From Yale to Harley-Davidson: Q&A with Jessica Alzamora '18

Jessica Alzamora ‘18, who majored in Mechanical Engineering and headed up Yale’s chapter of Design for America, hadn’t considered a job working with motorcycles until she attended a job convention hosted by Yale’s Society for Women Engineers (SWE) and talked to representatives from Harley-Davidson. Today, she’s based in Milwaukee, Wis. a few months into her job with the iconic bike manufacturer.

The first step, she said, was knowing what she wanted to do. Building large machines, like airplanes, would have been fun, but she realized that her interests really lie in working from a user’s perspective. That is, figuring out things like how long a driver will look at the dashboard, or how certain factors affect reaction times. To that end, working with motorcycles is a perfect fit.

We talked to Alzamora about her experience, and her advice for future engineering alums.

What do you do at Harley Davidson?

I work in finite element analysis (FEA). FEA is where we take CAD [computer-aided design] files and reduce the geometry to discrete elements which represent the part in mathematical terms. We then apply loads and boundary conditions which replicate the real-life use of the part. This helps us decide what changes the part might need in order to work safely in the real world. It includes everything from the unexpected, like crashes, to more standard modal analysis - the vibrations of the engine, for example. My job is not only to set up the models and run them, but also to talk to the design engineers about how to improve the parts.

 How did your time at Yale prepare you for this?

I took a computer-aided engineering course at Yale, which goes over both how to model real life parts, but also test parts and assemblies. It was an introduction to CAD in general but also finite element analysis through SolidWorks. FEA is a very physics-intensive job and requires me to use hand-calculations on a regular basis to gut-check the data the computer provides.  I have to keep all of my fundamentals in order, so everything from first year physics to differential equations is important to my job today.

 How did you get the job?

I went to the SWE conference with the Yale SWE. I walked by the Harley Davidson booth and was in awe of the motorcycles they had on display. I started chatting to one of the engineers about the Human Centered Design projects I had done at Yale and she excitedly told me that that was exactly what she did at Harley.  I was heavily involved with Design for America at Yale, and found myself drawn towards engineering products that users directly interact with. As a result I found myself very interested in Harley because the user touches every part of the motorcycle. Motorcycles are such a barebones machine; the rider is aware of everything from the vibration of the motor, to the way the motorcycle reacts to bumps in the road. It’s a very user-centric design process, and every decision made at Harley has the user’s safety and experience in mind.

Did you have much experience with motorcycles before this?

No - it’s funny because my grandmother rode a motorcycle to work every day, but my mom was terrified of them. It was one of those things that, yes, I had heard about them in family conversations but I didn’t ever expect to ride.

Your grandmother rode a motorcycle?

She was a pretty adventurous person. She was very artistic and very adventurous, so I find myself tending more toward the arts. I guess I have, as my mom would call it, “a strong sense of adventure.” So Harley’s a good fit for me.

Are there many women working at Harley-Davidson?

Yes, that was one of the things that helped me make my decision to take the job offer. You walk around the building and you see lots of women, and you see lots of women in leadership positions, which has a strong positive effect on the culture. Sometimes when I went to interview at other firms, there was a sense that, yes, there are lots of young women, which will help to build a future group of women engineers, but there wasn’t a lot of women in leadership who could provide mentorship now. Harley has a lot of opportunities to talk to the women in the positions that I want to be in, and a strong women’s group.

Do you have any advice for soon-to-be graduates?

I would definitely say go to conventions. The SWE convention was great both because I got a chance to connect with Harley, but it was also an opportunity to talk to lots of different firms and it really helped me narrow down what I wanted to do in life. Going into the convention, I thought I wanted to be generically, a design engineer. I walked away knowing what kinds of firms I actually was interested in. Specifically, I learned that I didn’t want to work on buildings (a surprise to me because I really love architecture) or even planes, but rather products that you could go buy in a store. Products that users directly interact with and get joy from.

I would also say to be open to the experience of taking classes outside of engineering - something that I think has benefited me tremendously. I took a lot of architecture classes. I took art classes and even a photography class. Being able to look at things from a different perspective, especially one that was not particularly science- or STEM-centric has been very important.