Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Olga Zinoveva brings vibrant thoughts to Vibrant Machines and the way forward for automation

Olga Zinoveva poses at the Seattle video game convention PAX West next to Gluten, a character from one of her favorite games of 2018, “Pit People.” (Photo courtesy of Olga Zinoveva)

Bright Machines, a company working to transform manufacturing automation and efficiency, just launched a year ago. And software engineer Olga Zinoveva only came onboard in Seattle about a month ago. But already she’s excited about the company’s ambitious goal to make the process of building physical goods just as easy as it is to create digital ones.

Zinoveva, our latest Geek of the Week, is a long way from where she grew up, halfway across the world in Tashkent, Uzbekistan — one of Seattle’s 21 sister cities, coincidentally. Her father moved to Chicago to work in a national lab when she was 11, and the rest of my family came over shortly after … “just for a year.”

“A year turned into two, then a decade, and I’m still here!” Zinoveva said. “Chicago is a beautiful city, and I still think of it as my hometown. I got a taste of the East Coast while studying computer science at Harvard, and I finally ended up in Seattle after graduating. The Pacific Northwest has really grown on me in the last six years, with its intense love of coffee, dogs, IPAs and everything quirky.”

Prior to Bright Machines, Zinoveva spent five years at 343 Industries, the Microsoft studio behind the “Halo” video game franchise. She was on the team that shipped “Halo 5,” and left when the studio was partway through the recently announced “Halo: Infinite.” Gaming remains one of her favorite hobbies, and working working on “Halo” was “pretty much the coolest job to have straight out of college.”

While Zinoveva believes that automation is on an exponential trajectory, certain tasks are easier to automate, while others will require a ton of R&D and involve safety or philosophical and policy questions about the evolving nature of human work.

“In the end, though, my outlook is optimistic — I am confident we will overcome the difficulties and end up in an improved world overall,” she said. “One of the things I look forward to in the next couple of decades is a radically increased accessibility of manufacturing to the average person. If I have a great idea for a device today, even if I’m a skilled hardware and software engineer, I can’t really build and sell it to more than a few people without investing substantial capital. I think you’ll see this change drastically in 10 years, and we’ll end up with a new outlet for human creativity, and more innovation across many markets.”

As for what Zinoveva would automate if given the ability in her own life, no matter the task, she puts cleaning-related chores at the top of her list.

“I love the idea of living in a spotless apartment with an empty laundry hamper and no dishes in the sink, but that means being constantly half-distracted by all the things that need fixing when I’m at home,” she said. “Automating cleaning is hard because it consists of a collection of very different tasks. Some of them, like dish washing, are already partially automated, but loading and unloading is still entirely up to me. Other problems, like dusting, would require complex computer vision systems to solve correctly. None of this is unsolvable, though, so it’s just a question of time!”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Olga Zinoveva:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I am a software engineer at Bright Machines, where I am helping to build the next generation of manufacturing automation. Our vision is to fundamentally redefine how manufacturing is automated by making software its primary driver — what we call Software-Defined Manufacturing. I am very excited about this for a couple of reasons. First, I get to bring my experience and ideas from the software world and apply them in a completely new context, which is usually a pretty good formula for innovation. And second, this means getting to work with robots, which has all the mystique of science fiction combined with incredibly real practical impact. Manufacturing is a multi-trillion-dollar industry; just about everything we own started its life in a factory, so even small innovations in the process have a massive impact on the world.  I love the creative process more than anything, but if I can help build something that will also change how an entire industry works, that’s even better!

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? I am very new to the field of industrial automation myself, so I’ve had to contend with many of my own assumptions being shattered on a daily basis. The biggest surprise to me was how little factory work is actually automated today. Like many people, I had assumed that the majority of repetitive, mechanical tasks had been handed over to machines long ago, and human workers were already doing more complex tasks. It turns out that while machines are very fast and efficient at certain work (for example, putting components on a circuit board), many steps of the manufacturing process are still done manually, like assembly and inspection. Another aspect of industrial automation that is decidedly un-automated is the creation of the assembly line itself. An assembly line might be custom-built over the course of months for a very specific product, and then never reused again. So, while automation in factories has been around for quite a while, the opportunity for innovation in this area is enormous.

