The Engineering People Show, Episode 25: Dr. Anurag Maunder
“I know some engineers will be disappointed by that, but it’s easier for me to find a smart person than for me to find a hardworking person. If there is one message I can give to every young engineer is that don’t take working hard for granted.”
This week on Engineering People
Dr. Anurag Maunder is an SVP of Engineering at Kindred AI, an artificial intelligence company that solves human problems with autonomous robots. He started his career with prestigious AT&T Bell Labs. He was the Founder and CTO of Kazeon Systems (later acquired by EMC) and the Founder CEO of dLoop (acquired by Box). In the last few years, he established the Advanced Development lab for EMC to focus on Machine learning for automating storage configurations, and also created Johnson Controls Innovation Garage, which introduced several new AI products in industrial IOT. His current areas of interest are AI, Robotics, Smart Buildings and IoT Security using Blockchains. He believes that AI and Robotics together will fundamentally transform the quality of life and disrupt every single industry.
(Original episode released on September 10, 2018)
Dr. Maunder on LinkedIn:
History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell
Transcript, edited for clarity:
Ryan Carson: Welcome to Engineering People, the show where we interview the world’s leading engineering managers so we can learn from their experience and ideas. I’m Ryan Carson, the founder of Treehouse, and I’m your host.
Just a quick word about Treehouse in case you haven’t come across us. We have experience creating over 850,000 new developers and designers, so if your company would like to hire more developers and designers faster, we can help. Just visit teamtreehouse.com/go/talent.
But let’s get to the show. Today I’m joined by Anurag Maunder from Kindred.ai. I’m really excited to have you on the show.
Anurag Maunder: Thank you for having me.
Ryan Carson: Yeah. Looking forward to this discussion. Tell us a little bit more about you. What is your job title, and what does Kindred.ai do?
Anurag Maunder: Absolutely. I’m SVP of Engineering, so truly I’m an engineer by heart, but most of the last 10 years I’ve spent taking a step back and just observing the teams. I want to know what they’re doing right — are they working on the right things? Are we really exploiting the talent the way we should be exploiting the talent we have in the company? You can basically call me a talent hunter, like in Hollywood. I delight in finding the right engineer who wants to really get lots of work done.
Ryan Carson: That’s awesome. “A talent hunter.” I like. No one’s ever said that. I’ve done 56 of these interviews and you’re the first. I love it.
Anurag Maunder: I believe in that.
Grasping, the next frontier of AI
Ryan Carson: What does Kindred.ai do?
Anurag Maunder: We are fundamentally building the intelligence for robots. That’s what we do. Personally, I believe that grasping is truly the next frontier of AI. It’s a huge unsolved problem.
Ryan Carson: Grasping. Like literally grabbing things?
Anurag Maunder: Exactly. I will truly talk more about that too, as to why it’s such a huge deal. Basically, our vision is to create an AI platform that integrates vision, grasping and placement to create autonomous solutions. It’s really the combination. A combination of AI and robotics. Each one of them is challenging, and the combination is like really, really, really challenging. We tend to take grasping for granted, but human beings’ grasp is so sophisticated that even a minimum wage worker, the kind of things that they can accomplish with their just hands and mind-body coordination is amazing. It’s tough to replicate. We have created a system which is the AI is trying to capture all the exceptions that a human routinely goes through. It’s really about capturing the exceptions. The routine job — going from X to Y — yes, we can do it. Everybody can do it. But what we specialize is in capturing those exceptions and making it happen. And just that grasp, that gripper, That robot that picks things up. I have seen it in movies all the time — like people create hands, and hands doing magical stuff.
Ryan Carson: It’s way harder than that.
Anurag Maunder: It’s tough.
Ryan Carson: Gosh, that’s crazy. That is one of those things you just don’t appreciate. Literally the fact I could pick up something in a complex way, and adapt to all the variations of that and all the unknowns and all. It’s one of those things that makes you just kind of think, “Well gosh. I’m really thankful I have hands and they work, and I don’t even know how they work.”
