We received a variety of responses to our open call for stories about what it's like to work at General Motors. Two of them stood out, both because of their detail and because of how different they are.
One of them comes from a former engineer who worked at the automaker from 2003 to 2004, and the other comes from one who worked there from 2010 to 2011 after the bailout and reorganization. The former describes his time there as a nightmare job with a horrible supervisor, while the latter describes it as a very positive experience he remains proud of.
GM is an extremely large company. (This has been both a strength and a weakness for them over the decades.) It's not at all unreasonable to think that an employees who work in different departments with different people could have very distinct experiences.
The timing of their employment is also worth considering. The former engineer whose story we featured yesterday and this one who hated his job both worked there years ago, before the bailout. The one who said he enjoyed his job worked there much more recently. The engineer with the better experience at GM also admits he has less job experience under his belt than the others.
Is GM's culture making progress? For the sake of the automaker and American manufacturing as a whole, I certainly hope so.
Their stories are below with minimal edits. If you have experiences working at GM — or any other automaker — send them to tips at jalopnik dot com.
I worked at GM from June 2010 until September 2011. I graduated from RPI with a dual B.S. in Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, cum laude. I interviewed for the GM position sometime in the middle of March 2010. It was my first job out of college. I spent my time working in Powertrain (Pontiac, MI) as a Design Responsible Engineer. In that role I was assigned a transmission component that was used across a variety of legacy and upcoming vehicles. This component was (and I believe still is) used by the large 6-speed front and rear wheel drive transmissions (Corvettes, Sierras, Lacrosses, most of the big crossovers, etc), so volume was in the millions but I can't remember exact numbers. It was not an original design position, more like managing changes to the component's existing design from model year to model year, be it finding ways to save cost or improve reliability. Doing the latter usually did the former when you factored in reduction to warranty-covered repairs. I took inputs from the warranty/reliability team, the production/assembly team, the supplier, and our designers and tried to get them all talking to each other, making sure that changes suggested or required by one group were properly communicated to the other groups, properly recorded on the appropriate drawings and prints by the design team, and then properly implemented and monitored to make sure the required effect of said changes were realized. It was meeting-intensive.
During college I had worked for the US Army as a civilian engineering intern, and I had Co-op'd at General Electric for a semester in a group related to turbine engine development. That is to say, I am by no means a seasoned engineer, but, I have been around a couple of different engineering cultures. Mind you, GM had JUST come out of bankruptcy, so the atmosphere was more buoyant and positive than it probably was previously - most of my coworkers had survived the previous cuts, and were looking forward to the products that were about to launch - the Volt, the ATS, etc. The company was about to have an IPO. Corvette won its class in Le Mans, Jim Mero destroyed Nurburing in the ZR1 (I took home COTD on 9 June 2011 for my over zealous response when Jalopnik posted the video). There was a lot of good going on, so I am biased in optimistic fashion.
Overall I had an incredible experience at GM. I was excited just to have a job in that economy, and I felt I was doing important work for a recently rejuvenated and well-storied American brand. I traveled around the country for my work meeting with suppliers and troubleshooting issues exposed by warranty returns. I was amazed at what I felt was an enormous amount of responsibility for such a novice engineer. Rightfully so, I worked shoulder to shoulder with a veteran transmission engineer of some 20+ years who reviewed all my work and coached me on a daily basis for how to maneuver the oftentimes imposing "Process of Engineering" at General Motors.
But it definitely had drawbacks. Yes, it was meetings-intensive, sometimes prohibitively so. I was incredibly frustrated by my dealings with UAW people (an entirely different story). I was often called upon outside of working hours by my boss, or some other engineering supervisor. I witnessed design decisions made on the basis of cost instead of quality. My suppliers dragged their feet when we tried making changes to improve quality, but they would be the first in line and back for seconds if it meant cost savings. Not to mention that the annual mid-summer shutdown basically cut my use-able vacation time in half. I spent plenty of days ticking down the clock, waiting to hop on my V-strom and head home.
