A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Paridhi Desai, Technical Program Manager at Muon Space, Former Senior Technical Program Manager at Nuro, Lyft and Engineer at GM and Ford.
What is your background?
I was born and raised in India by parents who had built a textile manufacturing company from the ground up. Textile manufacturing wasn’t something that piqued my interest, but I was fascinated by the transition of mechanical systems to automated machines. This interest led me to pursue a bachelors degree in electronics. During my undergrad, I got an opportunity to work on building a robot that could navigate using a 3D point cloud. I loved working on a project where a variety of engineering domains came together. To continue learning further, I pursued a master's degree in Robotics at the University of Michigan.
My first job after graduating from Ann Arbor was as a vehicle test engineer at Ford. I was responsible for testing active safety features like Adaptive Cruise Control and Pedestrian Detection for next generation vehicles. I then moved to General Motors as a lead Design Release Engineer for the infrared camera system. This role gave me an opportunity to work on an entire lifecycle for a component. My responsibilities included requirements definition, component design, tackling build issues on the production line, verification/validation and even dealing with warranty/customer complaints.
I loved the breadth of my role and wanted to now do the same for an entire project instead of one component. This prompted me to switch from core engineering to technical program management. I worked on laying the foundation for several programs at the intersection of hardware and software at both Lyft Level 5 and Nuro. This included projects like building remote assistance consoles for autonomous vehicles, transitioning the autonomy stack to an alternate hardware platform, structured testing and hardware safety.
Before I started pursuing my bachelor degree in electronics engineering, I did a brief stint in environmental engineering but the location and college were not a great fit. I thus went back to my hometown and pursued electronics engineering. All these years, I have always carried the want to do my bit for the environment at the back of my mind. And in recent times, it's become very clear that climate change is one of the biggest challenges the human race is facing today. I therefore got interested in Muon Space because they were working on building a satellite constellation to collect data to help fight climate change. There was a hesitation of course of changing fields from automotive to aerospace but both of these systems are vehicles at the end. They both have a power system, computer of some sort, navigation system, sensors and actuators. As a technical program manager, once you have a fundamental engineering understanding of how these systems interact, you can apply the same principles for multiple applications. When I joined the team a year ago, we were just getting started and laying the groundwork for our entire platform. This was especially exciting and was thus a perfect opportunity for me to be able to use the lessons I’ve learned from all my past experiences and add additional skills to my arsenal - all while helping build something extremely meaningful from the ground up.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
Every job I have had so far has helped me be better prepared for the next challenge. But, if I had to pick a few projects, the first one would be the time I “released” the IR camera at General Motors. As a relatively new engineer in the workforce, there is an immense amount of satisfaction when something you designed goes through production and is being used by customers.
The second project would be building and launching remote assistance consoles at Nuro. These consoles were used for remotely assisting robots through precarious situations (when necessary), and were an essential part of our launch strategy. I helped to drive the program all the way from requirements development to building and launching hardware within an extremely constrained timeline and with limited resources. This experience helped me finesse my program management skills and learn some very important lessons along the way. For example, I have now honed my skills to identify gaps in the program along with quickly learning skills needed to fill that gap and to own that specific part of the project for a bit. In parallel and most importantly try to find an owner who is better suited and has cycles to take it forward. This skillset has come in handy especially as a Technical Program Manager at Muon Space where we are trying to build a satellite from ground up with a relatively small team. I am extremely confident that I am going to be adding Muon Space’s first satellite launch to this list soon.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
Two choices have helped me get ahead. The first one is always being ready to tackle hard and ambiguous problems. They might look daunting at first but once you break it down and start piecing the puzzle together, it almost always works out. Even if the outcome is not what you had originally expected, you will walk out with some very important learnings that will help you with the next challenge.
The second and very important choice I have made so far is to focus on people and relationships along with the projects themselves. Investing in social capital helps in two ways - it supports you through current projects and exposes you to new opportunities and challenges.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
If I look back, it would be the masters in Robotics program at the University of Michigan. The interdisciplinary nature of the program allowed me to take courses in a variety of domains. I have used bits and pieces of most individual courses in projects throughout my career. For example: I used embedded software extensively while building the test applications at Ford, principles of computer vision as I was designing vision systems at GM, basics of controls and dynamics while I was managing migrating our controls stack from one platform to another at Lyft and I leverage learnings from the fundamentals of business management as I try to balance resources and deliverables every single day as a technical program manager. I was also surrounded by the best and brightest faculty and peers. This not only pushed me to bring my best self forward but also helped me build relationships with folks I call my closest friends and family today.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
I have enjoyed bringing together teams of extremely intelligent multidisciplinary peers to deliver projects. Every person in the project brings along new ideas and new ways of thinking. Figuring how to make multiple thought processes work together has definitely been most rewarding. Seeing that final product come to life and people using these products has been the icing on the cake!
The not so fun part has been when I have had to deal with unconscious and conscious bias as a woman in engineering. This includes sometimes not getting a seat at the table or being called too emotional for expressing yourself. Although it might look like it's not happening fast enough, we as a society are taking steps in the right direction to fix this. I definitely am seeing more girls pursuing engineering and more women joining hands to form support groups, sharing tips so other women don't have to stumble on the same issues they did. I am also witnessing more women in C-suite and management and this definitely leaves me optimistic for the future.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
The space sector is definitely going to create a lot of lucrative opportunities and attract a lot of talent going forward. There are several applications the space industry is focusing on. Amongst them, climate change specifically is going to be extremely pivotal. We are going to need all disciplines of engineering and a lot of ‘out of the box’ thinking to come together to help solve the challenges that climate change poses to humankind. So, even if you don't have a traditional aerospace background - I would say if you are passionate about the cause and have transferable skills, don't hesitate to pursue opportunities in the space sector. I came to Muon Space with an automotive background and have been able to transfer most of my skill set here and most importantly have been able to learn new exciting things along the way.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
Be curious, willing to learn and take on new challenges. It's easy to get comfortable in your current role but don't hesitate to take risks - that is the only sure shot way to find your passion. Once you start working on something you are passionate about, the joy and satisfaction will follow.