Meet Tabitha Colter, this week's blog contributor, and a friend of mine from college. We had the privilege of traveling to India together for nearly 3 months and after time in such close proximity, I am not surprised at all by what she has ended up doing with her life. As the Director of Operations at PAVE, a company promoting autonomous vehicle education, she provides YoPros in this post with helpful advice about working in an emerging tech field and shares what it takes to get there.
The first time I heard the name of my current employer was over coffee on a rainy February day in 2018. One of the few people I’d met who had experience working professionally with autonomous vehicle (AV) technology sat across from me -- I was desperately hoping that our conversation would help me find a career path in the emerging AV field I wanted to break into.
Like many other students interested in a topic that barely existed a few years ago, I spent my graduate program weaving together an interdisciplinary tapestry of courses I decided might best prepare me for a career in this exciting new world of autonomous technology. My journey took me to classrooms in Duke’s law, business, public policy, environmental, and medical schools where I gained valuable skills intended to serve me well in a new field.
I’ve always been fascinated with the intersection of science and society; early in my college career, I realized that I enjoyed presenting lab work to general audiences more than doing the lab work itself. I love learning about advances in science and tech, but I’m most passionate about the way that those advances can be leveraged to actualize real change for people, particularly those who are underserved by our current systems.
Autonomous vehicles (or “self-driving cars” as you’ve probably heard them called in popular media) are the epitome of this potential. Complex issues of ethics, policy, communication, law, sustainability, and equity are woven into some of the most difficult technical problems of artificial intelligence and machine learning. AV technology has the potential to fundamentally shift the way our transportation system works for various groups of people: parents of children lost to drunk drivers, those with mobility-limiting disabilities who have to rely on family members or paratransit services to travel out of their home, or individuals living in food deserts with low access to nutritious food.
My employer PAVE (Partners for Automated Vehicle Education) is a nonprofit coalition of organizations who want to educate the public about AVs and empower them to be involved in conversations about how this technology can work for them and their communities. We work with powerhouse tech and auto companies, bold startups, inspiring advocacy groups, brilliant academics, and passionate public sector officials to present different educational materials to a wide variety of audiences.
Like a lot of emerging tech fields, the AV space is a broad mix of educational & professional backgrounds all coming together to try to find solutions. So, what does working in this emerging technology world look like for me? It looks like designing a new page of our website on Monday, creating a slide deck & agenda for an upcoming committee meeting on Tuesday, moderating a panel discussion about autonomous trucking on Wednesday, recruiting and on-boarding a new coalition member on Thursday, and organizing resources for policymakers at an educational workshop on Friday. In other words, it’s a lot like walking those different school halls in grad school where I would jump between one class discussing energy markets and another discussing ethics within the same day.
Emerging technology fields, like the one I work in, will continue to grow throughout the next decades and shape the employment market in new ways. Many current and rising young professionals will find themselves working in positions for tech companies that didn’t exist when they were born. Forging new career paths can be an exciting journey for many young professionals; on the other hand, the uncertainty can also be a source of worry as we try to navigate the future of emerging technologies and economic volatility. My main advice for those considering a career in an emerging field can be boiled down to two points: stay flexible and find your own ways to measure your success.
"Stay flexible and find your own ways to measure your success."
Stay flexible when deciding what classes or work projects might help you learn new skills for the future—look for things that will challenge what you’re used to doing and provide you with a new perspective on a topic. Some of the best experiences I’ve had in my professional career came from simply saying yes to joining a phone call on a topic I didn’t have a lot of experience handling.
Challenge yourself by saying yes to meetings or projects you haven’t in the past and step out of your usual comfort zone. Practicing flexibility will not only probably impress your bosses and co-workers, but it will also help you grow your professional opportunities and skills for whatever future lies ahead.
"Practicing flexibility will not only probably impress your bosses and co-workers, but it will also help you grow your professional opportunities and skills for whatever future lies ahead."
My final advice for finding your own ways to measure success mostly stems from being a young millennial who’s also lived through those multiple “unprecedented events” we’ve all experienced since a young age.
I wasn’t old enough to understand what a housing crisis was in 2008, but I know the societal and personal impacts of it, along with other events that underlie many of my decisions today. As a generation defined in part by this type of turmoil, stability and reassurance from a clearly defined path for success are appealing features.
Taking a position in an emerging tech field can be fun and exciting, but it might not provide that same sense of stability and clear definition that more traditional fields will. Particularly with young companies, it can be easy to tie all of your own self-worth and feelings of professional success to the success of your company or field. And of course you should feel proud and passionate about your work! My advice is to make sure that you’re also keeping tabs on your achievements and feelings of success in ways that aren’t only linked to the success of your company or field.
"Make sure that you’re also keeping tabs on your achievements and feelings of success in ways that aren’t only linked to the success of your company or field."
Altogether, you can easily navigate your path for success with implementation of discipline and drive. Don't lose the passion you have for your work, but also take into account the good that you are doing in and out of the workplace. By doing this, you're guaranteed to thrive in whatever field you enter into, even in a profession that is new and emerging.
Connect with the author here: Tabitha Colter