Q&A with a Schulich Leader interning at Tesla's HQ
What was your role / responsibilities for Tesla?
I joined the thermal team as the aerodynamics intern for four months. This involved working in a range of activities, including some conceptual design, validation, and analysis of both current and future aerodynamic systems. If you haven't gotten to play with a Model 3's HVAC system yet, you're missing out on some seriously cool engineering. No day was quite like the day before, both probably due to the number of incredibly talented people under one roof and the amount of responsibility they hand interns.
How arduous was the application process? What did you do to stand out?
The application process is certainly daunting, and like any job, it often comes down to being at the right place at the right time. Because interns are a critical part of Tesla's DNA, I would honestly treat looking for an internship much like the way you would look for a full-time job -- whether it be the application process, the networking, resume critiques, all the way to the interview preparation.
Tesla internally operates on a strong meritocracy, so somehow showcasing your proactive approach to learning new skills and completing projects is a great way to have your resume shortlisted. Joining a student design team is a phenomenal way to build both technical and soft-skills that recruiters really look for. Looking back, I can attribute much of what I did at Tesla back to my work on Waterloo's electric race car team (Waterloo Formula Electric). Design teams like these are great opportunities to tackle real world engineering problems, while having the funding and support to see them materialize.
What was your best highlight from the experience?
It's really hard to narrow it down to one! Perhaps the best highlight from my experience was the one-to-one mentorship I received throughout the entire four months. Going way beyond a conventional managerial approach, my mentor was just as interested in my personal growth and career plans as my projects.
When people see how their daily work is impacting the world, they start showing up to work with fire in their eyes. This was certainly the case at Tesla. For all of the ups and downs that Tesla goes through, knowing that your work is helping accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy is incredibly self-motivating.
Besides this phenomenal mentorship, a couple moments are also going to be hard to forget. Watching the live Falcon Heavy launch alongside hundreds of other employees was pretty unique. Pulling the Semi's horn was also pretty epic.
Tesla is a demanding place to work! What was your biggest lesson from the experience?
Time certainly has a different dimension at Tesla, and understanding that "done is better than perfect" was a pretty powerful tool that took some getting used to.
Collaboration was often the only way that deadlines could be met, so having access to the entire Tesla workforce felt pretty epic -- there's certainly a reason that almost the entire engineering group is in one giant room! By the end of the internship, I started to understand what it felt like to be a part of an unstoppable team.
Take us through a day in the life of a student intern at Tesla
Normally, my day started early with a short drive to the Deer Creek office. Breakfast was usually eaten at work, with some of the best coffee on the planet. From there, anything was fair game. Usually I would jump right back on the project from where I left off, but it wouldn't be unusual to get pulled into a new test or development. Resources were usually pushed to the maximum, so having a flexible schedule was vital -- leaving the office pretty late was not uncommon, although I can promise you that those were often the moments that I felt like the luckiest dude in my class.
Are there companies or research groups in Canada on the forefront of developing this technology?
Something that makes Tesla a really unique company is their renegade approach to engineering -- looking at the entire vehicle from a very first-principles mindset. The result is a product where every system -- from the drivetrain, to Autopilot, to the seats, battery, and even the HVAC system is designed under a continually-critical lens. Justifying a design choice because "it's always been that way" is a sure way to raise some eyebrows.
Although all automotive companies tend to contract out certain sub-systems of vehicles (including Tesla), Tesla will only do this if it doesn’t believe that it's possible for them to do the third-party's job any better, faster, or cheaper. Although it hasn't proven to be an easy road, the result is a vehicle that is "bumper-to-bumper" integrated.
So while I definitely believe that there are many organizations in Canada that are all doing phenomenal work on driving electric and autonomous technology forward, it will only be a matter of time before these technologies get integrated in a final product.
How do you think that Canada can become a leader in autonomous vehicles!
For Canada to become a leader in autonomous vehicles I think that it starts in our classrooms and university campuses. By really investing in student and research initiatives, we can both drive more participation in this field, while also attracting more local industry development. Although certain companies are already starting to do this (such as General Motors' new offices in Markham and Oshawa), there's still a huge drainage of engineering talent to the United States in this field.
Much like SpaceX has gotten millions of eyes to look to Mars (and beyond), Canada needs something to inspire people on autonomous technologies -- both from an academic and industrial point of view. Perhaps our country should set some insane industry goal or challenge! Maybe it should give new engineering grads a larger incentive to stay in Canada! If we're not careful, autonomous technologies may simply become one of those "yeah, yeah" problems (from Astro Teller), where we just assume that someone else will figure it out.
Canada certainly has the talent - now we just need the support!
What's the best piece of advice you could give to a fellow university student before taking an internship in the valley?
This is probably the hardest question to answer, as every intern enters their job for a different reason and expectation. Nonetheless, I've tried throwing some useful tips below!
-Silicon Valley is probably one of the most interesting places to live in -- take full advantage of every aspect! Enjoy seeing EV's absolutely everywhere, having access to some of the coolest technology right now, and a really vibrant community of people with "the next big thing".
-Although the work can be really demanding at times, appreciate the fact that the scale of the problem you're trying to solve will most likely have international impact.
-On the same note, although this is an opportunity for you to help make a dent on the world, realize that this is an equal opportunity to change your life! Take time to ensure that you're satisfied with the direction your life is going in.
-Explore! There are way too many cool places to see and do to not have something to do during the weekend! Take full advantage of access to some of the nicest national parks in the world! Make as many friends as you can, and the memories will come.