Why am I joining Volvo?

What do Google, Spotify, Facebook, Amazon, Datadog and Shopify have in common? I’ve been contacted by their recruiters over the past 4 years. However, one way or another some “P” was missing in my 4P career evaluation system. Nonetheless, I have worked at Discovery, Schibsted, Philips, Klarna and a few others but nothing excites me as much as my upcoming career at Volvo! That’s why for the first time, I’m announcing my career change ahead of time and even dedicate a post to it.

What? A car company? A Chinese company?

Let me explain by going through the 4P system:

1. People

I believe one learns a lot about a company and its culture just going through the interview process. An experienced recruiter was my first contact. She was friendly, to the point and flexible enough to work around our busy schedules. That was immediately followed by a meeting with my to-be manager which made an inspirational first impression. What impressed me most was his drive. I really felt like this second guy in this video:

I always ask to meet the team during the interview process and this time was no different. The few to-be colleagues I met (head of engineering, tech lead, staff engineer, senior director of engineering) were all humble, honest and passionate but most importantly positive about Volvo’s ambitious future. We had such an interesting conversation that every single interview session ran well over time.

Nevertheless, when I received the exciting news that I’m accepted, I still felt like I’m not super clear on the expectations for what I bring to the table in the first 100 days (read why is it important). So I emailed my to-be manager. I didn’t hear back for 3 days. Then he sent me a PDF with 7 (!!!) pages detailing the expectations. I was not only impressed by the amount of time he pulled from his busy schedule to write this for me but also the fact that Volvo understands what a Staff Engineer is. Some companies see the “Staff” role as an advanced technical role where in reality, it’s more of a people & tech role without having people & tech mandates (to learn more about staff engineering, I highly recommend this site and its book/audio version).

There are not a lot of companies who understand the value proposition of the staff role, let alone need it. Volvo –a “car company” does. In fact, the capacity and the appetite is part of a new mentality dubbed “software company”.

You may have heard “People don’t leave companies, they leave bad bosses”. That wasn’t true for me this time. My manager at Discovery is a friendly leader who gave me great growth opportunities that I’m forever thankful for. Discovery’s mega merger with Warner Brothers is a huge $43 billion milestone and I would very much love to be part of that journey!

The opposite of that sentence is also true:

People join good leaders, not the brands.

I believe the most important decision you make in your career is your manager. The pull was too strong.

This is probably the most important thing in my career and for my country

My Volvo manager said, and I absolutely share that feeling (more on that in the “2. Product” section).

What’s more is that Volvo has a good recruitment team and I’m confident that like its sister brand Northvolt, it will succeed in bringing some of the best industry talent together with “the power of purpose”. For me personally, it means that I’ll have a chance to be at my favourite room: the one I’m the most stupid one in! This is a great opportunity to learn.

2. Product

For the first time in my career I’m not going to build “yet another X” but actually have an active role in shaping a whole new market segment with great impact to two of the most fundamental challenges ahead of us: climate change and artificial intelligence.

You may have heard the story of the 3 bricklayers:

Each was asked what they were doing. The first said: “I put bricks on top of each other for 5$ an hour.” The second one said: “I am building a wall.” But the third one said enthusiastically: “I am building the greatest cathedral in the world!”

I don’t care about the company valuation, I care about what values it holds.

The “China” thing

The most common reaction when people hear about me joining Volvo is: “Oh, but are you going to work for a Chinese company?”

To tell you the truth, that was one of the first questions I asked in the interview too.

Let’s unpack that. First of all, depending on the media you consume, this China might not be that China! China is a huge country. With 1.4 billion people, it has more people than Europe and North America combined. That is more than 70 countries crammed into one. Anyone who has seen a startup grow to an enterprise knows that the way you run a small team is very different than a large group of teams. It is no secret that every media has their own directives and China’s fast climb to the 2nd largest economy in the world makes some uncomfortable. Rapid growth can be painful and there as always, if you dig enough there are ugly things to focus on. Do I endorse everything happening in China? No. Do I claim to have a clear picture about a country 6375 Km away which I have never visited or lived there? No. Am I confident that the “free” media is capable of painting a distorted image for an agenda? Yes, I worked at media companies in the past 6 years and consumed it for at least 3 times longer. If you want to learn more about how media operates, any book from Chomsky is good and I recommend this one particularly:

Fortunately, Volvo is a good frame of reference.

