Name: David Penner
Age: 24 years old
Dream Career: F1 Aerodynamicist
PLEASE INTRODUCE YOURSELF:
Hi, I’m David Penner! I’m a 24 year old student from Canada that recently graduated from the University of Manitoba with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and am midway through my masters at the University of Toronto, where I’m doing research in CFD Methods. I have a passion for Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and Aerodynamics, and one day hope to apply that as an F1 Aerodynamicist!
TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY SO FAR:
My journey began when I joined the Formula SAE team during my 2nd year of undergrad, something I wish I had done earlier. I was introduced to it by a friend who talked about all the great experience he was getting, so I decided to jump on it. After choosing the electric vehicle (EV) team over the combustion vehicle (CV) team, I ended up in the Frame & Body section, where I was responsible for a panel on the side of the car that held a bunch of buttons and switches. I took care of that job, showed up for manufacturing sessions here and there, but otherwise I wasn’t too active of a member.
In my 3rd year of undergrad, my section lead had assigned me to look into putting wings on the car, something which involved learning CFD to perform the aerodynamics simulations. When I first started playing with CFD, I was blown away by: a) the pretty pictures, and b) the ability to simulate how air will move around something. In my previous years of university, I had always thought that these types of engineering simulations (stress, thermal, fluids) were super neat, but had never actively pursued them. Now that I was doing them for myself, that interest came back in full force. With this new tool to explore the world, I ended up doing a number of various simulation projects to see if I could find out how something works and to explore more advanced simulations, something which still motivates a lot of the projects I work on.
With my new role in FSAE, I became a lot more engaged in the team since the only good computer I could access was in the team’s design lounge. I’d spend about 1-2 hours every day doing the tutorials for our CFD software, giving me the reputation as the “CFD guy” in the team. As I started to hang out in the design lounge more, I became a lot more exposed to Formula 1 through the team’s culture. Formula 1 (or even motorsport in general) doesn’t have mainstream popularity throughout Canada, so this was the first time I’ve been in an environment where F1 was talked about regularly. With this exposure came interest, and with a little help from the YouTube algorithm (due to all the FSAE and aerodynamics videos I’ve been watching), I started to follow the 2017 F1 season through the race highlights videos.
Come the start of my 4th year of undergrad, the Aerodynamics Lead for the CV team had disappeared, leading to me, the only ‘CFD guy’ across the SAE teams, switching from the EV team to the CV team. The aerodynamics weren’t great, and the documentation was non-existent, which meant I needed to rebuild the entire section of the team, which is exactly what I started doing. To sum up years 4-6 of my undergrad, I did a lot of FSAE, a lot of CFD, and became an increasingly larger fan of F1 (let’s just say it takes dedication for me to wake up at 7AM to watch the race on Sundays).
Up until the last semester of my undergrad I had never considered working in F1 as a possibility, as I only knew of one person from our FSAE team to do so in the last decade. It just didn’t seem in the cards for me, having no relevant experience, and not having a degree that any team would pay attention to. What changed my mindset was the result of my search for a grad school, and for an internship to fill the gap between degrees. I had applied to a bunch of places, gotten a bit of interest, but never expected to end up with offers for an Aerodynamics internship with Tesla, or entrance into a funded MASc program at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies. Up until then those were some pretty big names for me, and it was a pipe dream to ever get into either one, so ending up with those two dream offers made me start to think “hey, maybe F1 is a possibility for me after all?”.
My time at Tesla unfortunately coincided with the initial wave of the pandemic, leaving me stuck in Winnipeg to work from home instead of getting the full experience of working for Tesla. Thankfully, working from home doesn’t change who my coworkers are, and being able to work with some great engineers was one thing I was most looking forward to. My team had two other members, both of which were great aerodynamicists, especially my manager/mentor who had completed a bit over three years as an Aerodynamicist at Mercedes F1 before joining Tesla. His guidance had a big impact on me over the summer; I had learned some important aerodynamics, built up confidence in my ability, and learned what an excellent leader looks like. Another thing I learned is what it’s like to work in that kind of environment; fast paced, demanding, but highly rewarding. I had really thrived in this setting, and it made me all the more excited about a career in F1, to the point of deciding to set my sights solely on pursuing a career in F1.
After I finished my internship with Tesla, I moved to Toronto to start my Masters, which I’m currently halfway through. Rather than aerodynamics, my coursework and research is on CFD theory and methodology, with the goal of gaining a more fundamental understanding of the tools I’ll be using in the future. Outside of research, I’m continuing progress as an aerodynamicist through personal projects, and continued involvement with Formula SAE. Being a mentor within the FSAE aerodynamics section has been a great way to pass on some of the things I’ve learned, as well as learn new things through some of the projects I’ve been leading.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE SO FAR WITH REGARDS TO PURSUING YOUR DREAM CAREER?
