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Rolling Into Automotive IT

In or outside vehicles, IT opportunities are revving up

By John Edwards

Think of them as computers on wheels. That is what today’s cars and trucks essentially are. Sure, if you pop open the hood on any new car, truck or SUV you’ll still see an engine. You can also crawl underneath the vehicle and admire its drive train. But inside, hidden from casual view, are multiple computers that manage engine performance, emission controls, entertainment systems, navigation gadgets, and an array of other devices and components.

As the automotive industry goes increasingly digital, it’s opening its doors to hardware and software professionals possessing a variety of skill sets. “The automotive industry represents a wide array of activities and employment opportunities,” says Jim Vallino, a software engineering professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. He notes that automakers and add-on equipment manufacturers all avidly seek skilled hardware engineers, software developers, applications programmers, operating systems specialists and networking professionals. “Companies’ needs run the gamut of IT expertise,” Vallino says.

Whether it’s an anti-lock brake system, a satellite navigation display, a “hands-off” cellular phone, a TV/DVD console, or any of the many other gadgets found inside today’s high-tech vehicles, hardware and software experts play a key role in developing the technology. “There are lots of different ways in which somebody in computer science, software engineering or IT can work in the industry,” Vallino says.

Yet, given the wide range of technologies, there’s no specific way to prepare for an IT automotive career. “It depends on which particular aspect of the field you’re interested in,” Vallino says. An IT grad looking to work with engines, for example, will probably want to study embedded systems, in which the computer is fully encapsulated by the device it manages. Likewise, vehicle entertainment system manufacturers look for prospective employees with experience in areas such as user interfaces and audio and video processing. “Automotive industry companies are searching for specialists, not generalists,” Vallino adds.

Designing a Career

IT technology isn’t only found inside cars, trucks and SUVs. It’s also used to create vehicles and the machines that build them. Richard Jones, a vice president at Autodesk, a San Rafael, Calif.-based company that produces manufacturing design tools, says that virtually all new vehicles are designed with software assistance. “Nearly every automotive manufacturer in the world is our customer,” he says.

Autodesk provides sophisticated software applications that help customers design almost any type of vehicle. The company supplies tools and services that support communication, collaboration and visualization of the entire product development process. “Autodesk manufactures solutions for transportation results—efficiently and effectively—for the entire network of manufacturers and suppliers,” Jones says.

While a variety of automotive design professionals use Autodesk software, the company itself has a growing need for software specialists. Autodesk currently employs over 1,000 developers,” Jones adds.

As with any application software that rides on technology’s leading edge, the development work at Autodesk is highly demanding. “The people who write our software are, by and large, computer science experts, ranging up to PhDs,” Jones explains. But that doesn’t mean a skilled grad with a lesser degree can’t find a place at the company. “Few people enter this business with design skills in place,” Jones says. “There is plenty of training that takes place, and we are always looking for intelligent, promising candidates.”

Car Markets

IT also plays a major role in automotive commerce. Logistics software tracks the shipments of vehicles and automotive components worldwide. Meanwhile, electronic marketplaces allow vehicle manufacturers and dealers, as well as parts manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and repair shops, to buy and sell products and settle business transactions electronically.

OEConnection, located in Richfield, Ohio, operates an online market for original equipment manufacturer (OEM) automotive parts. The firm, a joint venture between DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Company and General Motors, handles an estimated $8 billion annually in parts transactions.

Charles Rotuno, OEConnection’s CEO, says the automotive industry’s journey into e-commerce is just beginning. “Over the long term, companies will deliver greater and greater amounts of value-added services over the Internet,” he notes. “Experienced IT professionals who work well in teams and who have strong problem solving skills will be in demand for a long time.”

Given the nature of its business, it’s not surprising that OEConnection relies heavily on IT professionals. “More than half of our 140 associates work in IT roles,” Rotuno says. The company’s experts include software engineers, database developers, technology architects, systems/network engineers and quality assurance professionals. “They are very much involved in developing solutions to the business challenges facing automakers, car dealerships and repair shops,” Rotuno adds.

OEConnection recruits employees with a wide array of job skills. “Strong candidates are particularly skilled with such Web-based technologies as HTML, XML, AJAX, C#, .NET and SQL Server,” Rotuno says. “We also seek candidates who understand network technologies, including DNS, VPN, routers, firewalls, proxies and Linux-based monitoring tools.”

Back Office Operations

Like most other enterprises, automotive companies rely on IT to support an array of back office operations. These days, it’s hard to imagine any company, much less a major automaker, not taking advantage of Internet technology for applications ranging from Web marketing to enterprise-wide intranets.

Zebulon Ford-Reitz, who graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2006 with a bachelor degree in software engineering, knows first hand the critical role IT plays in an automaker’s business operations. He interned for over nine months at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Ford-Reitz’s primary job at Volkswagen was developing templates for the company’s intranet. “The goal was to modify an existing content management system so that departments could maintain their intranet presence without the need for programming or Web design knowledge,” he says.

The work also offered some attractive side benefits. “The obvious advantage, for those who are fascinated by cars, is just the opportunity to work with them,” Ford-Reitz states. “Beyond that, there’s employee discounts when purchasing a car.”

He adds that working overseas for a global company was a unique experience. “I really enjoyed my time at Volkswagen, and I learned a great deal while working there.” Yet Ford-Reitz says that he probably won’t pursue an automotive industry IT career. His first love is using software to solve complex problems, regardless of the setting. “I don’t really notice a great difference whether I’m working with cars, aircraft simulators or software testing tools,” he says.

Yet many grads who begin their career in the automotive industry couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. Jeff Mlkar, a software engineer at OEConnection, joined the firm only a few months after graduating from the University of Michigan in December 2004. “It’s really exciting to work at a company that’s driving its industry,” says Mlkar, who holds bachelors degrees in both mechanical engineering and computer science. “I know I’m surrounded by brilliant people who are constantly coming up with new and inventive ideas for what can be done in the field,” he says.

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer and numerous other publications.

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