Porsche Mission R Interior

The controls clip in above my knees. The door shuts. All the noise around me vanishes. I am in a cockpit all right. I am guessing you drive the thing but if you look around, the environment screams X-Wing (yes, I am mixing my movie references). Where am I? This is still Earth, a hotel lobby of all places. At the Munich Airport Hilton, the time is still May 2022 in the Gregorian calendar. Welcome to the annual Automotive Innovation Forum (AIF) hosted by Autodesk. In between demos and presentations, I was able to slide inside the cockpit of the Porsche Mission R. My inner geek is in heaven. For all my career I used to build and visualise cars with some fancy software. This time, I embarked into a vastly different journey. I was going to assist customers on how to better build and better visualize their vehicles (with said fancy software). I was going behind the curtains to see what happens when you start working for a software company. It has been more than 90 days, but it is my first impression all the same. Buckle up for my first 90 days on the new job, unlike any other before.

The Machine

Fast forward to New Orleans. I am now attending Autodesk University in late September. About 9,000 people were on attendance. The main stage looked more like a rock concert than a software convention. This is when you appreciate on a visceral level how much horsepower is behind Autodesk. “So… Let me just download the latest software, I will be on my way”, or so I thought. Well not so fast. To onboard the machine, you must take it slowly. There is a lot of horsepower for sure and all the cogs of the machine are scattered around the world. Your Spanish and Irish teammates are in Germany. The development team is in North America. Don’t forget to reach out to some of the customer success managers in Spain or France. And of course, keep your manager in Belgium informed. For the rest, you can sort yourself out, for your travels or your IT equipment. It is a culture of self-service, but you never feel abandoned. You can use Teams, Slack, the Intranet. There is a wealth of information out there for you to address any issues you might have. For example, I was having issues with my new work phone, so I raised a ticket. Messages started to ping on Slack. A tech guy in San Francisco called me directly. Now that is a well-oiled machine. 

The Crew

When I started, my boss flew in from Belgium to the United Kingdom. My co-worker simply drove up. We all met in the Birmingham offices. The next time I saw them in person, it was in Munich at the AIF. A few weeks later, our team met in London.  A few weeks after that, we were with the entire department in Barcelona. From home, from the office, on site, people assemble and meet as needed. Imagine you are the new guy, and you are trying to figure out who you need to talk to about an extremely specific issue. Let’s say I need to demonstrate the latest feature in the latest software. This is a microscopic part of a huge ecosystem. You have technical account managers and customer success managers for the clients.  You have technical product managers for the business and the technology. Finally, developers and programmers handle the software itself as well as a lot of the support. Keep in mind that some of those individuals worked from home already before the pandemic. They are scattered in offices and homes all over Western Europe and the Americas over ten time zones. And all of them need to be aligned to deliver the best software experience to the customers. And without missing a beat, the work gets done. The entire orchestration is a remarkable sight.

The Care

In the past, I took my career development into my own hands. I would surf the Intranet looking for career resources and I would poke around at random. In one lucky instance, I finally generated a skills profile for myself. Unfortunately, that was years into the job already. Another time, there was leftover budget and it had to be spent. Here, it is a completely different story. I was encouraged to find a mentor right when I started. I was told I could become one as well down the line if I chose to. Within a few weeks I was getting emails about booking a coaching session. Within my first 90 days, I already had a work profile and one coaching session under my belt. The most striking aspect of my new position is the culture around its people. It is something that was given careful thought and consideration. There is genuine care about the people. Every person I met, from colleagues all the way to vice-presidents, have been very approachable, personable, and welcoming.

Look at the smile on the kid’s face…

Conclusion

Ah Autodesk, we have been looking at each other for a long time. My first interview with that company was in Toronto in the previous millennium. And now, here we are. I described myself like a kid in a candy store when I started, and it is pretty accurate. It is easy for a nerd like me to stare at the toys and the galaxy of products in the Autodesk universe. Yet it is the culture of the company around its people that really struck me. Of course, the perks of the position are pretty cool. I gaze around the cockpit in total awe. I have the face of a 5-year-old who sits behind the wheel of a car for the first time. A minute or two later, I somehow get out of the very snug seat. That was cool all right, but it is nothing in comparison that what I could see behind closed doors… Our clients use our software in ways I did not know what possible or imaginable. Put it this way: my inner geek has not stopped being tickled. Cue the 5-year-old smile.

NAIC at Night

To say that 2020 has been a bad year would be an understatement of epic proportions.  But hang in there everyone, we are more than two thirds of the way through this year and there are promising utterances of a vaccine on the way.  Still, this year will arguably go down as the single most memorable year in human history.  A world war was certainly terrible but thankfully it really was only fought in a few countries.  Covid-19 affected every single sector of human activity in every country, and that also includes cars.  It will shape the car industry for years to come.  It affected the product line, the design of cars, shared mobility and society overall.

