A question I get a lot from younger readers is: How can I become an automotive engineer for a major car company? The answer is that there are many avenues to that goal, which is why—in addition to telling my own tale about how I scored my dream engineering job at Fiat Chrysler—I compiled stories from Ford, Nissan, Honda, Fiat Chrysler, and GM engineers.
It’s the same question I used to ask people all the time when I was a middle-schooler in the small city of Leavenworth, Kansas. I was someone who didn’t live anywhere close to the car industry (unless you count dealers and the Ford plant in Kansas City), and knew little about the civilian sector in general, since I grew up in an army community. To me, the automobile industry was a dim light atop the tallest of peaks—something that I could only faintly see from a distance, a dream that mostly just felt like an impossibility.
[A quick note: This article consists of eight pages, one devoted to each engineer’s story. Once you get to the bottom of my page, click “next” to read on page two the amazing way that the Jeep Wrangler JL product planner scored his dream gig. Comments are on page nine, which I realize is a bummer. Tell me your thoughts on how this new format works for a long feature like this one. I think it breaks things up well, but I’m unsure.]
I was 13 years old, but for years and years, I carried that dream right there in my chest pocket, never letting go and using it to shape each and every major life decision I made.
My goal, to be specific, was to work for Chrysler, as I wrote on a flashlight forum (don’t judge) post back in July of 2006, when I was a mere 14 years old:
A former classmate, whose dad owned an awesome third-generation Ram 1500 (with the billet grille!), recently sent me a photo of our eighth-grade yearbook, in which I wrote: “Dodge Rams rule!”
Look at this Chrysler nerd:
I vividly remember a Chrysler Ride and Drive event in Kansas City that I convinced my family to attend, and we always went to the Kansas City Auto Show. Here’s my 16-year-old self crawling all over Jeeps in 2008; the JK Wrangler was still a relatively new vehicle, and I was obsessed:
I even took a photo of myself (using a digital camera because this was before the proliferation of smartphones) in the 2008 Jeep Liberty, which—while new at the time—was a pretty crappy Jeep. But a man in love sees no flaws:
Never mind, even I knew a crappy car when I saw one (see caption):
Also new in 2008 was the Challenger:
And the “DS” Ram:
Now that I think about it, 2008 was a pretty mega year for Cerberus-owned Chrysler. Lots of cool new vehicles.
Anyway, you get the idea. I was a kid living in a town in Kansas, absolutely obsessed with DaimlerChrysler to the point where I used to read Chrysler-focused car website Allpar religiously, I wore lots of Chrysler memorabilia (see below), and I even watched Chrysler’s “Under the Pentastar” show about what was going on at the company in Auburn Hills.
I knew all about how the headquarters was set up, I knew all about the Chelsea Proving Grounds, I knew all about the Chrysler Institute of Engineering—Chrysler was my holy grail.
This obsession with Chrysler began with a Forest Green 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee that my dad bought back in 2003 when my family moved back to the U.S. from Germany. I’ve already written ad nauseam about this machine, but the short of it is that six boys + Jeep + lack of things to do in Kansas = endless fun off-roading = inspiration.
My brothers and I became known in our high-school as the Jeep brothers or off-road brothers, because we often showed up with a machine totally covered in filth.
It was that Jeep, and my absolutely awestruck reaction to the then-new third-generation Ram 1500 (I’d never seen anything like it in Germany—that huge grille amazed me), that made me fall head over heels for the Auburn Hills-based company. My focus, from then on, was fierce.
“Which college should I attend?” is a tricky question. In my case, I got turned down from one school, waitlisted to three, and accepted to the University of Virginia, the University of Kansas, Colorado School of Mines, and maybe one or two others. All of these schools were solid, but I chose UVA because of its reputation for good academics, its affordable price tag (I was technically “in state” despite not having ever lived on the east coast, since my army dad was from Virginia originally), and above all, the fact that I got waitlisted by my top choices.
I’m not sure what sort of guidance to give on this whole college choice question. My general philosophy is to pursue the most difficult option whenever possible, but you’ll also want to consider the engineering opportunities that the school offers. Does the college have any sort of relationship with automakers? Are there cool car clubs like Formula SAE? Do many people from that school go on to work for automakers? (Alumni networks are a big deal.)
I attended a school with a relatively small engineering program, which really put me at a disadvantage when it came to recruiting, as the big OEMs did not headhunt on our campus. I was later accepted as a transfer to Cornell (one of the waitlist schools, and the one I’d initially wanted to attend due to its more established engineering program) after my second year, but stuck around at UVA based on a gut feeling, and the fact that, academically, I had hit a nice stride.
In college, I studied mechanical engineering with a minor in aerospace. I studied hard, attended office hours if I didn’t understand something, chose most of my classes based on the reputations of the professors, and always tried finding parallels between my coursework and automobiles to stay motivated. (This wasn’t particularly difficult, as cars are complex and designing them requires a good grasp of fluid mechanics, dynamics, material science, aerodynamics, mechatronics, and many other engineering areas.)
I got involved in Baja SAE, mostly to learn how to wrench in my spare time. (I welded for the first time at the Baja SAE airplane hangar.) I also took an Electric Vehicles capstone project, which I’ll write a full story about later. (The short of it is that my team tried to convert a VW Jetta into a mid-engine, electric convertible with a manual transmission.) Plus, I started and ran my own car club called the Virginia Automotive Club.
