Sang Pham

Automotive Software Requirements Manager NVIDIA

Diversity of perspectives is very important in engineering. If everyone thinks the same way, you are not going to get as much innovation and creative thinking as you would if you built a diverse team of people from different backgrounds.

Q.What subjects did you study at school that set you up for this career? (Emma, Babinda State School)

A. At school I did Maths B, Maths C and Physics.

Q. I am interested in pursuing a career in engineering, more specifically geotechnical engineering, what senior subjects would you recommended? (Emma, Babinda State School)

A. Maths B, Maths C, Physics and Chemistry are subjects that can lead you into geotechnical engineering.

Q. If you were going to go towards a career in chemical or petroleum engineering what subjects what would you suggest to do to advance my knowledge in these areas that would help towards the transition between high school and University? (Darcie, Lowood SHS)

A. Maths B, Maths C, Physics and Chemistry are subjects that can lead you from school into chemical or petroleum engineering.

Q. How many years did it take to get through your university qualifications before you got an actual job in this field? (Bernice, Southport SHS)

A. I completed a four year degree and landed my first job within six months of graduation after applying for maybe 100 jobs. It can be hard to land your first role but once you’re in the industry the only thing holding you back is your commitment and passion for success.

Q. What is the main barrier preventing progress towards self-driving cars? (Allegra, Stanthorpe State High School)

A. The main obstacle tech companies are facing is gaining safety certification by proving that their products are safe and secure enough to be sold to the public and driven on the road. This requires a method of engineering known as Systems Engineering that is applied in many safety-critical industries such as aerospace, defence, medical and automotive.

The companies that have the technology capable of solving the self-driving problem are inexperienced in this style of engineering.

It could be compared to using your right hand to write your entire life and being told that you now have to write an essay with your left hand – the end result will be much the same but it will take some time to develop the ability to do it to the same or better level of quality.

Q. As my 16th birthday approaches, I question is it worth learning to drive or will my first car be self-driving? Will a self-driving car be able to accommodate my local, rural environment of kangaroos and echidnas? (Allegra, Stanthorpe State High School)

A. There are self-driving capabilities in cars today (many new cars can self-drive on the highway with a driver available to take over) but level 4/5 which is completely autonomous driving (not requiring human interaction) is still many years away.

You should definitely learn to drive! Even after the first completely autonomous vehicle is on the road, it will take years for governments to adapt their rules and regulations and change road configurations to support them.

I imagine there will be transitionary periods where we will have self-driving lanes and human-driven lanes before full autonomous vehicle adoption is widespread. Adoption in Australia will be slower than in other areas such as the US, China and Europe, with its more rural, less populated areas.

Q. How close are we to having affordable self-driving vehicles on Australian roads? (Bernice, Southport SHS)

A. It’s really hard to predict when we will have this in the US. For the US, it could be in the next 5-10 years for the first self-driving car to be on the road – Australia could be another 5 years behind.

In terms of affordability, it’s hard to predict how self-driving cars will be adopted. Some companies are setting themselves up to provide a subscription service akin to Uber, where individuals don’t actually own their own vehicle. Some companies are expecting to sell self-driving vehicles to individuals the way cars are sold today. The success and adoption of one of these models will determine whether affordability is even an issue.

Q. NVIDIA works on artificial intelligence (AI) powered robots, drones and autonomous cars. Are there fields you think we will always need a human for? Can you see applications like driverless tractors in agriculture for improved food production and worker safety?

A. In non-technical humanity-focused fields such as health, psychology, education, policing etc, it’s hard to imagine replacing humans with AI.

Technical, process-driven fields such as farming, manufacturing, delivery etc will be the first industries we will see AI replace humans.

I imagine for a very long time, we will still have some humans-in-the-loop; and it will be for the reason you suggest – safety.

Q. Aerospace, transport, defence and automotive industries are all machinery – but what were the major differences working across these fields?

A. The technology is different in different industries but the overall style of engineering is the same in any safety-critical / mission critical industry. They all apply Systems Engineering methodology. Aside from that, the regulatory restrictions you must comply with have their differences; the culture of companies working in these fields can be different; and the focus and priorities of companies working in these fields can be different.

Q. You have travelled a lot for your work and have lived in three US cities in four years – are there skills and abilities you have as an Australian that your international colleagues admire?

A. Diversity of perspectives is very important in engineering. If everyone thinks the same way, you are not going to get as much innovation and creative thinking as you would if you built a diverse team of people from different backgrounds. This has been a guiding principle of my career.

I have tried to work in as many different industries and environments as possible to gain a diverse understanding of how Systems Engineering is applied – what works well, what doesn’t; what methods and techniques saved time; which ones solved major problems. I bring that experience with me to every new role I take, to help every company I work for improve and optimise their processes.

Being an Australian hasn’t given me any advantage over my international colleagues except that I bring an alternate perspective to the table; the same could be said for an engineer from any country or background that is different from the majority of the workforce.

Sang graduated from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) with a Bachelor of Aerospace / Avionics Engineering with a minor in Systems Engineering and First Class Honours. He has 15 years of experience as a Systems Engineer and has applied Systems Engineering to programs in aerospace, transport, defence and now automotive for major multinational leaders in these fields: Boeing, Airbus, Thales, Sikorsky, Viasat and NVIDIA.

Sang’s work allowed him to travel all over Australia, to France and the USA. For the past four years he has been located in the USA in Seattle, San Diego and now Silicon Valley.

His current role is the Requirements Manager for NVIDIA’s Automotive program where he develops Systems Engineering processes and guidance for engineers to execute Safe Engineering and product development. The program provides Automotive grade processing units that Automotive OEMs use as the platform for self-driving technology, automotive processing and infotainment.