Anurag Maunder: You begin to appreciate all the things you can do.
Ryan Carson: Yeah. Gosh, how cool. What a fun problem to work on. So, your customers are essentially robotics manufacturers, or are they companies that are using robots?
Anurag Maunder: Our first set of customers are really the warehouses, because they need to accomplish a very complex task which we take for granted. They need to pick things. They need to figure out what those things are, and put them in the right bucket to ship that product out whenever we click on our iPhones and we want to buy this. It looks so simple til you start doing it with machines, and you know how much AI you need, and how much dexterity you need in your robot to make that happen, and to happen at the speed of human beings, and with no error whatsoever.
Kindred.ai’s org chart and the importance of customer advocacy
Ryan Carson: I think it’s helpful for the listeners to understand different org charts in different companies, and how to navigate those. Could you just tell us a little bit about your org chart? How you fit in and how things are structured?
Anurag Maunder: Yes. Our org chart looks very traditional, though we don’t really work in that traditional way. But you know, I have a software platform team that takes care of all the work we are doing in the platform. I have an AI team that’s an awesome AI team. Expert in reinforcement learning and deep learning. They are really working on the cutting edge technologies, like the papers that were published one month back. Our robotics team, which is creating all this awesome robot and the entire mechanical structure, including the gripper. All the subtleties of fingers, and hands, and local compliance, global compliance — things I learned only in the last six months. Unbelievable. And, of course, I have a quality department that takes care of whether we are doing the right things.
One additional thing I have, which generally I’ve not seen other places, is that I have a customer advocacy person on my team. That’s because, traditionally what I’ve seen in the enterprise worlds and other places is that we go to the sales team and explain what our product is, and sales teams go out and sell it. It’s almost always a one-way process. Yes, we learn after we make mistakes, and for users are not able to do things that they were planning to do, and it’s such an indirect way of learning. So we have a person on our team that’s really doing the opposite. It’s not taking our product with the sales, but bringing the salesperson to the product and saying, telling engineers everyday, “Look. This is the challenge that we are having. When people buy it, this is what they think. But when they start using it, this is how they start using it.” Always a variation of what they are, and bringing, putting this thing, closing the loop over there is very helpful.
Ryan Carson: That’s smart. Since your businesses is more physical than most of the businesses I interview — most of them are pure software — so essentially you have three whole new departments that most people don’t have. You’re SVP — how does the executive org chart work? What other departments are there?
Anurag Maunder: We have marketing. We have sales. We have product management. We have ops. Ops is a big piece of robotics companies. One thing you realize when you are building those robotics is that it’s not just about running the trains on time. Working on AI is like watching a suspense movie. You never know what’s going to come at you at what time! What did you train? What did it learn? Sometimes you are surprised at the things it learned. Sometimes pleasantly and sometimes not so pleasantly. So, working in that uncharted territory, it’s pretty exciting, but that also means that we have a very dedicated ops team that’s really keeping a close eye on, are we behaving well or not?
Ryan Carson: Right. How cool. What a fun business to work in! Roughly how large is the whole organization that reports up to you?
Anurag Maunder: I have about 55 people. It’s primarily an engineering organization, so.
Biggest influences as an engineering manager
Ryan Carson: Makes sense. Let’s dig into things you’ve learned. I would love to hear about your favorite book, or course, or person that’s really influenced you the most as an engineering manager.
Anurag Maunder: I like to read, I read a lot. Every time I read something, it influences me for a long period of time, then I read next book and that influence. I guess I’m easy to influence, but there are two books that really, really have stuck with me for a long period of time. One is Descartes’ Discourse on Methods. This is basically all our scientific philosophies built on top of that. The older I’m getting, the more I’m appreciating that small little tidbits, and how it transformed our entire scientific society. And, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.
Ryan Carson: Gosh, these are high level books here. You’re making me feel not very well read!
