EcoCAR 2 Team Leader: “More Than Just Engineering”

By University of Tennessee, Knoxville Mechanical Team Leader Ryan Howell

As soon as I became a team leader for EcoCAR2, I knew I would gain valuable engineering experience through the program. What I didn’t expect was all the non-engineering experience I would receive and apply.

My key duty as the mechanical team lead has been supervising a team of senior design students. For Year One, the mechanical team assumes responsibility for packaging all additional drivetrain components for our hybrid-vehicle.

The team is also responsible for analyzing these components to ensure vehicle safety.  The sponsors of EcoCAR 2 have generously donated millions of dollars worth of technology and parts, including Siemens NX 7.5 for CAD modeling and NX-NASTRAN for Finite-Element Analysis. I have gained a lot of experience with these software packages, and I have been able to take my knowledge from the classroom and apply it to real-world engineering problems.

However, there is much more involved with the position of team leader than engineering. I am in charge of all mechanical related deliverables. This includes report requirements, presentations and much more. In order to get the best results from my team, it is my responsibility to know the strengths and weaknesses of each member.  Each team member has a different background; some have no CAD experience while others do.  Some may be great presenters while others struggle.

By understanding each member on my team, it becomes easier to distribute the workload and responsibility appropriately.  It is also important to strive to strengthen the weak points of my team members and myself.

In addition to these key aspects, I must discover effective methods of managing the team.  While micro-managing often hinders productivity, it was important to stay involved with my team’s work while not getting in the way.  Managing is an art form that only improves with practice.  Due to the demanding nature of this competition, stress levels are always high and deadlines are always looming.  Time is very valuable, so effectively managing the team is critical.

Team Tennessee strives to have a cross-disciplinary focus.  Therefore, in addition to managing my team, I also coordinate with the other teams and team leaders.  These include the other three engineering teams, as well as outreach and business.  While working with other engineering teams comes natural for us as fellow engineers, working with the non-technical aspects of the competition require more effort.  We work especially hard to ensure our outreach efforts receive the full support of the engineering teams and vice-versa.  We attend outreach functions and work directly with the media and public.

Another difficult task to master is how to speak the same language as our audience.  As team leaders, we are expected to provide a concise summary of our work that a non-technical audience can understand.  We often rehearse and practice our “elevator speeches” before an event.  We recognize the importance of communicating our work to the public.

As you can see, the role of a team leader goes beyond just engineering.  It includes public speaking (technical and non-technical), management skills, logistics and a cross-disciplinary focus; all of which are extremely valuable skills for a future career in any profession.  Thank you EcoCAR 2!