A Minor Detour from Detroit to Deutschland

By: Ryan Sparks

Observe, Analyze, Decide and Act. Systematic decision making is the most important skill I took away

from studying IE. Whether it’s linear programming or choosing your next career move, the core thought
process remains unchanged. Identify your goals, adapt for your constraints, and find the optimal
solution. In theory, this is simple and direct, but in the real world it is a dynamic process that must be
repeated continuously as new information and opportunities become available.

Growing up in metro Detroit, my future seemed clear as I started college. I would get a degree in
engineering, find a job in the auto industry and then try to work my way up the ladder from there. It’s
laughable as I look back at how naïve, narrow minded, and uninformed I was back then. Less than 2
years later, on the coat-tails of the financial crisis, I looked on in disbelief as the auto industry in Detroit
collapsed, and the job perspectives following graduation seemingly disappeared. That was a major
turning point for me. It was then that I decided to do something different and unique to bolster my
resume as well as keep my automotive dream alive. With heavy course loads in the winter and spring
semester I could graduate a year early but I wanted to do something more. I debated between going
to grad school and working abroad while I was waiting for responses to my applications, constantly
evaluating the expectations, costs, requirements and benefits of each. The debate continued after
being accepted to both programs, but fast cars, no speed limits, beer festivals and traveling beat out
exams, student loans and pulling all-nighters. Less than a month after graduating, I was on a flight to
Germany.

As one of seventy-five Americans in the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals, I
completed two months of intensive language training, a semester at a German university and finally a 6-
month internship. I was able to land an internship with Daimler at their world headquarters in Stuttgart,
and this by far was the most difficult aspect of the program. I must admit I could have done more to
master the language in the first 6 months, but language was not the only barrier to a smooth transition
into a foreign workplace. What you can’t learn in a text book is how people interact with one another
on a day to day basis. Most differences, in comparison to workplace behavior/culture in the US are
minor, but there was still a steep learning curve. One of the biggest problem areas was my age. Due
to differences in the education systems, at 21 most German students would just be completing their
second year of university. After hearing statements like “your degree must not be valuable because
you’re too young to graduate” I learned to avoid the questions when asked, or round up by a year…
or three. Every time I became frustrated with the situation, I remembered a line that the program
coordinator shared with the group on our first day in Germany: “It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just
different”.

The greatest take-away from the experience for me was realizing that I needed to find a job where I
would be challenged daily, continuously learn about new topics, and most importantly travel. I could
not see myself taking a job where I would be in the same office working on the same topics for 3-5
years. I decided to pursue either consulting or a rotational program and after returning home I took
a job with a German-American consulting firm, P3 North America, which focuses on the automotive
sector. In less than 2 years I have worked on projects in the areas of product strategy, development,

quality, launch, manufacturing and after-sales and just recently transferred from the Detroit office
to Stuttgart, Germany. All of these opportunities would not be possible had I not stepped out of my
comfort zone three years ago. In addition to pursuing my career interests, living here gives me the
opportunity to travel to new countries and experience new cultures on the weekend. Detroit is still
my home, and I do still hope to work for the Big 3 someday, but for now, I’m happy with the 4,000 mile
detour.

As a relatively young professional, I think it’s important to explore different areas of your field, to make
sure you have the right fit before you begin to deep dive into one specific area. Living and working
abroad is not for everyone, and others may have the grades and experience to not have to worry about
standing out from the crowd. For me though, it was the best decision I ever made and I continue to
reap the benefits. In the end, you’re the only one who can decide what’s best for you, but it never hurts
to explore new opportunities.

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