Meetings can be a major distraction, especially for engineers who need long periods of uninterrupted time to get their work done. And so at Aurora — the buzzy self-driving startup company most recently estimated to be valued at $2.5 billion— CEO Chris Urmson said the company has done away with meetings for its engineers in the morning hours altogether, at least for those working on the East Coast.
Dubbed "Maker Mornings," engineers in Aurora's Pittsburg, Pennsylvania office — which houses around 100 of its more than 350 employees — have a three-hour block between 9 a.m. and noon which is off-limits to anything but dedicated coding time.
"Turns out that each interruption derails deep work," Urmson — who, before Aurora, led Google's self-driving car initiative— told Business Insider in a recent interview. "We've tried to set up the organization and the way we work so that our software engineers and hardware engineers can get into the flow for three or four hours. We won't pull them aside for meetings."
Urmson said the practice was so effective in the Pittsburgh office, he realized a similar program was needed in the company's West Coast offices — located in San Francisco and Palo Alto.
The West Coast version of "Maker Mornings" are called "Innovation Afternoons" and last from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. In between the two meeting-free times are when engineering teams on both coasts can collaborate.
This ability to stay focused — in how engineers work and in Aurora's business strategy — is central to what Urmson and his team of self-driving veterans hope will set them apart in an increasingly crowded field of disparate companies, chasing different goals, from Uber and Tesla, to GM and Google's Waymo.
Urmson, who's been credited for writing much of the code behind Google's Waymo technology, is not trying to be Google. He doesn't want to build cars or start a robo-taxi service. But if his company succeeds, it will be in part thanks to important lessons he learned at Google.
A team of self-driving car veterans
An Aurora spokesperson said that everyone at the self-driving startup is invited to block off time on their calendars that's off-limits to meetings, email, or Slack, but it's mostly engineering teams that adhere to the practice.
"I don't get Maker Mornings," Urmson said, with a smile. "But my job is a little different than theirs."
The chief exec told us that the idea for giving engineers dedicated coding time didn't actually come from him, but instead, from the company's CTO and cofounder, Drew Bagnell — who previously taught machine learning and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and later, helped jumpstart Uber's self-driving initiative.
It's an example of what Urmson said is one of Aurora's key advantages — having an executive team with deep industry knowledge and diverse backgrounds. Aurora's third co-founder and chief product officer, Sterling Anderson, previously led Tesla's autopilot program.
"It's rare that a company our age would have the breadth of skills and experiences that we do," Urmson said.
The resumes of the founding team has given Aurora instant credibility in a sea of self-driving car startups. But it's also caused some problems. In 2017 Tesla filed a lawsuit against Aurora, alleging that the startup was poaching its employees and stealing confidential information. The lawsuit was later dropped by Tesla, but not before Aurora agreed to pay a $100,000 settlement. No confirmation of stolen trade secrets was ever found.
Aurora is building the "driver" for self-driving cars.
In a recent interview with Urmson, the chief exec also told us he's confident in Aurora's overall strategy, which focuses on the team's key strengths.
Where other companies vying for self-driving supremacy are building the vehicles themselves or pairing their technology with a service, like a robotaxi or delivery platform, Aurora is solely focused on what Urmson refers to as the "driver" — or, the technology needed to make vehicles fully autonomous.
That means Aurora won't be manufacturing cars any time soon. In fact, Aurora has already partnered with carmakers, like Hyundai and Fiat-Chrysler, in the hopes of one day becoming the brains, or driver, behind their self-driving efforts.
The ambitious startup also won't be competing with Uber and Lyft when it comes to ride-hailing, or with FedEx and Amazon when it comes to logistics, Urmson said.
But that doesn't mean Aurora's visions aren't grand. Instead, Urmson said, he wants Aurora to be the driver behind all of these services.
"We can help all of these companies and all of their customers by making transportation safer, making it lower cost, and making it more efficient," he said.
As an early vote of confidence in Aurora's approach, Amazon recently made a "significant investment" in the startup's $530 million Series B funding round announced earlier this year. To date, Urmson and his team have raised over $700 million in funding.
Learning from his time at Google, Urmson hopes to create a culture of empowerment and "thinking big."
Beyond giving employees dedicated quiet times, Urmson also said he wants to instill a culture of independence at Aurora, something he valued deeply during his more than seven years at Google.
"I felt like [Google] trusted me, even though I was junior, to make decisions," Urmson said. "We'd like to see that of our people here."
One way Aurora tries to empower employees is through a policy that allows anyone at the company to pull the entire self-driving fleet off the road if they notice something in their work that raises a safety concern. It's inspired by a famous Toyota policy that lets any factory worker halt the production process.
When an alert happens at Aurora, a company-wide Slack message and email are sent. Any cars testing on the roads are shifted into a manual mode and driven by an employee back to one of its offices. Importantly, regardless of whether or not an issue was actually found, Urmson said the decision to send the alert is celebrated internally.
"We don't have to have a big party," Urmson said. "It's making sure whether we find something or we don't that the person understands that we appreciate them doing that."
And something he brought over from Google, especially from his interactions with cofounder Larry Page, is to make sure employees are always "thinking big." In fact, today, one of Aurora's core values is to "set outrageous goals."
"It stems from the thing I saw Larry do incredibly well which was recognizing that if you want to make a breakthrough, you don't do that by thinking 10% better than what you have. You think ten times better," Urmson said. "That forces you to examine what the real constraints are of the problem and come at it more from first principles. If you think about it that way, you have a shot at making something meaningful."