Mobility Engineers have an opportunity to custom – design their career by building cross – domain skills
Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , says that, “almost always the men who achieve …fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigms they change.” My column, Mobility Engineer 2030, is aimed at preparing young men and women who aspire to innovate and shape the future of mobility. The automotive industry, that is currently being disrupted by technologies such as electric, connected and autonomous and radically new business models like shared mobility, is ripe for a Paradigm Shift. When we look at how innovators skilled themselves differently to create new paradigms, two clues emerge strongly – Innovators are often self – taught and they have a broad learning experience. In the words of Frans Johansson, Innovators change the world by stepping into the Intersection: a place where ideas from different fields and cultures meet and collide, ultimately igniting an explosion of extraordinary new discoveries (paradigms). Johansson calls the proliferation of new ideas “the medici effect” and goes onto to describe in his book how we can find intersections in our own lives and turn the ideas, that we find there, into pathbreaking innovations .
Automotive engineers are known to have strong technical skills and initiative, but, increasingly, other skills are needed for success in the future, including cognitive skills, such as problem solving and creativity; interpersonal skills, such as communications and leadership; and intrapersonal skills, such as adaptability and discipline. These engineers need whole person education  that brings together cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal skills. The cognitive skills will include creativity, innovation, problem solving and learnability. The intrapersonal skills cover integrity, initiative, adaptability, curiosity and being self-directed. The interpersonal skills span across collaboration, teamwork, leadership, empathy and communication.
David Epstein studied the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors and scientists and discovered that in most fields – especially those that are complex and unpredictable – generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel . Taking the cue from Epstein’s research, Mobility engineers can excel by sampling widely, gaining a breadth of experiences, taking detours, experimenting relentlessly, juggling many interests – in other words, by developing range. Epstein goes on to say that in kind environments, where the goal is to re-create prior performance with as little deviation as possible, specialists perform well. In uncertain environment, when the path is not clear (wicked problems), breadth of experience is more valuable. Mobility engineers, who acquire both depth (specialize in certain domains) and breadth (sufficient knowledge of adjacent domains) and develop a “T” profile, will be able to perform well in both predictable (kind) and uncertain (wicked) environments.
The engineering students aspiring to enter the automotive industry and the young professional who have just started their career in the automotive industry should prioritize building certain cross-functional skills that would help them to pursue innovative ideas at the intersection of traditional domains. The ICE-based vehicle was predominantly a product of mechanical engineering – it had a few subsystems that came from the domains of electrical, electronics and computer engineering that were typically integrated at the later stages of the vehicle development. The mobility of the future is being shaped by connected, autonomous, shared and electric (CASE) technologies and the mobility products will see the convergence of many technologies. The future car would see the seamless integration of multiple technologies while it is being made, used and ultimately disposed. The body of the vehicle (Mechanical Engineering) would be powered by the electric motor (Electrical engineering) that uses the energy stored in a lithium ion battery pack (Chemistry & Chemical engineering). The sensors, actuators, electronic controls (Electronics Engineering) will not only communicate with each other, but also with the road infrastructure (communication engineering, IoT, Cloud computing). The vehicle may have features ranging from semi-autonomous driver-assist features to fully autonomous driving (AI – path planning, machine vision, sensor fusion etc). There could be millions of lines of code that would ensure the reliable operation and there would also be cybersecurity features provided to ensure the safety (Computer Science and Engineering). System level energy management of the vehicle will become important to derive the best possible range from the limited energy stored in the battery (Physics, Energy Engineering). The vehicle will be built out of a combination of traditional materials and a variety of lightweight materials so that its range is maximized (Materials Science and Engineering). The modular design (Modeling & Simulation) and manufacturing of these vehicles will use advanced manufacturing methods like additive manufacturing, robotic manufacturing etc (Manufacturing engineering). The car of the future will be built through the convergence of all these technologies at various stages of conception, design, prototyping and manufacturing. The use, upgradation, repair & maintenance and the ultimate disposal (and recycling) will also be driven by the convergence of multiple technologies. The connected vehicle will create terra bytes of data that has to be analyzed to extract useful insights and deliver value to the customer (Data Science, Big Data, Machine Learning). Disposal of these vehicles will be followed by retrieval, recycling and reuse of components and materials (Materials processing, Metallurgy).
