We had the good fortune of connecting with David Booker-Earley and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi David, can you share the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
Great question! There are actually two lessons that have equally been the most important (and most frequent) lessons throughout my career (and generally over the last 16 years).
Part 1 – Be curious.
Part 2 – Know when and how to pivot.
I’ve used these two lessons at nearly every stage of my life, in both professional and personal settings; from performing at the Atlanta Jazz Festival for multiple years and studying for my GED exams, to graduating from GA Tech and then tutoring other students preparing for their GEDs while I studied Data Science.
As I’ve worked toward my goals, things would sometimes go smoothly or maybe take a little longer than anticipated; other times, it felt like I was juggling so much that I could only go as fast as a turtle stampeding through a pile of peanut butter.
However, by being curious and planning my next steps, I realized that “things going smoothly” don’t always mean you’re making progress, and “feeling really stuck” can often be a key indicator of the growth you’ve already achieved. It’s okay to take a step back, make some tea, and pivot on your approach.
To pivot, be curious and diligent with healthy amounts of skepticism and flexibility, and, in the words of my inspirational mother, always “plan your work, and work your plan”.
Please tell us more about your work. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally. Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way. What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
Reflecting on how I’ve gotten to where I am today, it’s been an arduous but satisfying journey.
As a problem-solving engineer and data-professional, both the shape and scope of my professional career have expanded over the years. As I include more ingredients in my plans and goals, three things remain constant:
#1 – I strive to use scientific wizardry to help advance our civilization.
#2 – Music beats coffee (at least for me).
#3 – I need to make more hummus; there’s never enough hummus!
Through music, I helped bring various communities together to celebrate and honor the diversity of Atlanta’s arts and cultures. Through education, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects, I helped unlock life-improving opportunities for myself and other students.
Over the years, I’ve had to take calculated risks to level-up while navigating overwhelming amounts of ambiguity and rigorous deadlines. Now, I’m proud to say that I’ve received awards, acknowledgements, and a degree for my meticulous solutions, methodical project-based research and designs, and overall ability to break complex problems down into actionable steps.
Starting my career pretty close to zero, perhaps even in the negative digits, I’ve learned that good intentions can only get you so far, especially when you lack resources. Even with the incredible “making something out of nothing” superpower I’ve seen in my family, I grew up with limited resources and limited exposure to STEM subjects. However, when I was home-schooled for my high school education, my curiosity of the fascinating worlds of STEM subjects grew as I learned more; then, with more curiosity came more critical thinking, cognitive flexibility, and meticulous planning.
There were two resources that were extremely helpful in all of this: internet access and music!
Outside of studying equations and scientific results online, I studied and performed with jazz bands as a percussionist under the direction of Mr. Robert Jeffrey (J.C.Y. Middle School) and Dr. Gordon Vernick (GA State University) at legendary events like the annual Atlanta Jazz Festival in Piedmont Park and concerts at Georgia State University’s Rialto Center for the Arts.
Partnering with dozens of talented groups, learning life-lessons as we performed and won awards throughout Atlanta and other cities in our youth, and cultivating creativity from 2006 through 2012, music was both a creative outlet and another home during that time (and a great way to stay in shape for sports).
I learned many skills and lessons (communication, leadership, spatial organization, team-building, time-management, etc.) through direct experiences and indirectly by observing and listening to others. Two of the most important lessons that I’ve carried with me since then are “being curious” and “knowing when and how to pivot”. I’ve seen that many other lessons can be derived from those two things. Interestingly, to pivot, one needs to be curious and diligent with healthy amounts of skepticism and flexibility, and, in the words of my inspirational mother, always “plan your work, and work your plan”.
