Chris Urmson is co-founder and CEO of the autonomous driving technology startup Aurora and was previously CTO of self-driving cars at Google. During the filming of a documentary on the DARPA Grand Challenge autonomous vehicle race, his team’s vehicle rolled over—and he became one of the first people to be “bleeped” on The History Channel.
Surround yourself with great people—not just your co-founders and team, but your advisors, partners and board members—and then be open with them. If in your first meeting with a potential investor you say, “I’m starting a company, but I can’t tell you anything about it,” you’re not going to get very far, right? You need to have some level of trust.
You also have to resist the temptation to sugarcoat things. With Aurora, for example, it’s going to be several years before we get a product to market. We’re not going to see a hockey-stick growth curve next week. So if we told a potential partner we’re going to move super fast, that would just lead to confusion and disappointment down the line. You have to be honest about the timelines—and the risks.
Transparency is critical, because people can’t help you if they don’t know what’s going on. But if you give them enough context to really understand where you’re at, they can give you more useful feedback and be there with you on that journey.
By far, it’s “When will self-driving cars be here?” And, it's not a simple answer. We expect to see the first few hundred or thousand in the next five years or so as rideshare fleet and delivery vehicles. The technology will continue to evolve, get more robust and have more capabilities to provide more uses. We think Aurora is in a good position to develop this technology, which is going to take a bit longer, and that’s why we’re focused on building a company that can be here for a while.
Building a company that lasts requires consistent growth, at least in our particular space. We couldn’t compete against teams of 1,000 people if we’d stayed at 30. Internally, most of the questions I get are around growth. People like the culture we have now and they worry we could lose it as we grow. The leadership team thinks about that, too. It helps to remember that not only is growth necessary, but the way we grow is completely up to us. That’s part of the reason hiring at Aurora is decentralized—we use committees, and employees interview every candidate. We want everyone to have a voice and a role in protecting the company and the culture we are building.
Probably the DARPA Grand Challenge, which was an autonomous vehicle race. I had the privilege of being the Carnegie Mellon team’s technical director for three years, and in many ways, it was like a startup without the business. We had to build a team from nothing, over a compressed timeframe. We had to engage with sponsors, which are kind of like investors. We had to put in an intense level of effort to succeed—and we also screwed up in lots of different ways, over and over.
DARPA was my first opportunity to lead at scale, too, which at the time was 30 or 40 people. It taught me a lot about the dynamics of a team, particularly a team under pressure. At some point, even the best people will get to the end of their nerves. As a leader, you can’t always be the one saying, “Go faster!” You have to modulate—point out where things are broken but also reinforce and highlight what’s working well.
I like to ask people about the work they’ve done in the past. It’s less a question about competence—although they’ll hopefully get into enough technical depth that it’s clear they weren’t just rubber-stamping things—and more about culture, which by the time I talk with someone is usually a key thing we’re selecting for. You can get a pretty good sense for a person based on how their describe what they’ve done, especially how they worked with other people. Aurora has a very collaborative culture, so a lot of “I did this” and “I did that” is a red flag to me, versus sharing ownership over success and highlighting how the team won together.
I’m listening for how they talk about their failures, too. We have lots of great people on our team, and every single one of us has screwed stuff up. That’s just going to happen, especially when you’re doing something really hard. What’s important is that you have the confidence and humility to acknowledge your mistakes and figure out how to fix them.
I could name any number of business books, but I think it’s got to be Oh, The Places You’ll Go, by Dr. Seuss. To me, it’s very much the story of building a company. You don’t know exactly where you’re going, but you find the interesting things to do. There’s a whole section on getting stuck and waiting for momentum. It also talks about the fact that you’re always going to have problems along the way, and it’s how you solve those problems that matters.
That book is all about optimism, and optimism is where the energy comes from. Like anyone else, I have moments where I think, “Why are we doing this? Is it ever going to work?” But then I remember we have all these smart people on the team who could have taken a job anywhere and chose us, and these great partners who believe in our mission. Not every day will be perfect, so it’s important to remember why we’re all here together in the first place—we’re working toward something awesome.
Sometimes you have to move on from people, and more quickly than might be comfortable. This isn’t something I’m good at, but I’m trying to get better. We all want to be liked, and these conversations can be very difficult. There have been times over the years where I convinced myself a situation wasn’t that bad or thought maybe it would improve, when that clearly wasn’t the case.
Parting ways with a team member shouldn’t be out of the blue. We aspire to provide feedback in realtime; ideally, there would be regular conversations before a decision is made. But once you know someone isn’t a good fit, it’s in the best interests of both the company and that person to help them move on to a place where they can be successful and happy.
I have to say self-driving cars! I think we’ve made incredible strides at Aurora, but I’m looking forward to seeing people actually use the technology we’ve been working on all these years—seeing it out there in the world where it can really save lives and make transportation easier and more accessible.
There are lots of steps between here and there, but the most exciting one for me will be when we can safely pull the driver completely out of one of our vehicles. Once we have that baseline, we can really start exploring the product side of things and figuring out what we need to adjust so people will love it. That’s going to be awesome.
- Trust your partners
- Good leaders modulate
- Optimism wins