While it is now clear that the future car will cut across many branches of engineering, it is less obvious that design of the future mobility system needs skills that go beyond the engineering domain. The confluence of skills from science, engineering and arts will shape the future mobility solutions. A mobility engineer needs to familiarize herself with economics, human psychology, human centered design, aesthetics etc. The mobility engineer will also need to know elements of business management like finance, marketing, human resources, organization structure etc sufficient enough to work effectively in a cross-functional team. The mobility engineer has to build and practice the right ethics and values and should learn to recognize cognitive biases that could distort his decisions. He has to develop a growth mindset, stay curious and keep learning. She has to balance creativity with strong analytical skills to create innovative mobility products. The innovation will not be limited to a product level innovation but will span across the entire mobility ecosystem.
Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind , predicts that the future belongs to designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers – creative and empathetic “right-brain” thinkers. He outlines six skills that are essential for professional success and personal fulfillment that can be interpreted for Mobility Engineers as (a) Design – ability to design mobility products that are not merely functional but also emotionally engaging with the user (b) Story – persuasion, communication and self-understanding that helps to fashion a compelling narrative on future mobility (c) Symphony – ability to synthesize ideas, seeing the big picture and crossing the boundaries to create something a whole new mobility ecosystem (d) Empathy – to care for customers and forge relationships (e) Play – build a sense of humor, fun and creativity into the products and most importantly (f) Meaning – ensure that the mobility product serves a deep purpose and addresses meaningful needs of the customers.
Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of Designing Your Life , describe how we can use principles of design to create a well-designed career and a well-designed life. They emphasize the importance of curiosity, a bias for action, ability to reframe problems that come our way, being aware that life is a journey and focus on the process rather than the end goal (this resonates with the concept of Karma taught in The Bhagawad Gita) and willingness to take help and actively collaborate. Inspired by their words, we set out to describe how a mobility engineer can systematically build a wide variety of skills and custom design his / her career to suit his / her knowledge, passion and purpose.
1.2 Mobility Innovators have unique cross-domain skills
Elon Musk – Peter Diamandis describes Elon Musk as an exponential innovator and attributes his success to three key factors (a) deep-rooted passion (b) a crystal-clear massively transformative purpose and (c) first-principles thinking . Ashlee Vance’s book on Elon Musk  narrates a fascinating history starting from his childhood, to his early startup adventures with Zip2 and PayPal, to a deep dive into how he created SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity and succeeded despite the odds being continually stacked against him. When you read this book, you will come across so many examples of skills that Elon had mastered that any of us could also master to enable us to achieve our goals. Entrepreneur Sachin Rekhi  highlights five of those skills that we feel are particularly relevant for mobility engineers building products for the future (a) be an Infinite Learner (b) Invest in Inter-Disciplinary Skills (c) Craft a compelling Vision (d) always be selling and (e) cultivate your design sensibilities. Here I want to paraphrase Sachin on “Invest in inter-disciplinary skills”.
“Elon Musk, as a student, took a deep interest in a multitude of domains. When he attended the University of Pennsylvania, he pursued a dual degree in Physics as well as Economics from Wharton. Larry Page, a close friend of Elon’s, said more people should have the kind of inter-disciplinary skills that Elon possessed: a broad engineering and scientific background, MBA training, knowledge of how to run things, organize stuff, and raise money. Even within engineering, Elon distinguished himself with a very broad set of skills. Edward Jung, a famed software engineer and inventor, said the harmonious melding of software, electronics, advanced materials, and computing horsepower appeared to be Elon’s gift.
Today when we talk about the archetypes of successful people we often describe them as either deep domain experts, with specialization in one specific domain, general athletes, who have a high-level understanding of business and can be applied to a variety of such roles, or T-shaped people, who have deep expertise in one domain but broad exposure to others. Elon takes the T-shaped concept further and develops deep expertise in multiple domains. Mobility Product management is an inter-disciplinary role and the best product managers go deep, like Elon Musk, into multiple verticals. In addition to product, they may have a deep understanding of design, engineering, business, or more. Or they might be experts in specific domains like AI, marketplaces, B2B SaaS, and more. We need to find that additional or adjacent domains that we are passionate about and pursue deep expertise in them as well.”
