Deconstructing a Roboticist’s World

Between hard hats and experiments with dusty robots, Tessa Lau follows a leadership approach that’s human first and foremost

By Aditi Malhotra

Inside a small warehouse in a nondescript building in Silicon Valley, Tessa Lau and her team of six roboticists at Dusty Robotics have set up shop to build a robot that will automate a crucial process in construction projects that humans have labored on for thousands of years: construction layout. If the machine successfully makes it out of the robotics lab, it will be the first of its kind in the world, says Lau.

In construction, layout is the process of making physical markings on a construction site based on an architect’s or builder’s blueprint. It’s typically done manually by stretching strings between different points, then snapping them to create chalk lines, describes Lau, the 45-year-old founder and CEO of Dusty Robotics, a venture capital–backed robotics start-up. She stood across from a prototype of the robot the team has been building in their office-cum-robotics lab for over a year. They’re calling it Mark.
Dusty Robotics officially launched operations in April 2018. But Lau spent months before the launch learning about the construction industry by talking to anyone she could find who knew anything about construction.

She talked with Diversity Woman about journeying through dusty construction sites, learning to write code as a child, being an effective leader, and finding one’s voice.

Diversity Woman: Let’s start at the start. Tell me about your childhood and growing up.
Tessa Lau: I grew up in Southern California, outside Los Angeles. My mom came from Hong Kong, my dad from China. They met at UC Berkeley. They had two kids. I was the first. I have a younger brother. My dad worked for the government. He has a PhD in electronic engineering, and he worked on funding technology in nanospace. We always had computers, hardware, and things like that lying around in the house.

I learned to computer program pretty early just by typing in a bunch of code from the listing [lines of computer code]. Eventually, I figured out how to write my own. I was always comfortable with computers. I got into video games as a teenager—you know, those are so cool! I was attracted to the idea that you could make a computer do something interesting.

DW: Fast-forward to robotics innovation. How and when did you get into that?
TL: I came to robotics at a late stage in my career. It was sort of a midcareer course correction. I got my PhD in computer science in 2001 [at University of Washington] before machine learning and data science became really hot. After completing my PhD, I went to work at IBM Research. After 11 years at IBM, I was looking for change.
At the time, one of my former managers at IBM had started a new robotics company called Willow Garage. What caught my attention at Willow Garage was a project called Robots for Humanity. The team was working with a mute quadriplegic named Henry Evans to build a robot for him that would help him with daily activities, like eating, shaving, or simply scratching his nose. It was fascinating. I worked at Willow Garage as a research scientist for 11 months.

DW: What came next?
TL: Willow Garage closed operations soon after I left. A few of us from the Garage decided to go the start-up way. We shared a vision of getting robots out in the real world. In September 2013, we started a company called Savioke with seven employees, all formerly at Willow Garage. I was chief technology officer.

DW: Was Savioke your first experience running a start-up?
TL: Yes, it was my first. I’d never thought I’d work for a start-up. It didn’t seem like it was for me. But it turns out I loved it for a number of reasons. I got to witness the creation of a company from nothing into a large, successful venture capital–funded company. The entire process was eye-opening. I’d worked for big companies before, and Willow Garage was a well-funded, well-established medium-sized company. But a start-up was something completely different.

DW: What were some of the initial lessons from this experience?
TL: When you start from scratch, everyone has to wear multiple hats and pitch in on different things. You have to set up infrastructure—from finding office space and signing a commercial lease to furnishing the office, buying furniture, getting people set up, and even throwing out the garbage and ordering pens. In a big company, someone else takes care of these things for you.

Then there’s the product side—which involves building a product from nothing. You’re not improving an existing product. You have to decide what you’re going to build. I found that incredibly interesting and exhilarating.

DW: From your experience at Savioke, and more recently founding Dusty Robotics, what do you think it takes to be a successful entrepreneur and your own boss?
TL: My role as CEO of Dusty is the culmination of all of the learning I have done throughout my life—both on the technical side and on the leadership and people management side.

It started at IBM when I became a manager for the first time. From that experience, I learned a lot about what it takes to run a team and to encourage that team to be their best. There was also a big learning curve working with different personalities, ensuring that everyone’s needs are being met and that they’re valuable and productive contributors to the team.

At Savioke, I built on that in a much more magnified way, because when you’re in a small team in a small company, each individual has an outsized contribution.

One of the lessons I learned at Savioke was that everything I say to the team as a leader is perceived as important. As a leader, one has to be careful to understand how comments are being received. For example, if you’re having a bad day, you can’t take it out on someone because you’re affecting someone’s life. I learned to be more in control of my own emotions, state of mind, and reactions and of how I come across to others. I realized what I was doing was having an impact on my team. Ultimately, I wanted my team to be happy and productive.

DW: Are there any specific tools characteristic to your leadership approach?
TL: The most prominent tool in my leadership toolbox is meditation. It allows me to cultivate self-awareness—how I’m feeling, and how that impacts others. Meditation is the one thing I rely on the most.

Over time, I’ve also developed a leadership philosophy on how to grow high-performing, trusting teams. There are definitely management philosophies that don’t work. For example, micromanagement never works, and lack of focus is not very good. Managers who don’t communicate well are challenging to deal with because employees may never know what they need to be doing and how it’s impacting the company. These are mistakes I’ve experienced, some of them I have committed. I’m learning from all of that and trying to dig deeper.

DW: What would you say about the state of gender equity and representation in both construction and robotics?
TL: Construction is one of the worst industries for women in the United States. Only about 3 percent of the construction workforce is female. That is a terrible state of affairs. We’re hoping to change that by empowering more women to be on construction sites through robotics.

As far as robotics is concerned, I think it tends to attract more women compared to other science and engineering disciplines because it is very applied.

I don’t mean to stereotype and generalize, but I do think women tend to be attracted to fields and jobs where they can see their contribution having an impact in the world. They’re invested in social good.

An example is the reason I got into robotics—to help people with disabilities. That’s what motivated me. I think [social good] motivates a lot of women as well. We’re lucky in robotics to have really strong women pioneering this field. DW

Aditi Malhotra is an independent journalist, writer, and storyteller in San Francisco.

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