Anurag Maunder: No, no, these are such nice and easy to read books. I’ll highly recommend everybody to read them, but engineers are inquisitive by nature. They like to acquire knowledge. When you read this History of Western Civilization, Bertrand Russell, and I’ll recommend. It’s really very easy to read. It’s the struggle we all went through in trying to understand how humans behave. How humans acquire knowledge. Why they love to acquire knowledge, and why they love to learn, and the things they do, and how they manage themselves, and how they organize themselves. It’s so fundamental — I see that in daily life over and over again. Definitely in an engineering organization, which is what I do.
Ryan Carson: I’ve always loved Bertrand Russell, but I need to revisit that book. I’m just actually googling it right now. I need to order on Amazon real quick. Thanks for sharing that. Those are two books that no one has mentioned yet, so that’s exciting.
The toughest job Dr. Maunder has
Ryan Carson: As I explained pre-show, your career is impressive and you’ve achieved a lot, so I think it’s easy to believe you’re perfect and you know everything, right? Could you tell us about the worst or funniest job that you’ve ever had?
Anurag Maunder: Oh. You know. I think I’m better off not telling you about my worst job, because that happens to be in my own company, so I’ll keep that a secret [laugher] but no. Look, I’ve had the opportunity to learn quite a lot of things in a very compressed period of time but still, I would say the most interesting job is that of being a father. I have two sons. Both of them are nationally ranked debate players, and the younger one is the number one debater in the country, so you can see that arguing with them is so tough. [laugher] But you know what? I think every single engineer is a debate champion, so this kind of prepares me to be leading people in engineering so well.
Ryan Carson: Gosh, you’re right. I have had a lot of debates with people in engineering. It always goes to an almost technical debating sort of place.
Anurag Maunder: Exactly.
Ryan Carson: That’s hilarious.
Anurag Maunder: They are so passionate about what they’re doing and what they want to achieve and how they want to do it. My job is just to show them, “If you think about that, or just look at it from this angle or that angle.” It’s fun. It’s fun. Yeah. But but seriously speaking, I think one thing that I really appreciated as divergent from my engineering job was when I was a VP of Professional Services for a year. I had to carry a quota on my head every quarter. I had a quarterly quota. There is a life before having a quota on head, and there’s a life after having a quota on head, and I could see my behavior change so rapidly — like the very first quarter. It took me about three quarters to become normal again. This gave me an appreciation of the stress that the field teams are always under, so when the engineers complain the sales teams are not selling properly or “we sell something but we build something else,” and all these things, it helped me bridge the gap between that wide variety of complaints. I think I’m a better VP of Engineering because of that experience. I don’t think I want a quota on my head again, but I have a lot of appreciation for those who do that job.
Ryan Carson: Gosh, that’s interesting you say that, because I didn’t put a quota on myself last year as the CEO but I did this year, and you’re right, it just brings everything home. You’re right. It doesn’t make sense to do that for most of your engineers, so how could you build more empathy between sales and engineering, practically? Are there any ways?
Anurag Maunder: Oh yeah. I think there are plenty of words in the dictionary. What communication is the best way? The first thing is, I listened very well to my peers in sales, and I listened very well to my peers in other parts of the organization, because I understand the challenges they are going through, and I do my best to explain to engineers as to what is being asked of them, and why they are asking these things, even though they look so strange and weird. And yes, “Why don’t we sell what we’ve got? Why are we always selling what we don’t have?” and all those complaints. I think I bring a really good perspective to engineers, in terms of explaining to them as to what’s really happening in the field, so it works.
Big lessons: Two things you need to know
Ryan Carson: I want to dig into things you’ve learned. Big lessons. Imagine that you are going back to a younger self, and you’re grabbing yourself by the shoulders and saying, “Listen to me! These are the two things you need to know.” What might they be and what are some stories that you tell around that?