With the rapid pace of introduction of new technologies, a mobility engineer may have to look beyond T-profile and try to build a π- profile (two deep specializations, like how Musk studied Physics and Economics). We believe it is very important for every mobility engineer to create their Domain Venn Diagram (Figure 1). This could be a merger of their passion and their area of study – or the intersection of two of the study areas. At the intersection of these areas – lies an industry, a product, an opportunity and the ability to explore that is of prime importance. By way of example, I share here my observations on two of my young colleagues – Aditya (Mahindra & Mahindra) and Pavan (Cummins India) – how they built certain unique combination of cross-domain skills that helped to innovate and carve a niche space for themselves in the mobility space.
Aditya – https://www.linkedin.com/in/aditya-ramji-72b9b67/ – When Aditya was completing his Master’s in economics, he had the opportunity to understand its applications in the field of energy economics. Since then, coupled with his passion for the sustainable development, specifically, clean energy and mobility, he found a unique opportunity in the automotive industry. As an economist for a leading OEM, he provides market forecasts. As an applied economist, he was able to use his skills of understanding markets, consumer behaviour and statistical analysis, to work on both the current auto industry and emerging technologies such as EV adoption, cost optimisation, technology diffusion models, and so on. Three distinct areas he was able to contribute were: markets and consumers, new business models, regulatory and policy issues. Some of the questions that his work looked to answer were: What would be the future of automotive growth – are there lessons to learn from other economies? How much would a consumer be willing to pay for an additional feature in my car? What price would be the tipping point for EV adoption? What new innovations can we bring about in mobility business models to offer commercially viable use cases and yet meet the objectives of low carbon transport? In fact, using his background in energy economics, he was able to bring forth nuanced perspectives on the emerging energy-automotive interplay, especially with electrification of transport. As an example, he recognised that there was a gap between conventional automotive engineers and electricity utilities, both of whom had never interacted with each other historically, but EVs were going to change that. Aditya shares his two most important learnings as: first, in a rapidly evolving world, the need for multi-disciplinary skill sets is a necessity and not a luxury; and second, domain expertise and niche skill sets can play a significant role in bridging the gap between sectors to enable smooth transitions. Most recently, Aditya decided to pursue a Ph.D and he is proceeding to University of California, Davis in the US.
Pavan – https://www.linkedin.com/in/docmech/ – Pavan’s early education was in a village setting mostly with government schools where the teachers taught just for the love of the subject. He liked Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, History, Literature / Linguistics. He wanted to be an archaeologist and studied history. Unfortunately, History had to be taken along with economics and commerce (which he did not like) and he had to give up on history and move on to Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. At this time, he had a fascination for real things and their working and the Science and Maths in it.
When he started mechanical engineering, he had no clue which of the topics he liked more. To decide on this, he ended up working on a lot of projects in his first two years. Some he did on his own, some he assisted his seniors or professors. He made a lot of robots, worked on developing dampers using magnetorheological materials, developed animations, designed vehicles and engines, made small gliders and aircrafts, manufactured gearboxes, studied microscopic structures of metals, developed casts and forging dies, coded control strategies, manufactured fibre reinforced plastic surfaces. Although his maths and physics were good enough, he did not yet have the higher level education required to work the details of all these and hence learnt them on a need-to-know basis even before the subjects were taught in class. Thanks to his habit of reading, by this time he had also read a lot of books and papers related to the things he had worked on. Among the theories that he could understand, combustion and aircraft control theory seemed the most mathematically challenging. He tried starting on both simultaneously but could not pursue the latter due to a lack of exposure, opportunities and most importantly, the required mathematical knowledge.
