The Making of a Good Engineer: A Balance between Technical Capability and Personality

© All photos (including featured cover) provided by INFINITI Engineering Academy

Last year after the INFINITI Engineering Academy Final in China, we interviewed winner Muyao (Nimo) Li, who is currently working on her first placement at Renault F1 Team as part of her program at INFINITI Engineering Academy. Among last year’s seven winners, there is another young woman who excelled from thousands of engineers from her region. To celebrate International Day of Women in Engineering next week, we give you the story of Ana Paola Serrano Guadarrama.

Giving it everything and winning the toughest competition

INFINITI Engineering Academy’s Mexico Final was held in October last year. Ana Paola Serrano Guadarrama, Mechatronic Engineering student at Tecnológico de Monterrey, won from the 10 Finalists out of 4,455 applicants in Mexico (among 10,500 applicants worldwide). Mexico easily contributes 3000-4000 applicants from various prestigious engineering schools each year, making it the toughest Final to win among the seven regions INFINITI Engineering Academy recruits from.

Ana Paola applied for the competition because her professor recommended this opportunity to all her classmates in engineering disciplines. According to judges from the Final, she stood out from all the brilliant students and won because she is a very balanced individual between her technical ability and personality. Apparently, being a good engineer is not just about the technical skills or knowledge learned in classes, interpersonal skills are also key. INFINITI Engineering Academy Finals test this under almost the most extreme circumstances, people who met just the day before have to work together to solve problems. “I think the fact that I was involved in previous projects in college perhaps gave me strengths in seeing how it all comes together and thinking more in the engineering way of solving problems. For any engineers to be a good engineer, you have to be quite strong in the technical part of course, but you also have to be able to work in teams and communicate your ideas clearly and politely. I hope I do come across as a balanced individual. It’s a great way to achieve things in a team.”  

As the intelligent but humble young woman she is, Ana Paola actually appreciated the strengths of all the Finalists when they met. With such strong competition presented, Ana Paola didn’t second-guess herself either. “I think the other participants are quite strong and quite similar to where I was. When I realized I was in the Final, I was scared. I had no idea I was going to win when the competition was so strong. That morning I woke up and I told myself, you have to give this everything. There is no place for doubt or fear.” With that determination, Ana Paola shined in the Final and won from the toughest competition.

Finding a path

For Ana Paola, the path to automotive and motorsport engineering was found later in her life, but almost destined by her family background. Her parents are both engineers so it almost runs as a family profession. As for motorsport, she’s been familiar with it since she was a kid through her petrol head uncle. “My uncle is quite into motorsport, especially MotoGP. Whenever I’m at his house or we have a family gathering, he would sometimes put races on TV. He would have merchandises from motorsport, and he would talk about the drivers. So that was the first I heard about motorsport.”

The family background almost already paved the way when Ana Paola wasn’t noticing, then a project in college shined a light onto this path towards automotive and motorsport. “When I began college I wasn’t quite sure into which sector I wanted to go. Then I participated in a NASA competition project which required the team to design and build a vehicle that has to be man-powered to simulate a vehicle that could be taken into space to explore. It wasn’t really the automotive sector, but that was how my interest began, in being part of a team and designing the vehicle. What attracted me was seeing how it all came together, from designing the parts on paper, on CAD, then to manufacturing the car as well.

Becoming a better engineer

As a senior year student still in college, the INFINITI Engineering Academy placement is Ana Paola’s first job, the very beginning of her career. Her first 6-month placement is in INFINITI’s (Nissan) Technical Centre in Europe as a Design Engineer in the Body Engineering Department.

Standing at the starting point of her career, with a platform like INFINITI Engineering Academy, it could almost be daunting and exciting at the same time for any body. Ana Paola took this opportunity to craft her skills as an engineer and learned a tremendous amount from her team. But this experience also isn’t just about the work you do and the experience you gather, almost all the Winners are traveling across the world to work in the two facilities (INFINITI and Renault F1 team) in the UK, and that presents extra challenges as well. “I honestly didn’t know what to expect before I started as this is my first job. I expected to learn a lot and be exposed to a professional environment. Apart from that, I was mostly just excited to be here. It’s a mixture of having my first work experience and living by myself for the first time in a completely new country, so everything was happening at the same time.”