Anurag Maunder: I think there are probably a few things, but one thing I realized is — these are the two clichés that you hear all the time, you just don’t realize them — most of the people I deal with, all the engineers that I deal with, all my peers, they are all in the top 1% of this society. They are all very, very good. So really, what distinguish one person from another person is the hard work. Everybody talks about, “Look, I’m going to work smart. I’m going to do this thing. I accomplish whatever you tell me to do.” On the other hand, there is another person who just works very, very hard. People sometimes make fun of it, but I know how difficult. Let me tell you. I know some engineers will be disappointed by that, but it’s easier for me to find a smart person than for me to find a hardworking person. If there is one message I can give to every young engineer is that don’t take working hard for granted. They all work very, very hard when they were in grad schools, high schools, to get to where they were — but some point in life, you know the routines of life are what take the final job. That’s what that work/life balance is, that you are able to enjoy your life, but at the same time work hard. Not to take that for granted.
The second cliché is that — all said and done, I’ve seen that people say that all the time — people do indeed like to work with smart people and they like to work with accomplished people. As soon as that respect is gone, people tend to doubt everything. The trust goes away, and they say, “Our management doesn’t know what they’re saying,” and “what’s going on?” So not to take trust for granted and really cultivate it, always try to make sure you reinforce that trust. After six months or one year, you will think that now you are there, but you are just one mistake away from people saying, “Oh no, but management is always saying that, and then they don’t deliver.” So, to the aspiring managers, and people who are transitioning out from there, is that all those supposedly trivial things that, as a very smart architect, as a very smart engineer, you could get away with, all of a sudden you will say, “But I’m doing the right things, yet I’m getting blamed for being not trustworthy.” Hopefully, they realize that their words matter. It takes time to sink in, but eventually it does.
Ryan Carson: Building trust, and always building trust …
Anurag Maunder: Always.
Ryan Carson: … versus being done apparently with it.
Anurag Maunder: You are never done.
Ryan Carson: No. Gosh, that’s a great lesson. I’ve definitely learned that as a leader. Thank you.
Diverse teams, inclusive culture, better problem solving
Ryan Carson: We were talking a little bit about the importance of diversity and inclusion before the show. I know that you care about that. Is there anything that you’re doing to to build a diverse team, and to create inclusivity in your culture? I’d love to hear a little bit about that.
Anurag Maunder: Sure. First, diversity is a priority for us, and we really mean it. It’s very important. We already have a diverse culture, but there are four actionable ways we ensure that it is maintained. One, you want to make sure that interviews are very objective. We make sure that that there’s a minimum level of skills that a person has, and once that person has it that already makes sure that the person has a voice on the table. He will be invited for the interview, and it will never ever be cut off because somebody didn’t like the name or somebody didn’t like whatever background that person had or where they graduated from.
Once they have the minimum skills, they are invited over for the interview. But having said that, one thing I realized is that whenever you are hiring a person, as a hiring manager, I always like to think, “What would this person be doing three months after I hire him?” Because I really know what he’s going to be doing for next three months, because I know why I’m hiring that person. He has the right skills to do that job, because that’s he’s here for an interview, but what will he be doing? Truly, I have seen people who didn’t have the right background. They had the minimum skills, but they didn’t have the right background for that particular job, but they could show demonstrable interest in doing the job that I was advertising, and even though they had a very different background, I actually ended up hiring them. I have a couple of examples that I will actually give you towards the end of this.
The third thing which is very important, and actually I’ll give you examples along with this, is the internal opportunities, which is making sure that we hire people as robot pilots, and then we absorb them in engineering, ops, all the other roles. We have people with business major who taught themselves how to program, and they want to do robotic programming, and they are now the head of our UX experts. user experience. We have people who actually dropped very soon after high school from the college, and they are now full-fledged mechanical engineers with our company.
That is the kind of diversity that adds the momentum and adds to the culture, which is really my final point, is to have that culture, having the fun where people can have fun with each other. I think that’s what propels diversity and get people from many different backgrounds come together and talk about the problem. It’s very different when any one of them gives their opinion. And like I said, I’ve now learned to listen a lot more. [laughter].
Shipping and innovating
Ryan Carson: One of the questions that is hard for everybody is, how do you balance shipping features and products that are vital for business, yet giving your time team to innovate and be creative?