In addition to the technical fields, he also built his people skills by participating in college politics, dramatics, technical societies (he was the SAE student chairperson). Due to many interactions with people in SAE, he had a good enough hint on the academic and industrial culture in automotive industry. This also helped him to pursue combustion. To understand the practicalities better, he worked for a mechanic and an engine rebuilder for about one month each during winters/summers. While all this was happening, he was also in teams participating in various vehicular competitions. Among this, the most difficult one was the SAE Super Mileage competition for which he had to modify an extremely old engine on his own. He ended up designing and manufacturing his own engine head, piston, cooling system, valve train. He also made the engine run on carburettor/electronic injection, the later being very difficult to get done for a 50 cc engine in India back then. He ended up making fuzzy logic based control algorithms to control this engine. This was also the first time he started technical writing (The DCE Super Mileage, an SAE paper; and another paper about engine control). Working on this project made him enter the world of computer simulations as until then he was more of a paper and pen calculations person. The detailing in these simulations were intriguing (CFD/structural/controls/multibody). He decided to pursue this detailing further and then realized the best way to start is by writing simplified 1D codes and then build up from there. His B.E final year thesis was on developing a 1D code for cycle simulations for spark ignition engines with simplified combustion models. Parallelly, he was also working part time for a bike modifying agency to modify their combustion systems. After this, he wanted to pursue an academic career in combustion simulations but could not do so due to a number of personal reasons. So he decided that he would work in the industry for a while and resolve the personal issues and then go for a PhD.
At the start, he did not get any such opportunity in combustion due to the lack of a better qualification and hence ended up working as a product engineer for a tyre manufacturer (he feels that designing/simulating a tyre is more difficult than designing/simulating a combustion chamber). After another short stint at another company, he finally landed my dream job of being a combustion analyst at Cummins. Addressing real world problems and working with people much more qualified than he was, he learnt a lot. This also seemed like an exceptional place from where he could continue my academic inclinations and started my PhD. He completed his Ph.D from IIT Bombay and published very good technical papers. Now he is proceeding to US to do his post-doctoral research at Princeton University.
Pavan accumulated skills across Mathematics, Numerical analysis, I C Engines, practical work ranging from mechanics, vehicular teams to research projects, Manufacturing techniques and design constraints due to it, Thermal engineering / Thermodynamics, Perseverance, Ability and Willingness to learn anything new, Coding, Data based judgement etc. Aditya and Pavan (a) built cross-domain skills and carved out a career in the automotive industry and (b) brought together their knowledge, passion and purpose to innovate and shape future mobility technology (Figure 1).
1.3 Learning Trajectories for building Future Skills
I collaborated with Shekhar Malani, who has a rich experience in helping young engineers to build technical capability in Electric Vehicles, to lay out a trajectory to guide how an engineering student can systematically pick up cross-domain skills over the four years (eight semesters) of undergraduate education and prepare himself to enter the automotive industry (Figure 2)
- Widen the horizon:
It is particularly important to know what’s out there, what are the new age skill sets, what are the new technologies, job profiles and what are the different companies doing. The First Semester at college not only brings an opportunity to network with a diverse classroom but also get exposed to our interests, hobbies, and skills.
- Evaluate the Top Ten:
We all have in our mind certain industries or dream companies we would like to work at. The Second Semester is the ideal time to jot these down and get to know more about them. For Example, if the company is a Public Limited Company, the you can also go to their website and read through their Annual Report. It will give a techno-commercial view of the company. Most organizations have their LinkedIn pages, Twitter feeds, YouTube channels and they also host a number of webinars. Similarly, there are industry specific expos and forums that can help you know more.
- Check passion for base skills:
Every industry has some base skills. You are either cut out for them or not. If the base skill is not “energizing” enough, then it would be a fair decision to strike that industry out. This usually can be checked by attending some immersive or hands-on training workshop related to the industry. Even interaction with industry members can be helpful. We often become the ‘king’ of theory and do not look for application of the technique. Simple elements like understanding the Gaussian Distribution – we could even understand it if we record our ‘wake-up’ times for 30 days and plot it. Similarly concepts of electronics and physics can be much well understood by creating a new experiment rather than repeating the same experiment by engineers year after year. We could use the Third Semester to practise ‘Learning by Doing’.
