In the first of a series of interviews, we talk to Saul Lopez, Technical Assistant to Airbus CTO Paul Eremenko, about what it is like working as part of a multicultural, multinational team that is building the future of flight. He joined the company in October 2016, moving from Google in Silicon Valley to Toulouse.
Can we start with a bit of background, where are you from, how old are you?
My parents are from Guatemala but I was born in Los Angeles. I’m 25 years old, and I have two brothers, one younger, one older and an older sister.
Before you joined Airbus you were at Google, what were you doing there?
I was a mechanical design engineer in a really small team for a modular, mobile computing device called Project Ara, which was basically a modular smartphone.
Paul Eremenko was the Project Executive when I started and we worked together for about nine months before he moved to A3 and then on to Airbus to become CTO.
I stayed at Google for about two years and got a chance to work on the entire product development process: everything from working with design teams in Taiwan on the conceptual design of the new mechanism and then all the way through to engineering verification, manufacturing runs in China–going out on the factory floor to watch them assemble the first test units. It was really exciting.
Unfortunately, the project never saw the light of day in terms of being able to be sold in consumer stores, but we were really close before they pulled the plug on it.
How did it benefit your career ambitions?
The project operated very much like a startup. The organisation itself was a special one called Advanced Technologies and Projects headed by Regina Dugan. She used to head DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and she applied a lot of the same kind of methodologies at Google.
The teams were small and we had a lot of responsibility. We had great mentors, who would walk you through things, make sure you were always being pushed.
I learned a lot in that role, and if I hadn’t come to Airbus, I probably would have stayed in the consumer electronics industry because it moves very fast; it’s very exciting and popular sector in Silicon Valley.
You also participated in a startup before you joined Google. How did that come about?
It started with a few of my classmates at Stanford after a NASA engineer came to pitch a project in which they were looking for a way to modify 3D printed parts to be able to use them in high strength-to-weight structural applications and push the boundaries of inexpensive 3D printing to put them into field use.
Moving to the aerospace sector after Google was a significant change of direction – what was it that appealed to you about joining Airbus?
Airbus is trying to dramatically change the way the company does breakthrough technology development. For example, the two areas that I am focusing on are Urban Air Mobility and the Digital Factory, where we are trying to redesign the entire product development process so we can shrink the time it takes from starting to design a new aircraft to when it hits the market or gets certified.
I thought that the goals for the organisation were incredibly ambitious. There was a risk that we weren’t going to be able to do it but if we did, it could have a tremendous impact on the entire industry. I think what helped was that the executive leadership has a great attitude towards change.
For such a large company, which is so well established, to have an executive leadership who are pushing the organisation to change, to improve, and to think about the future in this very serious way–that was really motivating.
Plus it’s in the south of France, that didn’t hurt! So I dropped everything, packed up my bags and moved to Toulouse.
If you were talking to a friend who was thinking about moving jobs, how would you describe working for Airbus?
I think that I had a few misconceptions about Airbus before I joined. The first was that it is an old company and the people were kind of jaded. That’s very much not the case.
People are very passionate about what they do here. They’re passionate about the aircraft industry and aerospace in general. There are a lot of pilots in the company, for example. A lot of people are geeks about the different products we have. It’s a great environment to be in for someone who is an engineer.
What’s your working day like?
In the CTO office, we plan our day-to-day activities only two weeks ahead because things change so frequently. Things change just about every day but you have to get used to it because it’s the nature of the job.
The cool thing about Airbus is that we’re a very international company. If you like traveling, there are a opportunities to do so. You get to work in teams that are very multicultural, multinational and that’s exciting as well. You get to learn about different cultures and see how different people work. I like that aspect.
The other surprising thing is that I thought there might be more resistance to change but people actually care a lot about Airbus. They know that it’s in the company’s best interest to make some organisational changes or technology development methodology changes.
Although the CTO office is a little bit different, I think that people are very excited about the potential they see and are very motivated to work with us. We try to move at a different time scale than most of the company and that sometimes that can create a bit of healthy tension.
For example, we have developed our own processes–our exponential organisation has its own legal and financial structures that allow us to work within Airbus but a little bit off to the side so that we can go at a faster pace.
How are you finding living in France and Toulouse in particular?
I love it. I was in an Airbnb for about a month before I settled on an apartment. People in the office helped me find a place in a quarter called Carmes, which is a great area at the heart of the city. There are lots of little places you can go to, restaurants, bars, and it’s very lively.
Toulouse is an interesting dichotomy because it’s a picturesque ancient town but it’s a young city too. There’s a lot of universities around here as well as a big Airbus presence.
What I really like is that on the weekends I can go snowboarding. In L.A. it’s really hard to do but in Toulouse, you drive around an hour and a half and you hit the Pyrenees. You can also go to Spain or Andorra… there are so many places to explore.
I am really enjoying it and trying to make the most of it on the weekends. I’ve even been to a rugby game to see the Toulouse team. It was really fun… unfortunately they lost that day but still a good game. Great energy in the crowd.
There are so many other things do… wine tasting or visiting cities nearby such as Madrid. I lived in Barcelona for three months and studied in Madrid for six months when I was in college. I really like Spain and can’t wait for the summer to go to the beaches and some other cities in Europe. Toulouse is really fun. Actually, it’s a little distracting from work!
If that sounds exciting to you, why not work with us and be part of the teams that are building the future of flight?