Whether you’re looking for your first job or have been in your field for years, it can be incredibly difficult to determine if you’re on the right track for the career you want.
During the Women in Autonomy virtual panel, Driving Your Career, women from various autonomous vehicle companies discussed their paths and advice for finding the right career fit. There’s no single prescription for job success, however, there are common practices anyone can employ to build a meaningful career.
Watch the recording of Driving Your Career, here.
The panel — moderated by Faryl Ury, Director of Communications at Aurora — featured Julie Derence, Co-Founder of TBD Robotics, Jessica Smith, Senior Software Engineer at Aurora, and Apoorva Sachdev Lakshmanan, Technical Program Manager at Waymo.
While each panelist differed in background, interests and job role, they took similar steps to find a career they were truly passionate about.
Forget ‘Climbing the Ladder’
The panelists agreed that, as you build out your goals, one of the most important perspectives to keep in mind is that career trajectories aren’t linear.
Success doesn’t necessarily mean climbing the corporate ladder. Rather, discover what you’re truly interested in working on and seek out roles that fulfill those requirements.
“Create your own definition of success,” Derence said, adding that discussing your ideas with people you trust, like a partner, family member or friend, can help develop that definition over time.
Smith said she learned that lesson through experience, when she was promoted to a management role early on in her tenure at a company. While it felt good to be trusted as a manager, Smith said she was quickly overwhelmed with the requirements and had less time to spend on what she enjoyed working on.
As a result, she moved back to an individual contributor role, working on projects that sparked her interest alongside other engineers.
“Build boundaries around your expectations,” Smith said. “It’s important to apply the lessons you learn from past mistakes and experiences to really grow.”
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
While career growth can stem from both promotions and lateral moves, the panelists said it’s also critical to continuously challenge yourself.
Companies offer opportunities — both large and small — for growth and to expand outside of your current role. Derence’s advice: take them.
“You should strive to feel uncomfortable at work,” she said.
Lakshmanan echoed Derence, adding that it’s important to always be learning on the job and not let yourself be “boxed in” to your title. As you progress through your career, reflect on the aspects of the job you like and those of other roles you’re interested in.
Reaching out to those in your company whose work you admire is a useful way to learn more about these opportunities as well as build out your network.
“There’s no harm in making the connection,” Lakshmanan said.
Build a Community
In addition to a personal network, panelists said building a community within your company or industry is an invaluable resource for continual career development.
Find out if your company has employee interest groups, or if there aren’t any that fit your goals, start your own.
“Seek out diverse groups of people to interact with,” Derence said. “It’s important to provide a space where women can speak freely and have an environment to talk and share experiences.”
Smith added that her career has significantly benefited from collaborating with fellow engineers, as well as mentors outside of her specific role or area of expertise.
Industry groups and conferences such as Women in Autonomy and Grace Hopper Celebration provide these opportunities for community building and mentorship.
Finally, don’t hold yourself to impossible standards. No one can do it all, and finding balance between work and life is key to finding fulfillment in your career.
“You’re balancing balls in the air, and each ball is either glass or plastic,” Lakshmanan said, referring to both work and life responsibilities. “Every day you’re deciding which balls to drop, because you’re human and you can’t keep everything in the air. If it’s plastic, it’s OK, it will bounce back up.”
Sebnem Tugce Pala is a public policy professional with deep experience in the field of sustainable transportation. She has worked as the Energy Grant Strategy Director for Miami’s first unicorn startup, REEF Technology and led AmpUp’s Public Policy and Government Affairs team. Sebnem attended the Professional Diploma Program in Business Administration and Project Management at UC Berkeley and received her MA in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva (IHEID) as well as an MA in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.
We sat down with Sebnem to learn more about her career, interests and plans for the Mentorship Program.
Q: How did you become involved in the autonomous driving industry?
While studying at UC Berkeley, I conducted policy research on autonomous drones and autonomous vehicles at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center. My policy research on autonomous vehicles was an eye-opening experience, and I became more involved in the autonomous driving industry. I believe that sustainability in transportation starts with autonomous vehicles; this pandemic has been a game changer for autonomous vehicles in every aspect and has highlighted the significance of the deployment of this technology.
Q: When did you join WIA? Why did you decide to join?
I joined WIA in 2019. I was attending WIA events regularly before the pandemic. Women in Autonomy is a great platform for female leaders where they can educate, inspire and guide each other. Thus, I decided to join and am so happy to be part of the community.
Q: How has mentorship influenced your career?
I wholeheartedly believe that mentorship is a long journey. As for both parties (mentees and mentors), mentorship is an amazing learning experience. That being said, I learned more about myself through the WIA mentorship program. I enhanced my active listening skills and I better understood the importance of giving and receiving feedback, as well as asking the right questions and expressing appreciation and gratitude. Without a doubt, this has been a huge contribution to my career.
Q: Why did you decide to participate in the WIA Mentorship Program?
Thanks to the WIA events before the pandemic, I knew that the organization is full of female leaders and I have always enjoyed meeting female executives, policy makers, engineers and academics who are interested in autonomy and technology. Once WIA launched their Mentorship Program, I signed up for it right away. This Mentorship Program has given me the opportunity to meet inspiring female leaders and to discuss the common challenges that we are facing in this challenging industry and grow together.
Q: What inspired you to take on the role of Mentorship Program Director?
Just before the end of the previous term, we (mentees and mentors) were invited to a happy hour event where we had the chance to provide feedback and learn more about the experiences of other mentees/mentors and the peer mentoring groups. I previously participated in other mentorship programs so I had some suggestions for developing WIA’s program further. They really appreciated my feedback and offered me the role of Mentorship Program Director. As I am passionate about autonomy and women's leadership, I decided to take on this role and see the impact of my suggestions directly.
Q: What are your goals for the program?
First and foremost, I would like this program to be an enjoyable experience for everyone. I aim to create our own Mentorship Guidebook, Checklist and Agreement Template. I plan to have more regular check-ins with our mentors/mentees and peer mentoring groups and share suggestions for books, TED Talks and articles. More importantly, I hope to offer my guidance, feedback, and make sure that everything is running smoothly and is in line with WIA’s mission.
Q: What are you most looking forward to in this new role?
I would love to empower female leadership in this new role. I have previously worked as the Program Director for other mentorship programs, however, this program specifically enables women to grow their careers and network, sharing invaluable experiences with each other. Despite being the Program Director, I am still part of a peer mentoring group. I am most looking forward to inspiring my fellow participants and to continue to be inspired by them.