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Road Scholars: Engineering Students Intern at Tesla

Hands-on Experience with Electric Automaker Boosts Career Prospects

Tesla engineering interns
Engineering grad Kevin Newland, left, and seniors David Cacciola and Amy Tibbetts are using their internships at Tesla Motors to boost their careers.

01/12/2016
By Ed Brennen

Kevin Newland completed his plastics engineering degree in December. Before he could even update the education section of his LinkedIn profile, though, he was starting a highly coveted job at one of the most innovative and buzz-worthy companies in the world: Tesla Motors.

“I was hoping maybe five or 10 years down the road to have a job like this, but to do it right out of school is pretty cool,” says Newland, who now works as a materials engineer at the luxury electric automaker’s global headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. 

How did he do it?

“There’s no way I would ever get a job at Tesla right out of school without having interned here first,” Newland says. “It’s a tough company to land a job at, but having an internship really opened up the opportunity.”

Newland was actually one of three students from the Francis College of Engineering to intern at Tesla in the past year, joining plastics engineering major David Cacciola of Saugus and mechanical engineering major Amy Tibbetts of Billerica. 

Newland’s internship as a materials and fasteners engineer was supposed to run from January to August, but the Hopkinton native was able to extend his stay through December while completing his final four classes online.

“It definitely wasn’t easy, but I wanted to keep my foot in the door here,” Newland says. “If I’d come back (to Lowell) to graduate, Tesla may have delegated my projects to other people.” 

The Fast and the Curious

Cacciola, who interned as a materials engineer from January to July, has also managed to keep his foot in the door during his senior year, landing a part-time job as a product specialist at the Tesla showroom in Natick in November. There he educates people about Tesla products and help customers configure and order their vehicles.

“I’m interested in the technology of the cars, combined with green energy, which I’m taking classes in,” says Cacciola, who had previously interned at Parker Hannifin, a leading manufacturer of motion and control technologies located in Woburn, and co-oped at textile maker Polartec in Lawrence. 

Cacciola landed the Polartec co-op through the university’s Professional Cooperative Education Program, which integrates a student’s co-op work experience into their program of study with a one-credit Professional Development Seminar beforehand and a one- or two-credit Assessment Course (depending on the length of co-op) afterward.
 
When Cacciola saw that Tesla would be offering internships during his junior year, he polished his resume and pounced the day they began accepting applications online. “They emailed me within five minutes and I had the internship in about a week,” says Cacciola, who then convinced Newland to apply for an internship as well.

At the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., Cacciola’s primary job was to research and analyze new materials for the Model X crossover SUV, specifically the safety sensors for the vehicle’s falcon wing doors.

“They actually vibrate the door and turn the whole door into a sensor, but you have to get it right so the sound goes out and comes back in the correct way. That was a lot of work,” says Cacciola, who also worked on several smaller projects, such as fixing a door handle issue for the popular Model S.

“I’d read one morning that Consumer Reports had a problem with the car. Two hours later the door handle was on my desk. They said, ‘Here, figure out what’s wrong with it.’ I was like, ‘OK, cool,’ and we figured it out,” says Cacciola, who values such a straightforward approach to problem-solving.

“My first two co-ops were definitely a learning experience, but this was a real job. I learned so much there,” he says. “I feel like I know how to approach things in a realistic way now.”  

While Cacciola didn’t work directly with Newland and Tibbetts, he did have a UMass Lowell alumna on his team: materials engineer Sharanya Madhavan, who earned her Master of Science in plastics engineering in 2008.

“It was nice having other UMass Lowell students around,” Cacciola says. “We are definitely becoming known around the country.”

‘Power to Change the World’

Tibbetts, whose powertrain engineering internship ran from May to August, didn’t know Newland and Cacciola before arriving in California, but they became fast friends.

“I thought I’d be the only one out there, but to meet two other people that know exactly where you’re from and have walked through the same halls as you, it was so comforting,” says Tibbetts, who has been interested in cars for as long as she can remember.

“I remember seeing a new Mustang or Cadillac and being really excited about how cool they looked,” she says. “In high school I was really good at art, so I wanted to be a car designer. But then I thought, ‘What’s the point in designing the car if I don’t know how it works?’ So I decided that engineering was probably the best route for me.”

Tibbetts followed that route to Georgetown, Ky., during her sophomore year for a co-op as powertrain production engineer at Toyota, which she got through the Society of Women Engineers. When two of her friends from Toyota moved on to Tesla, Tibbetts decided to follow suit and apply for an internship.

At Tesla, Tibbetts’ team worked on making the final assembly process of the cars’ drive units (or engines) more efficient, cutting the assembly line time of each unit from 75 to 60 seconds. When they needed a place to temporarily store the drive units for robots on the assembly line, Tibbetts was tasked with designing a stand that was manufactured and installed in just a week.

“They definitely challenged me,” says Tibbetts, who likes how Tesla has maintained its startup culture despite its rapid growth. “They’re trying to change the world, and it was really exciting to be a part of that.”

Tibbetts says that culture begins with Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, whose desk was out in the open on a floor with hundreds of engineers and interns.

“I didn’t personally meet him, but he walked past me twice,” says Tibbetts, who made sure she was front and center when Musk called an all-hands meeting.

“He’s going to be in history books someday, and I was right there. He’s such an interesting guy. He’s not full of himself. He’s just a really smart guy who’s using his brain for the best, trying to do useful things and saving the planet.”

Tibbetts, now a senior, would like to work on autonomous technology in her post-graduate career. She’s convinced that driverless cars are the wave of the future.

“They will help solve a lot of our problems like CO2 emissions and energy,” she says. “I was already motivated, but after coming out of a company like that, I feel like one person has the power to change the world.”

Zero to 60

As for Newland, he is now working in materials and processes in Palo Alto, validating the polymers used in production and consulting with design engineers on their selection.

“It’s an exciting place to work, but it’s a little intimidating just because there are so many crazy-smart people here,” says Newland, whose highlight as an intern was test driving the Model S P85D in a video that was posted to the company’s Facebook page last spring.

“That was awesome,” he says. “I launched from zero to 60 in 3.2 seconds. I did that three or four times before the cameraman got sick and we had to stop.”

Just as Newland credits his internship at Tesla for landing a job at the company, he credits his previous co-ops through the Professional Cooperative Education Program (process engineering at NyproMold in Clinton and product development engineering at Ravago Manufacturing in Houston) for getting the internship.

“Everybody should be taking internship and co-ops,” he says. “I don’t think I can thank the Career and Co-Op Center enough for all that they did.”