Interview with Robin Williamson, VP of Engineering at Teralytics

By Nicole DiGiose and Max Teodorescu

The Way I Work is a recurring column on EEWeb positioned as an insightful conversation with a professional engineer. Light and informative, the column examines the engineer’s professional habits, productivity hacks, favorite apps/tools, daily routine, and overall work-life-balance, with the goal of helping readers learn from their peers. 

Robin Williamson and his dog.

Robin Williamson and his dog.

From software startups to industry titans, Robin Williamson has seen it all. This former director of engineering at Google is an accomplished computer scientist who isn’t afraid to dive into new experiences. Tinkering with electronics since he was a child, and now sprucing up cars and building model aircrafts on the side, Williamson’s passion is a part of everything he does. Today, he is the VP of engineering at Teralytics. Here’s how he works.

1. Tell us a bit about your background in engineering. What inspired you to become an engineer?

My passion for technology and engineering stemmed from a young age, starting with working on electronics kits and mechanical models, leading to constructing radio control airplanes to rebuilding a classic car to software. I also found the industry exciting, going on to study my bachelors with a combination of electronics and computer science. My career began in research, working on high-speed communications protocols and comms for mobile networks, soon moving on to building enterprise software for a financial services company and later I moved to building an online platform for marketing analytics. Then I spent 10 years at Google where I was working on distributed system infrastructure and GSuite apps (Gmail and Google Calendar).

2. What goals do you have for your new role as Teralytics’ vice president of engineering?

I have many objectives for my new role, but my main goal is to work closely with the business side of Teralytics. I’d like to help build an amazing company around products that are transformative in the way that data can be used to solve transportation issues and to help create the infrastructure to run smart cities.

3. What do you do to stay ahead?

Being in the industry means staying engaged with new tech developments – I find that reading whenever I get a chance and trying to be as hands on as I possibly can, are essential to staying ahead. Personally, I find that I can better understand the technologies that we are using or should be using by getting my hands dirty. Jumping into the fray is the best way to learn new things.

4. Are there any new skills you’ve developed in the past year?

Although I’m constantly educating myself on new things, this year I have focused on machine learning and the specific technologies that we use at Teralytics, for example, Scala and Spark.

5. How is your workspace set up?

My work space is mobile, mobile, mobile. Everything imaginable is in the cloud (okay, I do have to have some dev tools on my laptop, but they are all backed up!). I could drive over my laptop and it would not matter. This way I have my work with me wherever I travel.

6. What are your favorite job-related tools (apps, software, technologies)?

For languages, Java and more recently I’ve been learning the intricacies of Scala. For my dev environment, I am a big Eclipse user. From a productivity app perspective, it would have to be GSuite. Having worked at Google for 10 years and having personally worked on Gmail and Google Calendar, how could it be anything else?

7. What’s your favorite time-saving shortcut?

Cloud-based apps are lifesavers. It’s important to be able to access my key apps from whatever device I have closest to me – laptop, tablet, or phone.

8. What are some daily habits that have improved your life?

Planning my day and working from the plan makes a massive difference in my daily life. This allows me to feel that I am doing the most important things for that day and, as I check things off my list, that I am making progress. And drinking a lot of coffee helps, too.

9. What’s the best career and life advice you’ve ever been given?

For career advice, I would suggest looking for jobs that give you the opportunity to work on interesting problems and with great people. Regarding life advice, I would say to have dinner with your family. This is something that I have consistently done throughout my career and I am very fortunate that this has helped me stay very close to my three sons as they grew up.

10. Tell us about an experience you’ve had dealing with routine work. How do you keep from getting bored?

If it is important, recognize that importance and get it done as quickly as possible — then you can move onto something more interesting. If it is not important, stop doing it.

11. How do you manage your time and juggle multiple projects?

I manage time by making lists of urgent things I need to do. Then going back to those lists to plan out my day, and being able to delegate to very talented people. This helps me maneuver multiple projects.

12. Are you a morning or a late-night person?

I consider myself more of a night owl.

13. What are you currently reading?

Right now I am reading a novel called Tripwire by Lee Child. I’m a big fan of the Jack Reacher series and have read most of the series, though out of order (it depends on which of the books I can find). They are a great escapist read. An excellent technical book I’m reading currently is Deep Learning by Goodfellow, Bengio and Courville — it’s a fascinating book on machine learning.

14. You’re a busy guy! How do you spend your free time? Have any hobbies?

I like to spend my free time with my family in the mountains. My hobbies include sprucing up cars (I restored a 1950 MGA Roadster), building radio-controlled model aircraft, and now I’m learning to play the piano.

15.There must be a particular project or design you’re very proud of. What is it?

There are many achievements I’m proud of, but what stands out most is my work on Google Calendar. I managed the engineering team for four years during which the product made some major advances with new features and new mobile clients (a revamped Android app and a new iOS app). It’s very rewarding and humbling to have worked on something that so many people have used and benefited from.

16. What is your favorite thing about your career? What do you (or did you) find challenging?

I’ve had the fantastic opportunity to work on such a wide range of products and with very different technologies. Gaining knowledge and insight into a variety companies has been invaluable to me. However, the best thing about my career is that I have been extremely fortunate to work with such amazing people in every single one of my companies and roles. I am very happy to say that this trend is continuing at Teralytics!

17. Any words of wisdom to share with your fellow engineers?

Always continue to learn and seek out new experiences. And have fun!