Let’s go back to 2010 when American company Ford sold Volvo to the Chinese giant Geely for $1.5 billion just 11 years after buying it for $6.5 billion. This came right after the 2008 financial crisis:

The precipitating factor for the Financial Crisis of 2007–2008 was the bursting of the United States housing bubble and the subsequent subprime mortgage crisis, which occurred due to a high default rate and resulting foreclosures of mortgage loans, particularly adjustable-rate mortgages.

Before handing it over to Geely:

Volvo was a shell of its former self and close to going out of business entirely. No one, it seemed, wanted to take a chance on reviving the brand. (source)

Under the new owners Volvo burnished its brand enough to move it upmarket in sales and prestige, bought Polestar in 2015 competing directly with Tesla. Does Chinese politics enable this growth? Does this growth enable Chinese politics? To be honest, it’s way over my head and quite frankly I don’t care because in this particular segment, the market is so competitive that there’s little margin for politics and drama! The customers are the ultimate compass.

I wouldn’t discriminate against a country that I barely know. There’s a lot of interesting innovation coming from China. Nio for example uses replaceable car batteries (battery as a service or BaaS) to eliminate the charging time which is one of the biggest disadvantages of electric vehicles (EV).

source

From what I gathered, the Geely group has left Volvo independent to do their own thing. It is not like you have to call China everytime you want to make a decision. Volvo Cars is not the only thing they own. London EV company (formerly London Taxi), Lotus, Polestar are owned by Geely as well as part of Mercedes to name a few.

FYI, Volvo cars is a different company than the Swedish owned Volvo trucks which made this epic ad:

I am joining Volvo cars, the one owned by the Geely Holding Group.

Competition

3 revolutions are simultaneously shaking the car market:

  • Electric drivetrain and the rise of the connected cars
  • Autonomous driving which dramatically changes the shape of the cities (highly recommend this visionary book)
  • New car ownership models changing it from a prestige symbol to a means for getting from A to B (particularly for the younger generation)

As new players like Google, Apple, Intel and Sony try their chance while Tesla is raised to be the most valuable car company, every reputable car brand worth taking seriously has a strategy to keep their head above the water and maybe even swim: VW redefining its identity with the ID series, Mercedes unveiling new concepts and Toyota reluctantly jumping on the fully electric car market after years of betting on the hybrid and hydrogen.

I like a competitive industry like that. Strong rivals are the best source of progress as well as a company’s own legacy:

Volvo has a strong heritage of innovation and safety.

If there’s one positive thing that came out of Volvo going American and then Chinese is that this company has tasted how its fate can change and is not afraid to reinvent itself. Pair it with the Swedish pragmatism and ingenuity and you get a good success formula. From Spotify to Skype to Minecraft and King, Swedish engineers have proven time and again that this tiny country punches way above its weight:

Climate change

I grew up in an oil rich country. Like any other oil country (except Norway), the money from the “black gold” didn’t reach the average citizen but worsened their lives. In many ways, having oil is a dark curse for a country, but in recent years we’re collectively starting to understand its global implications on the climate and holocene extinction.

There was little I knew or could do when I was a kid, but as an adult living in one of the world’s richest industrial countries, equipped with the relevant knowledge and experience I can.

I vividly remember this funny story from my early childhood:

I was watching an action B movie involving car chase and explosions. The story was so tacky that even the young me was bored. I knew cars run on oil and oil comes from the remnants of creatures who lived millions of years ago, so it was irreplaceable. Therefore it should only be used when absolutely necessary. I was genuinely wondering if the “real oil” was wasted for this tacky story. So I asked my mom: “do they use real oil for the cars and explosions in the movies?” My mom, apparently baffled by my silliness, replied: “no! they pee in the tank!” Yes, funny! I didn’t get it though. That answer sounded reasonable to me!

