Friday, March 18, 2016

I am Moving Back to Kansas!

I know right?! This probably comes as a bit of a shock to some people. My high school friends are probably thinking, ‘the kid that left to go to school in Massachusetts?’ My Dubuque friends are probably thinking, ‘Great, he’s leaving too.’ My Colorado friends are probably thinking, ‘Seriously, Kansas? Why doesn’t he move out here already?’ My Massachusetts friends are probably thinking, ‘Kansas, Iowa, what’s the difference?’

The short of it is I will be staying with my current company which has a factory just outside of Coffeyville, Kansas where they design and build transmissions and axles for heavy off road equipment. I will be moving there after I get back from Mt. Everest. The full story is a bit longer, and while I have told parts of it to a number of people, I haven’t told the whole thing, so here we go.
Coffeyville in relation to Wichita, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Fayetteville
Way back in time, 2008, 2009, I was working on my master’s thesis on finite element modeling of heat treating a ring gear for a transmission. I learned that I find gears and transmissions quite interesting. However, thanks to the Great Recession, no one was hiring engineers for that kind of work. What eventually got me started in industry was that I had finite element experience. So I started my engineering career doing structural finite element analysis, which is actually not what I did in graduate school.

About a year ago, when I started my current role, as what I call a Drivetrain Systems Design Engineer, I made my first trip to Coffeyville. We visited during the L series production launch after I had spent the better part of three months working overtime in the factory trying to get the machines to meet our quality specifications. It was a very stressful time for me. I was fixing numerous issues, but you fix nine, and miss one, and you still have a big problem. So the three days we took to drive down, review the testing, and then drive back were almost like a vacation. Very relaxing to get away from the grind and stress of the production launch. 

Later in the summer of 2015 we were working through some issues and I started asking some detailed questions from the engineers in Coffeyville. At that point B.W., a notorious recruiter, tried to get me to apply to a job. Since I was so new to my current role I didn’t even really consider it. 

Then in the fall of 2015 I was traveling quite a lot, and much of that was last minute travel. It felt like I was going from one problem to the next, and I did not actually have the capability to fix any of it. I was, or have become, something of a middle man, organizing meetings and getting people to talk to each other, but not really solving any problems myself, or dare I say, not even making the decisions about how to solve the problems. Or I was the middle man speaking for the company, doing work for the company, but providing a short term fix to more deeper issues, often as a result of a supplier’s error. It became frustrating. Certainly it was still fun overall and there is a lot of satisfaction helping the end user get back and up and running after a problem, but it’s a different perspective. For example, spending most of a week replacing a transmission that failed for the same reason a transmission failed last week, the view from the field is, ‘why haven’t we tried to fix this yet?!’ However, from the office, you don’t know if one or two failures is all that we will ever see, or the start of a much larger issue, so it’s not as big of a deal. That disconnect between the end user and the person who has the authority and ability to make a change is really frustrating when you see it from the view of the end user. I mean, it’s why Toyota and Honda are so successful in automotive in the USA, because there was a time in the past when their cars were simply more reliable.

In January I visited Coffeyville again, and my Dubuque co-worker made a joke about how I wanted to move there, and I didn’t refute him. So a week or two later B.E. from Coffeyville sends me another job opening and gives me a phone call. Once again I say I’m not particularly interested in that particular job. So he asks, "what it would take to get you interested enough to apply for a job?" I describe some of my current frustrations, and what I would be interested in (gear design, learning about the details of drivetrain, some travel, but not 60% of the time…) and he says that something along those lines will be available soon. 

The next week I head off to Germany, and travel with S.W. a drivetrain senior staff engineer who is working on a technical career path for his position. You see, there is a bit of a disconnect right now between the technical side of the business and the people side of the business in my company. If you stay on the technical side you will most likely only be promoted two or three times in your whole career, but on the people side you could conceivably be promoted something like nine times to make it to CEO. So there is a movement within the company to develop a number of technical career paths, drivetrain being one of them. Yes, the people side, the path to CEO is always going to have more steps, through VP and Senior VP, but the number of highly paid people on the people management side is huge compared to the technical management side. The problem is that after a couple years of working, when people in their late 20s, like myself, realize where the long term opportunity is, they flock to the people management side. It leaves us with a technical deficit as we don’t have the volume of people to understand the technical details we need to understand to innovate. As a specific example, coming from a materials science master’s degree it frustrates me to no end how limited our materials knowledge is as a corporation. To be specific on the structures side, we use basically two grades of steel on all of our internally welded parts. Two! It makes our machines heavier than they need to be.

