In our Alumni Spotlight series, we ask alumni to tell us about their careers and how their UVa experiences prepared them for life after the Lawn. 

Meet Jaz Harnal, a 2017 Mechanical Engineering grad who minored in Computer Science and Design Integration (Technology Leaders Program). During his time at UVA, he led the Gizmologists Club (a mechatronics group which he co-founded), did photography for the Virginia Advocate Magazine, and was a TA for mechatronics courses. For the last 2 years since graduating, Jaz has been a Vehicle Systems Engineer in the Autonomous Driving division of Aptiv in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has recently set his sights on climate change and activism.

UVA Engineering alum Jaz Harnal

Tell us about your career and your current job. 

I currently work as a Vehicle Systems Engineer at Aptiv in the Autonomous Mobility department at our Pittsburgh, PA site. We develop and test autonomous vehicle (AV) hardware and software, and my team is specifically focused on integration between hardware and software. I’ve been in this position the last 2 years, but of course my path here was far from linear. My 2 internships during school were in metal additive manufacturing (3D printing) research groups. I found out about Aptiv (at the time called Delphi) through a MechE alumnus. When interviewing, I think my prototyping skills (gained in my mechatronics clubs and classes) and ability to learn new systems were important strengths. When I first joined, my role mainly involved configuring and testing hardware for AVs. I started writing automated testing software and since then have transitioned into new responsibilities.

UVA alum Jaz Harnal at CES 2018
Jaz at CES 2018 with one of the self driving cars helped build

What does a "day in the life of you" look like?

I currently work on a variety of different projects:
 – Writing automated diagnostics programs
 – Evaluating prototype lidar sensors
 – Development and integration of vision and lidar systems for our vehicle platforms

My day to day work includes writing software, testing software, testing firmware releases, debugging hardware/software/firmware, and working across teams to determine requirements.

Fortunately, no day is the same for me, and I have a great deal of freedom to work on whatever tasks I deem a priority. This means I might spend the whole day at my desk writing code, or a whole day in the car testing a new lidar, or anything in between.

How have your experiences and education at UVA shaped your life after college and your career path thus far?

My career started off with a focus on mechanical engineering and I gradually realized that robotics and software engineering were of greater interest to me. Similarly, I have shifted my work at Aptiv to involve more software and automation tasks. 

One particular lesson I learned at UVa was the power of learning by doing. I learned the most from my group projects and extracurricular activities applying practical knowledge - those skills have proven to be most valuable in my work, and continue to drive my hobbies and projects outside of work. 

How has UVA Engineering helped you innovate and lead in your current role?

UVa Engineering provides well rounded curriculum - as much as I know some people dislike STS, it has many important lessons about engineering in the context of social beings. Professor Peter Norton’s STS classes 4th year contained some readings which I still think back to when trying to understand the world.

My Intro to Systems course - which taught analytical approaches to decision making and to think critically about which problem you’re solving - has proven valuable in both my work and personal life.

Tell us about an event, class, advisor, professor, or mentor that really impacted your career path/choices.

Professor Greg Lewin and his courses in the TLP (Electromechanical Systems and Mechatronics) strongly influenced my interests and cultivated my problem solving skills. Lewin’s passion and genuine interest in the material helped me discover the satisfaction that comes from writing code that comes to life in the physical world.

How did engaging with the Center for Engineering Career Development (CECD) support your goals and vision for the future? 

The career center provided wonderful support to me along my journey, and continues to do so. I received help from Heather Palmer with my resume, LinkedIn, portfolio, and interviewing skills. Perhaps most importantly, Heather helped me think more critically about my career and understand the value of making personal connections. 

With your professional perspective, what skills do you think are vital for current UVA Engineering students to learn?

People skills. I couldn’t really appreciate this when people told me before, but being able to communicate effectively and manage different personalities is so valuable. Especially as an engineer, the ability to translate complicated or context specific information into something that a project manager or non-technical advisor can use is critical. I think the best way to improve these skills is to spend more time working on teams, especially cross-functional ones with members having different specialties and backgrounds. This was a skill that the TLP was very effective at cultivating.

For current students hoping to go into your field, what are some of the most effective things they can do right now to prepare themselves for future success?

Some advice that I would provide more generally is that students do a couple of things:
 – Realize that at no point are you “stuck” going down a career path (I studied mechanical engineering and haven’t directly used my degree at my job, and I’m happy about that). There are always opportunities for change, and while it won’t always be easy, it’s always possible.
 – Spend some time considering what impact you would like to leave on the world with your career. Is the purpose of a job to provide you with a liveable income, or are you in search of fulfilment from your work? Be intentional with your decisions.

2 books I would recommend on careers are:
 – Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett, Dave Evans, and David John Evans
 – 80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career That Does Good by Benjamin Todd and the 80,000 Hours Team