Flex Talk: New Engineering Talent Joining the Electronics Industry
Last spring, Ross Olson, an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota and member of the U of M Solar Vehicle Project team, attended the Geek-a-Palooza event in Minneapolis and displayed one of their race cars. Through coordinating that effort, I had the opportunity to get to know Ross, and recently sat down with him to talk about his interest in engineering and his thoughts on the future of the electronics industry, and to hear some great stories about his team experience with the University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project.
Tara Dunn: Ross, I understand that you have a somewhat non-traditional path into the engineering field. Can you give our readers a little bit of background on yourself and how you became interested in engineering?
Ross Olson: Absolutely. First, I’m a little older than your average undergraduate student since this is my second time being an undergrad. About five years ago, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin—Madison (I’m slowly making my way around the Big Ten) with a degree in finance and real estate and moved to Chicago to work in real estate development. I had an excellent job in Chicago and was privileged to work with some incredible people who I still really admire.
Figure 1: University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project team at the American Solar Challenge in the summer of 2018.
But back to your original question, I became interested in engineering during my first undergrad stint. I’ve always been inquisitive and interested in science and math, but I didn’t receive any sort of exposure to the engineering world while growing up. So, when I began college the first time around, I hadn’t thought too critically about what I was going to school for or why I was even there. I essentially chose to go to business school by listening to everyone around me. I settled on real estate because I knew I could make a good living in the field, and UW—Madison has one of the top programs in the country.
I don’t regret my time at Madison, (plug your ears, die-hard Gophers); I love that school. But a lot of us follow an educational path that we don’t give very much thought to until after we reach the end of it, which is a shame. I wish I would have had more maturity and self-awareness before making a decision that significantly altered the trajectory of my life.
Dunn: That is so true. As a young, college freshman, you are expected to make decisions about your life-long career before having the opportunity to be exposed to new things you might not have yet experienced.
Olson: Yes. A large portion of my friends at Madison went to school for engineering. At one point, I lived with three other people, and I was the only one in the apartment not going to school for engineering. Through my junior year and onward, I was consistently exposed to the cool stuff (for lack of a better word) my friends worked on, included projects for class, organizations, and other side projects. I saw the types of jobs and internships they received and asked them a ton of questions about what they did in their roles. I found myself much more interested in the after-college opportunities my engineering friends had on the horizon than the ones I had. It did cross my mind to change majors, but as I said, I was already close to graduating by then, so I shelved the idea. I thought that my doubts would go away after I graduated and started making money in my career.
That brings me back to my time living in Chicago. I found myself deciding whether I should leave my job and stop making money in exchange for going back to school and spending even more money on education. Even though I knew I didn’t want to do the job that I was at, it still was a difficult decision to make, especially because I was going to go back for engineering, which was an extremely intimidating major to jump into.
All the friends of mine that went into the engineering field were extremely smart, and at that point, I had my doubts that I would be able to handle the course work and rigor that was going to be required of me. I spoke to numerous friends and my family on multiple occasions about it and had plenty of sleepless nights trying to figure out my game plan. Eventually, I pulled the trigger, left my job, and went back to school. Now, a few years later, I’m here talking to you about my lengthy story. I typically keep it shorter by telling people who ask that I had a quarter-life crisis. I get some funny reactions.
Figure 2: Ross charging the solar vehicle’s battery before a race.
Dunn: I bet that you do (laughs)! Once you were enrolled at the University of Minnesota, you joined the U of M Solar Vehicle Project team. We were lucky enough to have your team display one of the cars at last year’s Geek-a-Palooza event, and for a few minutes, I was worried we would have no attendees inside the event because so many were checking out the car and talking to your team. How did you become involved with the team, and what has your experience been?
Olson: Of course. I love talking about the team! Being in your mid-20s and an undergraduate can be incredibly frustrating at times. But the thing about being older and having already been through this is that hindsight is on my side. I wanted to make sure that I got even more out of my experience at Minnesota than what I did at Wisconsin. I wanted to be more involved with either a professor’s research or a student group, and I knew about the solar vehicle team at the U of M, which made the decision about how to get involved a little easier.
Figure 3: The University of Minnesota solar vehicle.
I decided to just jump right in regardless of the type of work because I thought it was a good way to get to know everybody on the team and show my commitment by helping wherever an extra set of hands was needed. My friend and I joined the team together at the same time, which happened to be right at the beginning of the build cycle of our previous car, Eos II, which was at Geek-a-Palooza. That meant that a lot, and I mean A LOT, of manual labor was needed at that time.