While nearing the end of my homeschooling curriculum, the path forward was unclear due to a lack of resources, but I knew I needed to pivot in order to reach my next level, especially to pursue more STEM subjects. Thus, I researched GED preparation in my area with my family, connected with Youth Enhancement Services (Y.E.S.), signed up for their classes, and quickly completed my GED within the first few months of 2013. After seeing the monumental guidance provided by Ms. Lula Gilliam and the Y.E.S. team, I felt empowered to join them as a volunteer tutor for math and science. A few months later, I earned my first job as a class instructor at Y.E.S., helped over 50 students complete their GEDs, and submitted my applications for college and financial aid with continued mentorship from Ms. Gilliam.
I started my collegiate journey at GA Perimeter College in August of 2013 for Mechanical Engineering, became friends with more talented people, and had the honor of learning from brilliant professors like Dr. Yoon Duk “Debbie” Kim and Dr. Jay Dunn; both of them consistently encouraged my curiosity while equipping me with the scientific tools and methodologies to explore it. Dr. Kim especially played a significant role in expanding my network and helping me understand various engineering concepts. From evaluating forces acting on beams and bridges, to presenting calculated project designs, I felt like I was gaining those scientific wizardry powers I aimed for.
After several time-intensive semesters of completing prerequisite classes (and sprinting for MARTA buses and trains), I transferred into GA Tech in January of 2016. During my first few semesters at GA Tech, my advisors, Ms. Lenna Applebee and Ms. Kristi Mehaffey, were essential as I planned my next steps. Initially, I wanted to learn more about biomedical robotics and regenerative medicine. However, even with the help of my awesome advisors, I was unable to obtain the resources or connections to explore either path on campus. However, they helped me with things that were just as important, like preparing for upcoming semesters and updating my resume.
Navigating the competing priorities of life, my focus often flipped between “school-mode” and “survival-mode”. I was barely able to afford groceries (shoutout to bulk-products that come in recyclable packaging like rice and oatmeal). After meeting with Ms. Applebee to confirm my graduation-plan (I was very thorough when planning my semesters ahead of time), she was kind enough to introduce me to one of the greatest minds on campus, Dr. Dana Hartley.
As I planned my next steps, Dr. Hartley provided legendary-level guidance that helped me pivot my approach, expand my network, and gain access to an incredible student service called Klemis Kitchen on campus. Facing overlapping deadlines, massive sleep deprivation, and limited lunch money, this service was a significant help throughout my time at GT; I had something to eat or at least some shelf-stable ingredients to cook with, and I had a quiet place to study or regroup before/after exams and presentations.
As I continuously re-evaluated my next steps with the help of my advisors and mentors, my passion for combining scientific experiments with technology motivated me. I used music from around the world as my coffee to keep me awake during each rigorous semester. With unwavering dedication and a ferocious sense of “gettin’ stuff done”, I followed these 3 “simple” steps daily:
Step 1 – Figure it out.
Step 2 – If you’re still stuck, ask for help.
Step 3 – If help is unavailable, refer back to Step 1.
This 3-step process was especially needed when I helped design, build, and test an autonomous machine that completed various tasks in under 30 seconds. Competing in a team of 3 members for my first Mechanical Engineering competition, we literally started in the bottom bracket at the 22nd seed, outperformed every team we faced across multiple rounds, made it to the final round as underdogs representing our entire class-section, and secured 3rd place out of 28 teams!
There was never a dull moment, from applying equations on energy and 3D-rotational motion of rigid bodies, evaluating forces across different inertial frames of reference, and drawing countless free-body-diagrams to analyze forces acting on a given system, to presenting a live Fluid Mechanics demonstration of the principle of the Bernoulli Equation through a Low-Pressure Experiment using funnels and a ping-pong ball.
During that first year, I also had to plan and endure a truly absurd routine of sleeping for 5 hours after classes on Monday (like 8 PM Monday to 1 AM Tuesday) and working on multiple projects / assignments from 1 AM on Tuesday until my next class started on Wednesday morning (wild, I know, but the work wasn’t going to magically be done or get any easier if I didn’t put in the effort). Although I don’t recommend that routine, it guaranteed my scholarships and grants for the following semesters.
