Plus One Women in Robotics (Part 1)

According to the US Census, in 2019, women made up 48% of the workforce but only 27% of STEM employees.

c In this blog, we’ve interviewed Ruta Dandekar, Constance McCafferty, and Cynthia Yeung to understand their journey into the robotics space and what they do at Plus One Robotics. By highlighting their stories, we hope to give more visibility to women in robotics to encourage more girls and women to enter into STEM careers.

Ruta Dandekar, Robotics Developer

What do you do at Plus One, and how long have you worked here?

I have been working at POR as a Robotics Developer for about 2 years. In this position, my role is majorly to develop software, which not only entails writing code for features but also fixing known issues, testing, and validating the functionality of developed features. These features are directed towards functionality desired by our customers on a robotic system. In brief, I write code that tells the robot how to do a certain task to meet a customer requirement, for example identifying unique products and singulation. This involves core knowledge of math and physics with a focus on computer vision and Artificial Intelligence (AI), along with the ability to program a robot to perform such complex functions.

What led you to your career in robotics?

Growing up, I loved helping my father with electrical work throughout the house. I developed an inclination towards working with machines. This in turn led me to pursue a degree in Computer Engineering where I could take up courses that involved writing code to control automated systems. After I graduated with a master's degree from UTSA, I worked at a few other companies that dealt with automated systems and AI. It was during this time that I heard about the awesome robots that POR works with, and this eventually drove me to work at such an amazing place. At POR, not only did I get to play with robots but also work with great mentors and brilliant co-workers who shared an equal passion for robotics.

With more and more women working in this space, I feel comfortable and valued for the work I do.

What do you like most about working in the robotics space?

I have always admired my mother as a doctor taking on challenging tasks. Working in robotics is challenging because we are constantly solving new problems that may not have a well-defined solution yet. As a result, my work never becomes monotonous, and the results of my development are really rewarding. With more and more women working in this space, I feel comfortable and valued for the work I do.

Constance McCafferty, Head Crew Chief

What do you do at Plus One, and how long have you worked here?

I'm the Head Crew Chief of the Technical Operations Team. When one of our robots notifies me of an issue in the pick and place cycle, I provide an answer through our Yonder software. I've answered thousands of requests for hundreds of thousands of automated cycles. I now teach others how to be a Crew Chief and manage a team of six in our internal POR group. We provide quick, quality, customer service at the click of a mouse!

Being a Crew Chief and having my previous experience in those warehouses, and knowing the environment we are trying to place our systems in to solve those kinds of issues – it’s something that makes me want to keep going.

What led you to your career in robotics?

I do not have a background in robotics or engineering.  I found Plus One through a temporary employment agency, and I requested something unique. This is what they gave me, and I haven’t looked back.

I do have a warehouse background that helped me understand what we are trying to integrate and our solutions. I’ve actually worked for quite a few of our customers. I’ve worked in many industrial warehouses – paper factories, candy factories, bicycle factories. Having to do that sort of manual, physical labor allowed me to see that there is a much better way to tackle the problems that you experience on-site.  Being on the other side as the Crew Chief opened up a whole other world.  Being a Crew Chief and having my previous experience in those warehouses, and knowing the environment we are trying to place our systems in to solve those kinds of issues – it’s something that makes me want to keep going.

What do you like most about working in the robotics space?

The best part about what I do is being able to work anywhere, with my laptop and a steady Internet connection, the world is my oyster.  Flexibility is key to creating a work environment in which things can change on a dime, and I love having the ability to answer that call, whatever that call maybe. 

I also love my coworkers; I love the people.  It’s in our motto, “Robots work. People rule.”  They absolutely do.  It is what keeps me coming back and it keeps me taking the challenges that come across my desk or phone.  No one is an island, and they are a great support network.

Cynthia Yeung, Head of Product

What do you do at Plus One, and how long have you worked here?

I’ve been here for about six months serving as Head of Product.  I like to joke that product management is like herding cats but, more seriously, it is a lot of cross-functional collaboration.  As the glue between customers, finance, sales, and marketing, PMs translate all those stakeholder requirements back to engineering so that they can develop not just a product, but the right product at the right pace and right level of quality.

What led you to your career in robotics?

I’ve always loved technology and science fiction.  I grew up reading Isaac Asimov.  There is a recurring character featured in many of his books, Susan Calvin, who was a robot psychologist.  She was brilliant, she didn’t take nonsense from anyone, and she got the job done.  It was so refreshing as a young girl to read about someone who fit my mold of the world.

From a professional perspective, I’ve been in tech for a long time but mostly from the web side of things.  While I was building my career in Silicon Valley, including a 5-year stint at Google, my wife was doing her Ph.D. in robotics.  I would crash her robotics conferences around the world and walk in pretending like I belonged.  Having edited several of her research papers, I realized that I knew a lot about cutting-edge research and that I wanted to be more directly involved.  My first toehold in the robotics industry was when I joined SoftBank Robotics.  I got a lot of great exposure and ended up working at several other robotics startups after that, including serving as COO of a Series A coffee robotics startup.  I was introduced to Plus One through Dan Grollman, who is on the R&D side of Plus One.  We go way back.

I think this is a great time to get into the industry because you can have a voice in shaping how this technology is going to impact generations to come.

What do you like most about working in the robotics space?

I think what’s gratifying for me about working in robotics is that it feels very tangible.  Earlier in my career, when I was working with mostly web-based products, it felt very amorphous.  Intellectually, I understood the impact of the product – you know, numbers don’t lie – but at the same time, I couldn’t see it or touch it or feel it.  It didn’t feel sufficiently substantial to me.  Being in robotics feels real in a way that is so obvious and yet so hard to explain.  You can see the robot is doing a very specific task, and it is doing it well.  You can see this very measurable output that is now happening because of this thing you put out in the world.

The other thing I find interesting about robotics is where we are as a society right now.  Robotics, from a philosophical perspective, really touches on all these important conversations we are having: income inequality, social welfare, what does it mean to be human, and what people should be doing with their lives.  I think this is a great time to get into the industry because you can have a voice in shaping how this technology is going to impact generations to come.  Take, for example, our approach at Plus One, this whole idea of “Robots Work. People Rule.”  We’re not trying to get rid of people, we are trying to upskill them and give them better jobs.  One of these better jobs is, instead of you manually picking up this box and putting it on a conveyor - this repetitive, tedious, grueling work - you could be supervising fleets of robots.  It’s a desk job, it’s much more sustainable, it’s less physically arduous.  Hopefully, it’s also more intellectually interesting. 

I find it appealing that, as a company and as people who are developing these products, we constantly keep these values in mind.  We are setting the standard for our future with robots.  You can easily imagine a dystopian future where that isn’t the case.  There are movies and TV shows about what that could look like if you don’t have the right people making these types of decisions.  By joining companies like Plus One, not only can you be impactful but, because of where the industry is right now, you can have an outsized impact because you are there at ground zero.

Stay tuned for the second part of our Women of Plus One Robotics interview series.