After a short period on the team, I was fortunate enough to become involved with the electrical design of one of the subsystems of the car. For some background, our team is broken up into two divisions: engineering and operations. The operations division handles most of the business side of the team while engineering obviously handles the engineering side. The engineering division is then broken up by discipline, including the vehicle dynamics team, aerodynamics and structures team, and controls team.
A lot of computer engineers fall into the controls team, which essentially handles all of the electrical systems on the car. From there, each team typically has subgroups that are broken up by functionality. For instance, the vehicle dynamics team has a suspension group and a steering group whereas the controls team has a battery group, a dashboard group, etc. Each of the subgroups in the controls team typically has a PCB associated with it. So, I was fortunate enough to be involved in PCB design and actually design one of the electrical systems in our car. The solar project really gives its members ownership in their work. I can tell you from experience that it’s quite rewarding.
Dunn: How long is a typical build cycle for a car from start to finish?
Figure 4: Ross traveling in Australia and New Zealand while attending the World Solar Challenge.
Olson: I joined right at the start of our last car’s build cycle, which would have been at the beginning of 2017. Whoa, that’s over two years ago! That just hit me. And each of our cars operates over a two-year cycle. The first year is typically spent designing while the second year is used to build the car. We don’t get a full two years to design and build each car because we race it in multiple competitions, one of which takes place in Australia. The World Solar Challenge is the largest solar car competition in the world, and it’s a 3,000-km race through the Australian outback. Surprisingly, most of the journey is a little bit boring given that it’s a flat desert, but we camp in the outback under the stars, so that’s interesting.
Dunn: Wow, Australia? That must have been an exciting experience.
Olson: I was selected as a race crew member, so I was able to travel to Australia with the team in the fall of 2017, which was an incredible experience. Our team was amazing, and we got to bond with these people and develop relationships that we may have forever. We had around 20 people on our team. Typically, everyone is over there for at least a month, but most likely longer. A lot of us stayed and even traveled for a couple of weeks after the event was over.
Most of the team ends up taking the semester off. That made the decision to go difficult given my age and desire to graduate as quickly as possible, but I don’t regret it one bit. As I said, the whole experience was an absolute blast from the interactions with other solar car teams from all over the world to the stress of finishing the car and preparing the car. It’s one of those experiences you hear about that sounds too cool for you to ever experience yourself. It’s truly something that I will never forget.
Dunn: I’m envious of that experience. What a fantastic opportunity. I also know that you have been involved in a leadership role for the race team. Can you tell me a little about that experience?
Figure 5: Ross visiting Hobbiton in New Zealand.
Olson: As I mentioned, I became heavily involved with the team when I came to the University of Minnesota. I spent every minute with the team, which eventually led to me getting offered a leadership position. After I returned from the World Solar Challenge in the fall of 2017, I became the controls team manager, so I oversaw 20–30 students primarily majoring in electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science.
I learned a lot from my leadership role. It’s funny that I went back to school for the technical nature of engineering and ended up with a management role. The time a leadership position requires took away from the time I would have rather spent working on the technical side of things. But overall, it was worth it. The position allowed me to push myself in new ways and showed me a lot about myself, including weaknesses I didn’t know I had that I’ve been able to work on and strengths I didn’t know I had that I’ve been able to foster. The role has given me confidence that someday I can handle a managerial role.
Now, I’m no longer the controls team manager; I’ve moved into the role of electrical advisor for the team, which involves providing technical expertise and guidance rather than managing team members. I no longer deal with day-to-day items, such as running meetings; instead, I work more with our sponsors and assist with the technical challenges our members face. It has given me more time to work on my technical work. Right now, we’re trying to finish up the design of our next car’s electric motors as quickly as possible so that we can start manufacturing them and get them tested before our car needs to drive.
I couldn’t have asked for a better student group to become involved with. The insight I’ve gained into real-world applications has been extremely valuable. Being on the team gave me my first exposure to PCB design—a topic that I initially knew very little about. I don’t know if there’s another student group on college campuses that offers its students what solar vehicle teams can because it incorporates almost every discipline of engineering and business. Our team has aerospace engineers, mechanical engineers, computer engineers, chemical engineers, industrial engineers, and computer science majors as well as finance majors, marketing majors, and accounting majors.
It really is a team effort. It’s probably the closest thing there is to running a business while you’re a student except that you don’t get paid and you don’t have a budget (laughs).
Dunn: As a student interested in entering this field, what types of networking and internship opportunities have been available in the Minneapolis area? I know the medical field encourages a lot of job shadowing, so are there programs and opportunities like that available to help expose you to all the different facets of the electronics community?
Figure 6: Ross grinding insulation. (Source: U of M Solar Vehicle Project)
Olson: At this stage of our careers, the primary resource for students would be something through the U of M. A lot of my classmates have received internships and co-ops through the career fairs. I had the privilege of participating in the U of M’s co-op program where I received five credits and was paid while working.
