My Financial Story – Chapter 4 – Dream Job Number 1: Research in Robotics

This is the fourth chapter in my financial story series. In the previous chapter I became an engineer and engineered my first financial failure. Here I’ll show you how dream jobs are not that dreamy. In next chapter we’ll destroy another dream.

I’ve split this chapter in several pages to keep them shorter than the total 4000 words I ended up writing. At the end of the page you’ll find links to other pages.

Note: I have stolen copied been inspired by “the job experience” post series by livingafi. I loved reading his series and I’m trying to do something similar here, where I analyse both my work and finance history/goals.

So far in this series I’ve been restricting the focus on the financial aspects of my young life. From now on, the focus will be on both finances and jobs. This blog is about money, work, passions and happiness as I see them: reaching Financial Independence in order to Retire Early and follow your passions. (Un)Happiness at work is one of the key ingredient here, so I think going deep with my work experiences can be both fun and insightful.

I’m going to call this sub-series Dream Jobs because hey, guys, I’m a lucky man and I’ll tell you why: a lot of my dreams became true. Problem is that they happened to be waaay less dreamy than expected. What was I dreaming about? Well, any decent dream of mine revolves around doing something to make the world a better place, having big impact following one of my passions. I’m not that kind of guy who dreams a mansion or a Ferrari. I dream about a better life, an ideal life, for me and my fellow earthlings.

robocopAs a kid, my dreams were guided by role models. Factory of which, before the great venue of the Internet, has been the Cinema. One of the movies that impressed me the most, that I watched two-digits times, was Robocop. I loved robots. I spent my youth staring at Goldrake, Mazinger, Steel Jeeg and many others. I grew up thinking/hoping that one day, finally, robots will be among us for good.

I reached age 25 and they were not around yet. Where are they? There should be a Fermi Paradox for robots, shouldn’t it? So when it was time to choose my Master Degree curriculum I picked the most AI / Robotics oriented options I had in Software Engineering.

I had no idea what to do after my master degree, so why not try to follow my dreams? In spring 2002 I met my future supervisor and it was “love” at first sight: “our research group attends robotic competitions… Robocups… Autonomous robotic… exploration… mapping of an unknown environment… there’s this conference in Acapulco next year… we are hiring…”. Acapulco?? I had to look it up on a map where it is! I cannot not apply for a position that’ll bring me to Acapulco to talk about robots and Caipirinhas. So I ended up starting my academic career. Just, as a good Italian does, following my gut feelings instead of my brain.

At first, the research group seemed exciting: there were young and fun researchers to work with, with whom I quickly connected. So I decided to join the lab in summer 2002. I was still missing 3-4 exams before my master thesis but who cares? It took more than expected to complete my curriculum but in the meantime I started working on actual robots! I picked SLAM problem (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) as my Master Thesis topic. I lectured a couple of courses – computer vision and reinforcement learning – while I was still a student and it was fun. I started seeing a pattern here: I like to interact with students, I like to teach, I like to share. And apparently students like me too.

pioneerBeing myself a student in our research group was awesome: no responsibilities, robots availability, freedom to experiment, freedom to code. Heaven! Well… not really.  When I joined the team was deeply committed with building their own robot, so there were several mechanical and electronic engineers in the lab. They designed a super-ultra-uber-powerful robot they were not able to build and so they never finished. This project lasted till my graduation in September 2003 when finally the supervisor fired them all and we purchased a true mobile robot.

padovaFun Story: well, actually it’s a very sad story. It involves my master thesis and my first Robocup competition in Padova (Italy), summer 2003. I had completed my master thesis and eager to experiment my algorithm on our work-in-progress robot. The robot never moved more than a meter in the lab in last 9 months. I wrote a simulator for the robot as sandbox to test my code, but I wanted to see the code in action on the real robot. We were not sure it was going to work. In crunch time, just before the Robocup, we (actually, they) worked 3 consecutive days and nights in the lab. The very last day, after few blackmailing yells by the supervisor, she decided we’d go to the Robocup and fix the robot there. We rented a van and reached the luxury hotel, with swimming pool and spa, just to drop off the luggages and then headed directly to the competition area. Another 3 frustrating days trying to fix the robot, when everything was clearly broken: a robot designed to weight 20kg that ended up slightly below 100. Actuators that were undersized. Batteries that were too heavy. Sensors that were damaged. No way. acapulco-beachesWe never took part of the competition, we slept on the paddock area, working 24h a day. Well, they were doing this, the mechs&electronics. I was just waiting, waiting, waiting,… then the competition was over and we went back to our hotel to grab unused luggages, and headed back home. I’ll never forget the sight of the swimming pool, my smell, my sleeplessness in the same decadent picture. The day after, in the lab, the supervisor fired all the m&e engineers and blamed everyone in the room. Bye bye Acapulco. Fuckapulco.

The supervisor claimed that the last year was a waste of time and her own money. We will never do it again. Let’s buy real robot and let’s focus on research instead. I bought it and after my graduation (end of September) I tried to join the faculty as PhD student (mid October).

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