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Work-Life Balance and Helping the Environment: This Test Engineer Found the Role of a Lifetime

person with long hair standing in front of a tree and picket fence
Camille Labadie, a test engineer at Kairos Power.
| Courtesy of Kairos Power

Camille Labadie’s career story is proof that asking the right person the right questions just might help you land a dream job. During an elective class for her renewable energy minor in college, there was a guest speaker from the salt chemistry team at Kairos Power who discussed nuclear power and nuclear waste recycling.

“I was extremely interested in learning more about Kairos Power and their technology, so after class I asked him a few questions and ended up asking if they would be hiring soon. He said yes, and here I am!” she recalls.

Today, she is a test engineer at the engineering startup, which is focused on delivering clean and affordable energy—all while making sure its employees lead well-balanced lives. “The entire team is very passionate about achieving our mission,” she says. “They also ensure employees have exceptional quality of life by promoting work-life balance and establishing family-oriented values.”

Here, Labadie shares what the interview process at Kairos Power was like, why learning to make fast decisions is key to her work, and how she’s helping make the startup a more inclusive place to work.

What inspired you to become a chemical engineer?

I have always been interested in taking something that might seem intimidating from the outside and transforming it into something that can benefit humanity and our environment. Chemical engineering seemed like the right path for me to accomplish this. In college I worked at a small aerospace company characterizing, producing, and developing “green” propellants. These propellants are less harmful to the environment than typical propellants used in rockets. I enjoyed this work a lot but wanted to learn more about how I could have a direct impact on the environment, so I added a minor in renewable energy to my degree.

What attracted you to work at Kairos Power?

There were several factors that attracted me to work at Kairos Power. The amount of talented people was a huge reason for me. I have learned an incredible number of skills and knowledge from so many people from all different backgrounds. Additionally, the “door is always open” culture helps us constantly learn from each other. I had a lot of catching up to do when I first started, and everyone would make time to help me out and get me up to speed. With a reduced on-site team due to COVID-19 guidelines, the essential staff goes out of their way to help. For example, if one team has experience fixing a particular piece of equipment, they are more than willing to share their expertise with others.

Tell us about the company’s mission- and people-centered culture. How does this type of culture manifest itself in your day-to-day life as a Kairos Power employee?

Kairos Power’s mission is to enable the world’s transition to clean energy, with the ultimate goal of dramatically improving people’s quality of life while protecting the environment. Everyone embodies the company mission in their day-to-day activities from simply beginning each meeting with the mission statement to working hard to develop clean energy technology and even volunteering in our communities. Recently, Kairos Power team members supported Save the Bay, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving the San Francisco Bay. The Kairos team spent a day helping to remove invasive plants and trash to help protect wildlife in our local community.

In addition to protecting the environment, our company’s mission also emphasizes dramatically improving people’s quality of life. I believe Kairos Power embodies this in the way the company is run. The leadership team always encourages people to take time off to rest, recharge, and spend time with families. For example, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic last summer, our CEO Mike Laufer closed the company for a week and told everyone to take a few paid days off that did not come out of our PTO. He recognized that the past few months had been difficult since the team successfully submitted a major U.S. Department of Energy proposal while adapting to working remotely. He anticipated that we all needed a few days to recharge without worrying about falling behind. Kairos Power has always done an exceptional job of emphasizing well-being of employees and improving our quality of life in many ways.

What are you responsible for in your role?

As a test engineer, I work on molten salt testing in the lab. My role includes everything from designing a test, conducting design reviews, hazard analysis, safety calculations, working with external vendors and consultants, making 3D models and drawings, and working with the in-house machine shop to get test parts built. Once the test is built, I’m tasked with programming and setting up software and instrumentation to measure crucial parameters such as temperature and pressure. This setup of software and instrumentation is the commissioning stage. After the hard work of commissioning is complete, the testing can begin—my favorite part! Then, I’d gather the data and write up a report to send out to stakeholders.

I have also had the opportunity to work on other molten salt-specific projects such as developing a plan for determining analytical methods for qualification of our primary coolant, Flibe. I’ve gotten to work on and review reports that compile legacy data on thermophysical properties of Flibe that will eventually be sent to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. At Kairos Power, you can work on what interests you even if it is outside of your job description, which has been a great opportunity for me to broaden my range of expertise.

What are you working on that’s exciting or inspiring?

I’m currently working on modifying a molten salt test system to add valves and other components for testing. This work is exciting because it directly feeds into our next major hardware demonstration, the Engineering Testing Unit, which is a non-nuclear reduced scale version of our commercial reactor that is being built in Albuquerque, New Mexico. All of the information we learn from tests through our use of rapid learning cycles and prototyping on both smaller and larger scales contributes to the development of Kairos Power’s commercial reactor. Knowing that everything we work on will affect how we build and operate our final product is very motivating and exciting. Everything we work on is highly focused on bringing us one step closer to helping more communities protect their environments through decarbonization by use of nuclear power.

