A GM engineer’s advice for people considering STEM careers

A GM engineer shares her two biggest pieces of advice to young people considering STEM careers and how she changed career paths.

Alex Archer loves teamwork. A former college athlete — including for her alma mater, Stanford’s, gymnastics and sailing team — she’s found collaboration to be a primary motivator in her life both personally and professionally. Certainly, she’s found it to be one of her favorite things about General Motors, where she works as a Design Release Engineer.

“Because I’m on a program team, everyone has the same goals and provides support to one another,” she explained. “It makes you want to work harder, and our team feels like a family.”

Working toward a common goal with others, she says, grounds her. But just because the goal may be common doesn’t mean it needs to be one-dimensional; another thing Archer loves about her field of product design is that it opens itself well to creative thinking and varying skill sets.

“STEM is a more embracing area than most, because people are passionate about it and so much of STEM is about working together,” she said. “You don’t have to be a mathematician — there are also creative areas. There’s a place for everyone, and in this field, passion goes a long way.”

Archer recently shared with Fairygodboss her favorite aspects of life at GM, as well as her two biggest pieces of advice to young people considering STEM careers — check them out below!

How long have you been in your current role, and what were you doing previously?

I joined General Motors in 2015 fresh out of Stanford. GM’s Virtual Performance Integration Manager, Bob Geisler, came to campus during my senior year, and after talking to him, I knew I wanted to apply for a job here. That soon came to fruition, and my first role at GM was as an Interior Studio Designing Engineer, where my primary role was creating and providing criteria to creative designers. A year later, I moved to my current role as Interiors Design Release Engineer. From the beginning, I’ve felt extremely valued here and a great sense of belonging.

What sparked your interest in design thinking?

Initially, I went to Stanford as a collegiate gymnast with the intent of pursuing a pre-medical degree. But then, my freshman year, I took a design thinking class and fell in love. We made 3D puzzles and also created a Rube Goldberg Machine that set off a series of movements and reactions. I liked the mix of mechanical, hands-on work, and design, and I decided to change my major to product design.

I felt all the more certain about this decision after helping my grandpa rebuild the engine of a 1937 MG-TA and, shortly after that, joining Stanford’s Solar Car team. My grandpa and I took apart the entire engine, cleaned the parts, and made new gaskets and a new oil filter. I really learned how important it was to be exact. For the first time I thought, wow, I could do something with cars in the future. With Solar Car, I made the decision to join Stanford’s team to see how interested I’d be in automotive. I learned how to run failure analyses, model in SolidWorks, and machine parts in-house. Coming to GM, my experience in SolidWorks helped me get the job as a studio designing engineer and proved to be an even bigger advantage in my current role as a DRE.

What drives you at work, and what keeps you interested?

There’s so much opportunity at GM. Even though GM is one company, there’s a chance to change careers and have new experiences. I’m also driven by my mentors. Because I’m on a program team, everyone has the same goals and provides support to one another. It makes you want to work harder and our team feels like a family, which is nice being so far from home.

What about outside of work?

I love to travel. During my first year at GM alone, I traveled to Switzerland, Iceland, and Hawaii, and I’ve also made the trip home to Newport Beach (California) several times. I’m so happy with the amount of vacation and work-life balance that GM offers.

In my spare time, I also restore cars. I’m currently working on a 1955 Packard Clipper Constellation I purchased off a vintage car website in 2016. I re-built the carburetor, replaced all the brake lines, rebuilt the brake cylinder and brake drums, and after about a year, got the engine running to driving condition

You yourself are a mentor to FIRST Robotics students. Can you talk a little more about the importance of mentorship — who has been impactful in your life and career?

I’ve always had mentors at GM. My first mentor, Mike Orth, retired, but he really helped me when I first started. He’d take the time to not only explain things, but help me gain confidence by pushing me to try solving issues in new ways while always being there to look over it before I presented or submitted my ideas. He also used his spare time to teach me about the history of GM and the automotive industry, which helped me both understand and challenge current processes today.

For me personally, mentoring a FIRST Robotics team has been so fun. The students absorb everything you say and are so interested in academia and the field of engineering, that going to meet the team is always a highlight of my day. Even though it’s not for a grade, the students are incredibly passionate, and you learn a lot about yourself when mentoring others. Also, my team won for the first time last year, which is really exciting!

As a college athlete — first as a gymnast and then, following an injury, as a member of Stanford’s sailing team — you’ve had experience overcoming obstacles and changing direction. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself?

I’d give myself two pieces of advice. First, start slow. My freshman year was crazy; I took way too many hard classes and was in such a new environment. I could never have prepared myself for that. My whole life, people telling me I couldn’t do things has always pushed me harder. But you shouldn’t always feel that way; you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone if you know you’re doing your best.

Second, I’d tell myself that there’s always tomorrow. This was important when I first started my career. When you work at your own pace, things will develop. Sometimes you need to be patient.

What would you say to a young person who’s interested in STEM, but is unsure of intimidated about getting started and finding opportunities?

Get involved in extracurricular activities related to STEM. FIRST Robotics, for example, is incredible and something I didn’t know about before Michigan. Other programs like Solar Car, Ecocar, SAE — these are all organizations where there’s always peers and people to meet who are also passionate about STEM. STEM is a more embracing area than most, because people are passionate about it and so much of STEM is about working together.

I’d also tell them to shadow mentors. Especially if you’re in Detroit, reach out to GM. You don’t have to be a mathematician — there are also creative areas. That’s why I love product design; it’s a mix of engineering and creativity. But the most important thing is to not be afraid. There’s a place for everyone, and in this field, passion goes a long way.

A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.