Driving the Future

Andrew Chatham '02 is behind the wheel of Google's Self-Driving Car Project 

 Photo credit: Elisabeth Fall

 A team leader for Google's Self-Driving Car project, Andrew Chatham was not exactly steering his career toward Silicon Valley as he prepared to graduate from Duke in 2002. The Angier B. Duke scholar had other plans.

"At the time, I was applying to grad school in computer science, because you've been in college and all of your role models are professors," says Chatham, who double majored in computer science and economics, with a minor in Japanese. 'I didn’t get into the grad schools I was hoping to get into. On a whim, I had applied to a job at Google, because someone had mentioned Noam Shazeer, another A.B. Duke alumnus who was at Google and created Google Spelling. I knew he was a smart guy. So, I applied to Google. In retrospect, it was a very good choice to have made. I joined Google three weeks after my graduation from Duke."

Twelve years and three cities later (New York, Tokyo, and Mountain View, California), the Jackson, Mississippi native points to a list of challenging and exciting Google innovations he's had a hand in shaping. His teams substantially enlarged the search engine crawl to tens of billions of web pages, and increased Google's speed in adding a web page from 24 hours to a mere 30 seconds. But Chatham was dreaming of something bigger.

"I had told myself, 'I have been at Google a long time and now I want to work on something even more important'," Chatham recalls. "As far as I could tell the most important thing I was qualified to work on was self-driving cars. Then, I found out about three months after my interest got jazzed up that Google was already working on them. It was very secretive even within Google at the time, but I managed to get myself on the project. For the first two years I worked on the project from New York. I couldn’t even tell anyone what I was working on. After two years of that I ended up coming out to California and I've been here for the last three years. I currently lead the team working on the software running in Google’s data centers. A lot of that is building the maps that our cars use, but also keeping the data that we collect and making sense of it so that we can improve the software and make the cars safer."

Important work that requires a team approach. Chatham credits one of his Duke mentors with providing the skills he uses to be a successful coder and team leader at Google.

"Professor Owen Astrachan, in the Computer Science Department, taught the software engineering classes," says Chatham.  "A lot of the value that came out of those classes was not just the particular details of learning how to use some piece of code, but also learning how to work as a team. I really value the experience that Professor Astrachan gave us, forcing us to work together in teams, because it turns out that’s what you do for the rest of your life."

Chatham hopes his work will eventually save and improve lives.

"It’s a huge societal problem that so many people die in automobile accidents," says Chatham. “As cool as the stuff is that we’ve made, as many articles as might be written about it, we have not saved any lives yet, because the technology is still in the research and development phase. I really do want to see this get into people’s hands and actually have an impact on people’s lives. I would like to stick around until we make that happen."

MORE: Chatham talks about lessons that have made him a better leader.