From first grade teacher to Staff Engineer at TeslaFeatured
My name is Rosie Mottsmith and I’m a staff engineer at Tesla, where I work on developing new materials and technologies that enable the designs that help us transition to a sustainable energy future. My road to this position wasn’t straightforward, and I’m going to share a bit about my nonlinear career path.I went to UC Berkeley as an English major. I liked physics in high school, so I started taking physics classes in addition to the English classes in college. At one point, I realized that classes I needed for my English major were double booked with some physics classes, and I couldn’t keep doing both. I liked English, I was good at writing essays and analyzing text. I was not as good at physics. I felt like I had to work twice as hard as my classmates to understand the same concepts. I spent so much time studying, trying to wrap my brain around what I was learning. But I loved the way it made me think and the concepts it introduced me to. I switched to a physics major.There were many times in college when I felt like I was failing. I struggled to understand things I thought came easily to my classmates, I didn’t have the best grades, and I often felt like I didn’t deserve the physics degree I ended up getting. I worked in a research group at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and felt frustrated that I wasn’t contributing as much to the research as I wanted. I felt like the subjects we were working on (trying to make an ultra-coherent light source that could maybe someday be used to probe materials to maybe make some discoveries that might have a chance to help someone somewhere down the line) were too removed from reality, and I couldn’t connect to the work. When my close friends from the major all went off to get physics PhDs after graduation, I didn’t even apply to any grad schools. I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to keep going.Instead, I moved to a rural community and worked at a nonprofit family service center writing grants to help people get into low income housing and connect them to medical, legal, economic, educational, and psychological services. The job was in a heavily Latinx community, and this role felt like coming home. I’m mixed Mexican/white American, but I’d spent most of my life in predominantly white spaces, and it felt amazing to speak Spanish at work everyday. I felt like I could be my full self. The work itself was invigorating too. I could see the positive impact my work was having on people every day, and I thrived on that quick feedback loop. But after just over a year in this role, my then-boyfriend-now-husband had to move. I decided to move with him, which meant finding another job.I ended up teaching first grade as a junior teacher at a fancy private school (I had taken education classes towards my teaching credential while in college). I had taught summer school at a preschool for many years, I had been a student teacher in multiple classrooms, and for a long time I thought I would become a teacher, but this was my first full-time teaching experience. It was not what I had anticipated. Mostly, I was frustrated by the lack of freedom in developing curriculum. I worked with some very talented, very dedicated teachers, but the environment as a whole felt disorganized and illogical. I missed the rigor of science.At this point, I knew teaching wasn’t for me (at least not at this point in my life), but I had no idea what was for me. I thought about social work, becoming an immigration lawyer, and starting my own nonprofit. I struggled to make the connections between my previous roles and what I had and hadn’t liked about each. Eventually I realized I needed to combine making a measurable difference in my local/global community with something intellectually challenging. After a lot of research and talking to everyone I could, I found a discipline with just that combination: materials science. I always knew I wanted to make the world a better place, but it took me a while to figure out that I could do that really effectively through engineering. Within materials science, there were so many avenues for benefitting society - clean energy, biomedical devices, recyclable/biodegradable materials, etc. This felt exactly like what I had been looking for.At the time, deciding to pursue a new discipline felt like starting from zero. I didn’t have the skills I needed to get a materials science job, so I had to go back to school, which meant taking on student debt as well as foregoing the (small) paycheck I’d gotten used to. It meant leaving behind the expertise I’d developed in grant writing, community development, and education. But it also meant opening the door to a new world that I thought would be a good fit for me. So I went to Stanford for a master’s in materials science, and did internships at a biomedical device company and at Apple along the way. I knew I wanted to work in renewable energy, and on the recommendation of a professor, I applied to Tesla after getting my degree.I started at Tesla as an associate reliability engineer, working on the drive unit and energy storage products to ensure they operated properly for the full lifetime of the vehicle or battery. That title, “associate,” really grated on me. I was told that I couldn’t be just an engineer, much less a senior engineer, because I didn’t have any work experience, even though most people with master’s degrees enter the company with a higher title. And at first, I believed what the company told me. After all, I didn’t really know anything about reliability. And besides a couple of internships, I’d never worked as an engineer before.But the view I was sold totally discounts all of the work I’d done, and I’d say the RELEVANT work I’d done, previous to returning to school. While when I decided to go back to school I felt like I was starting over, in retrospect I see that everything I’ve done has made me the engineer I am today. Starting out as an English major made me appreciate other disciplines and made me think about the role of words in communicating ideas. Majoring in physics rather than engineering taught me how to think and that it’s ok to struggle with ideas. Working at the nonprofit gave me perspective on the kinds of problems people are facing everyday that need to be solved, and it gave me the humility to understand I’m not always going to be the expert when solving a problem I haven’t lived. It made me realize the importance of community and workplace culture in helping employees feel at home and be their most productive selves. Farming (oh yeah, while working at the nonprofit and while in grad school I volunteered on organic farms) taught me patience and how to deal with uncertainty and unpredictable setbacks (e.g. weather, gophers). Teaching first grade helped me understand that people (even adults) have finite attention spans, and that people need brain breaks to be able to concentrate and do their best work. Lesson planning taught me how to prepare for big presentations and every potential question that could come up.I use the skills I learned in my non-engineering roles everyday when collaborating with coworkers, managing people, presenting to VPs, etc, and they make me a stronger engineer. In just over 3 years, I went from being an associate engineer, to an engineer, to a senior engineer, to a staff engineer. I don’t think I could have made that climb so quickly without my background in a lot of different disciplines.After a few years as a reliability engineer, I transitioned to a more materials-focused role. I now lead glass development for new Tesla vehicles and have my hands in exterior materials as well. My work is incredibly technically challenging, and I know I’m having an impact on my global community (I think of my company as a sustainable energy company that just happens to make cars). I don’t for a minute regret not getting that physics PhD.Also at Tesla, I was part of the leadership board of our women’s employee resource group (ERG), and I now lead an ERG called Intersectionality for those of us at the intersection of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, and other categories of identity. More about ERGs in an upcoming post!For anyone out there struggling with a nonlinear career path, I would urge you to recognize the value you bring from all of your previous experiences. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not bringing enough to the table. Sometimes a pivot might feel like starting over, and that’s ok. Having a diverse set of experiences is only a positive, because none of us truly just does one thing at our jobs.--Rosie is a Staff Engineer at Tesla, where she works on developing new materials and manufacturing processes to enable designs that help transition the world to sustainable energy. Prior to working in engineering, Rosie worked at a nonprofit family resource center, volunteered on organic farms, and taught first grade, all with the aim of positively impacting her local and global communities. She believes that engineering can and should be used to make the world a better place, and that engineers should listen more than they talk. Rosie is passionate about creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces, because the journey matters just as much as the end result. She has served on the board of the Women in Tesla employee resource group (ERG), currently leads the Intersectionality at Tesla ERG, and has consulted on D&I strategies and equitable hiring practices for startups.