In 2017, the results of that wild routine also enabled me to land a job as a Mechanical HVAC Designer Co-Op student at Salas O’Brien, a national engineering and design firm. This allowed me to alternate classes with full-time work, plan my next steps, afford more than just peanut butter, train in the intense world of Krav Maga, and regain a few hours of sleep during my work-months.
Although I liked working in HVAC (especially to help pay for school, support my family, and gain industry-level experience as a rising Mechanical Engineer), I knew I still needed to pivot by taking more calculated risks to step closer to my goals.
So, outside of completing prerequisite classes (that is, preparing for a great Robotics course on campus further away on the timeline), traveling across the city for physical therapy for my legs and neck/spine (a big shoutout to the Squad Mother for helping me get through that), and performing airflow calculations at my engineering job, I connected with people from various industries, received incredible support from my advisors and co-workers, and I taught myself how to use the basics of Python, a popular programming language, to electronically drive a robot that I built on my kitchen table using an oatmeal container that I had just emptied, a spare portable phone charger, and an electronics kit with a Raspberry Pi computer that I bought online after saving money for months!
However, in early 2018, I was battling overlapping illnesses for several months; enduring that level of pain while exhausting my mental and physical resources daily proved to be more challenging than any other time I was sick in previous years. Despite my efforts to “work through the pain and exhaustion”, I was no longer able to operate effectively for any of my 5 classes (I was badly losing that battle of attrition).
When I could no longer eat, drink water, sleep, speak, or even concentrate due to the rising levels of immense pain (which meant even less sleep on top of all the “no-sleep” I was already getting), I decided to reach out and coordinate with my advisors, professors, the Dean of Students, and Dr. Nguyen at Piedmont. After taking some time off to focus on my health, I re-evaluated my next steps with my advisors; they decided that the best thing to do would be to withdraw from one of my classes that also a lab component, focus on my health, and re-start that class in the summer because it was a prerequisite to other classes needed for graduation (this was the first and only class I had ever dropped).
My GPA dipped that semester because I was constantly playing “catch-up” for assignments and exams in most of the remaining classes, but my strong motivation and music playlists helped me maintain my above 3.0 GPA (and when GPA is all you have, it means a lot when seeking funding and internships).
Despite those struggles, I was able to complete my projects and enjoy the start of what turned into a legendary series of events thanks to classes like Georgia Tech’s Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP). Now named Experimental Flights, formerly named Exploratory Robotics (and a few others), this was one of my favorite courses from that same Spring 2018 semester that was interrupted by illnesses. However, after regaining my footing, and with the support of my awesome classmates and instructors, we researched, analyzed, and designed a drone meant to collect data while exploring Mars. After presenting our work in a VIP competition that was overflowing with talent, we won 1st place for the Systems Engineering Award and its $2,000 prize!
In subsequent semesters, we expanded our team with many brilliant minds from various fields, partnered with NASA to analyze and run tests on Prandtl-M, their glider-styled drone designed to explore Mars, and began the foundational research and design of an on-campus, autonomous delivery drone system under the guidance of GTRI Senior Research Engineer Michael Mayo and other research engineers. I had the honor and pleasure of co-managing those projects until I graduated in May of 2019.
Going back a little to continue outlining how I got to where I am today, while taking two classes and working full-time in an intense Summer 2018 semester, I had wonderful support from my professors and co-workers when retaking that important class with the lab; I even met more amazingly talented people who I have the honor of calling my friends today.
Later that year during the Fall 2018 semester, one year after building my Raspberry Pi and Python driven robot, I had the amazing opportunity to work on multiple, industry-level robotics research projects!
