Will Dickson ’14 has parked General Motors’ first self-driving vehicle, the Cruise AV, on campus and invited MIT students to think flexibly about its design opportunities. “You are future engineers and thought leaders in the area of new machines,” he says. “How do you design future vehicles like this one better for a safe and autonomous experience?”
Fostering innovative thinking is at the heart of Dickson’s career as an innovation champion for General Motors on campus. Dickson bridges the gap between GM’s advanced engineering teams and students on campus by creating opportunities to work on technical problems together. He recruits students, builds partnerships, and scours the MIT startup community and beyond for collaborations both unconventional and fitting.
“I pride myself on attempting nontraditional things and pulling in tons of stakeholders. I am the person trying something first and clearing out the hurdles and blazing new trails,” says Dickson, who studied materials science and engineering at MIT and during graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley before joining GM and thriving in a series of positions, including currently as innovation champion within iHub, General Motors’ innovation incubator and consultancy.
Among other things, Dickson is transcending traditional corporate engagement in higher education with its heavy reliance on job fairs and research sponsorship. He’s instead focusing his energy, which is described as engaging and dogged, on working with students, faculty, and administrators within some of MIT’s most innovative programs.
Real projects and real machines
MIT’s new project-centric cross-departmental program, the New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET), launched as a pilot last year and is redefining engineering education, says Dickson. Its hands-on focus on applying fundamental and systems engineering to real-world projects inspired General Motors to sponsor NEET’s project thread on “Autonomous Machines” this fall. (There are now over 120 sophomores and juniors in this and the other three NEET threads: Clean Energy Systems; Advanced Materials Machines; and Living Machines.)
“I’m excited for you to be exposed to real projects that our engineers are kicking around and looking for a new perspective on,” says Dickson to NEET students in a pizza-filled classroom near the autonomous test vehicle parked outside. “We’re going to bring engineering leaders to campus to see you in action. To see you working on projects. To see you doing stuff in teams. To interact with you.”
One of Dickson’s talents involves helping other young people with engineering backgrounds bridge the gap between technical expertise and creative and meaningful application in industry. “It’s not just about being the smartest person in the room,” he tells the rapt students.
“It’s about who can let the other people talk when they need to. Who can lead? Who can be a great project manager? Who can communicate their technical findings to people without the same background as you? Who can identify the right problem to be solving?”
At 6 feet 8 inches, Dickson towers over most of the young people in the room. He speaks to them with friendly confidence and a level of industry knowledge that sets him apart despite the slim difference in age between he and them.
“Will engages with students in such a personable manner,” whispers NEET’s executive director Amitava "Babi" Mitra as he watches Dickson from the back of the classroom. “As an MIT alum, he’s passionate about NEET. He wants to do right by MIT and by GM,” says Mitra, describing Dickson as instrumental in securing the new sponsorship from GM and in working closely with NEET to help create project and other opportunities for NEET students. He adds with a smile: “Will may look a little intimidating at that height but he’s extremely approachable.”
Making spots at GM
MIT student Sebastian Uribe knows Dickson’s mentorship is of great impact. Last winter, Uribe was among four winners of a hackathon organized by Dickson and sponsored by GM during Independent Activities Period (IAP) this past January. He and his teammates earned a summer internship that involved automating complex test protocols, working with engineers on autonomous vehicles, and with sensors, Super Cruise, and other innovations.
Now Uribe is enrolled in the “Autonomous Machines” thread of the NEET program. Today Dickson shares the second-year student’s success story with others in the room as a kind of lesson in nontraditional learning and networking. “Sebastian here had an internship with us this past summer,” says Dickson with a smile toward Uribe in the second row.
“At a career fair, we wouldn’t have looked at Sebastian. There are just too many people — but Sebastian and his team killed it during our inaugural BlacktopBuild during IAP.”
Dickson tells the room that during the hackathon, he shared a real engineering problem with students in a tent built in a parking lot at MIT in the middle of a New England winter, which resulted in powerful solutions that were well-received by engineering leaders within GM.
“Leaders at GM wanted this team to come back for an internship,” says Dickson. “GM created spots out of nothing for them — outside of the ordinary process — which I think is wild.” Then Dickson pauses for impact and adds, “After the fact, I was like, “Oh, by the way, they’re freshmen.” The classroom fills with laugher and a sense of promise.
Popular mentor and role model
“Will knows his way around MIT and has positively influenced my professional career,” says Uribe in a later interview. He says networking as a first-year student was “very much a nervous, sweaty-hands environment” but Dickson’s advice made him “far more confident in a professional space.”
Today Uribe describes Dickson as a friend. “Will encourages me to build a network in which I can actively reach out and share thoughts and ideas just as he does,” says Uribe. “It wasn’t difficult to get along with Will. He is very social and outgoing and inspiring.”
Dickson’s high energy is the first quality that comes to mind for Jinane Abounadi, executive director of MIT Sandbox, which opens pathways for student innovators by connecting them with educational experiences, mentoring, and funding.
Dickson played an important role in signing up GM as a sponsor of Sandbox and has been an important connection to all the teams looking to develop technologies with relevance to the automotive industry, she says. He held workshops providing important perspectives for students on how a big company like GM works with suppliers and on the process of innovation that he’s been a champion for at GM. He mentored dozens of Sandbox teams and plays an important role in providing a deep understanding of real-world problems to the teams.
“It is quite impressive that Will is able to play the leadership role within GM at such a young professional age,“ says Abounadi. “He’s able to create meaningful connections between GM and MIT students, developing a nice model for direct industry engagement with students and faculty. Adds Mitra, “Will is truly the consummate engineer and people person.”