The Product Line 

As human activity started to shut down in March, everyone felt the cash crunch.  Car sales around the world grinded to a halt.  Want an eye-popping statistic?  The 1.4 billion people in India bought a staggering zero vehicles in April 2020.  If your business case for a vehicle line was not strong before, COVID19 was probably the final blow.  Nobody is immune to this new reality.  Volkswagen has been on a tear to turn around its green credentials.  Prepare yourself for an onslaught of green ID vehicles of all sizes.  With Dieselgate and the COVID related cash crunch, VW is taking a long look at its luxurious (and polluting) portfolio.  The wildest rumour is that Rimac will take over its crown jewel Bugatti.  And nobody else in the VW empire is safe. 

Design Goes On 

Just recently General Motors issued an official statement: its staff will stay home until June 2021.  That certainly does not mean that design work stops.  And that has been true for all of the design studios around the world.  Sure, there has been contraction and furloughs worldwide, but the work has continued.  Automotive design has always been at the cutting edge of technology.  Why?  It costs billions to put a car on the road.  By investing heavily in technology, you maximize the chances of getting your product right.  Those technological investments certainly paid off.  With design studios all around the world, OEMs have long mastered conference calls, secure review rooms for 3D CAD reviews and virtual reality tools.  

The rest of this article continues on Formtrends.

Back in 2014, we started sketch modelling something crazy. That was in the User Experience Studio at GM.  It was a bank of buttons that was floating in mid-air.  It bridged the console to the instrument panel. I never got to see the finished product. That’s because on Tuesday, August 5th 2014, I was on a one-way plane from Detroit to London.  Goodbye 12 years at General Motors, goodbye United States, and hello to a brand-new challenge with Tata Motors, cheers to the United Kingdom.  Monday August 11th was my first official day.  Five year later, it is now a perfect time look back at the five biggest takeaways from the last five years.

 The Upside Down – Part I

The first thing to absorb was the culture shock.  I grew up in France so I should not have been amazed by a more socialist society.  I was a teen without a worry in the world then. Now I was a family man. I knew all too well about the costs of medical coverage and education. In the UK our family uses the National Health Service. It’s cheap and efficient. I send my kids to public schools and the quality of their education has been great.  As my daughter enters secondary school there will be plenty of things to worry about.  A bulletproof backpack?  That will not be one of them.  There are a lot of great things about living in the United States.  If you are an entrepreneur the US sky has no limit.  We can debate for an eternity about socialised medicine and the Second Amendment.  At the minimum, five years away will make you think about the choices you make as a society.  I’ll leave it at that.

The Upside Down – Part II

In the United States you get your health benefits from your company.  Bigger companies typically get better coverage for medical / dental / vision for yourself and for your family.  You can start working at a car company as a contractor.  If you are good at what you do you will eventually be offered a permanent job.  And that’s a big deal.  In the United Kingdom it is the complete opposite and it took some adjustment as a manager.  Good contractors are hard to find. They are in demand and their pay rate can be higher than permanent employees.  And of course, health coverage is universal.  “Permies” receive paid holidays and other goodies on both sides of the pond. It is up to the individual to determine what best fits them. 

The Work

It has been, it is and it always will be about the cars.  In those five years Tata went through two iterations of Impact Design.  And our digital team was more than happy to contribute.  The EVision showed a compelling execution of a luxury car with Indian Design.  That was the beginning of our use of Blender in automotive design.  The 45X highlighted the first ever use of the parametric software Dynamo in automotive design.  It also previewed the production model Altroz.  And the H2X showed how a micro SUV could look tough.  Each car had its mission.  Each car had its different set of challenges.  And guess what: I enjoy challenges. The reward is to see our cars in the metal or featured in the likes of Car Design News.

 The Travel

It is one thing to help design cars for the Indian market when you are 4000 miles away.  It is another to be driven around a tuk-tuk at night in the middle of Pune. It’s not quite a scene from Octopussy but you get the idea. It was great to see how the cars we design were used in their natural environment.  It was also the unique treat to taste for yourself the richness and diversity of the Indian culture, from the temple of Dagdusheth Ganpati in Pune to the Gate of India in Mumbai.  I was also fortunate to travel across Europe: Amsterdam, Valenciennes, Munich and of course London.  If you fly one hour out of Detroit you are either still in the US or in Canada.  In that time in Europe it will take you to medieval times or to completely different countries. It sounds cheesy but it’s pretty cool.

 The Achievement & What’s Next

In the last five years I reached one of my professional goals.  It was great to check that off.  And in that quest, I started my journey to master of a new skill.  Even Ian Callum thinks it might be a good thing to have. I gave a speech in Amsterdam which was okay but it needed work.  So, I decided to do something about it.  I really got into public speaking with Toastmasters and that’s something I will keep doing in the future.  When I signed up more than two years ago, I did not know that it was going to be so handy so quickly. I had to present for work in France, in Germany and in the UK. In the last five years it is definitely the best skill I picked up for myself.