For example, in addition to NASA’s Prandtl-M project, I worked as a Software Engineer intern at The Home Depot’s technology center near campus, OrangeWorks; at which, I had the honor of working with professional Software Engineering wizards like Nathan Fu, Josh Quintana, and many other incredible people on the OrangeWorks team. After diving back into Python and learning cool tricks on the job, I worked with my teammate and the leadership team to research and successfully produce indoor 2D-live-mapping using a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor, SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) algorithms, and a programmable iRobot-Roomba. This project was truly next-level and foundational to help the warehouse teams stock items and optimize storage space.
By the way, LiDAR sensors are legendary due their precise lasers and real-time geospatial data; they can be used for various projects, especially for mapping ocean and coastal areas or designing autonomous cars. SLAM is a really cool method also used for autonomous vehicles; when combined with other methods and sensors, it helps the robot “see” and navigate by mapping out unknown environments, eliminating guess-work in path planning, and performing real-time obstacle avoidance.
After researching SLAM algorithms with the team and configuring the technologies to load and evaluate the LiDAR data, I programmed the adorable Roomba with Python and controlled it using my keyboard. Our leadership team, co-workers, and guests were all very impressed when they saw the live-demo of this laptop-sized robot constructing a 2D map of the office!
In that same Fall 2018 semester, while finally enrolled in that Robotics class I mentioned earlier, I remember “feeling really stuck” on practice problems when reviewing equations for my upcoming final exam. I realized that, although it was difficult, I had come so far and really appreciated the duality of being stuck in that moment. Afterall, “feeling really stuck” can often be a key indicator of the growth you’ve already achieved.
With superb guidance from my professor, Dr. Anirban Mazumdar, and class mentor, graduate-student Kyle Motter, I learned mathematical modeling and simulation of dynamic systems, experimented with really cool technology, earned an awesome “A” grade in the class, presented my team’s final project after successfully implementing what we called “Turtlebot Tag”, and was invited by Dr. Mazumdar to join his Dynamic Adaptive Robotic Technologies (DART) Lab as a Robotics Research Assistant for my final semester at GT!
Want to see some of the cool stuff I’m talking about in action? Check out this Turtlebot Tag video I uploaded on YouTube! (https://youtu.be/lcN_eYWvJf4) My teammates and I programmed robots to autonomously play tag; the small one is just chillin’ and avoiding other objects using SLAM and Object Avoidance algorithms with a LiDAR sensor, and the larger robot tracks and tags the smaller one using the attached Xbox Kinect.
2018 had a really rough start, but by being curious and carefully pivoting, I closed out that roller-coaster of a year with a strong sense of accomplishment.
Next, while co-managing those VIP projects I mentioned, I worked with talented grad-students like Raymond Kim at the DART lab; here, I implemented inverse kinematics for robotic arm manipulation, motion planning, and autonomous tasks, as well as investigated, designed, and evaluated 3D-printed rover concepts for various terrain obstacles and aquatic applications. I even enhanced the stability and motion-smoothness of the robotic arm we used.
To add even more awesomeness to my graduating semester, in a team of 6 for my Senior Design Capstone project, we designed an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) meant to autonomously map reservoirs and improve inspections of poorly maintained dams here in the state of Georgia (and I’ll tell you right now, water is not your friend when you’re trying to keep it out of something that’s literally surrounded by water).
In any case, despite starting from scratch and battling illnesses throughout several semesters, I discovered better words to use when describing my passion, worked with remarkable engineers on robotics research projects for GA Tech, The Home Depot, and NASA, and overcame various obstacles (and massive sleep deprivation) to graduate from GA Tech and become one of the first engineers in my family.
However, the next point of pivoting occurred during the early stages of my job-hunt after graduating. I still wanted to work with robots and technology, but I was faced with two major dilemmas:
#1 – Many entry-level roles required more industry-level experience.
#2 – Most of the roles and ways to get more experience were related to robotic arms that would likely displace workers, especially in warehouses.
