My Experience Working at a Startup: A Q&A with Alumna Alex Milat
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Alex Milat (Purdue - Alpha) works at Lucid Motors, an electric luxury vehicle company based on Newark, CA. Read below to find out more about her experience working at a startup company, including what it's like to be in the tech startup hub of America, and how working at a startup differed from her experiences at more established companies.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Southern California, without knowing much about the field of engineering. I actually found out about the field late into my senior year of high school and thought it could be a great way to combine my interest in art and math. I attended Purdue University for my degree in mechanical engineering, with an interest in automotive and sustainable technology. After interning at a startup in the Bay area, I moved to Silicon Valley the summer after graduation. Right now I'm working at Lucid Motors, working on electric vehicles.
What internships or co-op experiences did you have during college? At the time, were you looking for something particular? How did those roles/experiences help you decide what you would pursue post-college?
The great thing about mechanical engineering is that it can be applied to a wide range of jobs, so I used college internships and projects as means to try different roles in manufacturing, testing, and design. I interned at both large companies and startups while in school. I co-oped with Toyota in Michigan for two rotations, in the transmission testing and chassis design groups. While on campus, I worked in the engineering machine shop. I also had side projects such as joining my sorority go-kart team and building a hyperloop pod for SpaceX's design competition. My last internship was in battery pack manufacturing at electric bus startup, Proterra, in the Bay Area. It was this last role that sparked my interest in startups, with the smaller teams and exciting work culture.
How did you find your current job? How was the interview process? Was it any different from interviews at an established company?
I was approached on LinkedIn by a hiring manager who messaged me. I also interviewed at other startups in northern and southern California, and the interview process is much more rigorous than what I experienced elsewhere. Teams take the time to screen each person thoroughly to test your understanding of fundamental engineering concepts, and your ability to apply it to current problems. At times, I would go over my FE practice book to study before interviews.
Tell us about your job and the work environment. What is the day-to-day like?
I am responsible for the mechanical design and release of low voltage electronics throughout the car. In addition I work on the design of several injection molded and stamped sheet metal parts. While there are certain milestones that the company continually works on, often tasks change day to day, and you need to learn to prioritize quickly. I need to switch gears when another team needs help with something urgently.
What do you think are the biggest differences between an established company and a startup?
Both have their pros and cons. My time at Toyota provided me with a steady stream of projects on a set timeline. Working at a startup, I worked on a larger variety of projects but they are more sporadic. You are expected to work quickly and diligently without needing a lot of help or guidance. However, being in a smaller work environment allows you to walk across the office to experts in the industry, which is a great resource. More of the people working at a startup are there because they believe in the mission of the company, especially since we all benefit if the company does well and our stocks go public.
What are some challenges people might face in the startup environment? Do you believe there are certain personalities that would be better suited for startup life or do you feel as though anyone can readily adapt to it?
The work culture suggests that you be self-motivated, manage your time well, and be a quick learner. Work/life balance is a common challenge, since there is a lot of work to get done but not a lot of people to do it. This can lead to longer hours than what you may expect at a larger automotive company. I've also heard the quickest way to fail in a startup is to not be open to helping others. My advice is learn to set boundaries early, and not doubt your abilities.
What's it like living in such a startup/tech heavy area?
It's very exciting to live in a tech area like Silicon Valley, for example every time I see self-driving taxis and Tesla's driving next to me. Since the community is made up of many high-earning tech employees, it does tend to drive housing prices up in the area. The community is large, but it feels like everyone knows everyone at other companies, so the community feels close-knit.
Do you see yourself staying in the startup world long-term?
I'll try to stay in the startup world for the next few years. I'd at least like to see our current electric car go to market. This area has some of the greatest minds working on ways to solve the world's problems. If you're willing to put in the time and effort, you'll learn more here in a year than you would elsewhere.