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Alumni Profile: Costi Shami

Vehicle Performance Engineer-Autonomous Vehicles, General Motors

Costi Shami
MS, Mechanical Engineering, 2014
BS, Mechanical Engineering, 2013

Tell us about your career after graduating from Duke as a mechanical engineer.

I work at General Motors and my official title is vehicle performance engineer in autonomous vehicles, working specifically with motion controls—the steering, the braking and the propulsion system. We’re implementing new technology for a driver monitor system, trying to keep the driver constantly engaged with the road. I’ve also been working directly with Cruise Automation out in San Francisco, which GM recently acquired, on full vehicle integration. We’re implementing autonomous technology within the vehicle instead of making an add-on component. I work with a lot of the software engineers to understand what their code is doing at a relatively high level and integrate it with the car’s internal systems.

What about your time here at Duke helped you get ready for this role?

Duke has prepared me incredibly. From day one, the focus was on projects. I know Dean Bellamkonda is going to be pushing for design project integration into every year, and I can’t be more supportive of that kind of approach. Any time you can put theoretical knowledge into a project, it’s very tangible and you learn a lot from it. I found that the transition into the auto industry was pretty seamless because I had the confidence that I would be able to apply my education in any situation.

Outside of the classroom, I was part of the Duke Motorsports team for all five years I was here. That also gave me experience to draw on to build intuition that a lot of other engineers don’t necessarily have. Now I’m at the leading edge of a new technology, and I couldn’t do it without my Duke education.

Was there any specific project or experience that really helped you get ready for this job?

It was the motorsports team for sure. I learned time management and fundamentals of working with materials. I had to draw on things that I learned in class to apply them to something real. Even though it was outside the classroom, I had to apply everything I learned in the curriculum. But my interest in cars and time with the motorsports team wasn’t the only reason GM hired me. When we are recruiting, we really look for passion about applying engineering in any capacity—any type of internship or previous experience, even in labs or extracurricular projects…anything really. If we can tell a candidate is passionate about what they were doing in applying their knowledge, that is an ideal candidate for us.

Outside of Duke Motorsports, was there any particular class that you remember that helped you?

Senior year there was a fall senior design course. It focused on the design of, for example, a bolt. Why is it sized the way it is? How many threads per inch do you need? We learned in class about materials science, and we learned about its properties and forces and balancing everything. But when you actually take two pieces of metal and torque it down, what are you actually doing to the bolt? It’s the application of the engineering principles that really stuck out to me, and obviously it transitioned to our senior design class, where we had to pitch our proposals, get approval, and then build our senior design project.

For me, that project was building an engine dyno—a big apparatus that we hooked our Duke Motorsports engine to so that we could tune the engine. It has these massive steel plates that absorb energy, and you basically rev it up through its RPM band. This lets you tune it, get all the fuel and timing right and get the ignition timing correct. In the end we had a really well running vehicle.

What sort of advice would you have for others at Duke who might want to go into the automotive industry?

The best thing I think you can do is get involved with something you’re passionate about. Passion is very easy to portray. It’s very easy to sniff out as a recruiter. It’s very clear when somebody is passionate and involved with something they truly love. Find your passion, find your niche, and just live it. And it’s not always about your GPA, so enjoying your time on campus is also amazingly important. I can’t stress that enough. College flies by. But if you can walk away with something you’re passionate about – a project, an extracurricular, anything– and you can walk away satisfied, then that’s the ultimate goal for college in my opinion.

For the auto industry, I think it’s to not be deterred about not having automotive experience or not knowing that much about cars. The way we work at GM is we look at things from a subsystem component level and build it up into larger and larger systems and eventually the whole car. You don’t have to understand the big picture to be really good at designing a component or working with a specific subsystem. That’s what Duke does best. We’re taught the fundamentals, the first principles, and we can apply it in any type of project that’s thrown our way.