It’s a great program, and the company that I matched with—PaR Systems—was a great fit. I thoroughly enjoyed working there and learned from some fantastic engineers. As far as internship and job opportunities go for students, career fairs are typically your best bet. I can’t stress enough that opportunities present themselves to individuals who take the initiative to put themselves into situations that foster that kind of interaction. For example, last fall, I had a rough semester. I took a few classes at the same time that I should not have taken together. Therefore, I kind of wrote off job hunting given the time it typically takes, and instead, planned to find an internship in the spring.
An alumnus of the team I knew from previous interactions approached me toward the end of the fall semester and asked if I wanted to interview at his company for an internship. The internship was in the industry I wanted to be in and provided the type of experience I was hoping to gain from my final internship before graduating. I could easily chalk this up to getting lucky or being in the right place at the right time, but I don’t think that’s like the takeaway from the story, nor do I want the takeaway to be that something will always fall in your lap, so it’s okay to be lazy about job hunting. The takeaway is that being involved, especially with the right people and groups, will present all sorts of unknown opportunities. Many times, networking is overlooked.
Dunn: Yes, as you saw at Geek-a-Palooza, I am a firm believer in networking and creating opportunities to meet others and build relationships. I am also a big believer in workplace programs for high school and college students. It sounds like having an engineering-based program available at the high school level may have helped you identify your interest in engineering at a younger age. Workforce programs are also gaining a lot of traction as we try to expose and encourage students to look at engineering as a career. What types of programs might have caught your interest?
Olson: You’re right. As I alluded to in one of my previous answers, there weren’t a lot of opportunities in electronics and engineering at my high school, and I wish there had been. It’s interesting because a lot of my fellow students seem to have had some exposure in high school through their robotics team or something else. I don’t have any idea what the percentage is, and maybe it’s because we’re in a metropolitan area of Minnesota, but I’ve noticed a difference here.
Overall, we’re trending in the right direction as far as what is being emphasized in high schools. I played sports in high school, and I think it’s beneficial to be a more well-rounded student. I’m not in education and I’m not claiming to be an expert on the subject matter, but I’ve seen a positive difference between when I was in high school versus the kids coming into college now.
I’m from Wisconsin, and I heard that my high school now has a technology lab space and is even teaching certain engineering courses now, which my younger cousins took. The classes may not offer the same depth as college-level courses, but it’s still a good thing to expose students to all of these different subjects that may help them relate the material they learn in their math and science courses to modern technology and real-world applications.
As soon as I graduate and start working and finally have some free time again, one of the first things I want to do is get involved with a local high school or middle school with some sort of STEM team, and if a school doesn’t have a program like that, I’d love to start one. Because, again, if something like that existed when I was in high school, I probably would have joined and maybe would have selected the correct major for myself on the first try. The point I’m trying to make is any program that exposes students to science, engineering, and technology is great. When you’re growing up, you form opinions about what is possible by looking at what and who are around you, such as projects, careers, etc.; it all shapes your outlook. Everyone’s perspective is relative to their environment, so the more exposure to STEM, the better. Our reliance on technology in the modern world isn’t going anywhere.
I really like the idea of technical competitions like FIRST Robotics. It doesn’t have to be robotics, but that’s the most popular program. Any sort of competition where you can get students working together as a team to complete a project is a great way to incorporate competition while exposing students to STEM. The coolest part is being able to offer the students a tangible outcome to all the work they put in because that’s when it gets fun! When an activity sparks an interest in a student, they might choose it as a career.
Dunn: Through a few internships and your experience with the team, you have been exposed to multiple areas of the electronics and engineering space. What do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities for someone about to enter the field?
Olson: Without sounding too biased or using a cliché, an obvious answer is in the renewable energy area, and I don’t just mean the jobs associated with the things that come to mind when you think of renewables, such as solar panels and wind turbines. I’m referring to any industry or business that may end up supporting the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. I try to stay away from buzz words, but another area I find quite interesting is the IoT space. As you’ve probably noticed, everything is a smart device these days. An insane number of devices now communicate wirelessly, but I still think there are plenty of opportunities for other businesses to utilize embedded technology for their specific application. Finally, there are still a ton of opportunities in the area of robotics and industrial automation. As technology continues to develop, certain operations will become possible to automate.
Dunn: Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me, Ross. I've enjoyed hearing your story and perspective.
Olson: Thanks again for asking me these questions. It has been a pleasure!
Tara Dunn is the president of Omni PCB, a manufacturer’s rep firm specializing in the PCB industry.
This column was originally published in the April 2019 issue of PCB007 Magazine.