Anyway, he showed me the technical career path for a drivetrain engineer, and the experience you can’t get in Dubuque, is the actual design of gears, seals, and bearings, which you do get exposed to at Coffeyville.

On top of that, several of the discussions we had in Germany in January no one sitting at the table was able to answer. We argued about two different oils for an hour, and at the end we still could not agree to use the new oil. I want to know that kind of stuff, what makes two different oils so different?

This whole time I’m getting closer to 30 years old, and realizing that I have been in Dubuque for nearly five years. The longest I have ever lived some place is six years in Kansas, followed by five and a half years in Massachusetts, followed by five years in Iowa. It’s hard to describe, but there is a bit of an itch to move after being here this long. I don’t know that I will ever live one place more than six years. Maybe I will, I am slowing down as I get older, or rather time is moving a little faster. There is just a feeling that I have “done” the area. I’ve been to the attractions, I’ve ate at the restaurants, I’ve had the deep discussions with my friends, I’ve run on the same roads hundreds of times, I’m just ready for something different. I think military brats understand this really well, but since I don’t come from a military background, I only have a couple friends that grew up with military parents and understand this.

So the job was posted, I talked to D.F., my future supervisor, about it for a half hour one day when she approached me to see if I was interested, and it seems like what I would like to try. I’ve never really been recruited like this before, by three different people, and it makes a big impression on me. The lesson to be learned is recruit others, because it’s flattering, and you can get the person you want easier if you ask him or her, rather than wait and hope for applicants. I applied on the last day the job was open, went down for an interview. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming, something I have enjoyed about smaller towns. Tangent for a minute, something I have found in small towns is that people are often more accepting of trivial differences than in large cities because they cannot go get new friends or shop somewhere else, whereas in a big city, if you don't like someone you just quit associating with that person. I was fortunate enough to have the job offered to me, and I accepted it. It’s a little complicated with Mt. Everest 2.0 happening this spring, but my new supervisor was very accommodating and I will simply move down there when I get back. 

There are a couple other things that played into my decision. My running I think could benefit being down there. To quote John L. Parker, “Liquori said you need to be bored to train well, so that your workout becomes the most interesting part of your day.”  Coffeyville is not the most bustling place in the world, and I’m actually counting on less excitement in my life outside of work so that I can run more. Also, while I will be getting to travel a fair amount in this new role, which I like, it won’t be nearly as much as I have traveled the last year, which was too much to run well. Plus, the average high in January is 43F, which means far less running on snow and ice, which are not fun. I know that my running career, at it’s truly top level, only has a handful more years, maybe 10 years, but quite possibly only 3-5 years, whereas my engineering career (or other career if I were to change…) has 30-40 years.

Dubuque is about 12.5 hours from Denver, not counting stops, and there are a lot of stops on a drive that long. Coffeyville is about 9.5 hours from Denver, not counting stops, and those three hours make a big difference. 9-10 hours of driving is a long afternoon and evening, 12-14 hours is a whole day. Plus, when it comes to mountains, I’ve never been to the Ozarks, and I would like to explore those. 

My sister recently moved to Memphis from Milwaukee, so I will be closer to her now from Coffeyville than in Dubuque. 

Talking about my career, in the broadest sense, there are benefits to taking this new opportunity. It shows that I am willing to relocate, and to be honest, quite a few people are not willing to relocate because of family, or the hassle of starting over making friends and getting into a routine. In fact, at work one person even called me “brave” to move there! Also, basically anything I do in traditional engineering in the future will benefit by the experience I am about to gain. Whether I go into people management, or dare I say, even work for another company, long term this experience of the details of drivetrain design will only benefit me. (For the record, in the four years that I have been with my current company I have only applied for one job outside of my company, and that was in January, with NASA to be an astronaut candidate, along with 18,300 others for 8-12 open spots.)

I don’t know what the future holds. After all, there is a chance I die on Mt. Everest next month and this is all irrelevant, although I like my chances of survival there. I don’t know how long I will stay in Coffeyville, but I am house shopping and not planning on renting like I have in Dubuque. I suppose one more thing to say about how long I might live there, Coffeyville is actually where my company develops hybrid and electric vehicle drive systems… and I bought a Honda Insight with a dying hybrid battery, in large part because I wanted to get more familiar with hybrid vehicle systems.


Just to give a preview of what you might expect from me the second half of this year, I expect I will visit Mexico and Brazil on work trips, two countries I have not visited yet. Of course, don’t expect me to divulge any of the technical stuff. Changing subjects, anyone want to run the Ozark Trail over Thanksgiving?

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