I think my biggest challenges at the moment are geographical ones. Being a Canadian with only Canadian degrees, I’m currently a bit outside of the standard applicant pool and sphere of connections. I’ve heard some people in F1 say that teams want the best of the best from around the world, but I’ve also heard people say that you won’t be considered if you’re outside of a handful of UK universities. Even after being considered, there comes the issue of Visas, and I’m not certain on whether teams will go to that extent or not. My plan with this is to pursue a PhD in the UK, which will give me a fighting chance to get noticed by teams, and give me a few more important years to let me continue growing my skill set.
WHAT DO YOU DO FOR EXTRA CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES TO HELP YOU HAVE THE BEST CHANCE OF WORKING IN F1
Without question, Formula SAE, and student teams in general. When you get an engineering degree by itself, you’re getting mostly classwork experience, and a bit of lab/project work, but it’s mostly a theoretical background so that you’re ready to be trained in the workplace. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this approach, I think it’s missing two big things: the first is that you’re not always able to get experience with the topics/specialties you’re interested in, and the second is that companies will prefer candidates who already have experience with the real-world engineering process. This is where student teams come in, for example, I’ve been able to learn as much (if not more) about CFD/Fluids/Aerodynamics through my time in Formula SAE than I have in my classwork, and I’ve been able to gain important real-world experience regarding design-for-manufacture, budgeting, setting timelines for the design/manufacture/test cycle, and how to lead a team.
Most importantly, student teams allow you to find something you enjoy doing, and a platform to get good at it. Without FSAE I never would have found what I love to do, and I have no idea where I’d be without it.
ANY WORK EXPERIENCE YOU MAY HAVE DONE?
The first two internships I had were with Price Industries in Winnipeg, which is a large provider of HVAC products for the North American market. I had known they were one of the few companies in Winnipeg doing CFD, so I went to an open house held by Price, found the headshot of the CFD Manager on LinkedIn, and hunted him down. From there I just conversed with him, learned about what he did, showed him what I was doing on FSAE, got his card, set up an interview, and got the job. Working at Price Industries was a great opportunity to get some industry CFD experience, work on a variety of projects to broaden my exposure to different fluids-related devices, and to build an understanding of writing engineering reports for a more general audience.
My next internship was with Tesla, which I actually started the hiring process for in the summer prior to the internship. I had given my resume to a SpaceX recruiter at FSAE-Lincoln 2019, had them forward it to a Tesla recruiter, and kept in contact with Tesla until I had my interview for the internship. Building on what I’ve already said about this internship, I was able to gain some great experience with working in a fast paced environment, and with how to work and negotiate with other teams working on the car to make the best product we can.
One important piece of advice for getting internships is to not give up when a company isn’t responding to you. With both companies I’ve been hired by, there were some lapses in communication that were delaying the hiring process, and I’m not the type to sit idle and accept that. Whenever I didn’t receive an email within a week of my emailing them (or by whenever they said they would contact me), I’d email again and make sure I wasn’t forgotten about. If HR is hard to get a hold of, I get a hold of an engineer from the team on LinkedIn (which is generally what you want to do anyway). Keep up the contact until you get a definitive answer on your status.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO FUTURE STUDENTS?
Summarizing the things that have helped me most, you should first and foremost join an engineering design team! I recommend Formula SAE, but other teams may suit you better depending on the opportunity for leadership and specific projects of interest. Don’t wait until your 2nd year of university to join the team, it’s best to learn how to balance school and FSAE earlier and gain another year of experience in the process. After joining, be an active member to gain the most benefit from being on the team, this will lead to better projects to work on, and more opportunity for leadership.
If you find a specialty that you like, focussing on it will allow you to be a preferred candidate for relevant jobs, this can let you get into companies that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to as a ‘general’ engineer. Don’t be afraid to spend money to pursue this specialty, whether it’s buying a 3D printer, workstation computer, or electronic components for a project, the benefits you gain from these will cover their cost in terms of career advancement.
If you have a project you’re proud of, show it off on LinkedIn. Advertising yourself is a great way to build connections and receive opportunities, and I’ve had a few job leads come directly as a result of this. These projects should also be compiled into a personal portfolio/website for you to show off during the hiring/interview process, being able to talk about what you know most will make you look good to your potential employers.
Finally, be sure to network. There’s no magic to it, it’s just as simple as striking up a conversation with someone and leaving an impression of what you can do. At an FSAE event? Talk with the other aerodynamics leads and whatever recruiters and sponsors are around. At a company’s open-house for recruitment? Actually talk to the engineers there. After that, follow up with a LinkedIn connection so you can stay in touch, these connections will lead to opportunities in the future.
Renders for an SAE publication
Connect with David on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidpenner96/
Formula Careers on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGpWS1pBpC6oHVjubZvCT0A
Formula Careers Student Support Group: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8961665/
Support the Formula Careers Project: https://www.patreon.com/louisemcgrath