Life after solar car: een saaie boel?

A while ago, I posted about the fantastic documentary Driven by Challenges, conceived by Liselotte Kockelkoren-Graas (who was also interviewer, co-director, and executive producer) and produced by D2D Media. The six episodes of this documentary (in Dutch with English subtitles) can be accessed via this playlist. They describe the careers of six former members of Solar Team Eindhoven, which has won the World Solar Challenge Cruiser Class four times with its Stella family of solar cars.

I posted about, and recommended, the documentary as a way of encouraging engineering students to become part of solar car racing and to reap the benefits (once again, watch it here). But there is a downside to building the world’s best Cruiser-class solar car. In comparison, entry-level jobs for engineering graduates may be a little boring – what the Dutch call “een saaie boel.” Evita, in the famous musical of the same name, sings:

High flying, adored, what happens now, where do you go from here?
For someone on top of the world, the view is not exactly clear.
A shame you did it all at twenty-six.
There are no mysteries now,
Nothing can thrill you,
No-one fulfil you.
High flying, adored, I hope you come to terms with boredom.
So famous, so easily, so soon, is not the wisest thing to be.

This can be a genuine problem, but the documentary Driven by Challenges shows us three solutions, and that is what I want to talk about today.

The first solution is to leapfrog up the management ladder. This is an option that is primarily available to graduates who combine engineering talent with people skills. The two examples in the documentary are Wouter van Loon (Escalation Project Lead and Strategic Business Planner at ASML) and Liselotte Kockelkoren-Graas herself (Innovation Lead and Senior R&D Engineer at Vanderlande). It is no accident that both these talented engineers filled people-oriented slots on the solar car team (Wouter handled Sponsorship in 2013, and Liselotte was Account Manager in 2015). Leapfrogging up the management ladder can give you all the challenges you might possibly want.

A quite different solution is to go into Research & Development. An engineering company may not give the coolest projects to fresh graduates, but R&D often lets them do exciting stuff from day one. Two solar car alumni in the documentary (André Snoeck, who handled Finance on the 2013 team, and Patrick Deenen, who was Mech. Eng. System Architect on the 2015 team) went on to do doctorates (doing a doctorate is a lot like working on a solar car, except that it lasts longer, and can sometimes be solitary). There is also another category of R&D worth mentioning: military-related R&D is typically done in specialist government agencies. Such agencies offer fresh graduates a chance to build all kinds of interesting prototypes (and you get to say things like “I could tell you the technical details, but then I’d have to kill you”).

The third solution is to go it alone at a startup. So the world doesn’t fully recognise your talents? Join with like-minded people to start your own company. After all, being part of a world-class solar car team is the best possible practice for that. The documentary includes an interview with Arjo van der Ham, who is co-founder and CTO of Lightyear, a startup company building a commercial solar car.

A fourth solution, not covered in the documentary, is to switch career direction, and to start over in a completely different field. That is less common, but it does sometimes happen. After all, having helped build a solar car is excellent training for about a million different things, and engineering is a way of thinking that is helpful in a wide variety of situations.

Driven by Challenges

Solar Team Eindhoven has won the World Solar Challenge Cruiser Class four times with their Stella family of solar cars (see montage of team photos above). The team’s home base, Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) is one of the best technical universities in the world (Times Higher Education rated it #64 in 2017, but that really doesn’t do it justice). So what do engineers do after building the world’s best solar family car?

In 2019, Liselotte Kockelkoren-Graas (account manager of the 2015 team) reconnected with five other former members of Solar Team Eindhoven, in a documentary produced by D2D Media. The six episodes of this beautifully filmed documentary (in Dutch with English subtitles) can be accessed via this playlist.

Liselotte and the other highlighted team alumni are working on some of the coolest engineering projects in the world, in some really cool places (see table and montage below). This list says something about the superb teaching that TU/e offers, the high-tech industry hub in which TU/e is located, and the close links that TU/e (wisely) maintains with its industry neighbours.

Who Now at Where
Liselotte Kockelkoren-Graas (2015 team) Innovation Lead / Senior R&D Engineer, Vanderlande Eindhoven area, NL
Arjo van der Ham (2013 team) Co-Founder / CTO, Lightyear Eindhoven area, NL
André Snoeck (2013 team) Researcher, MIT Megacity Logistics Lab Boston area, US
Patrick Deenen (2015 team) Senior Business Process Analyst, Nexperia & PhD student, TU/e Manchester, UK & Eindhoven, NL
Wouter van Loon (2013 team) Escalation Project Lead / Strategic Business Planner, ASML Taipei, TW & Eindhoven area, NL
Jessie Harms (2017 team) Graduate Intern Eindhoven area, NL & Ahmedabad, IN

Among the things I learned from the documentary Driven by Challenges: exciting things happen when your suitcase vanishes down a belt in an airport, and my beard grows at 5 nanometres per second. It was great to see that the careers of Solar Team Eindhoven alumni are progressing many orders of magnitude faster than that.

Career paths visualised

From the wonderful Information is Beautiful Awards website, here is an interesting visualisation of careers chosen by 15,600 alumni of Williams College (right half of circle), given their majors (left half of circle). There is some aggregation here – “Cultural Studies” includes Anthropology, Sociology, and Asian Studies, for example. The visualisation was produced by Satyan Devados, and an interactive collection of subset images is also available here.