Lead(H)er Profile - Laura Major, Chief Technology Officer at Motional
Where did you grow up and how would you describe yourself as a child?
I grew up in Naples, Florida. My parents would’ve politely described me as “curious” (I asked a lot of questions), and my friends would’ve called me competitive. I was heavily involved in sports, and played basketball, volleyball and fast-pitch softball.
What did you study in college and what was your first job out of school?
From a young age, I was interested in STEM. I was drawn to space and then robotics. Specifically I developed an interest in how to bring autonomous systems, or robots - unmanned aerial vehicles or ground robots - more naturally into our daily lives.
For my undergraduate, this led me to Georgia Tech’s Industrial and Systems Engineering program, where I studied under Professor Amy Pritchett, a world-leading expert in aerospace engineering, and a pioneer in human-robot interaction. This cemented, but didn’t satiate my curiosity - so I then went on to the Aeronautics and Astronautics department at MIT, where I focused on human and autonomous design in air transportation systems.
Can you share the details on your career path and what were the critical moments that got you to where you are today?
My career’s most frightening, most uncertain moments have also been its most defining. Two moments come to mind - the moment I became a mom, and the moment I became an aspiring writer.
My children are today, 7 and 4. If you’ve come within 100 feet of a toddler, you’re probably doing the math and wincing as you realize that meant I had an infant, a threenager, and a big full-time job. I love nothing more than being a mom - but it’s hard. Especially when you’re a young, female leader in a male-dominated field.
I was at a peak in my career; I had established a new technical team and developed a research program to change the way information is gathered and shared across many national security applications. But I made the tough decision to temporarily step back and give myself time to focus on my family. I moved to a three-day week, left my role building and leading a big technical team, and shifted to a commercially-focused role shaping new opportunities with DARPA. It was risky, it was different, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. That role forced me out of my comfort zone. It taught me strategy, business and communications skills that opened doors I’d walk through shortly afterwards, and become the CTO of Motional.
The second defining moment was an invitation to speak at an elite small gathering of the world’s foremost experts in robotics, automation and machine learning, called MARS. This isn’t the kind of presentation you throw together on the flight over - no, it’s the kind of presentation you spend weeks or months preparing for. And I did. And as I did, I realized I had a lot more to say - about a book’s worth. That book comes out in a month, and I had not taken on the truly terrifying challenge of speaking in front of the heroes in my field, I’m not sure it would exist.
What is your current role and responsibilities?
I’m the Chief Technology Officer at Motional. I lead a team of hundreds, and all of the engineering and technical program management that’s required to make self-driving cars a reality.
Looking back, is this where you thought you’d be professionally? Was it always your goal to be in this position?
I always imagined myself leading large teams and making an impact on the world. I just didn’t know where or how. There was one engineer in my family, my great uncle. He was a civil engineer and all that I knew about engineering, until I went to college, I learned from him. He had a major impact in the housing industry, by inventing the Gang-Nail connector plate and then launching an international business. Though I quickly learned I didn’t share his passion for civil engineering, he inspired me to pursue engineering as an avenue to make a significant positive impact on the world.
What are the most important skills that you need to do your job well?
To be successful in developing a first-of-its-kind technology, you need to focus on three critical areas: building and empowering a strong team, defining and continually refining an inspiring vision for the technology roadmap and solution, and honing strong problem-solving skills to see you through the many challenges you’ll face as a leader.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I spend all of my free time with my two kids. I love being present with them and exploring their interests. We read, we hike, we swim, we see friends, and we generally have fun. In the evenings between my meetings in the US and my late-night teleconferences with our teams in Asia, you’ll often find me on the floor building legos with my 7 year-old or at the kid-sized art table working on a project with my 4-year-old.
How many cups of coffee do you have in a day?
I try to stop at two. But if I’ve had a sleepless night because of work stress or sick child, I’ll allow myself a third.
What's one of your favorite places in the Boston area?
I’ve fallen for Cape Cod. I spend most of my time in the city and I enjoy the energy and access to so many activities and amazing people. But escapes to Brewster and Chatham have been good for my soul. There’s tremendous natural beauty, and such diversity from the crashing waves and severe sand dunes on the ocean side, to the mile long low tide revealing interesting sea creatures on the bayside. We’ve discovered breathtaking hikes, taken up water sports - and it’s all less than two hours from our house in Boston.
What advice do you have for recent college graduates?
Follow your passion first and foremost and keep your eyes out for creative ways to align your passion with significant needs across society.