November 6, 2020
Nikki Slaughter, Validation Team Manager at Vecna Robotics
Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work?
I grew up in Cranston, Rhode Island in an area very close to where my mother grew up. Even though I am an only child, I had lots of cousins nearby who I grew up with. My parents had split when I was very young. I lived primarily with my mom, but saw my dad fairly often, too. My mom has had various jobs – from a school teacher, to a mortgage lender, to a health administrator, while my father was in electronics sales.
Growing up, I was extremely creative and very interested in art – drawing, painting, and mixed media were some of my favorites. I was also very curious about how things were made. You could always find me taking apart something in the house just so I could figure out how it was put together. My house was full of K’nex, Hot Wheels, and a pretty big bin of Barbie dolls, too. I was convinced I’d grow up to be an artist or architect one day.
Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating?
I went to Tufts University for undergrad where I studied Mechanical Engineering. During school, I had several engineering internships during my summer breaks, and I ended up working for one of those companies after graduation. My first job out of school was as a mechanical engineer within the R&D team at Second Wind – a company specializing in wind resource assessment for the renewable energy industry. Over time, my role grew within that team over several years, even as we were acquired by another company.
What inspired you to get into the tech industry?
I had known a little bit about engineering from my father and my uncle who were both electrical engineers. But my first interest in robotics came to me in middle school when my woodshop teacher started a robotics club. I was part of an all girls team who competed in the FIRST Lego League challenge. I loved learning how different types of engineering disciplines could be mixed together to create something that moved and solved problems. I also loved being able to see something working that I had a part in making. From that point on, I was hooked. I ended up going to a vocational highschool where I could continue this interest in robotics, and eventually obtained my pre-engineering robotics diploma.
What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining Vecna Robotics?
Shortly after I started working at Second Wind, we were acquired by Vaisala – they added our equipment to their weather sensing line of products. Vaisala was a much larger company and more established, so there was a lot of work to fold us into their new processes. I started to get involved in the Engineering Change Control process to roll out changes like cost savings or new designs into manufacturing in addition to my Mechanical Engineering role. I learned quickly that I liked being involved in cross team projects, process management, and continuous improvement projects. The management team at the time recognized my interest in these areas, and approached me to take on a role as an Engineering Project Manager. I really enjoyed helping to coordinate and contribute to the product roadmap, but I learned quickly that I needed to develop my skills in people management to really succeed in a management role.
From here, I went back to school to obtain my Masters in Engineering Management from Tufts University. During that time, I started work as a Project Manager at Balyo where I was able to get back to my early interests in robotics. At Balyo, I worked directly with our customers to plan and coordinate their robotic installations. I traveled to customer sites to help scope out the project, worked with our deployment teams to develop our pre-installation activities, and often got my hands dirty helping out during the site installation. I loved the work and the technology, as well as my coworkers. Eventually though, I did burn out from the extensive travel. I was also interested in finding a role where I could bring my customer facing knowledge back into product development, which led me to Vecna Robotics.
Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as Validation Team Manager at Vecna Robotics?
Our team is responsible for validating and testing new features and product lines that come out of our development teams. In fewer words, we try to find ways to break our robots so our engineering teams can correct for them before releasing those products to our customers.
In my role, I organize and manage the testing our team needs to carry out based on the development projects from our various engineering teams. I spend time learning about what each of our engineering teams is working on so we can develop test plans and build test setups. I also help create the processes which allow for information to flow between the engineering and test teams so we can solve any issues and bugs that are found. I also spend time planning for our long term testing needs at an organizational level.
What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional?
I am lucky to have had excellent role models, teachers, and mentors who have supported me in my career goals. Just as my family has always had my best interest at heart, these folks who are my career family have my back, too. As you might guess in my profession, most of the people in my career family do not look like me – they are mostly white males. I hope one day to change that norm as I become a mentor and role model for others who come after me.
Being in an engineering discipline, I try to never let it bother me that I might be the only female or the only black person in the room. Even so, I recognize that others might discount my views or bring their own biases to the table just because of who I am. I’ve been in meetings where people didn’t listen to me and I had to rely on my male coworker (who was part of my career family) to bring the conversation back my way. I’ve had my ideas ignored earlier, just to be brought back as someone else’s idea later on. I’ve experienced racial bias from a customer I was working with – I tried to handle this situation on my own, but eventually brought it to the attention of my management team who supported me through that project. I’ve had another female engineer leave me hanging when I needed help simply because she felt I should go through the same difficulties she had in her own career.
These are all awful situations for anyone to go through, but I’ve learned how to negotiate these situations either on my own or with the support of others. The one thing I always keep in mind is that everyone faces difficulties in their career, but the way in which you address those difficulties will either let you move forward, or deepen the divide.
What types of programs and initiatives does Vecna Robotics have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Like many companies, Vecna has several programs that help promote diversity, equity and inclusion both internally and externally to our company. We have tuition reimbursement for anyone who is interested in continued education. Vecna also provides reimbursement for employees to join professional organizations such as Society of Women Engineers (SWE) or National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). The positive and inclusive company culture is a very important part of working here at Vecna, which was a major factor that drew me to join the team.
We also have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee which I recently joined as a Hiring and Recruitment subcommittee co-chair. Some of the tasks our sub-committee are working on include identifying how we can broaden our reach to more diverse candidates. We’re also looking to implement changes that will reduce bias during our interviewing processes. It’s been a really great experience so far to be part of this group as we look to promote change within our organization.
What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry?
Don’t be afraid to be the first… for me, that was being the only black female in a mostly white, male R&D team. If you don’t see someone in the hiring team or on the exec team who looks like you, it doesn’t mean that you won’t be valued as part of their team. You most certainly will face cultural challenges, and possibly stereotyping, but you’ll also have an opportunity to make change. You’ll need to surprise people by speaking to something they might be familiar with that you have another take on. Make those connections that will change their perspective.
And no matter who you are or what your background is, you need to have a career family who has your back. Find a mentor or a work ally who you can talk to about any difficulties you’re facing in reaching your goals. Ask for help and make a plan with them if you need support. I asked a coworker to help me bring order back to a meeting where people were consistently not listening to me. As soon as I asked for his help, he expressed how bad he felt about the meetings getting out of control before, but he didn’t want to overstep his bounds. Luckily, he only had to help me once in that situation, but I knew he had my back for anything I might need going forward.
While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken. Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?
First and foremost, companies in the tech industry need to build a culture of inclusiveness that will attract talent as well as diverse candidates. You also need to consider how your company culture could affect employee retention and diversity. If you know your company is lacking in diversity, find ways that will make it easier for potential candidates to picture themselves working for you. That can be helped by having a mentorship program that pairs new hires with someone in your company who’s looking to gain mentoring skills. For other companies, it might be addressing biases in your interview process that might make a candidate run the other way. There are many ways to promote diversity in your organization, but the first step is to address in what ways your organization might be limiting it. From there, your team can create a plan and take action towards a more diverse and inclusive work environment.