September 12, 2022
In our "Why Flow Labs" series, team members write about their work at Flow Labs, what initially drew them to Flow Labs, and what they like about Flow Labs' culture, mission, and vision. Today's post is by Machine Learning Engineer Wade Genders.
Before Flow Labs I was working as a Senior Research Associate at the University of Toronto, acting as the project manager for a collaboration between the Department of Civil Engineering’s Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Centre and Testbed and an industry partner.
I initially joined Flow Labs before it was even called Flow Labs, back when it was known as Flo AI.
In the late summer of 2017 I was a 3rd year PhD student at McMaster University researching deep reinforcement learning for adaptive traffic signal control when I received an email out of the blue from a guy named Jatish Patel. He wrote that he had read some of my research that I had published on arXiv and was interested to talk to me. This was the first time somebody had contacted me about a paper I had written so I was more than happy to talk with him. Over the next year we talked on the phone twice about traffic signal control and why, despite many attempts, adaptive systems had never achieved widespread success. By late 2018 I was finishing up my PhD and Jatish had established a relationship with the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), which led to him offering me a contract to help optimize some of their traffic signal timings. We delivered optimized traffic signal timings to UDOOT in early spring 2019 and waited with bated breath for their deployment results. Fortunately, our hard work paid off and the results were better than we could have hoped for, with all of the key performance metrics changing favorably.
However, this was a bittersweet moment for me, as it was the end of the project and Jatish had long made it clear that even if we were successful, he could not start a company without sufficient time to raise investment. This left me in a contradictory state of being pleased with our success but depressed that it had to come to an end. Luckily, by late 2019 Jatish had raised sufficient investment to start Flow Labs and I was able to be a member of the company’s founding engineering team. I initially joined Flow Labs for a few reasons. First, it provided me the opportunity to take ideas out of the lab (where I spent my time in graduate school) and test them in the real-world. I suspect any good grad student at some point will wonder if the theoretical knowledge they are taught actually works when the rubber hits the road. Almost all of my graduate research employed traffic simulations.
It had also been a great experience working together with Jatish on Flow Lab’s first proof-of-concept. The problem was technologically interesting, we were doing something meaningful that positively impacted society, and the initial results were very promising.
The last reason was that I wanted to challenge myself. My first real job after completing my PhD was working as a Senior Research Associate at the University of Toronto, which from all sides was a great job. I was involved with almost a dozen technical projects which included many brilliant students and professors. However, at this point in my life I had been in academia over a decade and had known nothing else.
Working at the University of Toronto I could easily see my future unfold in front of me. I started asking myself if this is the career path I wanted to stay on. I decided I would regret not taking the opportunity to gain industry experience, to test if the theoretical translated into the practical, so I left academia and joined Flow Labs. Additionally, I was curious if the pop culture sentiment surrounding tech startups was fact or fiction (it’s a big of both). I also thought I would have more agency in a startup than at a university or large corporation, which was alluring to me.
Officially I am a machine learning engineer at Flow Labs. However, as anybody who has worked at a startup knows, one must be prepared to wear many hats and contribute where needed. The areas that I contribute to the most are simulation, modeling, and optimization.
The things I like the most about Flow Labs’ culture is the autonomy, trust, and support. Since we are such a small team each individual’s contribution is significant and there is plenty of work to go around.
I feel that I am given the necessary flexibility to complete tasks as I see fit and my colleagues trust that I will deliver what is required on time. I also like that I work with a bunch of wizards. I’m fortunate to have colleagues vastly more experienced and knowledgeable than me in a number of areas, affording me the opportunity to continuously learn new things. Flow Labs has developed a culture where one need not be afraid of saying ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I need help with this problem’, which is an environment I am grateful to work in.
Finally, I’ve played on a few sports teams throughout my life but the fellowship I feel towards my colleagues at Flow Labs exceeds any of those teams. I suspect this strong sense of camaraderie is a common characteristic of start up companies that isn’t unique to Flow Labs. Nevertheless I am grateful to have the coworkers that I do beside me in these technological trenches. Admittedly, things are not always easy and times can be tough - sometimes working long hours and finding myself in stressful situations - but in those moments I take solace in knowing who I have supporting me.
I like that our mission is ultimately centered around improving an important part of society - the transportation system. Everybody stands to benefit from improving transportation. At this moment Flow Labs is focused on optimizing traffic signal timings to produce cleaner (reduced emissions), clearer (increased mobility) and safer (reduced accidents/fatalities) roads, but our ambitions extend far beyond traffic signals into all aspects of transportation.
Something our CEO Jatish once said to me has always stuck with me is that “I believe that any well-functioning business must make money, but that is not its purpose: the purpose of a business is to create (or add) value.” I think Flow Labs is putting these words into practice.
I’m excited to see the company head towards more deployments and further adoption of our technology; I want us to become the market leader in the transportation technology space. It excites me to think that we could be helping millions of people travel more efficiently because our technology has been deployed to tens of thousands of signals.
Interested in joining a team shaping the future of transportation? View our current career openings here.