It takes a lot of courage and unconventional thinking to give up a formal degree for the opportunity to work on real problems in the world of Industrial Robotics !

Sharad Maheshwari, our next pathbreaker, Robotics Engineer at Schmiede.One (Düsseldorf, Germany), an Agriculture Robotics startup, is part of a team that develops autonomous robots to address labor shortage, low yield and efficiency challenges in the agricultural sector.

Sharad talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about developing an interest in Robotics during his undergrad and working in research labs as well as MNCs before switching to the fast paced and dynamic world of startups.

For students, everyone of us has a different style of learning, whether it is through formal education or hands-on working knowledge. The earlier you figure it out, the faster your learning curve !

Sharad, can you tell us about your initial years?

I grew up in a quaint town named Sagar in Madhya Pradesh, India. We were a typical middle-class family with my father managing his small business and my mother managing work as a beautician as well as the house, like our superhuman mothers!
I was a sincere kid in school (that changed in university though). But I actually spent more time playing music than studying. I just don’t know why–it probably was my calling back then. I was found learning the guitar from YouTube for hours on end. And I was more interested in music than anything else. After 13 years of learning, I also taught music and it is still my pleasant break from engineering.

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

Graduating in Electronics Engineering from BITS Pilani in 2016, I spent about 3.5 years exploring hardware and software engineering in startups, academia and MNCs before starting my post-graduation. I started my masters in Robotics at University of Trento, Italy in 2020. But one year in, I dropped out of my master’s to work with robotics startups in Europe. As I said, I stopped condoning the idea of being a good student after school. While my post-graduation gave me the legal reach to work in Europe, it did not help me become a “builder and problem solver”. To me, that happens outside the realm of exams and grades. Hence, I decided to drop out and become a builder in Robotics with real-life problem-solving startups.

Can you mention some of the influences that led you on such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career path?

I’m a Robotics Engineer deeply involved in the startup space. This career was the culmination of about 3.5 years of exploring different domains in engineering. 

Upon graduating in 2016, I decided to spend time in hardware and software engineering in various settings – startups, academia and MNCs, before committing to one. This pivotal exploration set me up for my current love for robotics startups, which is arguably the most multi-disciplinary career I could’ve chosen.

But my foray into robotics can be traced back to my undergrad. In our university, I was a part of our Robotics Club, participating in various national robotics competitions. One such competition was ROBOCON, and we participated every year. Most of my evenings and nights were spent building robots. And to this day, it is the highlight of my undergraduate experience. 

After graduation, I worked in startups, academic labs and MNCs for a total of 3.5 years. I learnt a lot in each, and most importantly, I understood what I like the most – robotics startups. They are a place of high responsibility, visibility, impact and leverage – exactly what I love. Thus, my fate was sealed. 

Tell us about your career path

But the cornerstone of my Robotics career is my engineering exploration right after graduation. 

In 2016, I started working with Grey Orange, a robotics startup based in Gurgaon, India. I worked as a Hardware R&D Engineer responsible for electronics hardware design interspersed with some firmware development. In hindsight, this place formed the strongest base, both technical and aspirational, which I leverage in my current skill set. But since that was the only experience under my belt, I did not know what the other options looked like. So I decided to try other options and see for myself.

After working in the aforementioned startup for a year, I happened to find an academic research position in Robotics at Singapore University of Technology and Design and moved to Singapore. Our research lab specialized in industrial grade robotic soft grippers and mobile robot fishes. They were to be used in assembly lines and marine pollution survey respectively. Here, I leveraged my skills in electronics and ramped up on material sciences. Software engineering was a minor part of my role.

In time, I realized that academic labs can be slow as they focus more on publishing papers than high-quality engineering (this is based on my experience and is not a generalised viewpoint. I know many great labs now). It dawned on me that I loved fast-paced work and industries.

I stayed in academia for eight months, only to join the industry again. I spent the next 2 years in the industry (MNCs) as an ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit ) Software Engineer where I got most of my software engineering chops. I worked in the ASIC modeling team building C++/SystemC software models for storage devices. They were used by the firmware team for simulations. I learnt a lot about scalable software design in C++ and testing. I was also taking up online courses in Robotics and ML after my day job.

With time, and as I had lived other options, I grew fond of Robotics and the startup culture. I also realized that I could combine all the skills I learnt in my previous jobs and build a career in a startup in Robotics.

With a clear image of what I wanted to pursue and a strong skillset under my belt, I applied for a master’s program in Robotics. I started my masters in Robotics at University of Trento, Italy in 2020. 

I was inclined towards startups. So, I only applied to two post graduate programs closer to entrepreneurship and the startup world. One of them was EIT Digital Master School in the EU, where you are assigned two universities, one for each study year. I happened to get University of Trento, Italy and TU Berlin, Germany for my masters in Robotics (with an Entrepreneurship minor). 

It was a great experience being a student, but with a catch. I already realized in the past that I did not like focusing purely on university courses. So, I also worked with professors on their lab projects. In fact, as a masters student, I spent 70% of my time working on these projects, and 30% on official courses and exams. In hindsight, following my curiosity and spending time on projects was an important move. I enjoyed riding the learning curve and learnt greatly from these projects.

