How To Build A Career In Connected Vehicle

In a 2019 Daily Show interview, Oprah Winfrey was asked what singular, common trait she observed amongst successful people, and her instantaneous reply was, “[Successful] people get to where they want to go because they know where they want to go. Most people don’t know where they want to go … and once you can establish for yourself the answer to that … the forces of life rise up to meet you.”

Nevertheless, neophytes entering an ever-growing field like Connected Vehicle might know they like technology and mobility, but cannot perfectly envision the constantly “cloudy” future; both the amorphous technology paths and the associated professional landscapes.

Therein, I asked three Connected Vehicle executives a few career-oriented questions about what aided their careers, what they envision is needed on the horizon and what potholes might disrupt that vision as a quasi-playbook for the greenhorns.

The executives were:

· Ankur Vachhani, current Vice President of Software Engineering at Stellantis and former software leader in the founding team of Amazon’s Alexa

· Dr. Céline Laurent-Winter, current Vice President of Connected Vehicle Platforms at BMW Group

· Jeff Massimilla, current Vice President of Global Engineering, Design and Technology at General Dynamics Land Systems and former Global Vice President of OnStar Safety and Connectivity at General Motors

ME: What differentiating trait or skill helped your career in Connected Vehicle thrive?

· ANKUR: “I think for me personally, knowledge of embedded software and an opportunity to work on devices at scale before joining Stellantis. I was part of the team at Amazon where we worked on creating Alexa from conception to shipping the first version to scaling to 500+ million customers. That experience provided software knowledge and differentiation, but above all, good storytelling helped the most. No matter what your job is, you must communicate well and be a good storyteller.”

CELINE: “Staying focused and being resilient on my vision – that automotive would become a real, digital player – was essential to my career success. You must understand that when I started working in the automotive industry nearly twenty years ago as a software developer, there were fewer digital experiences. But keeping my passion for such digitalization while still being adaptable amid bringing people with me was important.”

· JEFF: “A level of commitment to advancing your career. It is a grueling, rapidly developing part of the industry, so you have to be able to persevere through change. You’ll find yourself as a leader way ahead one day, and instantly far behind the next day. There are so many players and so much disruption, but those who have the ability to endure can find success.”

ME: What will executives need in their quiver in the next 5-10 years that maybe wasn’t the case as you were making your way through the automotive industry?

· ANKUR: “You’ll want a constant customer engagement post-car-sale since that’s where a lot of revenue will come from. Someone who understands software services and subscription models will be a critical part of the success, so having that kind of expertise in the team aligns well.”

· CELINE: “I think our industry is still in transition. Predicting the future needs and demands for connected cars and mobility isn’t easy. Even now, there are many data-driven possibilities for cars, such as monitoring the fleet for good health, customer safety, user experience, and feature usability. Who would have expected this just a few years ago? Therefore, I believe managerial decisions in the industry should be more focused on ‘what does the customer want’ and how I, as an executive, can help industrialize new technologies quickly. I must be able to answer these questions now and in 5-10 years as well.”

· JEFF: “Innovation and the willingness to pivot quickly. You have to continuously disrupt your successes and identify and supplant unsuccessful projects with multiple items on the path at the same time. For instance, we have designed our next-generation electronic architecture, Katalyst, to enable continuously added features and functions for the Army and Marine Corps, because ongoing innovation is crucial to our customers on the battlefield. Being able to easily adapt solutions to new requirements is paramount to success. And although Software as a Service is just as important in defense as it is in automotive, ‘safety-related’ is even more at the core of innovation and must simultaneously consider or improve situational awareness, lethality, mobility and survivability. Yet you also must still integrate new technologies into the platform quickly and show customers the ‘art of the possible’ to be competitive.”

ME: What should aspiring folks avoid?

· ANKUR: “I’d say ‘avoid status quo.’ I’m not saying to ignore regulations, but rather don’t get trapped by the current constraints of automotive software and its ways of working. We need to transform as an industry. For your career, don’t focus too much on showcasing your talent, rather focus on getting things done. If you’re an individual contributor or a leader, you will get noticed for your ability to get things done. Learn to be an active listener, you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. That’s not necessary, in fact, you may miss a learning opportunity if you don’t actively listen.”

· CELINE: “Embrace change. Don’t keep sticking to the things you do best! As you can imagine, there were a lot of moments within our group where I was confronted with people that were used to doing things in the same way with twenty years of operational excellence and, of course, had premium quality. But if we really want to compete, we must get out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves. I see a lot of young people who don’t have the courage to try new things and that’s essential, especially as AI and cloud computing evolve. Minimally you will learn soft skills as you interact with others.”

· JEFF: “I’m going to go with the opposite: ‘What should they embrace?’ I say it’s energy. People who have energy are really excited about what they do and are ‘all in’ on the mission. You can’t replace that. Also, embrace a high level of character with the right level of humility and emotional intelligence. That translates to avoiding a transactional work environment. Create a culture in which everyone feels like they can be successful and be themselves; it makes everything easier.”

ME: What’s the greatest confusion in the industry?

· ANKUR: “The confusion is that building high-tech and highly complex features are needed for great customer experiences; they aren’t. The power of the very simple and intuitive customer experience in the car is very, very undervalued today. There’s a lot of focus on getting the latest hardware, high computing power, faster connectivity and autonomous driving. But in all that, the focus on what matters the most to the customers and a very simple User Interface to effectively use all the features, is lost today.”

· CELINE: “Some still think that digital isn’t the core business of the [automakers]. They’re wrong. Our cars will have enhanced capabilities in the future, which requires even more relevant data to provide a seamless, digital experience for our customers. It necessitates the expansion of our platforms, backend technologies, in-house competencies and strategic partnerships. Building and maintaining a high-performance software culture is a must!”

· JEFF: “The misnomer is that ‘complexity is a necessary part of creative and innovative solutions.’ How many connected things in our lives are hard to use? The idea of simplicity as a necessary part of innovation seems to be lost by most of the community. Having shifted to defense, I see how differently our team must approach complex controls and secondary information to present it in a familiar, intuitive way without distracting the operator.”

Author’s Note

Part of the impetus for this article was receiving multiple such questions about my career path and enablers. Without answering the interviewee’s questions, here’s accurate advice I heard repeatedly in my early years: “Networking, networking, networking.” I must honestly and humbly say that nearly my entire career leveraged my relationships rather than my eclectic experiences and foundational education. So let me append Oprah’s statement: “People get to where they want to go because they know where they want to go and the friends to help them.

I fully realize many of the aforementioned neophytes have just narrowly escaped the pandemic and, as such, do not have an overflowing stable of in-person contacts. That’s a disruptor that neither I nor the interviewees experienced and one that y’all must actively, intentionally overcome.

So to borrow one of the nine rules established by Amy Poehler’s MasterClass Prepare to be Unprepared, my best advice is to go “Find your team.”

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