My Experience as Chief Engineer of a FSAE Team

Through May 2022 to May 2023 I was the Chief Engineer of RIT's Formula SAE team. Managing the 80 person team was by far the biggest leadership role I've ever had in my life and I found it to be very valuable for my personal development as an engineer. 

Most of the team at Imagine RIT 2023

The way our team is structured, the Chief Engineer is the technical leader for the team and has final say on any car related decisions. The Project Manager is the other elected team lead, that role is more responsible for team related decisions. Both roles lead the team together; I was fortunate to have a very competent PM that I could work with well. 

Overall, my experience as chief was very positive. I really enjoyed leading the team and having a bigger impact on decisions and direction after being part of the manufacturing team my freshman year, and the design team for 3 years after that. We were very successful at the FSAE Michigan EV competition coming in 4th place out of 71 teams, the best we've done in my entire time on the team. 

4th place overall at FSAE Michigan 2023

I have some big takeaways from running the team, some apply to being a leader in general and others are more specific to leading a bunch of college students who don't really know what they're doing. I found that standard leadership tips are generally pretty accurate, but not too helpful for making people actual good leaders, but here is my best shot:

  • Have a big picture mentality because nobody else seems to; very few people think about how their system fits into the rest of the car or project
  • Evaluate if things are actually worth doing before spending a while doing them. An example of this on my team was someone spent a week starting to design DRS and I asked the VD team to see how much it would benefit our lap times, and within an hour they found it would be borderline useless
  • Look at a calendar and see when things can realistically happen and make a plan
  • Make the timeline slightly faster than what's realistic, deadlines only move in one direction. I found that almost everyone on the team would assemble or prepare their system as last minute as possible and suddenly it's 5am and we're on the 10th hour of being 1 hour away from first drive
  • Set realistic and measurable goals that team members can shoot for
  • Be at minimum acquaintances with everyone, being friends is even better but being enemies causes a bunch of problems. Especially for a collegiate club, if people don't want to be there late every night then they won't be and then a car won't get built
  • Understand designers strengths and weaknesses and whether they can get their stuff done when they think they can
  • Some things, such as registering for competition on time, cannot be messed up, so do everything possible (reminders, alarms, multiple computers open) to make sure it happens
  • Lots of people outside the team have a big influence on the budget and resources of the team, being on good terms with the people in the department and the school has a lot of benefits
  • Have a few reliable people you can depend on to get something done
  • Find a balance between micro managing and letting a bunch of sophomores build (or not build) an entire system on the car with no supervision. We sometimes had weekly scrums but often they turned out to be time consuming and not very useful 
  • Stay organized. Especially for the FSAE EV competition where the majority of teams don't pass tech, having an understanding of every single rule is very important. I printed out the rulebook and made people go through it with me and also had rule tracking spreadsheets to make sure we fix everything before we get to competition
  • I found that FSAE is very much a project management exercise. With only 1 year to design and build a car, changing very little from previous designs and getting things done on time is critical to building and testing a car that will finish all the events at competition