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What’s It Like to Working at an Autonomous Vehicle Startup?

Luke Renner |


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Luke Renner: This is Advanced Autonomy. I’m Luke Renner. Since we launched the podcast a few weeks ago, we've been really focused on the technical and philosophical aspects of the autonomous vehicle sector. Today, I wanted to do something a little bit different and talk about what it's actually like to work at a startup, working on these autonomous vehicle problems.

My guest today is Emily McNamara. She's the Director of Operations and Finance and People for Cyngn, and today, we're going to discuss her journey, dive into the Cyngn organization more broadly, and give you an insider's look into how Cyngn finds and recruits top talent. If you're thinking about a career in the autonomous vehicle sector or in Silicon Valley more broadly, this conversation is for you.

Hi, Emily. Welcome to the show.

Emily McNamara: Hi, Luke. I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Luke Renner: Yeah, I want to get a sense of what you do here at Cyngn because you have a lot of responsibilities and a lot of words in your job title so maybe I should even just ask you, what don't you do?

Emily McNamara: Oh, that's a good question, what don't I do here? I don't code so you could say that but I do feel that I'm very in touch with all aspects of Cyngn.

Luke Renner: Yeah.

Emily McNamara: From the small things to the larger items I handle, I certainly couldn't do what I do without the support that I have and I've had in the past.

I've got a great team on the operations side but also I think the team that I'm working with is a great group and they make it easy for me to do my job. Because I'm the type of person that likes to touch many different areas because they're not just challenging and in the sense that there's a lot to do — but also the what that I have to do. The ability to task switch, I think, is one of my strengths so I believe that because I've had the support that I've had not only from our CEO and our management staff but also the people on the ground, it's made it so that I can accomplish many many things.

Luke Renner: One of the things — and it's one of the things that I love — about working at a startup is this opportunity to wear a lot of different hats and do a ton of different things. I was wondering if maybe for someone who's never worked at a startup, for someone who has been in the corporate world for most of their career — I know that you've switched back and forth — what are some things that you've been surprised about working in a startup that maybe you didn't expect or maybe you could preview for someone thinking about jumping over?

Emily McNamara: I would say that what I thought was fast-paced is not really that fast, and it wasn't as fast as I thought it was until I joined this company, especially with my roles. But really there is always going to be a sense of urgency in the things that I do, and I actually thrive in that environment anyway so it really spoke to my skill sets but also how I work. And, you know, it was not something that I really expected in this manner. I mean it's ever-changing and being someone very comfortable with the uncomfortable has really helped me to thrive and be successful.

Luke Renner: What do you think is the reason that people bounce out of startups and go back to corporate life?

Emily McNamara: I think that part of it is that people walk into this with certain expectations that they have. I think in any part of life you set expectations, you could set yourself up for disappointment. And I think that the people that are more open and more open to change are the people that end up staying.

Or they already have in their mind, “Okay, I'm trying to achieve XYZ. I’m here to learn. I'm here to get that sense of what it's like to work at a true startup.” You know, a true startup with the kind of clout and credibility that we have, and they're here for a reason a purpose. It could be their own personal purpose to further themselves professionally or maybe it's something more personal but every startup will be very different.

Luke Renner: One thing I really like about startups is because these companies are so small they really do have their own personalities. They have their own culture. They have their own individual way of doing business and that really allows you to find a great fit. And exactly to your point, sometimes there's not a great fit.

Emily McNamara: Yeah, yeah, and you don't know unless you try. You really don't know unless you try, and I'd like to point out one more thing that I think is very important to understand. Being at a startup where you don't have RSUs you could go and cash out and have a whole lot of money, a pile of money to sit on — but if you come into this with knowing that you could build this into that kind of company.

If you're driven by money, I think that that we're still very competitive when it comes to pay but in the Valley, I think, there's always someone with deeper pockets waiting by the corner. If you're the type that's gonna jump from one place to another, hey, all more power to you. I wish you well, if that's what you're wanting to do.

But, I think, for our company, if you're wanting to do something that's kind of bigger than yourself and you want to accomplish something, you want to see things to the end, you truly want to grow with a network of people, and really foster that growth, then this is the right place for you.

Luke Renner: When you're talking to candidates, how do you determine whether someone's a good fit for Cyngn? What kind of questions do you ask them?

Emily McNamara: I think that when I talk to a candidate, one of the questions I ask is, what are your aspirations? What is your end game? Like, what is it you're trying to achieve? Are you fresh out of college and you're just starting your career?