Kairos Power has engineers in many different specialties including nuclear, mechanical, and chemical. In general, what is the engineering culture like?

Since joining the Kairos Power team, I have gained a much wider understanding of different disciplines within engineering. Specifically, my first project involved a lot of software troubleshooting and mechanical assembly—both of which I had very limited experience with before. Learning these new skills has helped me enhance collaboration and communication with other engineers in different departments as well as external consultants. It has also helped me become more independent in my work.

The engineering team is highly cross functional. The design team provides input on what needs to be tested and required durations, conditions, and more. From there, I work with fabricators in the machine shop and skilled technicians to build parts and assemble the test stand. Once it is built, I work with the salt chemistry and safety teams to identify hazards and ensure the team has proper PPE to work on the test. The instrumentation and controls team often collaborates with my team to help with programming some of our equipment and troubleshooting code. We also often work with external consultants and vendors for support in developing our novel technology. During this entire process, other test engineers are consulted for their unique perspectives to review designs, procedures, and operability studies. Having teammates from diverse backgrounds strengthens our capabilities and increases cross functional collaboration.

What skills are necessary to succeed as an engineer at Kairos Power?

Because Kairos Power emphasizes iterative “fail fast” testing, I think being comfortable with making fast decisions allows us to quickly learn both what works and what doesn’t. Having an open mind and willingness to grow with Kairos Power’s rapid iterative design process is a big factor in being successful here. Following the 80/20 rule is a great way to think about this: spending 20% of the time to get the project 80% optimized.

In addition, to succeed as an engineer at Kairos Power, I think it is important to know when to be flexible and when to be firm in decision making. Because the company is in its startup stages, it is a balancing act of moving fast while being able to pivot. Understanding when it is required to make decisive, fast moves in your projects versus being able to take input from all parties at the final hour and pivoting a project to inform important decisions is a very useful and important skill I am still improving upon every day.

What was the interview process and candidate experience like at Kairos Power?

I had a very positive interview experience. The recruiting team flew me to Alameda, California, for my interview. I was able to meet a lot of the people I would be working with including leadership, engineers, and technicians. I found it very valuable to be able to have conversations with potential future teammates to get a feel of how it might be to work closely with them. I was excited to have the opportunity to ask everyone questions specific to what they do and generally about Kairos Power. Everyone had great things to say about the culture and was very enthusiastic about the work. My favorite part was seeing the lab space and hearing about plans for what it would later be filled with. It is exciting to see now how the space has completely filled up with tests just in the last year and a half!

Tell us about your experience as part of the company’s D&I committee.

I am part of the D&I Committee’s Grassroots sub-team and we have been working to support mental and physical wellness, community outreach, and education over the last few months. Our sub-team is interested in developing a culture that promotes self-care and inclusivity by reminding employees that they can use sick time to take care of their mental wellbeing, hosting weekly meditation breaks, and promoting physical wellness. This past year has been difficult for everyone, but especially difficult for underrepresented groups and minorities. We want to create a space where everyone feels cared for and safe.

We have also been working on other projects such as hosting a book club where we read educational books discussing challenges that minorities may face. The D&I book club just finished How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and we are now reading Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak. The meetings from our first book helped prompt meaningful discussions on what we can do to be better allies. It also provided a neutral space as an outlet for people who wanted to discuss troubling events, our responses, and what we can pull from our readings to help cope with them. I think this process helped all of us become more aware of our actions and ways we can lift each other up.

We also have a mentorship panel in the works that is aimed to inspire young local students to enter the STEM field. We have been coordinating with Alameda Point Collaborative on this effort and look forward to kicking it off in the coming weeks.

As someone just starting out in your career, what advice do you have for other new grads interested in becoming an engineer at Kairos Power?

I think the most helpful piece of advice I could give is to ask questions, be receptive to all ideas, and to try to blur the barriers between teams to gain input from people with different backgrounds. It admittedly has become more difficult to enter discussions around the office due to some work being remote. However, there have been several times where a casual conversation while filling up my water bottle has turned into solving specific problems or learning about something I did not know about before. Going beyond your job description to help other people outside of your team will help create valuable relationships. Listening with the intention of gaining understanding so you can ask the right questions has also been very helpful.

Signing up for our mentorship program is also a great way to learn more and collaborate. My technical mentor taught me details about the reactor core that I would have never known or understood due to my lack of a nuclear background. Collaboration is key!