17th June 2020
Tom Wilcox, Principal Engineer
From a young age, Tom always knew he had a fascination with robots, how they move, and the transformative power they can have on the world. Learning about robotics from papers by Professor Newman, he had no idea that ten years later he would be joining his team to help the company scale and solve the impossible.
Read more about Tom’s story below to learn about his achievements to date, how he juggles family life as a working parent, and why he thinks work is like eating ice cream and getting super-human strength.
What made you want to join Oxbotica and what led you here?
Around six years ago, I was visiting my partner in Oxford who had just moved to the area and I saw a fantastic opportunity to work at Oxford Robotics Institute as a Robotics Software Engineer. It felt like fate. I’d been closely following the lab for years and during my MSc studies I’d read about Paul Newman’s work – he’d taught me the principles of robotics even before I joined. As myself and my partner were moving to the area to start a family, it was an easy choice to make so I applied immediately.
As someone who has always been excited by technology and robotics, it felt like a dream role and I’m proud to have been part of the team before Oxbotica even truly began. My passion for understanding how you can apply software and robotics to solve the impossible is as strong today as it was then. I’m fascinated in how we can make robots understand the world. It’s truly transformative and is changing the world right in front of our eyes.
“I’ve been closely following the lab for years and during my MSc studies I’d read about Paul Newman’s work – he’d taught me the principles of robotics even before I joined.”
What is your role within Oxbotica? What team are you in?
I am a lead engineer for the Infrastructure team, and I was employed to help enable the company to scale, at pace. Back in the day we worked on small projects, moving single vehicles. But this grew very quickly and it didn’t take long until we were moving fleets of vehicles, across the globe, on a single piece of software. The Infrastructure team gave us the scale we needed. Now that is up and running, my role has evolved and I’ve more recently been acting as a facilitator, helping to provide the tools we need to scale up our software development.
What’s the most rewarding part of your role and do you have any key achievements?
The most rewarding part of my role is working alongside the Infrastructure team. Each and every individual is tackling an incredibly challenging problem, analysing it openly, finding a solution and then moving onto the next one. We’ve got a free and agile approach to engineering at Oxbotica which is very empowering.
I look at my team and I’m already so proud of what we have built. I started when there were only 30 people, and now we’ve grown to nearly 200 employees. This means I find myself surrounded by so many people that I can learn from. It’s a group of really professional individuals and it’s great to look back on all of our accomplishments.
In terms of key achievements, a year ago, we spun out a new system designed to accelerate development lifecycles and give developers the quickest possible feedback on how code was performing. To make this happen, we had to create entire systems that didn’t exist before. Now, they are a fundamental part of our everyday working life. It’s so satisfying as an engineer to see something you’ve made, being used by someone else.
‘’I look at my team and I’m already so proud of what we have built.’’
How has Oxbotica supported you to become a working parent? Have you gone part time? Did have you have parental leave?
The whole team at Oxbotica have been incredibly supportive. I find it so impressive that a young scale-up company is so hands-on-deck and accommodating, and it’s definitely one of the company’s main strengths.
I am still full time. The only real difference is that I now need to be a lot stricter with my working hours. I am a lot firmer with myself on when to clock out so I can spend time with my family and be there for our daughter. My partner and I had two months shared leave, and the company were supportive throughout the whole process.
How did you find integrating back into work upon your return?
I remember my first week back feeling as though I had never left, and I was really able to hit the ground running. It was a great welcome back into the office. During my time off I wasn’t working at all, but with regular opportunities to keep in touch, I never felt like I was out of sync. So in many respects when I returned I just picked back up from where I left off.
In light of the current situation, how are you finding the remote working situation? And how are you coping with having to look after your child whilst working?
Being able to deploy in any environment and any location around the globe is one of our main selling points. So it makes sense that we have a great working from home set-up in place to match. In fact, with team members based in Canada and the US, this is something we’ve depended on from day one. . Things have grown and changed since then, but the principles remain the same.
In some ways the current situation has enabled us to come closer together. For example, like most Oxbotica parents, I often find our daughter won’t be distracted for very long, so she has often featured alongside me in meetings with my colleagues, who also have been doing exactly the same! And seeing this side of people’s daily lives has a nice effect of helping everyone gain insights into each other. It enables us to be more understanding of each other’s situation. In a way it can help us communicate more openly and work more closely.
Do you have any advice for expectant or new parents when it comes to juggling your new work/life balance?
I highly recommend shared parental leave, as it really worked for my wife and me. When it comes to returning to work, I think it’s important to give yourself a break, and to realise that some nights you are only going to get four hours of sleep.
I gave myself a contingency, it was really important for me to remain realistic about what I could and couldn’t do. There is such a wonderful open culture at Oxbotica, so you can just keep talking to people; we all have shared experiences and a life outside work. When you share stories, you can listen to other people’s advice and learn from one another.
“There is such a wonderful open culture at Oxbotica, so you can just keep talking to people; we all have shared experiences and a life outside work.”
How do you see your role developing at Oxbotica?
My role at Oxbotica has evolved from day one. The Infrastructure team is truly world class and working well to provide a solid foundation for the company to grow on. Today I’ve got more of a facilitator role, looking to build new tools and use automation to persistently address the challenges we currently have. Once we’ve done this, there are a world’s worth of interesting puzzles to solve. Data holds the key to a lot of this and there is plenty of work still to be done to ensure we are maximising our use of the data we have, moving it, processing it and ultimately spotting relationships that we don’t even know exist yet.
“My role at Oxbotica has evolved from day one. The infrastructure team is truly world class.”
What excites you most about the future of mobility?
If you couldn’t tell already, I’m fascinated by the transformative power robots can have on the world and in helping us to shape a better future. This is about more than moving people from A to B, it’s about overcoming barriers, changing industries, and improving lives.
Robotics has the potential to enable people to live more independently and do even more with their lives, which is incredible. The idea that I get to work on robots on a daily basis – and know that the end result has the potential to benefit people in a brilliant way – it’s like being told you can eat ice cream and get superhuman strength.
What obstacles do Oxbotica engineers still need to overcome before L5 autonomy is adopted universally?
With the diligence and ingenuity of the team here at Oxbotica, it’s hard to see a future where we haven’t overcome the obstacles in front of us on our road to universal autonomy. Only yesterday I read to my daughter a book called “The Worrysaurus”, an insightful “engineering text”  centered on the story of a dinosaur’s fears around uncertainty and risk management. There is a quote which I think communicates the tenacity and agility prevalent throughout our outstanding engineering team: “If it’s not a happy ending, then it hasn’t ended yet.”