Stellantis mines tech industry for software talent – The Detroit News

Undergoing a historic transformation, access to global opportunities and a love for iconic vehicles rank among the reasons workers are leaving traditional technology titans of video game makers and microchip designers for a future with a legacy automaker.

Companies like Stellantis NV are seeking to become tech mobility leaders with the ability to offer higher-margin software-based products. It’s planning on adding thousands of developers and engineers in the coming years to its global team. To do that, though, the maker of Jeep SUVs, Ram pickup trucks and more needs to compete with others for the highly sought-after talent and train up others.

“I interview people coming to Stellantis who are coming from tech companies,” Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares said last month during a virtual conversation with investment bank Morgan Stanley. “Why do you come to see us? We are supposed to be the dinosaurs, right? Well, that’s not what they tell me.”

Stellantis is not alone. Rivals General Motors Co, and Ford Motor Co. are racing each other (and winning) in talent wars to woo and land tech-savvy recruits for jobs that didn’t exist too long ago in legacy automakers — software engineers, designers, people 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 people like Mohammed Ismail, a 2D/3D visual and motion designer. Today, he’s working on turning infotainment into art that allows users to more easily understand information provided by the vehicle and use it to their benefit — as highlighted by the automaker last month on the Chrysler Airflow SUV concept.

That touch of beauty can help be a differentiator for brands and vehicles, especially as the connected, in-vehicle experience becomes an increasingly important part of buyers’ decision-making.

“Most of the design for the radio or infotainment system in the car, they are kind of still in the area 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 as different when you get inside the car. I think you bring something nice to the design when you love cars, and you want to do something different and special.”

To do that, the 44-year-old Lake Orion resident brings with him experience in exhibition and 2D and 3D modeling from broadcast and video game design. Prior to Stellantis, he spent almost five years at 343 Industries, the home of the Halo universe for Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox Game Studios.

“They knew when I said, ‘I’m going to leave,’ they implicitly knew, ‘Are you going with an automotive company?’ Because they know they are the best on the market for gaming,” Ismail said. “I love what I’m doing, because basically I took it to the next level and still do what I’m good at, and yet it’s in automotive design.”

‘Ultimate joy’

Ismail caught a love for autos in high school when he began sketching vehicles. A native of Iraq, he found resources to learn more to be limited, so he reached out to automakers like Volkswagen AG and Land Rover that sent brochures and magazines with more information.

He was hooked and graduated with a full scholarship to attend the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He found opportunities for racing and rally car design at small firms on the side, but significant opportunities in the auto industry were limited where he lived. So, he entered broadcast working as a media director for coverage of the Iraq War.

As the situation became unstable, Ismail moved to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to work for the MBC Group media conglomerate for seven years before obtaining refugee status to come to the United States. He touched down in Seattle and worked for a local ABC station for four years before joining 343.

In 2020, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, a predecessor to Stellantis NV before tying up with French rival Groupe PSA last year, held an open sketch competition for a Jeep concept alongside its annual Drive for Design competition focused on high school students.

Ismail was one of three winners in the sketch contest, scoring time with Ralph Gilles, head of design, and Mark Trostle, head of Ram truck and Mopar design. For Ismail, it was a bit of a starstruck experience, and it allowed him to show the executives his portfolio. He officially joined Stellantis in June.

“It was my dream,” he said. “I pinch myself every day in the morning.”

He’s now part of a team seeking to push the boundaries of what people understand a vehicle can offer today. Ismail sees his experience in gaming as an advantage in that respect.

“One of the greatest things from gaming is there’s no limitation,” he said. “What’s the vehicle look line in 3000? We kind of have this overthinking about everything. Getting some of these ideas and imagination for automotive design is a good benefit.”

And its application — which Ismail sees as an intriguing combination of science and art— is fulfilling, he says: “Your piece of art is basically a gallery on the road, so everybody can see that, which is the ultimate joy for any artists or art lovers.”

‘Brand new’

To get to the point of rolling out those designs and technology on the road, though, some workers will need an upgrade in their skillset. And Stellantis is looking to be a part of the solution in equipping its employees with that knowledge.

Cue Neda Cvijetic. Not only is she a senior vice president and the head of artificial intelligence at Stellantis, but she’s also helping to develop the curriculum for the software academy the company announced in December as a part of its “Software Day.” The academy is designed to help grow the automaker’s software workforce to 4,500 people by 2025, collaborate with Inc. to train 5,000 people in its cloud-based technology and partner with universities.

“We are creating that bridge,” said Cvijetic, 39. “We are recognizing the passion and the skills and providing the training to step into these new roles in a way that maybe would be tougher when you’re looking outside to move into a field like that.”

Cvijetic herself joined Stellantis in October. She brings experience in autonomous vehicles and computer vision from graphics processing unit designer Nvidia Corp. since 2017 and in Autopilot and infotainment from Tesla Inc. since 2015 before that.

Despite jumping from the tech sphere to a traditional automaker, Cvijetic said she found a familiarity with the vision put forth by Stellantis executives and expectations for execution.

“I remember we were having technical discussions, and at one point, we would say the same word at the same time, independently, to convey that we were getting across,” Cvijetic recalled. “So, in some sense, that is what showed me there’s a clear mindset alignment here that opens up the path to the execution of this transformation.”

Born in Serbia in eastern Europe, Cvijetic grew up admiring the work of Nikola Tesla. There was a statue of his likeness across the street from her apartment.

“He was a superhero to me growing up,” she said. “I mean, he invented modern electrical engineering.”

She got her doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Virginia and taught as an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York City while doing research with NEC Laboratories America Inc. for autonomous vehicle applications.

But curious about the engineering hotspot of Silicon Valley — and having binged two seasons on the TV series that bears its name — Cvijetic set off for the West Coast, where she still resides in Palo Alto, California.

Around this time, the world was seeing breakthroughs in artificial intelligence as the technology moved beyond copying human behavior to predicting it. That’s integral to the plans Stellantis has for the software it says it will begin rolling out in 2024. AI might recommend entertainment for the commute home, offer a particular vehicle calibration in a Jeep traversing an off-road trail or suggest restaurants and destinations during a family road trip.

With a lineup of 14 brands located around the globe, Stellantis offers an opportunity to be a thought leader in this space, Cvijetic said.

“We’re bringing that together,” she said. “Something that’s a tech mobility company that understands the history and values the tradition of the automotive industry as well as safety and validation, while at the same time bringing in all the innovation and the agile processes and the agile technology creation of a tech company. And I think that that’s something brand new.”

Cvijetic finds that exciting as she is able to take the creativity and flexibility fostered in the tech world and foment a transition in the auto industry not seen since the invention of the assembly line.

“We don’t have to worry about precedents at all whatsoever,” she said. “There’s a complete freedom from precedent. There’s a sense of the only thing holding me back are the laws of physics.”

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Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

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