We met every week to eat pizza that I bought from Little Caesars with money I had won in a college writing contest, and we chatted about what we’d read on Jalopnik, Autoblog, and Motor Trend. We played hangman, charades, and a number of other games where the answer was always some obscure car. I organized trips to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the D.C. Auto show (see images above and below), and I even taught members how to do basic maintenance on their vehicles in the football stadium parking lot. We had an “incident” once that involved spilling six quarts of oil on that lot, but that’s a story for another time.
In the end, the “Virginia Automotive Club,” as I named it, was just a club for people who loved cars and the car industry. I stood up at the front of the classroom each week and usually improvised, talking about recent car news, and getting people’s opinions on certain auto topics. It was a safe space for people to just geek out about cars.
The first summer out of college, I was a counselor for a math and science camp. The following summer, I snagged an internship at Cummins Diesel Company as a project engineer in the Advanced Engineering Mechanical Development team, where I worked to diagnose and repair a rig used to test pinion gears on diesel engine Waste Heat Recovery Systems. They extract mechanical energy from exhaust heat by boiling coolant across a turbine, in case you were curious.
I got that internship by applying through my engineering department’s recruiting website. Having recognized Cummins from my obsession with Chrysler, I put everything I had into that application. I think, though, that the pivotal player in getting me that job was my 1992 Jeep Cherokee. (I’ll explain why later.)
I had an incredible summer hanging out with hundreds of engineering interns in the small town of Columbus, Indiana. We did a lot of road-tripping and partying—including at the 2011 Indy 500—see above. But as great as Cummins was, I still had my sights set on Chrysler.
I pursued Chrysler through a number of avenues. First, I asked a Texas A&M intern whom I’d met at Cummins, and who had spoken with a Chrysler recruiter, for that recruiter’s contact information. If Chrysler wasn’t going to headhunt at UVA, then I’d have to get their info from someone at a school where Chrysler did headhunt. I also reached out to Jalopnik editor-in-chief Matt Hardigree, whom I’d befriended, since he lived near my tiny college apartment. He sent my resume to his PR contact.
But then, as time went on and desperation sunk in, I drafted an email, and sent it to all of my professors, hoping that someone—anyone—might have a contact at Chrysler. Here’s the email that changed my life. It’s not a particularly modest message, in retrospect, especially considering my lack of experience. But it did work:
Three days later, my resume was in the hands of someone at Chrysler, and I was ecstatic:
After absolutely crushing the interview thanks to my ridiculously deep knowledge of the company and its products, and also discussion about my Jeep—more on that next—I experienced a euphoria like none I have ever felt before or since:
I couldn’t contain my excitement:
That silly Facebook post above hasn’t aged well, but I was 20, and I was excited to finally achieve a true dream that had been in my heart since I was just a young teenager off-roading in the woods with my brothers in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
I can still remember the moment I opened that email from Chrysler Group, LLC’s Talent Acquisition Team. All the doubts I’d had about the choices I’d made, the school I’d gone to, the activities I’d joined and not joined—they were all gone. I had done it.
Before I finish this story, I cannot downplay how important my $1,400, 225,000-mile Jeep Cherokee XJ was in helping me get that gig. Because of its age and mileage, the Jeep forced me to spend every waking moment that I wasn’t studying, not going out with girls as I should have, but rather wrenching on that Jeep (some things never change).
The benefit of this was that I not only got extremely well-acquainted with how cars work, but my wrenching stories were a hit with both the Cummins and Chrysler recruiters. Both interviewers loved hearing about my old junky Jeep and recent repairs, so I have to give some credit to the shittiness of my 1992 Jeep Cherokee for helping me get those internships and my full-time gig at Chrysler.
Never stop being unreliable, you beautiful old box.
After the internship in the packaging team (Advanced Concepts Engineering, it was called then), I got a full-time offer, and serendipitously joined the company just as it began development on the new “JL” Jeep Wrangler. (I’ve written a bit about that experience here.)
I remember when my boss asked my team: “Okay, so here are your options for vehicle programs in need of a lead cooling system designer: KL/K8 (Cherokee/Grand Commander), RU (minivan), DT (Ram), WK/WS (Grand Cherokee/Grand Wagoneer), L-car (Charger/Challenger/300), Viper, Wrangler, and a few more.” Nervously and slowly, I glanced around. I knew what I wanted, but I figured everyone else would be after it, too.
To my surprise, the four other people on my team didn’t have a preference! (One thing I learned early on while working at FCA is that most people there are not actually diehard car enthusiasts.) Within just a few weeks of starting at FCA, I was cooling system lead (Systems Integration Responsible) for the new Jeep Wrangler. (I also asked for Viper, but the program was canceled.)
Working at Chrysler had always been my dream, but working on Wrangler specifically? That was like a dream within a dream. It was automotive Inception.
Okay, so now you know how I became an auto engineer. Basically, it was a blend of focus, hard work, and luck, though I have to also acknowledge the fact that—aside from our frequent moves—I was lucky enough to grow up with decent stability, particularly in the areas of family dynamics and finances.
But if you’re looking to get into the auto industry, hearing from just me isn’t going to do you much good, which is why I’ve gathered some stories from old coworkers, friends, and readers. Those are on the following pages, and I’m sure other engineers will post their stories in the comments. Hopefully you can draw some takeaways from these, and come up with a plan to get yourself into the exciting world of automotive engineering.
Click on the arrow below to read fascinating stories from Ford, Chrysler, Honda, and Nissan engineers. The first is titled “How A Lifelong Jeep Fan Became The Jeep Wrangler JL Product Planner.”
It’s a hell of a tale.