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March 1, 2017

Adelaide exports: Coco Wong at Tesla

When Elon calls, you answer.

  • Words: Johnny von Einem

Regular visitors to CityMag’s digital domain will know our city is full of ambitious and headstrong individuals.

Whether they’re opening restaurants, making things, writing and performing Fringe shows, or creating a culture, Adelaide is teeming with people working to build our reputation as a living, thriving city.

Still though, every once in a while we lose some of our best and brightest, and in the case of Adelaide export Coco Wong, we can’t really blame her.

Armed with an Adelaide University degree in mechanical engineering and physics, Coco left her coveted post behind the bar at Udaberri for bigger and better things.

We caught up with her (via email) from her current post in Palo Alto, California, to ask what it’s like to work for the world’s most exciting tech company, Tesla.

CityMag: What is your role at Tesla and what did you study to make you qualified for that job?

Coco Wong: I’m an Engineering Program Manager, working on design of residential storage systems. I studied a double degree in Mechanical Engineering and Physics – the technical background and teamwork skills gained during these degrees are what qualified me for the job.


CM: What was your experience of studying at Adelaide Uni?

CW: In general, I loved it; Adelaide provides the perfect lifestyle for a student. My favourite subjects were the theory-heavy topics, but the engineering degree at Adelaide Uni promotes group work and leadership in course work from first year onwards – which can be tiresome at times but encourages you to get to know your fellow students over the years and pays off in preparation for employment.


CM: Can you take me through your career trajectory from graduating uni, finding work in your field, and then how you came to work at Tesla?

CW: Before finishing uni I was lucky to have had two opportunities for internships, the first at an engineering consultancy in Singapore, the second at Santos in Adelaide. For my honours project in my final year of study I helped to form the first solar car team from Adelaide Uni to enter into the World Solar Challenge – a solar car race from Darwin to Adelaide that is held every two years. From finishing uni, I started work at BP Australia in Melbourne as a Graduate Mechanical Engineer, where I did a mixture of project management and refinery operations roles. Meanwhile, I was still involved with the completion of the solar car and participated in the race in October 2015. At the finish line back in Adelaide I met some Australian Tesla employees that had previously been in the competition and shared my passion for growing the sustainable energy industry. About a year later following a successful referral process and many long interviews, I came to San Francisco to start working at Tesla.


CM: Was working at a company like Tesla ever a goal for you?

CW: When I was in my early days of uni, I had dreamed of working in renewable energy – but towards the end of my degree facing the dwindling industry and low rates of employment for engineering graduates those dreams were almost snuffed out.


CM: Can you describe the feeling of your first day at the company?

CW: Daunting but exciting – sort of like vague memories of your first day at school.


CM: What are the job prospects like for someone in your field in Adelaide?

CW: Unfortunately, not great. Five years ago graduates could walk out of uni into employment but now most of my engineering peers have moved interstate or overseas to find work as the state suffers from the crash of the resources and manufacturing industry, and there is a lack of investment in R&D.


CM: What could happen here in Adelaide to keep people like yourself in the city (at least until Elon Musk calls)?

CW: Capital industry investment or government-funded scientific research that would provide significant employment for young scientists/engineers.


CM: Are there parallels between Adelaide and where you’re situated in the States?

CW: Well, it’s a very similar climate (heaps of gum trees) and both have wine country. There’s also a lot of Australians here, big cafe culture and trendy small bars, but the number of young people employed in tech, and the pace at which things move compared with back home is a stark contrast.


CM: What has been the most satisfying event or day you’ve had at Tesla so far?

CW: The first day back at the office in Palo Alto, feeling like I’d really delivered progress after spending a long but successful 3 weeks on a work trip to China within my first 2 months at the company.

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