Ford engineers talk about success in industry

Engineers need a wide-ranging set of skills to be successful. Not only do engineers need to excel in math and science, but they also need to be team players and have great writing skills. Last week the Oredigger interviewed two Ford engineers working on the new Ford Fusion that embody these skills and more.

Jenifer Shaw and Rebecca Seiler work for Ford in the driver-assist and active safety sector. Their work helps drivers understand their surroundings to make safe choices, to avoid collisions, and even stop the car from a collision by an automatic braking system.

Both women grew up in Metro Detroit and surprisingly never knew they would end up in the auto industry. Seiler and Shaw’s families did not have anyone working in the auto industry even though they are from Detroit.

Shaw said, “There are some people in the metro Detroit area where everybody in their family has worked for one of the auto companies and that wasn’t my experience at all.” Shaw’s Mother was a high school math teacher and her father was an engineer. She got her inspiration to become an engineer at a camp where she worked on an engineering team (similar CSM’s EPICS courses). After getting to college and working internships at various companies she found her place in electrical engineering. Regarding her job at Ford, Shaw said, “what I was doing at those other companies wasn’t really the type of work I was interested in and the opportunities at Ford seemed more like the sort of work that I wanted to be doing on the type of product that I wanted.”

Seiler said, “I have a very similar background to Jenifer, no one in my family works for the automotive industry at all.” As a young child Seiler loved English and took writing and art classes such as poetry. But her inspiration for engineering came from a space camp in Alabama. At the time she thought she would work on the space program, but in college Seiler said, “the space program wasn’t growing at that time it was kind of dwindling. All the interviews I had where more for communications satellite and commercial flights.” She wanted to have a large impact on something that would advance human society and found that Ford fit the bill perfectly.

Both Shaw and Seiler attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Shaw received her bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering and Sieler received both her bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering. They met while working for Ford.

With the career fair coming up, Shaw and Seiler both highly recommended pursuing internships. Seiler said, “Internships are definitely an extremely good thing. It is very different working at a corporation versus working on your schoolwork. When I was taking my classes at the University of Michigan I had a different idea of what engineering would be like out in a corporation, and then when I had that inside experience I was like ‘Oh this is how you take all your knowledge and apply it to a product’. It was an invaluable experience.”

Seiler did four summers of internships at Ford. It was overwhelming at such a young age and she had to adjust to working in a company of mostly older men. Seiler switched into a very different social environment, but she found that with helpful coworkers and good teamwork it was possible to succeed. Seiler is grateful for her opportunity with Ford and values the work experience she gained from the internship.

Shaw also recommends an internship because it is important to experience the corporate world apart from school. Shaw says to “be as open as possible and try to learn as much as you can about the culture and about the product and the technology you are working on. Try not to come in with preconceived notions of what you might be doing and just try to be open to what you need to do and learn as much as you can about what you will be working on. Try to apply the engineering concepts that you learned the best that you can.” She also recommends speaking up and contributing to team discussions.

Shaw and Seiler stress that, although employees won’t necessarily be doing complex calculus, the technologies that they work with require math, physics and chemistry; understanding the basic concepts is important. It often depends on where one is in the company, but the skills students learn in high school and college are important.

When it comes to managerial positions, Seiler explains that a managerial engineer still has to understand the technical data behind what their engineers are doing. She said “you don’t leave all the technical skills behind. Even though you are not sitting in front of MATLAB you still need to understand it.” Additional traits needed to be a successful manager include good organizational skills and people skills.

Shaw and Seiler agreed that engineers are oftentimes faced with tough, ethical decisions and encouraged CSM’s required NHV (Nature and Human Values) course. Shaw said, “There are a lot of opportunities when you get in your career where there will be difficult decisions to make and you have to do the right thing. I think no matter what field you’re in within engineering you will be faced with ethical decisions. We didn’t have that [NHV]at U of M and I almost wish that we did” Seiler also said that in her department, “we have a mantra that is to do no harm.”

In a field commonly dominated by men, Shaw and Seiler both feel as though there are many opportunities for highly-motivated women at Ford. Seiler says that it takes some time to get used to because working with men is a cultural shift. According to her, men and women act and communicate differently. When asked about the ratios Seiler said that in her section of 12 people there are two women, but in the past she was in a department of 30 to 40 people where she was the only female. Shaw stats that in her department the ratio is similar to Mines with 3 women and 8 men.

Moving forward with the interview, the Oredigger asked Shaw and Seiler about their daily routine as Ford engineers. The average day for an engineer depends greatly upon position and department. Shaw is responsible for parking assist and active park assist with ultrasonic systems, blind spot monitoring with a radar based system, and video camera systems. She spends her time in meetings with designers, team members, and other departments solving issues as they arise. Some days are more technical than others, and although she doesn’t do lots of testing, Shaw occasionally gets into the garage or track for testing on various systems.

For Seiler the average day is much more about testing, working on simulating code, compiling it, and going out on the test track to make sure the code and algorithms are working as intended. Seiler says that her average day consists of approximately 75% testing and working with code and 25% meetings with team members and other co-workers.

Shaw and Seiler are both working on the new Ford Fusion. Their different systems including parallel parking assist, and blind-spot warning. These systems use various sensors inside the car that collect data, and through control modules and on-board computers, compute algorithms to deliver the information to the driver. The parking assist sensors use ultrasonic waves to determine the location of obstacles and the algorithms then calculate the trajectory to park the car. Although the driver controls the accelerator and brake pedal, the computer controls the steering and helps drivers avoid embarrassing situations where they fail at parallel parking.

The technology that Shaw and Seiler developed is highly affordable. According to a
Ford spokesman, to purchase all of these capabilities a BMW customer would pay more than $140,000, whereas a Fusion SE with Driver Assist features costs $29,885.

To wrap things up the Oredigger asked Jennifer Shaw and Rebecca Sieler about their thoughts concering the challenges facing engineers in the future. According to the two women, continuing to innovate is important. Moore’s Law dictates that the doubling rate for computing power is two years, but how do engineers keep going and innovating as society is meeting the limits of certain technologies? For processors this limit is the wavelength of light (currently we use ultraviolet light) which doesn’t allow transistors to get much smaller than 22 nm. Innovation is important but engineers of the future need to make sure that they help, not harm, society.

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