“For me to get stronger in the technical part right now, I need to speak a lot to people and ask questions. This is a great way to bring strengths to other areas. I’m placed on a team of five people. I started out partnering with some team members to work on some tasks to get a hang of how to ask for information, how to navigate through the database, getting familiar with the engineering process of solving the problem I was presented with. My team have been very accessible. I didn’t expect to have a team that’s so supportive. It’s great to feel like you have a team you can count on and quite open to teaching you or showing you what you need to work on. After maybe a month I started to have my own tasks that I get to develop by myself.”

On-board training for all INFINITI Engineering Academy Winners

In the six months at INFINITI’s Technical Centre, Ana Paola was able to develop her skills in a well-rounded way. The lockdown due to COVID-19 is a unique situation for this year’s Winners, but there is also the silver lining that you get to practice on certain areas more. “Some of my takeaways include the approach of handling problems and concerns, time management, and organization skills. Now we are working from home, it’s important to have self-motivation to just keep working as usual. I also had some self-realization on the job. I was able to accomplish tasks on my own. I planned when to do them and how to handle them. Identifying what I need to do by myself is great. I know I still have a lot of things to learn, but at this point, if I look back to my first days or my first month, I never thought I could feel this confident and this good in working in this environment as I feel now.

“One important thing is developing my interpersonal skills through working with my team as well as talking to other departments and suppliers, which is important. You get tips and tricks on how to communicate clearly. I think it’s very interesting to present your ideas without giving your opinions but just let the facts speak for themselves. That’s a key here for when you propose design changes or cost down ideas. Just have your facts ready and acknowledge that it’s more important the information you present, rather than how you are as a person.

Charging into F1 and the future

For the second half of her placement at INFINITI Engineering Academy, the next 6 months, Ana Paola would move on to the Renault F1 team. From Winners who were placed on the Renault F1 team first, she already heard a little bit about what it’s like on the team. All the Winners are excited to be switching places and have a taste of the other side. “I definitely look forward to getting to know a bit more about motorsport and how it works. It would be interesting to be able to compare the differences between INFINITI and Renault F1 team. At INFINITI, there are a lot of processes you have to go through before making any changes on a car. I do want to see what it’s like on a racing team, which should progress things a lot faster. They have different objectives.”

As a young engineer about to graduate from college, with experiences at INFINITI Engineer Academy under her belt, Ana Paola’s future holds countless possibilities, and she is ready to take whatever life throws at her. “I still have one semester to go in college. I need to go back to school and finish my study first. I look forward to the Renault F1 team placement. After that, we will see if there are any opportunities to stay here. I’m definitely interested in seeing what opportunities might come from this year. It has always been within my plans to do a master’s degree, so I may pursue that. I have no idea what will happen. I think this year has shown that even we have everything planned, there really isn’t a way of knowing.”

In the engineering field, women are still out-numbered by men, which is basically why there is an International Day of Women in Engineering to celebrate. Being a young woman in this field, Ana Paola has always tried to encourage girls to pursue their interests in engineering. To all future applicants of INFINITI Engineer Academy, Ana Paola also has some advice. “Do it. Don’t hesitate or second doubt yourself or overthink that maybe there is someone who is also great. You won’t have a chance if you think that way. I think especially for women, you don’t see that many women in engineering or motorsport, that can be quite intimidating. But hard work always speaks for itself. Don’t think that you don’t have what it takes. Don’t think that your efforts don’t count. It helps to be involved in this. Projects like this give you very valuable experiences and different ways to develop soft skills and core skills. Just trust yourself and give it everything you’ve got.

Currently due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions, INFINITI Engineering Academy has put the recruitment for the new edition on hold. The team continue to monitor and assess the situation. We look forward to their decision and new plan regarding the 2020 edition of competition.

* We would like to thank Ana Paola and Maria de Juana from Prism for all their help and support for this interview.

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