Historical transformation, access to global opportunity and a love of iconic vehicles are among the reasons workers are leaving traditional tech titans of video game makers and microchip designers for a future at a legacy automaker.
Companies like Stellantis NV are striving to become leaders in technology mobility and be able to offer higher margin software-based products. It plans to add thousands of developers and engineers to its global team in the coming years. To do this, however, the maker of Jeep SUVs, Ram pickups and more must compete with others for the coveted talent and train others.
“I interview people coming to Stellantis from technology companies,” said Carlos Tavares, CEO of Stellantis, during a virtual call with investment bank Morgan Stanley last month. “Why are you coming to us? We’re supposed to be the dinosaurs, right? Well, they don’t tell me that.”
Stellantis is not alone. Competitors General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. are competing (and winning) in talent battles to attract and land tech-savvy recruits for jobs that didn’t exist at the legacy automakers all too long ago — Software engineers, designers, and more steeped in the coding and culture of Silicon Valley than the rubber, metal, and bureaucracy of the Motor City.
So far, Stellantis has managed to attract the likes of Mohammed Ismail, a 2D/3D visual and motion designer. Today, he’s working to turn infotainment into art, allowing users to more easily understand and use the information provided by the vehicle to their advantage – as the automaker highlighted last month with the Chrysler Airflow SUV concept.
This touch of beauty can help differentiate brands and vehicles, especially as the connected in-vehicle experience becomes an increasingly important part of buyers’ decision-making.
“Most of the designs for the radio or the in-car infotainment system are kind of still in the realm where they can do it in web design, or it’s kind of… like when you open the browser,” Ismail said. “It’s the same feeling as your PC. It doesn’t feel that different when you get in the car. I think you bring something nice into the design if you love cars and want to do something different and special.”
The 44-year-old Lake Orion resident also brings exhibition and 2D and 3D modeling experience from broadcast and video game design. Prior to Stellantis, he spent nearly five years at 343 Industries, home of the Halo universe for Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox Game Studios.
“They knew when I said, ‘I’m going,’ they implicitly knew, ‘Are you going to an auto company?’ Because they know they are the best in the gaming market,” Ismail said. “I love what I do because I’ve basically taken it to the next level and I’m still doing what I’m good at, and yet it’s automotive design.”
Ismail discovered his love for cars in high school when he started sketching vehicles. A native of Iraq, he found resources to learn more were limited, so he turned to car manufacturers such as Volkswagen AG and Land Rover, who sent brochures and magazines with more information.
He was enthusiastic and graduated on a full scholarship to attend the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. On the side, he found opportunities in the design of racing and rally cars in small firms, but significant opportunities in the auto industry were limited where he lived. So he got into radio and worked as a media director covering the Iraq war.
When the situation became unstable, Ismail moved to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to work for media conglomerate MBC Group for seven years before being granted refugee status to come to the United States. He ended up in Seattle and worked for a local ABC station for four years before joining 343.
In 2020, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, a predecessor of Stellantis NV before it merged with French rival Groupe PSA last year, held an open sketch competition for a Jeep concept alongside its annual Drive for Design competition aimed at high school students .
Ismail was one of three sketch contest winners, scoring time with Ralph Gilles, lead design, and Mark Trostle, lead Ram truck and Mopar design. It was a bit of a starstruck experience for Ismail, and it allowed him to show his portfolio to executives. He officially joined Stellantis in June.
“It was my dream,” he said. “I pinch myself every morning.”
He is now part of a team that strives to push the boundaries of what people can expect from a vehicle today. Ismail sees his experience in gaming as an advantage in this regard.
“One of the great things about gaming is that there are no limits,” he said. “What is the vehicle look line in the year 3000? We kind of think about everything. Getting some of that automotive design ideas and imagination is a good benefit.”
And its application – which Ismail sees as a fascinating combination of science and art – is fulfilling, he says: “Your artwork is basically a gallery on the go for everyone to see, which is the ultimate joy for any artist or art lover.” “
However, to get these designs and technologies on the road, some employees need to hone their skills. And Stellantis wants to be part of the solution by empowering its people with that knowledge.
Cue Neda Cvijetic. Not only is she Senior Vice President and Head of Artificial Intelligence at Stellantis, she also helps develop the curriculum for the Software Academy, which the company announced in December as part of its Software Day. The academy is expected to help grow the automaker’s software workforce to 4,500 by 2025, work with Amazon.com Inc. to train 5,000 employees on its cloud-based technology, and partner with universities.
“We’re creating that bridge,” said Cvijetic, 39. “We recognize the passion and the skills and provide the education to take on these new roles in a way that might be harder if you look outward to get into one.” to switch field like that.”
Cvijetic himself joined Stellantis in October. She brings experience in autonomous vehicles and computer vision from graphics processor designer Nvidia Corp. since 2017. and before that in Autopilot and Infotainment by Tesla Inc. since 2015.
Though she’s jumped from the tech sphere to a traditional automaker, Cvijetic said she’s comfortable with Stellantis executives’ vision and expectations for execution.
“I remember we had technical discussions and at some point independently said the same word at the same time to convey that we understood each other,” recalled Cvijetic. “So in a way, that showed me that there’s a clear alignment of mindset here that is paving the way for this transformation to happen.”
Born in Serbia in Eastern Europe, Cvijetic grew up admiring the work of Nikola Tesla. Across the street from her apartment was a statue of his likeness.
“Growing up, he was a superhero to me,” she said. “I mean, he invented modern electrical engineering.”
She received her PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Virginia and taught as an Associate Professor at Columbia University in New York City while researching autonomous vehicle applications at NEC Laboratories America Inc.
But curious about the engineering hotspot of Silicon Valley — and after starring in the TV series of the same name for two seasons — Cvijetic made her way to the West Coast, where she still resides in Palo Alto, California.
Around this time, the world was witnessing breakthroughs in artificial intelligence as the technology went beyond copying human behavior and predicting it. That’s a key part of Stellantis’ plans for the software, which is rumored to launch in 2024. The AI could recommend entertainment for the way home, offer a specific vehicle calibration in a Jeep traversing an off-road trail, or suggest restaurants and destinations during a family outing.
With a roster of 14 brands around the world, Stellantis offers an opportunity to be a thought leader in this space, Cvijetic said.
“We’re bringing this together,” she said. “Something that is a technology mobility company that understands the history and heritage of the automotive industry and values safety and validation while bringing all the innovation and the agile processes and agile technology development of a technology company. And I think that’s something completely new.”
Cvijetic finds this exciting as she is able to harness the creativity and flexibility nurtured in the tech world and drive a transformation in the auto industry not seen since the invention of the assembly line.
“We don’t have to worry about precedents at all,” she said. “There’s a total freedom from precedent. There’s a feeling that the only thing holding me back is the laws of physics.”