- Go ‘Beyond’ the Domain Boundaries
While every job has a ‘depth’ it also has a ‘breadth’. A job profile like ‘Technical Sales Engineer’ requires not only the technical knowledge but also the ‘art of interacting with customers’ and the ‘techniques of converting leads into sales’. If you are interested to take the entrepreneurship road, this becomes even more important. We need to understand the other domains that will overlap with our functional areas. The Fourth Semester can be used to explore beyond the core and gain some breadth.
- Work on a cross-domain project
Fifth Semester is a good time to put things into ‘action’. Our conceptual understanding has to be taken to the next level of implementation and there’s nothing better than working on a cross-domain project with a cross-functional team. The SAE E-Baja, Formula SAE, RoboCON are few examples of such cross-domain competitions. This is a step that should not be missed out, this is true engineering when you are representing your engineering discipline and contributing into a system level project.
- Understand the REAL WORLD
The experience of the cross-domain project will give the REAL picture – things fail, prototypes break, resets happen. It also brings out the need of verification, validation and certification. So, how do we verify the performance, how to we validate it in the eyes of the client and how to we get a certificate stating the effectiveness of the product. The REAL WORLD interacts with the IDEALIZED equations and SOFTWARE functionality in different ways. Even the best of the engineers can end up designing a car door that does not open when the temperature is -30 Deg C. We need to understand how to apply ‘engineering solutions’ in an effective way. This is another gap that our channelized education does not address. The Sixth Semester is suitable for honing our performance validation skills.
- Internship – Get the most out of it
Internships are a great way to learn – not only the technical aspects but more about the work environment, work management, project management and product management. It should not be considered only an entry point but also as a learning opportunity. It is also a great platform to showcase your skills while gaining cross-functional knowledge as you interact with different teams and individuals. It is important to plan an industry internship in your Seventh Semester.
- Finishing Rounding off the Skill Set
By the Seventh Semester, you are well equipped with the skills. Continuous learning and Current affairs will give you a feel for the latest happenings in the market. Sometimes, a totally new wave may take over a certain industry within the span of a year or two. It may tweak the base skills and necessitate additional ones. The Eighth Semester is to be outward focused and look for rounding off the skill set.
1.4 Key Takeaways
- Mobility Engineers have to build cross-domain knowledge and engineering skills by way of preparing themselves for the future automotive industry.
- Mobility Engineers, who build a combination of certain unique skills, will carve a niche for themselves in the emerging mobility technology space. We have to build our cross-functional skills Venn Diagram based on our knowledge, passion and purpose. The sweet spot for innovation and impact lies at the intersectional space.
- Engineering students, who follow the cross-functional learning map trajectory, will be able to build the required skills over eight semesters (or four years) and adequately prepare themselves to join the automotive industry.
- Every Mobility Engineer has the opportunity to custom design his / her career and life by actively exploring adjacent domains and by building cross-domain technical capability.
 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn, The University of Chicago Press
 The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson, Harvard Business School Press
 Deliberate Innovation, Lifetime Education, Final Report, Georgia Tech University, https://provost.gatech.edu/sites/default/files/documents/deliberate_innovation_lifetime_education.pdf (April 2018)
 Range, How Generalists triumph in a specialized world, David Epstein
 A Whole New Mind, Daniel H Pink
 Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett & Dave Evans
 Deconstructing Elon Musk- Peter Diamandis
 5 Skills that every product manager can learn from Elon Musk, Sachin Rekhi – https://www.sachinrekhi.com/ashlee-vance-elon-musk
|Dr Shankar Venugopal is a Vice President at Mahindra & Mahindra. He leads technology innovation, intellectual property and knowledge management. He is also the Dean of the Mahindra Technical Academy. He holds a doctoral degree in materials science from the Indian Institute of Science. He has 20+ years of industry experience across GE, Dow, Honeywell, Cummins and Mahindra. He holds ten US granted patents and ten Indian patent applications.|
|Shekhar Malani is the Managing Director of Devise Electronics. He has 20+ years of diverse experience in automotive powertrain industry from service network to research & development. He has been very active in training young engineers to build EV technical capability.|