Anurag Maunder: My first job after doing my PhD was Bell Labs. I’ve had a series of jobs in innovation, pure innovation — like Bell Labs as well as my last job as the head of Innovation Garage at Johnson Controls, which actually I created for AI and robotics — and I’ve been a VP of engineering for many, many years, which is what I do for a living. So, I cross these boundaries very easily.
To answer your question, there are a few things I’ve learned traversing the CTO world and the innovation world and the engineering world. One, innovation is everywhere. Everywhere. Best innovation comes when people get their hands dirty and then they are deeply involved in something. Of course, mission takes priority. When you are in engineering and you have a deadline to approach, you want to make sure that you meet that deadline — but in my last 20 years I’ve never seen that everybody is busy all the time just doing what the goals that they were meant to do. That never happens. I mean, that usually lasts for like two months or something, max, and question is then how to harness the innovation during those period of time when they don’t have an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation.
If a person has a proposal and he wants to do something, we actually have a formal process where anybody can propose any idea. We put that idea on a Confluence page, where people can go and write as much detail about that idea as possible. I help them also in terms of exploring that idea into how it’s going to benefit us. I’ve given some kind of degrees what amount of effort it will take. Once a month it’s me, our VP of Product Management and our Chief Research Officer all sit down together. We look at those ideas. Certain ideas, we put them in part of something we are going to do, like make them active.
Some ideas that we have worked on, and we made a disposition, whether it was a regulated learning, — “yes, we learned from it,” “we are not going to do anything from it,” or we actually sent it to product, — then it goes out and goes into the graduated category. We have a graduated category, we have an active category, we have a backlog category. Everybody is encouraged to put their ideas over there. That’s one of the ways that I’m encouraging it. We’ll see how good it works in the startup world. [laughter] I’ve had that in a big company. It definitely galvanized 80,000-people companies. We’ve gotten lots of ideas, and people were working on those ideas in their spare time because they knew there’s somebody who’s going to listen to them.
Ryan Carson: That’s powerful. I love that idea.
How do you deal with people getting frustrated if those ideas don’t happen? If they put them on and nothing happens, how do you kind of manage the two?
Anurag Maunder: Oh, I’m very upfront about it. First of all, I tell them that, “Look, I have hundreds of ideas in my head. I’ve barely been able to accomplish two ideas with two companies. Okay? So, your idea, nobody can have as much passion about your idea as you have. The onus is really on you. If you are thinking that somebody else will come out, and take your idea, and is going to implement it and take it forward, you are in for a rude surprise.” Also, “Don’t hold onto your idea. It’s really not as precious as you think it is. Share it around. Maybe you will find somebody who is equally passionate about that, because that’s how you form a team, you work on it and you can make it happen.”
Engineers like to leave their mark on the product, and I want to do everything possible to help them take their idea and make it part of the product, because that’s the happiness that they have day in and day out whenever they look at the product. “You know that thing? I made that thing.”
Ryan Carson: I love the way you phrased that. You know, “Listen. It’s your idea. If you really want it to happen, own it.”
Anurag Maunder: Then convince everybody.
Ryan Carson: Yep. I love it.
Anurag Maunder: I help them. I help them — well actually, because this is near and dear to my heart.
Ryan Carson: Well, that concludes all my questions. I’ve really enjoyed learning from you, and hearing about your experience. I especially didn’t appreciate how hard grasping is.
Anurag Maunder: It’s a tough job.
Ryan Carson: It’s a good reminder. I loved your answer about innovation too, and how you’re encouraging it, so it’s exciting to hear. Real quick, where can people find you if they want to connect?
Anurag Maunder: LinkedIn is really one of the best ways to reach me. Anurag@kinder.ai, they can always send me an email there.
Ryan Carson: Anurag, thanks so much for your time and for joining us. I really appreciate it and look forward to chatting soon.
Anurag Maunder: Likewise. Thank you very much.