Community impact & hands-on teams help AI developer see steady future at Raven
"Every day, coming into work knowing that the kind of work you do is going to end up in a tractor or farming machine used by different farmers working to feed the world — that keeps me motivated," said Rahul Ramakrishnan, senior AI development engineer at Raven Industries. This motivation has been steady for Rahul, ever since evaluating the impact his skills and knowledge could have on agriculture while pursuing his Master's in Robotics and AI at Carnegie Mellon University. "The one thing that I always looked forward to in the type of work I do is to see how it affects people around me. How the end product provides a good value to the community you're around," he said, as he spoke of his path through robotic system development. "Every hands-on experience I've gained has helped me focus my knowledge into the best area of expertise which could help people, and which narrowed down to be agriculture." When asked why agriculture, Rahul said, "It's a never-ending industry. The population is never going down. It's an industry that is always going to stay alive and flourish. It's also an industry that is in utmost need of automation."
With a world-class education, Rahul was presented with unique opportunities to work in the field of autonomous technology, including a big FAANG-like company in Silicon Valley. He picked his third option as he considered his impact — a small startup company called SmartAg located in Ames, Iowa, which was working to automate tractors to alleviate ag labor challenges. "It was an eight-member team. I was the first one to start the perception team there to bring up the AI. So I could see my product all the way going through to production working there." SmartAg was acquired by Raven's Applied Technology Division in 2019 and with it, the eight-person team that included Rahul.
Some of Rahul's best days at work continue to be ones where he interacts with farmers and end-users of automation products he's working on. He usually starts his week learning about customers' feedback on a current product and their expectations, then tries to problem-solve and resolve challenges using software and running iterative tests. On weeks like these, he often heads out to the Raven Innovation Campus, located just 20 minutes north of Sioux Falls. "It's a campus with multiple machines that you can deploy on the field to run tests. You can finish this entire cycle [of working on software, installation, testing and deployment] in a day, compared to just handing it off to someone else and having to wait for the feedback from them, which is slow," he said. "You are the one who developed it so you would know how best to test it. So that's the method we follow here, which always helps us iterate faster."
Rahul says one of the main reasons he sees himself at Raven for a long time is the ability of an engineer to directly influence the final product. "That's something my friends at Fortune 100 companies are not able to experience. They are not usually aware of the end goal, but we start with the end goal in mind and we see the product all the way through." This process at Raven helps every team member see the whole picture, while making sure the customers' needs are always satisfied.
At Raven, Rahul is on the perception and algorithms team, which has a diverse set of people with varied skillsets — "people who are really good at controls, ones who are really good at designing documents, and others who are really good at AI." There's open knowledge-sharing which contributes to successful, timed agile development and execution. "When it comes to autonomy, all these systems are interdependent so we need to work together. The engineers [at Raven] are really good at cross-collaboration." This collaboration allows for an open exchange of questions, and everyone helps each other out, resulting in faster product development.
I lived in India. I lived in Pittsburgh. I lived in Ames. So when it comes to Sioux Falls, I really like the friendly people around here, the many options you have for restaurants, the bike trails, the swimming pools, and all these come together to be a strong community for me."— Rahul Ramakrishnan, Senior AI Development Engineer
Collaboration and problem-solving are intrinsic to engineering practice at Raven. The Applied Technology Division introduced 'Innovation Sprint,' a two-week-long hack-a-thon of sorts for engineers. In his last Innovation Sprint, Rahul's team was able to build an AI model that generates several different styles and varieties of data sets to further train an AI model. "One of Raven's mottos is solving great challenges. To solve great challenges, you have to be on top of the latest advancements in technology out there. To do that research is a very big component and that is something this innovation sprint focuses on." According to Rahul, this two-week sprint of focused heads-down research, in addition to their day-to-day research, helps them come up with the "best of class solutions that helps [Raven] stay on top of the rest."
His move to Raven via SmartAg continues to fulfill a lot of motivations and visions of his future working in automation. Outside of his community within Raven, Rahul has found that living in Sioux Falls feeds a lot of his passions. "I lived in India. I lived in Pittsburgh. I lived in Ames. So when it comes to Sioux Falls, I really like the friendly people around here, the many options you have for restaurants, the bike trails, the swimming pools, and all these come together to be a strong community for me."
From working in a startup and knowing friends who work in FAANG-like companies, Rahul believes that Raven has a true edge in being a leader in innovation and automation. "This is because you, as an employee, have the full context of what the product should be, and what the customers need, and you can finish this full cycle all by yourself by having more ownership of the product, which helps motivate you better to work better on the project."
For this innovative and ambitious engineer, working at Raven has truly meant that he can whole-heartedly invest in his skills and work directly on impacting the lives of the people around him — the two big things that have shaped his path in engineering.