Overall, I would categorize my purpose as project managing efforts to reduce cost and improve reliability in a legacy component while periodically putting out brushfires caused by our transmission assembly plant or the supplier...or the sub-supplier...or the sub-sub-supplier. One time, I had to travel to Mexico because a supplier's supplier had been making a sub-component wrong. A design had been translated from English to German to Spanish and the poor guy at the press was literally placing the blank pieces of material in upside-down. Not GM's fault. But GM gets the blame when the customer has to bring their car back because the transmission is stuck in second gear. And my boss's boss was halfway up my arse with daily meetings. I literally spent a night at the Tech Center hunched over a microscope with a team of engineers trying to figure that one out. I even got an ex-girlfriend out of it.
But I think in the big scheme of things, the company was headed in the right direction. I understood why a lot of those meetings were necessary; all it takes is one over-looked detail and BOOM millions of vehicles need a recall or worse, someone gets hurt (case in point). Clearly, autojim had a worse experience than I did. He worked at GM during a (somewhat) different time. He was, without a doubt, a more qualified engineer than I am or ever was, though he was working in a different position, so I will not speculate on his office politics or personality. I haven't been to GM since I left, so I can't comment on what the GM Tech Center or GM Powertrain culture is like these days. I can easily see how someone who has a lot of experience could feel boxed in. But in my eyes, that's how big companies work sometimes. A critical part of fitting in to the corporate process of engineering is understanding that you ARE just a cog in a larger machine. It can be frustrating to watch your efforts go seemingly unrewarded. I hope autojim has found meaningful employment at a place that affords him the flexibility and autonomy he was clearly lacking at GM. It's GM's loss. But when you're talking about millions of cars, billions of dollars, there NEEDS to be a process. There NEEDS to be a structure. Otherwise, nothing would get done and people would just spend all day doodling up flying boat-cars. There's a place for that stuff, and it's working for people like Burt Rutan or Elon Musk, or striking out on your own. In my particular case, my efforts were rewarded. I got a "bonus" at the holidays. I got a raise at my first annual review. If I had stayed at GM I think I would have been doing alright.
However, I am a young man, and opportunity called. For the record, all during my time at GM, I was a USMC individual ready reservist...I completed OCS in 2009, and I had a 2ndLt's commission waiting for me, all I needed was an open flight school spot to take it. That spot opened and I decided it was an opportunity I couldn't pass on. My boss and my entire work group were extremely supportive of my decision to leave. I felt guilty because of all the opportunity and great experience GM had provided me. I look back on my short time at GM fondly, and I consider it a positive formative experience. I intend to to apply at GM whenever my wife and I decide we're tired of the military, which won't be for a while, since being a pilot is bad ass and I'm just getting started. But I intend to at least TRY and go back, someday.
People ask me all the time if I would buy a GM car, as if having worked there for a single year makes me some kind of expert. My answer to them is an absolute and enthusiastic YES. In fact, I do, every day. It's a 2008 Astra with 90k miles and it's never let me down, not once.
He added this about vehicle production and safety:
GM is one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world, dealing in millions of vehicles annually, in what is becoming an ever-more litigious society. People are dying (no pun intended) to find ways to blame someone for their own incompetence, and lawyers are lining up to scam a buck doing so. Better call Saul and all that. I did not work on anything related to the ignition, so I cannot comment on that group's management or engineers.
