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Driven to Succeed

business / alumni

When Emily Duff Bartel graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2006 with University Honors, the information systems major who minored in film and digital imaging knew she wanted to pursue a challenge in which she could “be creative, build things and also solve complex problems.”

Duff Bartel’s mission was accomplished in a career that was more science fiction than reality in 2006.

Duff Bartel, who is based in Pittsburgh, is a product manager for Uber’s Advanced Technology Group (ATG), the research and development hub of Uber’s engineering team. ATG is dedicated to self-driving technologies, mapping and vehicle safety, and is at the forefront of the company’s pilot program that is testing self-driving cars.

“I spent the last year and a half growing the ATG Human Experience team, focusing on the interfaces in the vehicle that our vehicle operators and riders interact with, while integrating our self-driving product into the Uber core business as seamlessly as possible,” she said.

For example, do passengers seated in the backseat want to be reminded — through a tablet-size interface mounted between the front seats — to buckle their seat belts? Or do they want to be reassured that the car recognizes people crossing the street and will slow down? Or both?

To find out how much information passengers desire and how much is too much, Uber currently has a fleet of self-driving cars on the streets in Arizona and Pittsburgh. A trained vehicle operator monitors the car’s actions.

Duff Bartel is one of a handful of Uber experts who conduct user research to evaluate what is most practical and how to enhance safety. Uber’s researchers, designers and engineers are in constant collaboration with her.

Prior to joining Uber in 2015, Duff Bartel was a senior lead engineer at Booz Allen Hamilton. The career-change prompt occurred — where else — in her car.

“I saw a billboard on I-79 that said something along the lines of ‘Do you like to solve hard problems?’ and only listed the ATG website,” she recalled. “It was mysteriously vague and intriguing enough to want to learn more.”

Larry Heimann, a teaching professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Information Systems Department, isn’t surprised his former student accepted the challenge.

“Emily has a creative mind and always been a great problem-solver. But, to me, what is remarkable is Emily’s ability to handle difficult technical challenges without losing sight of the human element," Heimann said.

When Duff Bartel reminisces about her days at Carnegie Mellon, she says she realizes how much it meant to her career.

“I was always interested in blending technology and art. I grew up playing with Legos and Barbies. Carnegie Mellon fostered the notion that it’s ‘OK’ to be both creative and technical in the same role,” she said.

Her husband, Nick Bartel, is a Carnegie Mellon alumnus. He earned his MBA from the Tepper School of Business in 2016 and is head of business development at Idelic.

“Em’s bashful, so I’m glad she’s being recognized for doing really great things in tech,” he said.

Duff Bartel isn’t quite ready to answer the question everyone is asking: “When are Uber’s driverless cars coming to my city?” But she said that she and her colleagues are working hard to make it happen sooner rather than later.