It gives me a better sense of what it is that you're wanting and how we could fit. And even for seasoned professionals, when they come on board, I provide a different perspective for them too. They see a broader picture and sense of what this could lead to. You know, I really do try to speak to more specifically how, hey, we're that right team, we do need you, and we could definitely use your knowledge and your experience. I think that it's all a matter of trying to align someone's perspective and expectations to grow into a company like ours.

Luke Renner: Yeah, I understand. You go through hundreds of resumes a day. You're talking to tons of candidates all the time, and I imagine that sometimes you're getting applications or you're looking at resumes and you're like, “Are they for real? Is this a joke?” So, I want to give you a chance to set the record straight. What are some things that you wish everyone knew who is applying for a job, that you feel should be super obvious by now but maybe everyone just needs a check-in?

Emily McNamara: Yeah, I think some of them are pretty standard like don't send a novel as your resume. If it’s something that's going to take us a half-hour to go through to understand your background, and what you know, it's definitely a deterrent. And then, although we'd like to say shoot for the stars, it needs to align with the technology and what we're doing. I mean I think even had someone that was a former music teacher that wanted to go into autonomous vehicles and be an engineer.

Luke Renner: So be concise and be qualified, it sounds like?

Emily McNamara: Yeah. Be concise, be qualified, and be responsive, you know? If we do reach out, respond back in a timely manner. Don’t reach back out two months later. But I'm not saying you can't, I mean, if you're very qualified and you have a plethora of offers and you're taking your time, there's no fault to that but, yeah, I do believe that if you apply, you should go with that momentum and try to follow-up.

Luke Renner: Yeah. What have you learned about recruiting as you've been doing it that makes you more effective now than maybe you were when you started?

Emily McNamara: These are human beings, and these are people, not just paper. I get a lot more responses from those that I put a personal touch on. I don't just necessarily use generic templates. I do try to tweak them in a way where I do know that that's a person on the other side.

Luke Renner: Yeah, and I think that's one of the reasons why people respond to startups. It’s certainly why I responded to this opportunity when I started too.

Emily McNamara: You're not going to be folded into layers. You know, you’re a person, you're going to have that kind of personal attention. You know, the team is more intimate because you're going to have that touch. You really have to remember that these are people that you’re recruiting.

Luke Renner: Yeah, so I joined after the pandemic started but one of the things I know is that before the pandemic, Cyngn was not a remote company, and most people — almost nobody worked remote. So, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you guys have managed the change, how switching to remote for the pandemic has changed the company, and how things are going now.

Emily McNamara: I think similar to other companies that have had to make changes that we really didn't want to make at that time because we're a smaller company and often we have to collaborate and be face to face in terms of getting things done more efficiently —

Luke Renner: And in fact, there's a lot of research and development happening, right? You need to be working on the cars. 

Emily McNamara: Yeah, so we did have a hardware team that really needed to be here and very hands-on and on the ground and testing. Obviously with R&D, that needed to happen and it really hurt us, I think, during Covid to not be able to do that but it forced us to take a hard look at — whereas before we were not a fan of working remotely, [[we see now,]] there are some people in certain functions that they're efficient in being able to work from home.

But it really also showed us that there's great value in working together in person and being at meetings together in person. You know, it helped us to appreciate that aspect of working together so we are looking forward to kind of getting back into some level of normalcy but with the renewed perspective and renewed appreciation for our colleagues and being able to work together physically in person. But also that sense of excitement for what we’re doing.

You know, it took a hit, that period that you're home by yourself. And being in the HR function, I've noticed that I've talked to individuals where their morale is taking a hit. They're at their home and they're trying to adhere to COVID restrictions, and it's been difficult for them, especially with those that have family overseas.

I mean my family's on the east coast but still, it was hard for me. I couldn't imagine if all of your family is out of the country and you're being told you can't even enter the country or if you do then you can't leave, you know? And just worrying about them and how the pandemic is hitting them over there. It really hits you hard when you’re trying to focus on work. 

Luke Renner: I think everyone's going to remember 2020 as a super strange year at best. It's 2021 now. What are you most looking forward to for Cyngn for the rest of the year?

Emily McNamara: Well, for the rest of the year, I'm definitely looking forward to getting back to the office and getting back to where we could have meetings together in the same room and be able to look someone in the eyes and not through a screen, just that feeling of human interaction. I think I'm definitely looking forward to being together in the same room. this is a really important thing.

Luke Renner: Yeah, that sounds great. Well, thank you so much. We had to reschedule this multiple times because you're so slammed so I really appreciate the time and have a great night, okay?

Emily McNamara: Okay, same to you. Thanks, Luke, bye.

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