In my LIMITED experience with transmissions, the worst thing we experienced as a result of a transmission issue was a "walk-home"...someone's car wouldn't go into gear, or would get stuck in 1st gear, etc, and they would have to...walk home. Most days, its a huge PR failure with a very unhappy customer. But no one get's hurt. The car either didn't even make it out of the driveway, or most cars can be "limped home" in 1st or 2nd gear because of PRNDL over-rides to electro-mechanical control component failures. We will all probably experience this type of car related failure at least once in our lives. It is quite literally the reason that wreckers and flat beds exist. Nonetheless, those limp home cases had high priority. Not uncommon for myself or a testing engineer to be on the phone with the dealership's technician trouble shooting from a few hundred miles away, or better yet, making sure the parts were saved for further analysis. But let's put it into perspective. What if that same person, same car, same mode of failure happened when a semi-tractor with hot brakes was barreling down the highway and all of a sudden Suzie Homemaker can't get her Traverse out of the intersection because the car won't shift into 2nd gear? It's a national tragedy. Was it avoidable? Depends on how good her lawyer is. Did Suzie properly follow transmission maintenance? Depends on how good her lawyer is. I never, not once, not ever, was aware of any case where any customer was ever hurt due to a transmission failure associated with my component, or any other component for that matter.
But I will tell you this. I walked into my position with an initiative underway to improve what was a known production spillage cause (production units that don't get out of the factory because of a defect)-on the order of some 0.05% or whatever. Probably less than a total hundred units per year, and they were caught in our assembly line tests. But that is significant from a production bottom line cost perspective. When put to testing in a controlled environment, it was realized as "rough shifting." A customer probably wouldn't even know there was an issue, and for all intents and purposes, there wasn't. It was a "fine tuning" thing. There was a solution on the table that was staring us in the face. It was part of the original design that was scrapped due to cost. Every time I went to a meeting on that particular problem, I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs that capable, intelligent GM engineers had already solved the "problem." But the Supplier wanted nothing to do with it because it would actually increase their spillage while reducing ours, so they made the cost to implement the change prohibitively high, and our managers kept pressuring us to find a way to solve the problem without involving the supplier. And in terms of real world numbers, there was thought to be "zero" impact on the customer, it was purely a money/production spillage issue. So we worked on an alternative solution and it was hitting pre-production testing as I left. No one considered it a safety issue.
But all it takes is one, just ONE Suzie Homemaker episode and all of a sudden its a conspiracy. And who's fault would it be? Mine? Because I didn't scream at the top of my lungs? An easy scape goat for sure...the rookie engineer who doesn't have a family or a 401k on the line. How about my manager? Shouldn't he have coached me to scream and pout? How about the Program Manager, who kept telling me to work around the problem because he didn't want to deal with the multiple millions of dollars it would cost to solve an issue costing tens of thousands. You tell me. But we live in a litigious society. Shit like this ignition thing happens all the time, in every industry - Unintended Acceleration, etc. It's what happens when you build increasingly complex machines with increasingly stricter cost requirements with incredibly tight bottom lines. I don't have the answer.
Overall, it doesn't change my original comments about working at GM. That was just one case, and it didn't have to deal with a known safety issue. I stand firm that I would return to GM. There's good people there, building good vehicles. That case I gave is something that drives engineers insane, but its unavoidable, regardless of industry.
And a former engineer who emailed us wishing to remain anonymous:
Today's article really hit close to home.
I had an almost carbon copy experience back in 2003 - 2004 working for The General.
I had been working in the auto industry since my first summer home from college in 1994. My father pulled some strings and got me working in a test lab shooting off airbags for a tier 1 supplier. For the next 9 years, I worked at three different tier one suppliers developing electric components and embedded controllers with four different OEMs. In October of 2003, I received a phone call that would forever change my attitude towards The General.
One of my former colleagues was recently hired into GM with the initiative to bring "tier 1 development" experience in-house. He dropped my name to his manager who then forwarded my information to HR. The HR contacted me and set up an interview, which went really well. Within a week, I was given a formal letter of DIRECT (read: not contract, or contract to direct) employment.
I was off to the show!
The honeymoon was very, very, very short lived. A typical conversation on my first day with my new peers consisted of comments like: "So what department did you transfer from? You have a blue [direct employee] badge, that means you transferred. If you didn't transfer, what college did you come from? What do you mean you came from a supplier? Why don't you have a green [contract employee] badge?"
The whole green badge / blue badge differentiation always reminded me of Dr. Suess' Star Belly Sneetches.