After my first year, university classes were still online due to COVID’s remnants. I also realized that startup robotics is a different ballgame from a traditional “get a degree, get a job, get a promotion” trajectory. I decided to pause my master’s and work with startups in Europe instead. 

To understand the robotics startup space in Europe, I moved to Germany and started working with Schmiede.One, an agriculture robotics startup based in Dusseldorf. This was the major turning point in my career. I had a great learning curve that aligned with my long-term vision. Hence, I decided to not continue my post-graduation later and dropped out completely. 

Putting away a degree to focus fully on becoming a better Robotictist was a long-term career move. I was in no rush when it came to my career. But finding solace in an exam based formal qualification system instead of building something “head-on” has never been a forward-looking idea for someone like me.

To be honest, I’ve also spent time with amazing engineers who spent a long time with formal education. And it did them well — because it worked for their learning style (also their curiosity makes them great, not coursework). I just happen to understand my learning style and aspirations. Getting a degree as a safety net, even though the long-term ROI is far less, doesn’t sit well with me. I would’ve loved to complete my master’s, but not at the cost of the time spent building something.

I currently work with Schimede.One as a Robotics Engineer, and enjoy every bit of it.

How did you get your first break?

I do not think there was any single “break” in my career. It was a gradual buildup of my curiosity-driven experiments and skill acquisition that led me into the robotics startup space.

With all my heart, I believe in constantly learning. And I don’t say it because it’s in vogue. Once you figure out what you like, there’s immense joy in learning and improving yourself. 

But if I have to, the point where I realized what I liked was perhaps the first break in my career. Mental clarity is a precursor to anything great. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: The biggest challenge in my journey up until now was the act of exploring different career options right after graduation. In our society and education system, career exploration is not taken well. This reminds me of a recent tweet from Paul Graham – “The educational systems in most countries expect you to solve an impossible problem: to figure out what you want to work on before you know what the different types of work are like.”

When I decided to first explore and figure out what I liked before going all in, I took flak from almost everyone. Additionally, if I wanted to experiment early on, I had to let go of financial benefits in the short term. I had to say no to higher pay twice so that I could be flexible enough to move and figure things myself. I’m glad I did not budge–my love for what I do comes from those years of exploration.

Challenge 2: 

The transition to startup robotics did take some time and patience. Due to its multidisciplinary requirements, it is one of the harder engineering industries to break into. I had to leverage both my electronics and software skills to make the transition. And with time, it did happen. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I currently work at Schmiede.One, an agriculture robotics startup based in Germany. We build autonomous robots to solve multiple issues in the agriculture industry–labor shortage, low efficiency, low yield, and climate uncertainties. 

Agri-robotics is imperative to solve for food security. There are multiple solutions being developed worldwide – autonomous open field harvesters, drone-based autonomous pollination, autonomous de-weeding, post-harvest processing of produce (cleaning, sorting, etc), drone imagery based data analytics, autonomous indoor farming, to name a few. All these solutions are important for us to modernize and protect agriculture.

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

There are multiple skills you need in order to become a robotics engineer–Software Design, Machine Learning, Computer Vision, Electronics, and Mechanical, to name a few. While you don’t need all of them, a strong grasp on at least two areas makes for a great robotics engineer at startups. Personally, I learnt Software Design, Computer Vision and Electronics design through industry experiences and project-based learning. I am a big proponent of “build and learn”, and that’s what I follow every day.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day involves rigorous R&D for building our agri-robots. I spend 80% of my time with robotics software engineering (Robot Operating System based system design, Computer Vision, Test Infrastructure), and the remaining 20% revolves around embedded systems and electronics. It’s a great mix.

What is it you love about this job? 

I absolutely love the domain and my job for the amount of creativity involved. We are supposed to solve new problems every day and seldom do we find any available end-to-end solutions. Thus, we build solutions ourselves and there is absolutely no monotony.

How does your work benefit society? 

I am convinced that agriculture needs to be automated for humanity to survive. To feed our humongous population, we need to solve the problems of labor shortage, low yield and efficiency, exposure to uncertain climate and harmful agriculture practices. The fate of humanity hangs on this, and robotics is the way to a surviving and thriving world.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Our current work at Schmiede.One is the best long-term project I’ve worked for. We started an agriculture robotics project from scratch when I joined the company. It’s been more than 1.5 years now, and we couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve already achieved. While I cannot divulge details, we carefully planned our project and timelines for a scalable, maintained and continually tested robot system. It has been a fun ride!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

There is so much technical advice found on the internet for all fields. But I’d like to talk about what comes before you enter a field–choosing a field. No matter what you work on, make sure you like the field. The career landscape has changed in the last decade. To have a great career, continuous learning is imperative. And you can only do that and be great at something if you like the domain. So figure out your strengths and likings. Once you do that, you’ll know your path, and have fun along the way. Keep learning!

Future Plans?

I want to build robot products in the startup space, and also help with robotics education. I do the former in my day job. For the latter, I’m extremely active on Twitter and my YouTube channel. They’re all about the robotics landscape and education.