Women in Engineering Day Spotlight: Mikell Taylor

Friday, June 23rd, 2017 is International Women in Engineering Day, and we're celebrating by featuring some of the brightest in the field all week. Read on to learn more about project lead Mikell Taylor of Otherlab's most recent spinout.


What do you work on at Otherlab?

I lead the autonomous aircraft research team at Otherlab, and I'm working right now on spinning one of our favorite projects out into a new startup.

What attracted you to working in technology?

I've always loved science and a lot of traditionally geeky things so I think I always knew I wanted to go into something STEM related. When I was in high school I joined a FIRST robotics team and fell completely in love with robots, so I've been working in that field ever since! I got lucky that my entry into industry coincided with a lot of exciting stuff happening in the robotics world and there's never been a shortage of cool stuff to work on.

What is your process for developing designs/prototypes?

I like to take a user-oriented view of a problem and build a solution from the ground up, rather than looking for problems that need a solution I've already developed. Most of my career has been spent doing system engineering, so I tend to take a high-level system view of problems and work from there in partnership with the engineers who solve the lower-level problems. I love working at the system level - I tell people it's like the end of The Matrix when Neo suddenly realizes he's The One and can see the Matrix for himself. I like that all-encompassing cross-disciplinary view of things where you can see how everything needs to work together and can always keep your eye on the big picture.

What are some of the challenges you've faced in your work and how did you go about solving these problems?

Engineering is all about trade-offs. The tough problems for me have always been around the delicate balancing act of what the user wants and needs, what the technical team says is the most optimal solution, and what the business case says is sellable. This tension affects everything from the cost of the components you can use to the color you can paint something to safety features you need to implement. Nothing I build is ever perfect on every single axis - it just has to be good enough on every axis. It's hard, especially if you're a perfectionist, to get over that sometimes - but it can also be one of the most fascinating parts of the design process. There's seldom ever a "right" solution, and solving for a solution is often more about getting people on board with a way to prioritize aspects of the design than it is about doing the right math or physics. It's a really interesting challenge.

What are some of your favorite innovations?

I love really clever, practical things. My favorite robot on the market is the Roomba, no joke - I've spent many years having dogs, toddlers, or both in my house, and while I can't be bothered to break out an actual vacuum, the Roomba is awesome at keeping my place livable. Single-purpose robots like that can be amazingly effective, and I'd like to see more of them. I've been fascinated by the iPhone's interface when it was new and as it continued to lead the market in innovation - watching less tech-savvy people like my parents learn to use their iPhones by playing with an interface and discovering capabilities and features for themselves was so cool, and unlike any other introduction to new tech I'd seen them experience. I'm also a big fan of the largely unseen, but critically important logistical back-end to companies like Amazon. I love my Echo as much as the next geek, but I am just so impressed by the relatively unsexy logistics that mean when I tell Alexa at 8 AM on a Sunday that I need more dog food, it's is delivered to my door less than 2 hours later. I think there's not enough recognition of and respect for how essential that side of things is to propping up the nifty high-tech front-end interfaces, and how hard it is to achieve that level of seamless experience for a user.

Patti Lord