Jim Zondag – This Is How I Work

Jim Zondag – This Is How I Work

It has been a long time since the last How I Work article has come out, so we’re coming back with with Jim Zondag from FRC team 33, a veteran mentor who has been in FRC since 1998. In this interview, he talks about how his interest in STEM at a young age inspired him to pursue a career in engineering, which led him to join FRC. He joined the Killer Bees in their early years and has become an integral part of the team since. Read more about his amazing stories and advice from his many years in FRC, and learn how a veteran mentor works!

[Responses from August 28, 2015]

Name: Jim Zondag

CD Username: Jim Zondag
Current Gig/Job: Apps
Development Manager – Chrysler Uconnect System
Alma Mater/Degree: Oakland
University – Master of Science – Electrical Engineering – Calvin College –
Bachelor of Science – Electrical Engineering
Current Team(s): FRC team 33 The Killer Bees
Former Team(s): None
Location: Auburn
Hills, Mi
Hobbies: Robotics,
Woodworking, Electronics, Programming, Reading and anything that involves
Making or Learning; preferably both.

What inspired you to do what you
do? Tell us a story.
I have always had a love of
machines and how things work. I spent my youth fixing, building and rebuilding
bikes, lawnmowers, stereos, motorcycles, farm equipment, cars, and anything
else I could find with my brothers. When I was a young, I had a mentor. He had
a lifetime of experience and from my young perspective, he had an almost
inhuman ability to fix or build anything almost effortlessly. I found this to
be very inspirational. He taught me many things about tools use, mechanics,
internal combustion, electricity and many other subjects. He did this for no
reason other than I asked, and he was always there to help. Because of his
teaching, at a young age I found myself far ahead of many of my peers in my
ability to build, fix and understand machines. This inspiration and confidence
led me to become who I am today. I always figured that I would want to do the
same favor for others someday if I had the chance. A few years after I became a
professional, I found FIRST Robotics, and it was a natural fit for me. It has
become a way of life for me.
What is your day job, and how’d you
get there?
I have a really cool job. I am the
Apps Development Manager for Chrysler Uconnect Systems. Basically, my group
takes a lot of the cool stuff that you have on your smartphone, tablet or
laptop, and we figure out how to integrate this into your car. Pandora Music,
Google Search, Siri, you name it. This is very high tech, very fast-paced, and
very challenging work. I have a great staff of young engineers who make all of
this possible. We work with Google, Apple, Sprint, QNX, and lots of other
technology companies every day on these projects. We make cool, awesome stuff
like this:

or this 


I am a farm kid from Ontario, Canada.
I have always loved cars, and I always wanted to design vehicles of some kind
when I grew up. I worked hard and got good grades in high school. I was
fortunate enough to get a scholarship from my church which allowed me to go to
the U.S. for college, where I majored in Electrical Engineering. I landed a job
at Chrysler in vehicle engineering shortly after graduation, which was pretty
much a dream come true for me. I have spent my career in a variety of EE roles
in vehicle design, mostly in embedded systems and software design. Electronics
have evolved tremendously over these years and there are always new
technologies to learn. My current job is fast, fun, and very technical.
What is your favorite story to tell
about robotics?
I have many, here is an early one:
I joined our team in its 3rd year of existence for the 1998 season.
Our team was not very capable back then. We did not really design things; we
just built things. This sort of worked, but was chaotic. I found this rather
odd, but I was the new guy and initially I was just trying to figure this whole
FIRST thing out. Somehow I ended up being the competition coach. Our machine
did not perform very well, and the student drivers were frustrated by this. We
made the most of what we had, but were clearly a second class team compared to
a few others around us. We went to the CMP, did fairly well, but were
eliminated in the quarterfinals. Later, we were watching the semifinals and
Team 67 was playing. HOT had a very capable robot that year, and they drove it
very well. I commented about some of the design features of their machine to
one of my fellow mentors. He replied with, “Our team could never build a robot
like that.” I was surprised by this and when I asked him why, he really had no
good answer other than we were simply not that good, and probably never would
be. I took as somewhat of a personal challenge. The following year, I revamped
our entire design process, and led a large percentage of the robot build
effort. We were an actual contender in 1999 and have improved our process every
year since. The moral of this story: “Don’t let your perceptions limit your
reality. Anything is possible if you make a plan and find a way to execute it. “
What’s your favorite robot that you
didn’t help build?
There have been lots of great
robots over the years, but I think 254 really set a new standard this year with
Barrage. I had the privilege of getting to play with the Poofs in Elims at the
CMP way back in 2001, and I was impressed by their machine already then. Every
year since they build a machine that is capable, efficient, and beautiful. They
set the benchmark for all of us, and in 2014, they certainly outdid even
themselves. I particularly like the fact that this robot did not take advantage
of any chokehold approach; it simply outperformed us all through excellent
design and execution. Very impressive.
What apps/software/tools can’t you
live without? (Work/Robotics/Home)
I love cloud services; anything
which allows high accessibility and is device agnostic. I love streaming music,
my eBook library, Dropbox, Flickr, and I find Google Docs indispensable. I also
use CAD extensively for many things, robotic and otherwise, and I think
learning to design in 3D is one of the most empowering skills I have ever
learned. I like Inventor and Solidworks, and I use them somewhat
I really don’t use social media
much. I think it is an enormously powerful thing, but it is also the most
distracting thing that mankind has ever created. I use all social media
sparingly, even CD.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I love workshops. I have many and I
seem to build them wherever I go. I am not a great multi-tasker and I find that
I can best focus my attention if I have environments dedicated to specific
tasks. If I go into my shops, I work on the things I built them for until I
leave. Even though I am a software guy, I have a lot of mechanical shop spaces.
I have about 6 shops in my current life:
 I have a garage bay at my
home which is a setup as a woodshop. I like to make things out of wood and I
make stuff all the time there. I build cabinets, furniture, and lots of other
items for my never ending home renovation projects.

