started looking for an industry role while I was still in the program. I set-up LinkedIn alerts with keywords like “path planning” and “autonomous vehicles.” A lead robotics engineer role appeared with a company that was beginning to work on an autonomous shuttle. I jumped at it and got an interview! They were interested in all the areas I’d been working on—things like computer vision and systems architecture. And they were really impressed I’d kept learning and adding to my skills in the program. When they made me an offer, I said “yes” immediately—it sounded like I’d have the opportunity to work on really groundbreaking projects.
So you work in the self-driving car field now. Is this the point where you say, “Okay, I’ve achieved what I want to achieve” and take it easy?
Definitely not. I’m considered the subject-matter-expert on self-driving cars here, and I think there are going be really good opportunities within my company to get even more involved with the industry. So it’s a really great learning opportunity. Because it’s a start-up, I get to work with all the different parts of the business. I’m able to learn so much about how the automotive industry works, and about autonomous vehicles in particular.
I can see fresh opportunities to grow professionally here every day!
Thank you Kyle for sharing your story! You’ve shown that arriving at your optimal career is absolutely possible when you’re ready to act when opportunities appear. You’ve kept learning, you’ve stayed aware of possibilities, and you’ve followed your passion to a role that really suits you!