Although I understood the business model of using robotics to automate certain repetitive jobs, the more I looked into the roles, the more I thought “maybe not like this”. I didn’t want to contribute to the displacement of workers unless there was already a good system in place to transition them into a new, better paying role.
So, after taking a few months to plan my next steps and occasionally jam with the musician wizards known as Flan, I tutored more GED students at Youth Enhancement Services. Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and it hit hard. I re-evaluated everything, switched to tutoring over Zoom, researched various industries and technologies being used for good, joined dozens of virtual meetings hosted from around the world, asked questions to hundreds of people about their professional experiences in their industries, updated the words I used for expressing my passion, combined my engineering mindset of problem-solving with that passion of gaining insight from data, completed an online Data Science program, was invited to join the 2020 Black Tech Health Hackathon organized by Black Technology Professionals at Johnson & Johnson, and started my job in the world of data wizardry in October of 2020 (securing remote work during a pandemic has proven to be a very clutch-play).
Now, I work with an all-star team at The Home Depot as a remote Data Analyst, transforming data into actionable insight through illustrations and predictions, and empowering and optimizing supply chain decisions nationwide. Outside of work, I mentor Y.E.S. GED graduates and recent alumni who are beginning their next chapters, and I study Machine Learning algorithms. With so many music playlists, a better sleep schedule, ginger-root tea, and my homemade hummus, I’m now working towards my next level of scientific wizardry to one day work on computational agriculture, first-responder aid during disaster relief, and other really cool life-improving research projects.
Thank you very much for your interest and for your time, this was a really nice trip down memory lane!
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Sure! However, I’ll give my answers from the perspective of “the before-time” (pre-covid) because, as we all know, many things have changed in recent years.
So, here are my “when we’re not in a pandemic” places:
Ideally, if it’s not too hot outside, we could play basketball or soccer, check out a concert at Piedmont Park, walk or ride bikes around the Atlanta BeltLine, or maybe stop by the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
If they’re up for an adventure to see some cool projects-for-good, we could visit the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) for a tour (I’m very passionate about challenging the concept of waste and properly handling materials, especially those that contribute to contamination, pollution, etc.). After that, we could check out some of GT’s public competitions and tech events.
If indoor vibes are preferred, we could adventure to the DeKalb Farmers Market to get ingredients for several home-cooked meals; we’re definitely getting those chocolate overdose cookies and the sweet Hawaiian purple root vegetables (and of course responsibly handling the plastic and Styrofoam packaging through places like CHaRM). Then, upon our return, we’d pick out a few movies, shows, and music playlists to jump in.
Feeling energetic? Let’s go to a Krav Maga training class. If that isn’t enough of a workout, we could go to Fernbank Museum for Salsa Dancing Night with some more friends; and if they have kids (or honestly even for ourselves), we could go to the Fernbank Science Center to see the Planetarium’s 4K projections.
To end the week / weekend with relaxation and radiant positivity, let’s go to one of my favorite woman-owned and black-owned businesses called Iwi Fresh!
On the last day, we’d likely keep it simple and catch-up in the house for the low cost of free-99.
These days, I’m glad that I don’t need to go out much; I only go out for really important things like voting and emergencies. Shoutout to software and hardware engineers for empowering remote-work!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Absolutely; it often takes a village to raise a kid, and it often takes a group of powerful women to raise a village! There are dozens of people I’d like to acknowledge and thank; my phenomenal mother, Cheryl, my wonderful grandmother, Eva (a.k.a., Gran), as well as my aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, friends, advisors, professors, and colleagues.