I have a small electronics/metal
shop in my basement. I make smaller, less messy items there. Lately I have been
into desktop manufacturing, and I have a small 3 axis CNC mill that I built
with my son this summer and we have been learning to use it.
I have a dedicated robotics machine
shop at the Chrysler Tech Center. It is not real big, but it is perfect for us.
We build all of the Killer Bees Robots here and we have all the machine tools
we need to do what we do. We gradually upgrade our equipment as we find
decommissioned machines throughout the complex. 
I have a dedicated robotics
computer room at the Chrysler Tech Center. I had an unused copy/vending alcove
converted into a private lab. We got about a dozen computers from corporate IT
and set up a central server. We do all of our CAD, Website, programming,
Graphics and media stuff in this space.
I have a really cool electronics
area at work where my work team does our product development. We have test
benches, simulators, lots and lots of test equipment, and over 100 smartphones
and mobile devices. 
I have a small woodshop at my
church. For the past 13 years, I have taught a weekly shop class for the 1st through 5th graders at my church. We make
birdhouses, stepstools, pinewood derby cars, and all sorts of crafty things. I
believe that everyone should learn to make things with their own hands, and
starting young is the key to a lifetime of making.
What do you listen to while you

I prefer mostly stuff from the
Hardrock/Heavy Metal category. Old, new, from Foghat to Five Finger Death
Punch. Anything with a hard driving beat is good background music while I work
or drive (and much of my real work is driving). Metalworking and Metallica just
naturally go together. AC/DC and Android are also a great combo. 
What’s your schedule like during
build season?
We put in a lot of time. I am kind
of an obsessive person, and I am at almost every session. I am usually the
first one there and the last to leave. I pretty much work on robotics every
single day from Jan 1 – to May 1. My typical weekday I will put in 5-7 hours in
the evening, and then we will do about 12 hours on most Saturdays. We never
have official meetings on Sundays, but I started a tradition of “Software
Sundays” years ago where I work on CAD, Programming, Analysis, Scouting,
Program Management, whatever, at home. Others sometimes join me, and a lot of
online sharing occurs. These sessions allow me to focus on design and details
without having to manage a large group of kids. Once the robots are done at the
end of Feb., we have scheduled practice daily for 2-3 hours until the CMP is
over. On weekends when my team is not competing, I will MC or game announce at
other District events and VEX events. It is kind of crazy, but I love it, and
it has become a way of life.
What everyday thing are you better
at than anyone else?
One of my strengths is managing
chaos. I work best under pressure and I seem to be drawn to projects which have
high degrees of complexity and high degrees of risk (Probably why I enjoy FIRST
J). I like to take on programs which are a complete mess and figure out how to
make them successful. I seem to be a sucker for punishment in this area, but I
definitely have a strong sense of accomplishment as a result. I have created
some very cool stuff in my life, worked on some really great teams, and on many
award winning vehicle programs.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Don’t be afraid to ask for what
you want.” Never assume that people will know what you want if you don’t tell
them. This applies to everyone, your boss, parents, professors, spouse,
roommate, children, everyone. Too many people never ask for what they really
want, and spend much of their life waiting for things that will never happen as
a result.
What is your favorite guilty
Reading. I know this sounds lame,
but I have a very busy life, and I am usually completely booked for almost
every waking hour of every day. Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed, I just put
everything on hold for an hour and read something off my reading list. It is
sometimes refreshing to be deliberately non-productive and mentally reset. I am
a big fan of short form science fiction, and my reading wish list is very long. 
Fill in the blank. I’d love to see   Brandon Holly (125)   answer
these same questions.
Anything else you want people to
know about you?
I could not do most of what I do
without the support of my wife, Lorianne. She is simply the best.
“There go my people. I must follow
them, for I am their leader.” – Gandhi