Doctor? No Thanks. She’d Rather Build Cars.
No one wants to be that kid who disappoints her parents by deciding not to become a doctor. But growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Jackie DiMarco knew it wasn’t for her. “That was definitely not my path.”
It wasn’t until she stumbled into an engineering session at her high school’s career fair that she first entertained the idea of a career in engineering. A group of General Motor engineers talked to the students about product and car development.
“I thought it was really interesting; I also thought it was very overwhelming. You know, could I do that?”
It turned out that not only could she do it, she is an engineering rock star. For 20 years, Jackie has influenced the shaping of some of Ford’s most iconic vehicles including the Mustang, the Expedition and the Ford-150. Now the chief programming engineer at Ford Motor Co., Jackie was the engineer tapped to guide Ford into the future. Today, she is in charge of building autonomous cars.
Following a path to discover what drives her, and of course there’s a race car involved
Jackie started on the path that would eventually lead her to the top of profession by enrolling in Ohio State University as a mechanical engineering major. It’s a broad discipline with the opportunity to go into many different fields; perfect for an undecided freshman who hadn’t yet discovered her passion. In her junior year of undergraduate education, Jackie took a class in the Center for Automotive Research. She worked with a group of students, all boys, to build a race car. Little did she know this project would change both her professional and personal life forever.
With little to no hands-on experience under her belt–plus the fact that she was the only girl on the team–Jackie was understandably anxious about her first few days in the workshop. But within weeks, she was getting her hands dirty, running a drill press and building parts that would then go into the vehicle.
“You just have to overcome the fear and just do it,” Jackie advised.
Kind of like falling in love, which Jackie also happened to do while working on the race car. She’s happily married to one of the boys she met on the team, who also works for Ford. But he stayed in the race car rooms.
“He’s a little greasier than I am,” Jackie joked.
After finishing up at Ohio State, Jackie earned her MBA at the University of Michigan where she conducted graduate research on crash safety with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And then it was straight to Ford.
Holy Cow! Being Technical Pays Off, Jackie Gets to Work on the Mustang AND the F-150
Through a rotational graduate empowerment program, Jackie chose to start her career in calibration—a technical role in the process.
“I actually would encourage women in the industry to start out being technical,” recommended Jackie. “It was a job where you could make changes in your program and almost instantly feel it in the vehicle.”
This gave her the background knowledge to move on to a program team where she worked on the Mustang from 2006 through 2012. As the program manager in 2010, she supervised the creation of a new Mustang body style. Her passion drove her to the next level: becoming the F-150 and Expedition chief. She headed these programs while Ford conducted a product freshening on both of the models. But Jackie’s career didn’t stop there. She was just revving her engine.
When Ford Needed Someone to Lead the Self-Driving Car Effort, Jackie Was Their Go-To Girl
One day while stationed in Ford’s European offices in Cologne, Germany, she received a call. Ford decided to venture into the world of autonomy and they wanted Jackie to fearlessly lead the expedition.
“When I got the call, I thought really? I mean that sounds awesome and this is really exciting, but is this real?”
As unbelievable as it may sound, Jackie and her team of researchers and engineers are using the Ford Fusion as the platform to create a car that can drive itself autonomously. As of now, it can only drive within a specifically mapped out area using a high definition 3D map and exterior cameras as guides. But the ultimate goal is to expand autonomy outside of these limitations, and eventually into other car models.
Jackie’s secret: Women are the competitive advantage
The sky is the limit for Jackie and her team which, unlike her race car team in college, is half women. Jackie believes the more women on the job, the better. After all, about half of the company’s customers are women. And, she says, the male customers still are guided by the women in their lives.
“Think about how much influence women have on purchasing decisions,” Jackie points out. “Even the data shows that it’s good to have the experience of women come into the design.”
With 13-year old twin daughters at home and one of them already talking about becoming an engineer, Jackie wants her girls, and all girls, to know that women can and should go into this industry.
“I think it’s a great place for women to go. I think there’s a need for it,” encouraged Jackie. “It could be an incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable career.”