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Programming Marty the robot

Siobhan is a lead developer for Robotical, and leads her team to programme Marty the robot to be the best he can be!

Siobhan Duncan

I've always been inspired by engineering. My dad's an engineer and so it was just always something that was in my household. We used to take computers to bits and it was explained to me how things like  the internet worked, websites, work, programs and everything.

And I was always fascinated - like all engineer stereotypes, I was obsessed with Lego when I was a child - building things and just creating things with my imagination.

I got really into Stargate when I was quite young. Me and my dad used to watch that together. There’s this character, Samantha Carter, who was the Hollywood version of engineering - she could do all sciences and all types of engineering. And I just thought she was the coolest thing ever. So I got really obsessed and inspired.

But it wasn't until I was a teenager that I actually got my hands on robots for the first time. I applied and attended a space summer school. It was my first experience of programming Lego robots and from there, there was just no turning back.

Once I'd actually programmed a robot to do a small task like solving a maze, going back and forth, I just knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

A typical day really varies from one to the next. As lead developer, I'm responsible for looking after the team, deciding what we need to do, who's going to do it and how we’re going to do it.

So, some days I'm planning, some days I'm writing code and some days I'm in meetings all day. And so it's quite nice that my job is very varied.

The other great thing about my job is that we use quite a lot of different technologies to make Marty work. From one day to the next I could be using completely different programing languages, which for me is really interesting and keeps the job really exciting.

I love working with Marty and I really enjoy solving the issues that Marty sometimes has. But more than that, I really enjoy creating new features and making Marty more and more capable all the time.

I'm a real believer that young people really need to get their hands on, in terms of engineering, as early as possible to give them the confidence to know that engineering is for everybody. And so I really believe that Marty is changing things.

Young people today are generally getting the opportunity to learn how to code from a much younger age than I was.

I didn't write my first proper programming until I was at university. I had had a small amount of experience with a similar tool to Marty when I was a teenager, and it made such a difference to my life. I was already 15-16 by that point.

It’s brilliant to see children learning to code from as young as primary school age and grow up in a very different world with many more skills than I did and I'm really happy to contribute to that.

Make sure you pay attention to maths and physics at school, but also don't worry if you didn't. It's something I got back into a little bit later in life, but it does really help set you up.

Also I think problem solving is a really important part of engineering - if you really enjoy puzzle games and puzzle apps on your phone, a real puzzle or Sudoku or anything like that, all that helps develop problem-solving skills, which are extremely useful in engineering.

But the other thing I would say is that really don't worry - engineering has the stereotype of being really hard and really niche, but it's actually a lot of fun. You learn by doing and everyone around you is very welcoming and will always help you out.

So just really don't stress it.

The other thing I'd maybe say is that engineering is so varied and there are so many different types: construction, electronics, software, mechanical, you can work for Formula One, you can work in robotics, you can design apps.

Since it's so varied I wouldn’t worry too much about exactly where you want to go because it's easy to move between the different types.


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