Where do you find your inspiration? I love learning, which gets me to read and seek out new experiences wherever I can find them. The most interesting ideas often come out of an unexpected intersection of completely different domains. This applies both to finding solutions to work-related problems, and doing side projects for fun. One of my favorite things to do is to choose a project in an area I know nothing about but find exciting, and try to build something from scratch and learn as I go. I recently started an electronics project on the Raspberry Pi (my first experience with building hardware), and it’s been a really fun ride so far. A few years ago, I created a 3-minute stop-motion cartoon having never done animation before.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Climate control. Even though I live in Seattle, where the weather is relatively mild, I love having a precisely controlled microclimate.

(Photo courtesy of Olga Zinoveva)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Our office is so new that my workspace is changing daily! I am very particular about my peripherals, so currently on my desk you’ll find a gaming mouse, mechanical keyboard, and Sennheiser open-back headphones. Other than that, the desk surface outside of my typing/mousing zone tends to be fairly messy, as I like having a bunch of useful things within reach, but don’t really spend any time organizing them.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I have a few hobbies, and it’s actually pretty hard to dedicate enough time to all of them. My best strategy so far has been making an old-fashioned to-do list and explicitly deciding what to tackle in my blocks of free time. Whenever I just try to wing it, I end up wasting a bunch of time on unimportant chores, so having a list helps me focus. I’ve tried all kinds of software for this over the years, but I always return to pen-and-paper lists for their simplicity, flexibility, and always-in-your-face nature.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows — I’ve used it my entire life, and my (admittedly brief) experiences with Mac have failed to convert me.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Out of these three, Kirk. Though if we’re picking our favorite starship captains, I’ll have to go with Zapp Brannigan.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? I have a bet going with one of my best friends that we’ll have teleporters by 2050, so I’ll take the transporter just to win this one.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Having recently worked in the startup world, I know that I would never invest $1 million into any idea without first validating it. The key is starting with a real, painful problem, and coming up with an attractive solution. So, I would use a part of that million for research, customer interviews, and lots of prototypes around a number of ideas to find the most promising one. With that said, an area that seems ripe for innovation is sleep. Many people have trouble sleeping; it’s a problem that causes huge health and productivity issues. I believe that any startup that can help even a fraction of these people would become successful.

I once waited in line for … Lines may be my least favorite thing in the world, so if I want something and I find out there is a line, I conveniently tend to stop wanting it!

Your role models: I think it’s fine to look up to famous successful people, but it’s really hard to learn from someone without knowing them on a personal level. Because of this, my parents, my friends, and a few of my former coworkers have been my greatest role models. No one is perfect, so I appreciate observing people’s strengths alongside their weaknesses, and seeing how they deal with situations that are genuinely challenging to them (not just ones that would be challenging to me).

Greatest game in history As a gamer, I find this question very hard to answer because there are so many ways to look at it, but I’ll have to go with “Portal,” a game so amazing that I even know a few self-proclaimed non-gamers who enjoyed it.

Best gadget ever: My Sony DSLR. No other device I own brings me as much joy as my camera.

First computer: A custom-built PC running Windows 98.

Current phone: HTC 10.

Favorite app: On my phone, I love Feedly and Photoshop Express. On my PC, I am a big fan of Lightroom.

Favorite cause: I care a lot about conservation efforts, and one of my favorite nonprofits to support is the World Wildlife Fund. Of course, the human impact on the environment is one of the biggest causes of the dire situation that so many species are in, so any company or nonprofit that focuses on lessening that impact is also hugely important.

Most important technology of 2019: I am very excited for the progress in the personal health and fitness wearable space. That field is just getting started, but the technology has already improved my personal habits, and I have seen it make a positive difference in the health of many of my friends and family. As sensors improve, we’ll see the capabilities of the hardware grow, and I’m very excited to see people take control of their health increasingly into their own hands.

Most important technology of 2021: Automation! I’m biased, of course, but automation will become pervasive not just in industry, but in everything we do in our private lives (think about self-driving cars, drone deliveries, and stores with cashierless checkouts). Increasingly, machines will take over the more mundane parts of our lives and liberate us to do things that we find rewarding. It’s a really exciting promise, but one that does not come without the dangers of leaving people behind, so we must approach this technological revolution thoughtfully and with a healthy dose of empathy.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: The first step to getting time back in your life is reducing the time you spend consuming content (watching TV, reading the news, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter). I know this is easy to say and difficult to consistently achieve, so I find that it helps to think less of what you are losing, and more about what you are getting in return. You can use your newfound time to learn and create meaningful stuff that makes you far happier than binging the latest Netflix sensation would.

LinkedIn: Olga Zinoveva

Website: Bright Machines

Twitter: @bright_machines

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