With profound sincerity, I’d like to first give multiple galaxy-sized shoutouts to my mom, the Squad Mother, who, much like a superhero, provided for our family against all odds and obstacles that black mothers often face, attended multiple school meetings and extra curricular events/performances across different schools to support and encourage all of her children (we’re talking about like 3 or 4 different schools because of the age-gaps between my siblings and I), instilled a profound lesson in us to “be kind, be tough, and be yourself”, and mastered her passion in the performing arts, all while working a full-time job and raising/supporting what seems like a village of various friends and families along the way. From connecting them with other professionals in her industry, to providing housing for people faced with socioeconomic barriers who just needed stability to improve their lives, she’s done so much in so little time and with so few resources that it really seems like a “making something out of nothing” type of superpower. So, with every atom in my body, thank you for leading by example, never giving up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, staying true to yourself, teaching us how to think critically; encouraging our curiosity with 3 simple, yet significant words “look it up”, and reminding me to “plan your work and work your plan”!
Speaking of the “making something out of nothing” superpower, there are a few others I’d like to shoutout:
I’d like to give several mural-sized shoutouts to my grandmother for making so many legendary-clutch plays; from mastering her craft as a gifted painter, navigating the Civil Rights Era, deciding to “paint her way out of poverty”, and educating generations of students in the arts throughout Atlanta, GA, to designing and building a multi-generational house for her family despite numerous obstacles historically placed on black mothers. Thank you for encouraging us to speak distinctly at events even as children, and for always supporting us through our various forms of artistry and creativity. As you’ve often said, “sometimes you’ll have to jump through hoops, but if you’re going to do something, do it well!”
I’d also like to give an enormous shoutout with 100 hugs to Ms. Lula Gilliam and her monumental non-profit, Youth Enhancement Services (Y.E.S.) for continuously fighting for education equity, always giving 100% of effort for 100% of the time, providing unwavering support in my life and the lives of many others, establishing a strong sense of community and family, and continuing to lead by example in building and supporting our communities even with extremely limited resources. She worked and educated herself out of extreme poverty and became a social justice warrior for generations of people in under-represented communities. The superb guidance of Ms. Gilliam and the Y.E.S. team helped me complete my GED, empowered me to tutor other students and join professional networking events, and helped me start my collegiate journey nearly 10 years ago. Thank you very much for helping so many students unlock life-improving opportunities for over 30 years!
I want to especially give a profound shoutout to thank the late, great Dr. Yoon Duk “Debbie” Kim. Thank you for advising and encouraging me throughout my engineering curriculum at GA Perimeter College (GPC) and GA Tech, providing fun yet challenging ways to understand and practice various engineering concepts, investing in my potential by providing career advice and inviting me to engineering events and facility tours, inspiring me to invest in myself by combining my technical skills with my creative presentation skills, and bringing so many students together to become the next generations of engineers; we miss you, and we hope that you’re resting in peace and power!
There are many more I’d like to give a shoutout to, but for now I’ll do a speed-run list including, but not limited to:
My sister (Zaija) and Shoutout for the shoutouts; Mr. Jeffrey, Dr. Vernick, Howard, and my awesome educators for helping me build my foundations through education and music in my youth; the squad of family and friends for all of their support and creative vibes over the years; Mariama, Amanda, Sebastian, Adam, Ale, Steven, the Flan family, and all of the other incredibly talented artists with whom I’ve had the pleasure of performing musical wizardry and keeping our creative minds sharp; Dr. Nguyen at Piedmont for advising me as I battled multiple illnesses; Ms. Lenna Applebee, Dr. Dana Hartley, Ms. Kristi Mehaffey, Dr. Jay Dunn, GTRI Senior Research Engineer Michael Mayo, Dr. Anirban Mazumdar, Kyle Motter, Raymond Kim, and my other advisors, professors, colleagues and project-teammates with whom I’ve had the honor of collaborating at both GPC and GA Tech; a special shoutout to Nathan Fu, Josh Quintana, and many other incredible people at The Home Depot’s technology center, OrangeWorks, for investing in my curiosity through awesome projects and encouraging me to continue learning Python; my Data Science network; and my team of rockstars at The Home Depot – a large, collective Thank You to you all!
Atlanta Jazz Festival 2011; YES Newsletter August 2019; GA Tech Graduation Ceremony 2019