Writing Code for a Robot's Brain

Tanay Choudhary (MSR '16) talks about his role at Vecna Robotics and how Northwestern's Master of Science in Robotics program prepared him for where he is today.

Tanay Choudhary (MSR '16) is a robotics software engineer at Vecna Robotics, where, as he puts it, he gets to "write code for the 'brains' inside the robots."

It's a job where he learns a lot, and it's also one where he relies heavily on the lessons he learned during his time in Northwestern's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program. Some of those lessons were technical in nature, but others were larger realizations that will benefit him in anything he does, even if it has nothing to do with robotics.

Choudhary recently took time to talk about those lessons and his MSR experience, as well as what advice he would give to a prospective student considering the program.

What is it that you do at Vecna Robotics?

Vecna Robotics is a startup primarily involved in creating adaptive and flexible robotic solutions for the material handling industry. I work as a robotics software engineer, which means I get to write code for the "brains" inside the robots, i.e., the algorithms that make the robots autonomous. I also participate in design discussions where we come up with creative ways to overcome an obstacle we're facing in a project, from a software perspective.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The people I work with. Being able to work closely with people specialized in different fields, be it electrical or mechanical engineers, computer vision or controls experts, especially in a culture where everyone is eager to help each other, makes it a very energizing work environment. It kind of reminds me of the MSR atmosphere, although at a bigger scale.

As you were looking into MSR, what was it about the program that appealed to you?

The cohort model and the emphasis on hands-on project work were definitely the most important factors. The variety of courses I could take from multiple departments such as EECS and ME was also very appealing.

How would you describe your MSR experience?

The most intense learning experience of my life!

What are two or three of the most important lessons you've learned during your time in the program?

  1. The value of leaning on others who might be more experienced in a certain domain, instead of trying to solve everything yourself

  2. How important it is to document every project you work on, and distilling the lessons learned from it

  3. Learning that most often in the real world, "good enough" is better than "perfect"

How do you implement what you learned in MSR into your day-to-day work life?

MSR gave me the confidence that I don't already need to be an expert in a field to solve the problem at hand. I can dive into the problem, learn the tools and technologies used in the field, and apply it in a relatively short amount of time, and then build upon it for further refinement. This has proven to be immensely valuable at work because every day we face new problems that need to be solved quickly. It has also allowed me to expand the variety of issues I take on at work, outside of what I'm familiar with.

What would you say to a prospective student considering the MSR program?

Get familiarized with at least one major programming language used in robotics -- C++ or Python, as well as ROS, since more and more companies (including ours) are leveraging ROS libraries in their products. Once you're here, make the most of your mentors and peers, and of course the ever expanding collection of cool robots and platforms at Northwestern.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I'd like to thank MSR for giving me not just an incredible learning experience, but also the opportunity to make lifelong friends.

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