Later I learned that the truth is way dirtier. Even the “clean” electricity was generated by burning fossil fuels. Let’s not dig into the political aspects of the whole oil industry and how the consumers practically fund the oppression and misery of the oil countries.

The younger me couldn’t fathom why we would do this to ourselves as a species. The older me tolerates this as a temporary measure to get to a sustainable state ASAP. I want to be part of “ASAP”. Volvo has plans for “ASAP”. Before 2030 Volvo only produces fully electric cars. It is already experimenting with different car ownership models reducing the number of cars in the street. It has plans to safely bring autonomous cars to the streets. Although global warming so far has brought warmer winters to this dark and cold corner of the world, Sweden is not a passive country in the face of this change, neither is Volvo.

Sweden

When I came to this country in the late 2000’s, I knew very little about her other than Ericsson and Volvo. She was my 3rd choice after Canada and Germany to do my masters degree and I was naturally more invested in those countries. Life happened and I ended up with my plan C. Less than 10 years later I had a MSc from a top university, a good job, a healthy family, a “lagom” home and a Volvo!

Sweden is not objectively the best environment for everyone but this is the environment where I thrived and spent the most of my adulthood. It shaped my character. I do adore Sweden, despite the xenophobia and rise of anti-immigrant parties and policies which is a knee jerk reaction to her open-door policy. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most open and multicultural countries in Europe so it’s not an exaggeration when Volvo says “made by Sweden” instead of “made in Sweden” or “made by the Swedes”:

source

For me, to help Volvo navigate the maze of the aforementioned 3 simultaneous revolutions genuinely feels like an honour to pay back and do something for MY country, Sweden. Whether my skill or talent is something that moves the needle is another subject, but there’s no doubt I want this Swedish brand to solve global problems and I’ll do my best.

Me and cars

I like drawing as a hobby. Most of what I have drawn since childhood are cars! There’s something about the freedom that they bring to the human experience that has always fascinated me.

One of my works inspired by the book How Autonomous Vehicles will Change the World

When I was a young boy, my cousin and I dreamed of buying our own off-road vehicle, filling it with spare gas containers and travelling the world. Somehow it was worth it in our mind to burn oil to this end! 😅

Later I grew to design my own fantasy brand of car “Zikwit” which looked an awful lot like Volvo. I loved those straight lines back in the 90’s and I still love them now. Volvo’s design always attracted me and I’m happy to see that Embla is bringing back those confident lines:

Throughout my career, I have worked with telecom, insurance, financial tech, health care, robotics, retail, online media and lastly streaming media but I have rarely been a user of what I make. There’s a tangible purpose in being a user of what you make. Volvo? I had one.

My beloved V70

I sold it for the very reason I’m joining Volvo! Let me clarify:

Back in 2007 I had a Windows phone. an i-mate. It had apps and a touch screen. Then the iPhone happened. Shortly after Android happened. These new phones didn’t dramatically add a non-existing feature but they improved a lot of quirks around the experience of discovering, installing and using apps on a phone. In the face of this market shift, my expensive i-mate became worthless. I still have it somewhere in some box.

Admittedly the lifespan of a phone is much shorter than a car. But the car is more expensive and the financial loss is heavier. It was apparent that the days of the internal combustion engine (ICE) are numbered and I had to sell it before it became worthless like my i-mate. So I sold it before the electric vehicle (EV) became affordable. I didn’t use the car that much. In fact this expensive pack of nature’s resources was sitting idle in a parking lot 95% of the time like most other cars. Isn’t that wasteful?

I moved to a place next to the public transportation and haven’t regretted ever since. However, every time I see a V70 on the streets (and there’s damn too many in Sweden), I miss my car.

Software battle

I do have a lot of respect for the mechanical engineers at Volvo. They’re the ones who got this brand to where it is today and as a former user of their creation, they’re the ones who captured my interest and loyalty in the first place.