While these comments were annoying, nothing could have prepared me for my program manager. For sake of this conversation, lets call him Brandon. Brandon was a "lifer" at GM. Never saw an engineering decision from any other place than the dark side of a GM desk, and was proud of this fact. At first, Brandon was trying to make me feel welcome by inviting me out to lunches with the other engineers and stopping by for random afternoon chats. That was all very short lived though.
After a few months of indoctrination, I was off to visit an assembly plant with Brandon and another engineer to investigate various testing equipment that other divisions were using. While walking out to the car, Brandon stops in his tracks, hands me a box of lab equipment and says: "You're a level 7, I'm a level 8. You should be carrying this." The other engineer, who was also a level 8, used this opportunity throw his laptop bag on top of the box I was already carrying. I literally stood silently for a good 15 - 20 seconds in disbelief as I watched my two colleagues walk towards the car without once turning around. This wasn't an isolated hazing incident that I could later laugh off, this was normal behavior.
Fast forward another few months, I find myself in a supplier meeting discussing a preliminary software release to GM. Brandon was calm and cool initially, but then suddenly blew a major gasket when the supplier started discussing their "Cal-DS" strategy.
"What the fuck do you mean it won't fucking be ready? Are you that fucking stupid? Do you think we're going to accept this bullshit from a fucking half ass supplier like you? Are you too fucking stupid to read the fucking specification to give us exactly what we fucking asked for? If you had half a fucking brain, you wouldn't be working for a fucking supplier! Fuck you you fucking fucked fuckers!"
Everything I've quoted is word-for-word (from memory) ....except maybe the last sentence. This 'might' be an embellishment on my part merely to drive home the point of exactly how many F-bombs were dropped in this particular meeting. ;)
Needless to say, the mood in the conference room was very tense. Everyone knew that Brandon was out of line with his language... and that he was completely wrong in his understanding of the specification. Feeling bad for the supplier, I finally stepped in hopes to calm Brandon down:
"Uh, Brandon? The specific integration portion of Cal-DS you're worried about will actually be performed in-house by GM."
He immediately stopped shouting and moved to the next topic on the agenda. I thought to myself "cool, its over" but I was wrong. On my way out of the building, Brandon jumps in front of me and shouts: "Don't you EVER make me look bad in front of a supplier again!"
Three months later my performance review came back with alarming number inefficiencies, most notably 'does not work well with others'. My manager scheduled a Friday afternoon review meeting to discuss 'goals and objectives' (first time this was mentioned in the 12 months I had been working there ironically.) I saw the writing on the wall from one hundred miles away. The ax was coming.
A few days before the impending firing, I was discretely clearing out my desk when I overheard Brandon talking on the phone in his cube. "I've been trying to get this guy fired for months now, I think it's finally going to happen on Friday...."
I had thoughts of just not showing up anymore and waiting for GM to fix-the-glitch in my payroll, but that would have left me zero potential legal recourse. Also, you can't get unemployment in Michigan if you technically quit. Friday afternoon came, went to the meeting and took my firing like a man. I've never been in jail or prison before, but I can imagine the relief I felt walking out of GM for my last time would be similar to getting out on parole.
I got fired on a Friday, put my resume online later that evening, took my first (of four) interview Tuesday morning, accepted my new position on Friday, started my new job a week later with a nice 5% pay increase. In twenty years of working for the auto industry, I've been out of a job for exactly two weeks.
The story doesn't quite end here. A year into my new job (at another tier 1 supplier, thankfully) I was having a casual water cooler conversation with the manager of the SW department. He was talking about a new GM business award. I asked if the program manager was a guy named Brandon. Sure enough, my old buddy was program manager for a project that my new company was working on. I warned the SW manager to document everything. A month later, the SW manager stops me in the hallway to thank me:
"You were sooo right about Brandon. Per your suggestion, we documented every piece of correspondence. He tried to pull a major bullshit change over the top of us, but I was able to call his lying ass out."
Getting fired from GM was the best thing that ever happened to me. I never would have believed it if I didn't experience it firsthand myself.