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McGill Formula Electric Interview

As Controls Lead, ERIN O’NEILL is part of the electrical sub-team, building a 100% electric car for McGill Formula Electric. In this interview, Erin talks about her studies, women in technology, North American Formula Student competitions, and competing against universities from all over the world.

When and why did you decide to join the McGill Formula Electric team?

Erin O'Neill: I joined our team in my 2nd year because I felt like my program (Computer Science) didn’t allow for much experience with real-life systems. Probably my favorite part of being on our team is having to think about and handle mechanical constraints, both of which are never concerns when making a computer game or studying Google’s search algorithm. For example, we often must deal with physical constraints involving packaging our boards, latency, and noise with sensors, and even incorporating driver feedback, which are all things I’ve never had to worry about in class. Learning to think about these things has really helped me learn to program with the system in mind, which I think has been an invaluable experience.

Another thing I think is unique to being on an FSAE team is that I get to work side by side with electrical, mechanical, and computer engineers every day. While on the team, I’ve gotten to learn how people from each background think and approach problems, which I never get to see in school surrounded by other people also in Computer Science. Because of this, I’ve learned to think about the system from different perspectives. And can predict and debug problems that have nothing to do with software.

How did your studies impact your current role as Controls Lead?

I think school has indirectly contributed to my work on MFE. While I haven’t been explicitly taught vehicle dynamics in class, I’ve learned best practices for software design, development, testing, and debugging, all of which are critical for designing and implementing our controls system. Had I not had this background, I definitely don’t think I could’ve picked up all the mechanical and electrical knowledge I needed to handle the real-world constraints I mentioned before. 

What is the male-female split on your team? What are your thoughts on women in tech? 

While our team does have quite a few women (probably 7-10), it’s not a 50-50 split with men. While at competitions this summer I was very happy to see a lot of women on other teams, I do think MFE has a slightly better ratio. I think this is because McGill itself has a very high ratio of women to men comparatively. I am very excited that I see the overall female/male ratio on other teams at competitions growing every year. 

In terms of the industry, I like that I see the number of women in engineering roles continuously growing. McGill has a lot of companies come to tech fairs and hackathons, and they all do a great job at making themselves attractive for women to apply to. I’m fortunate never to have had a bad experience in this regard, but I know they’re not as rare as I’d like. The thing that made me the most comfortable at previous internships was not the number of women around me but the fact that I was treated as an engineer, not a “female engineer.”

Do you think that there are differences between European and North American teams, and if so, what do you think those are (setup of teams, size, mentality, technical challenges, etc.)?

I think FSAE teams are less recognized, and electric teams are still novel in North America; for example, we often reach out to companies for sponsorships that have never even heard of our competitions. Because of this, we have to double down on our efforts to secure sponsorships, engineer on very tight budget constraints, and balance classes at the same time as we aren’t given credits or time off for working on our team. Asides from that, I think the setup of teams is the same between Europe and North America. As per size, most teams here have around 7-10 sub-team leads that oversee all design, manufacturing, and integration of their components and about 10-15 members who help achieve the goals set by the leads.

What perception of the Formula Student competitions do tech companies have? Do you think by being on the McGill Formula Electric team, your chances on the job market will increase after graduation?

Automotive companies here definitely see FSAE experience as a huge plus when hiring, although it’s definitely not mandatory as most people don’t do FSAE. However, industry judges often recruit students they spoke with at the design event at competitions.

As for non-automotive companies, interviewers are always very excited to hear about the design team and learn more about the kind of engineering work that we do. On an FSAE team, you’re constantly making difficult decisions regarding cost, time, and ability to get things done, and this is invaluable preparation for making the same kinds of decisions in a job. Whether or not you’re applying for a job in the automotive or motorsport industry, the skills, patterns, and engineering instincts you learn in a design team are, in my opinion, some of the best experiences you can have in university, and I think a lot of recruiters would agree.

 

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