But I truly believe that the battles of the mobility revolution are fought in the software battleground. I do have a hardware degree but I believe my other degree in interactive systems engineering brings something more to the table. And my experience from a wider range of industries will probably cover up my lack of experience with building cars. The car hardware will be a commodity in a not-so-distant future of car hailing apps and concurrent ownership models. They already look a hell of a lot similar:

What differentiates car brands apart from their core value (eg. Volvo’s safety) is the software and more broadly the end to end customer experience.

Artificial General Intelligence

So far one of the main drivers of advancing AI has been ads:

In The Singularity is near, Ray Kurtzweil predicts that an artificial intelligence which is as flexible and adaptable as human intelligence will emerge in our lifetime. After that point we don’t know what will happen because the AI can create AI and exponentially become smarter (hence the reference “singularity”)

Personally I believe level 5 self driving is way more complicated than what the artificial intelligence (AI) is capable of today. For that, we need artificial general intelligence (AGI) which can adapt to new environments and is flexible pretty similar to our own mind. There are just too many factors and knowledge that a human driver uses effortlessly that the machines cannot simply match… unless, the human is drugged 😉:

As scary as Tesla “Techno King” warns us, there’s no escape from AGI or singularity if we are to solve the level 5 problem.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it”. I am no AI expert. My specialty is to connect people and unblock them while learning new things to solve new problems. But if I want to create a brighter future where humans and AI are on the same side, I sure do it at a car company. And what better place than Volvo whose primary selling point is safety? Which one would you pick? A performant AGI, an affordable AGI, a luxury AGI or a safe one?

Timing

Volvo has been owned by the Swedes, Americans and now the Chinese. It has definitely learned lessons along the way and understands the existential competition now more than ever. Cars are responsible for 58% of CO2 emissions in the transportation sector. As the mobility revolution is unfolding full throttle and we’re getting closer to AGI, time is of critical essence.

Volvo is getting a new CEO in a couple of weeks. In my experience a new CEO can be a bad thing or a good thing. The future will show. Regardless of how one colours the future, I definitely see it as an opportunity to drive some change for the good.

Will I succeed or will I even matter? Again, time will tell but that’s not the point. The point is to try and take risks. The journey is the goal. I believe the best way to grow is to expose myself to challenges and this is an opportunity of a lifetime.

3. Package

Not much to say here except that I’m happy all things considered. 30 days vacation, parental leave top-up, ITP pension, the perks are pretty standard for the local market although there’s a car perk where you get to buy or rent a Volvo lower than the public price. The Swedish employees get a union agreement (kollektivavtal) which is a nice way to protect the employees against exploitation.

If you are interested to learn more about my views about salary and growth, I’ve shared a few stories here as well as my salary negotiation strategy.

The best way to get rich is to take control of your own fate but to be effective at running a business, you first need to have experience working at a company with people. Read about my startup experience.

If the pay is the most important factor, it helps to remember that Volvo isn’t a cheap brand and 2021 has been its best year so far.

4. Place

I will be joining Volvo’s office at the centre of the biggest city of Scandinavia. Stockholm roads have a star topology: tcentralen is where they all meet. This means that talent all the way from Uppsala to Nynäshamn will easily be under the same roof!

Copyright © 2021 UrbanRail.net

I can comfortably bike this distance which is an order of magnitude better for my body than my usual commute from bed to my office table!

Although the pandemic has changed the way we work (probably permanently), as someone who has been in self-exile for 2 years, there’s an element to the IRL (in real life) workplace that is just simply not possible to replicate over the virtual conference and Slack!

It’s good to have that option without mandating it in the age of remote work. As Volvo M’s CEO puts it:

we put our faith and trust in individuals and teams. Our offices serve as our main workplace. But if it’s agreed with your team, you may work from pretty much anywhere in Sweden. It’s about getting the work done, not where it gets done.

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Sr. Staff Engineer @volvocars, Knowledge Worker, MSc Systems Engineering, Tech Lead, Web Developer

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Alex Ewerlöf

Alex Ewerlöf

Sr. Staff Engineer @volvocars, Knowledge Worker, MSc Systems Engineering, Tech Lead, Web Developer

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