A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Dirk Robinson, Engineering Leader @ Google, Former VP of Imagery and Analytics at Skybox Imaging
What is your background?
I have been lucky to have had a broad set of engineering and leadership experiences. After getting my PhD, I did R & D work in the areas of imaging and computer vision for companies ranging from a startup to a multinational corporation. Then, I joined Skybox Imaging when it was still in its early stage; this gave me the opportunity to expand into space systems engineering, hardware design and manufacture, and large-scale computing. I also learned how to build and lead engineering teams and develop company culture. For the last few years, I have been leading a software engineering org powering the Google Maps Platform.
What have been your top three career accomplishments so far?
The greatest personal sense of accomplishment that I have had thus far was from building our imaging satellite constellation at Skybox Imaging. Space is hard. There are a million things that can go wrong, it spans a dozen engineering disciplines, and the associated capital costs and lead times mean that failures are incredibly expensive. Tackling these challenges while also building a company on shoestring budget adds a whole additional layer of complexity. Seeing our “first light” image from our first satellite gave me an incredible sense of accomplishment, as it would for anyone who has worked in the space industry. But following that successful first satellite launch with our second, launching our first constellation, and creating Skybox’s operational mission systems revealed what I realized was an even bigger accomplishment: building an amazing team that could define and land really ambitious goals.
More recently, I am very proud of the software engineering organization I built at Google. Years ago, a few engineering leaders and I set out to build a high performing, inclusive engineering organization to launch and scale the Google Maps Platform. Today, we are a diverse engineering organization of highly-talented engineering teams operating across multiple continents. We have expanded our mapping and location-based services and we serve a billion users around the world every month. But most importantly to me, we are a team that push each other to do great work while also looking out for one another. That culture of support played a crucial role in our team’s ability to get through the difficulties of this last pandemic year.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
I am naturally a very curious person and I love to learn. Looking back, this curiosity has served me well in two ways. First, when making all of my career decisions, I prioritize working with people that I can learn from. This has meant getting to work with world-class machine learning researchers like Peter Hart and David Stork, who literally wrote the book used in grad schools across the world; with an amazingly sharp team of entrepreneurial engineers at Skybox Imaging; and with executive leaders like like Joe Rothenburg, Tom Ingersoll, and Camie Hackson, who know how to build and run large high-performing engineering organizations. Working with people who I admire has taught me useful skills; but equally important, these people have inspired me to do my best.
Second, my curiosity drives me to reach out, make connections, and learn about aspects of the systems, business, and organization falling outside my primary domain. I often spend time with people not normally part of my day-to-day, such as customers, legal teams, finance, and HR. I have found that doing so helps give me a clearer picture of the systems we all operate within; this, in turn, helps me identify opportunities and “see around the corner,” so to speak.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
I believe that the most enduring, impactful aspect of my formal education was developing my leadership and communication skills. In school, I was lucky enough to stumble into leadership roles in various associations and communities. Without knowing it at the time, I was learning how to communicate and coordinate across groups. I was learning how to make plans, bring people together, and get things done. Furthermore, grad school gave me the opportunity to work closely with engineers and professors from all around the world. This gave me a window into the different experiences, cultures, and values that people bring to work. These days, most of us are working with, selling to, or buying from people around the world. Having these experiences early in my career taught me how to build partnerships and get things done in the diverse world we operate in.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
Actually, my answer to these questions is the same: travel. I have really loved the opportunities to travel and work with people around the country and the world. One of my favorite things to do whenever I go on a trip is to explore, walking around the cities and taking public transportation to experience how they operate. On the flip side, there have been periods in my career where travel time away from family and friends and healthy routines has felt draining. It has been interesting to me over the pandemic year to see how much more we can get done via video conference than we used to think was possible.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
First, I think engineering will always be a promising career opportunity. Engineering is a critical driver of human productivity, the most valuable resource on the planet. That is not to say that engineering careers will always be stable or static; the trends of software and automation will affect engineering careers as much as any other. However, there will always be a need for people with strong fundamental understanding of basic sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) combined with engineering principles of design, analysis, and testing. In my opinion, the most exciting engineering career opportunities in the coming years and decades will be in those fields that are transitioning from basic science into engineering – fields like bio-engineering, neural-interfaces, environmental engineering, sociological engineering, and quantum computing.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation following a similar career path?
Seek out mentors and become a mentor to others. I believe that if you search, you will be able to find mentors willing to help you in your career. A mentor is an incredibly valuable resource to help you understand and pursue your goals. They can help you identify what problems you are trying to solve and can provide encouragement and motivation to move forward. Mentorship engagements are typically low-bandwidth, which actually forces discussion and insights outside of the “day-to-day” of your work. Every successful person I know has mentors in their life.
Moreover, mentoring others will also benefit you, even as you help others. Mentoring is a skill that can be learned and improved over time with practice. I have found it to be an incredibly rewarding experience, with real impact on other people’s careers and lives. It also provides an opportunity to learn about the generic patterns of success and failure that you can bring into your own life and career.
The Space Talent Spotlight is our blog series focused on the leaders and builders at the intersection of space and tech.The Space Talent Spotlight is our blog series focused on the leaders and builders at the intersection of space and tech.