 Conclusion

In the end one thing remains: I am glad I made the change. Oh, the famous buttons made it to production in the 2020 Corvette C8. It would have been nice to be a part of it but there are no guarantees in life. Even in a booming economy GM had a massive round of layoffs just recently. Would I have been spared? I don’t know. Here’s what I know. I started writing this post from Battersea Park, a spectacular area of London.  I also know that my first day at Tata was the exact same day Detroit was drowned in a biblical flood. The entire neighbourhood I lived in for 9 years was under water.  I sold the house less than 2 weeks before…

 

Father’s Day was good to me this year. By pure coincidence it was the day when I took delivery of my second ever Ducati. I looked at it smitten and thought back “how long has it been?” Another coincidence reminded me that it had been 25 years since the Mona Lisa of motorcycles was unveiled. Like everyone else I was blown away by one of the most iconic pieces of design ever created. The 916 made me a huge fan of the brand, on the street or on the MotoGP and WSBK tracks. Imagine the look on my face when I saw it in a catalogue wearing a striking gun metal livery with gold accents. The Neiman Marcus 748L had a smaller engine but it had the exact same lines. It put a spell on me. A year or so later it was mine: the 16th bike out of 100. When I parted with it two years later, I was absolutely devastated. I told myself I would have another Ducati some day. I didn’t know I would have to wait 18 years to ride a Ducati again. But in that time, I have learned a lot from bikes and the truly important things in life.

Father’s Day was good to me this year. By pure coincidence it was the day when I took delivery of my second ever Ducati. I looked at it smitten and thought back “how long has it been?” Another coincidence reminded me that it had been 25 years since the Mona Lisa of motorcycles was unveiled. Like everyone else I was blown away by one of the most iconic pieces of design ever created. The 916 made me a huge fan of the brand, on the street or on the MotoGP and WSBK tracks. Imagine the look on my face when I saw it in a catalogue wearing a striking gun metal livery with gold accents. The Neiman Marcus 748L had a smaller engine but it had the exact same lines. It put a spell on me. A year or so later it was mine: the 16th bike out of 100. When I parted with it two years later, I was absolutely devastated. I told myself I would have another Ducati some day. I didn’t know I would have to wait 18 years to ride a Ducati again. But in that time, I have learned a lot from bikes and the truly important things in life.

 What’s more important is riding

If you only smoke Cuban cigars you will miss out on life. I think that’s a Bob Lutz quote. Anyway, I did not wait all this time to ride again. Hondas were cheap, reliable, easy to maintain and not bad looking at all. The first one was a Superhawk (or Firestorm) V-Twin. If you close your eyes you would believe the soundtrack came from Bologna. In the UK I got something more practical and less expensive to please the local insurers, a CB1300. Bottomline? I love riding. When you are on the bike (and if you want to stay alive) you have to focus 100% on the task at hand. There are no text messages, no calls, no emails, no voice of the boss in your head, no screaming kids, just you and the road. In the time I get to my work commute I’m either fully awake or I made the mental break between work and home. It is my favourite form of escapism.

 What’s more important is progress

Motorcycles have come a long way. The 748L was a race bike with lights. It was a raw, low slung, purpose-built machine. On the right road in the right apex it was absolutely sublime. There were no electronic nannies (no ABS, no traction control). You thought the bike was falling apart because the dry clutch rattled like crazy. Even for a guy in his 20s the 748L was not exactly comfortable. The clutch was heavy and stubborn. Low speed manoeuvres (95% of the time) were not easy to execute. The racing position also put a tremendous amount of weight on the wrists and crushed the pinkie nerves. On my latest Ducati, you sit on top of it, upright and relaxed. At 6’2” (1m88) I can’t even plant both feet flat on the ground. You can choose how many nannies you want. It is an upright bike, supremely comfortable bike but deceivingly quick. So why the hell did I deal with all of this pain back then anyway??? Must have been love…

 What’s more important is perspective

The universe really owes you nothing. After a long slug to get two college degrees my first Ducati was owed to me. I blew a lot of money on a new bike and so what? When I lost my job, I didn’t handle losing my bike very well. Looking back, it is clear I did not handle anything well at all.Today I understand that life is a series of trade-offs. When I got my first company car, I sold the CB1300 so we could go on a family vacation instead. To ride this (gently used) Ducati, I ditched the company car and bought a small electric commuter. And to be honest it really has not bothered me too much. The biggest thing I have gained in the time between those two wonderful machines is perspective. For all I know an unforeseen event or a totally predictable catastrophe will happen and that Ducati might have to go. And it will be okay. When we moved to the UK, I rented a big house. Our current house is smaller (make that a whole lot smaller). Yet we are happier as a family in that house than in the first one. It is nice to have nice things. Blasting through the British countryside on a Ducati is an absolute delight. Yet it really is not the end all be all. You know what my favourite thing is? It is to get off the bike, open the front door of my house and get hugs from my family. There’s no Ducati equivalent to that.