Ex-GM Engineer Explains How Company's 'Culture' Rewards Incompetence

Just how bizarre is General Motors' much-maligned "culture"? Ask an engineer who worked there for nearly a year right before the company went bankrupt.

Jalopnik reader autojim posted this comment on my op-ed yesterday about people, not culture, need to be held responsible for GM's problems with communication, secrecy, and intimidation of whistleblowers.

His remarks are below in full. Do you have experience, positive or negative, working at GM? If so post them in the comments below or email us at tips at jalopnik dot com.

I worked for GM for 10 months, from December 3, 2007 to October 10, 2008. I was a "Design Systems Engineer" and I'm still not entirely sure what the hell that actually means, because I was doing component design and systems integration, officially, but mostly I was attending meetings, for the 2nd-gen mild hybrid powertrain system marketed as eAssist.

Prior to my GM stint, I had ~18 years under my belt, at Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and Metaldyne (a Tier 1 supplier). Well on the far side of 10 million vehicles have been produced with parts of my design. Not a one of them has ever been subject to a recall, an owner notification, or even a TSB. Not just because of me, but because of the hundreds of people I worked with who also bought into the "it has to be right" work ethic.

My job at GM largely consisted of attending meetings, as I said. On alternating weeks, I was either in 30 hours of meetings or 32 hours of meetings, spread across 6 buildings on 3 campuses, so add in another 5-6 hours of transit time per week. As you can see with basic math, that didn't leave much time for engineering out of a 40 hour work week.

On any given week, I neither contributed to nor gleaned useful-to-my-job information from 90% of the meetings I attended. So why go? you ask. I asked, because I felt it wasn't a good use of my time. I was admonished that I needed to be in these meetings (for various vehicles in development, such as the Alpha - eventually the Cadillac ATS - which was considering the mild hybrid setup), even if our area of the vehicle wasn't on the agenda that week, because the vehicle team "might do something that would be detrimental to our systems" and thus "we have to have representation there to address that" — even if that week's agenda was a discussion of the front bumper system or the seats, systems that had exactly zero interface with a mild hybrid system.

Most of these meetings were held in rooms crammed past fire code, where the goal was to arrive early enough to get a power outlet for your laptop (and, at that time in most of the Warren Tech Center, access to one of the ethernet hubs as those buildings lacked wifi), which would allow you to try to do the job tasks you would be doing if you weren't "showing your face" (and just occupying space) in these meetings.

"So, when am I supposed to be engineering? I've got about 3 hours a week not in meetings or transit to/from meetings."
"You should be working however many hours to perform your tasks, even if that means answering emails at 11pm and again at 5am."
"Am I going to get paid for working 70+ hours a week every week?"
"No, you're an exempt employee. Casual overtime is expected."
"Working 45-50 hours a week during those occasional times when we've got something hot and heavy is casual overtime. 70 hour weeks every week as a matter of standard practice isn't casual overtime."
"Well, that's what we expect."

About 3 months in, I was asked by one of the component engineers for advice on a press-in coolant tube on the motor-generator unit. Since I'd been a cooling system engineer for most of my career, this was something I could do while drunk, asleep, blindfolded, and with both hands tied behind my back, so I sketched it out, dimensioned the sketch, and the designer modeled it. Job done, I thought.

The next day, my "supervisor" (dotted line) pulled me into a conference room, closed the door, and proceeded to scream at me at the top of his lungs for about 30 minutes. My crime? I'd made a design decision — in other words, I'd done my job. I was told that my experience (more, I might add, than my "supervisor" had) didn't count at all because it wasn't at GM; that I had no authority to make design decisions, that I had made a "handle" that someone could use to move the engine around when it was on the hoist and damage the tube and was thus dangerous (my response: "So? They can pick up the whole engine off that tube. Won't bother the tube a bit."), and that from there on out, I was only permitted to advance ideas to him, and if they met with his approval, then we could consider them.

Then, by way, I suppose, of trying to knock me down another peg, he asked how many vehicles had been made with press-in coolant tubes I'd designed. I found this an odd metric, particular since I knew his lifetime "production" vehicle count was lower than the annual volume for the lowest-volume program I'd ever worked on (about 12,000 units/year), but I did some math in my head and came up with "As of today, about ten and a half million vehicles, give or take a couple hundred thousand, and anywhere from 1500-2000 new ones rolling off lines every day."

It took him a minute or so to contemplate that number, which killed all his frothy momentum, and he ended the "conference" muttering something about how he would be changing it to what he wanted, but then called up the cooling system engineer to quiz him about my design. Said cooling guy emailed me "WTF?" — the cooling guy fraternity is pretty small, and we all at least knew of each other — while telling my "supervisor" that everything I'd done was standard practice and exactly right. Then cooling guy called me and I gave him the Cliff's Notes version.

When I got home that night, I reactivated my resume on Career Builder and Monster (LinkedIn wasn't at a maturity level that was useful yet). The next day, I managed to squeeze in a few minutes with my Chief Engineer (who was my real manager), who assured me that I was indeed allowed to make decisions and do my job, that my "supervisor" would be counseled about what had happened the day before (our conference room walls were maybe 2" thick. EVERYONE in the office heard him yelling and didn't hear my very quiet responses) but I could read the writing on the wall.

I knew I was going to be cut loose more than a month before they told me I was fired for installing a desktop weather application on my company computer.

That's right: the only justification they could find for firing me was my installation of Intellicast's weather app on my laptop.

200 other engineers were "fired" on the same day, but GM did not call it a layoff. A layoff, you see, would have to be reported as such to the state. The HR guy (oh, my exit interview was rich — I forced it on the HR guy, told him about how hostile the work environment was — he didn't take any notes, which told me everything I needed to know there, got assurances he would investigate it, which was a lie and I told him so: "You didn't take any notes. That tells me how honest you're being") assured me they wouldn't contest my unemployment filing.

They contested my unemployment filing. They lost. They appealed. They lost the appeal. I didn't find out about that until some time after I'd gotten another job and moved to Houston for it. Here's the kicker: you can't sneeze at GM without it costing $10,000 in overhead. Someone there — and I'm sure they contested, lost, appealed, and lost again for every single one of those 200 engineers fired the same day I was, so multiply this times 200 — thought it was a good idea to spend at least $20,000 trying to recover all of $3680 in UIC I received during the 10 weeks I was out of work.

It wasn't long after I'd moved to Houston that GM filed for Chapter 11 in 2009. They gave Rick Wagoner the boot, and shuffled the desks on the executive floor, but the CYA-with-bureaucracy-and-empire-building-above-all-else low- and mid-level managers who are the root cause of GM's troubles, then and now, are all still in their positions, doing them exactly the same way they always have. I know my "supervisor" is still there, as is my manager.

If GM is to change the way it does things, there needs to be a massive forced attitude shift in those low- and mid-levels of management. THAT is where the problems lie. THAT is where the fix needs to happen, not on Mahogany Row. If it means wholesale replacement of hundreds, if not thousands, of people with new managers who actually give a shit about doing things the right way, well, I won't shed a tear if two of them find themselves fighting GM's contesting of their UIC filing.

Postscript: When the Buick Lacrosse eAssist debuted, I made a point of looking under the hood of one. The coolant tube on the MGU was my design.