How I Got Here: Episode #5
Product Design Engineer at Apple
Since he was in college, Zach Scott always dreamed of working for Apple – but it took a winding path over many years to finally end up there. As a mechanical engineer, Zach interned for SpaceX as a student, before joining a small startup after school, where he experienced the rapid, “wear-many-hats” environment of an early stage company. He used that experience to springboard into a role at Formlabs designing 3D printers, which ultimately led to his current job designing iPhones at Apple, after having been rejected from the company twice previously. Zach’s healthy attitude towards putting himself out there and quickly moving on from rejection has been a strength for his ability to learn, grow, and find new opportunities. This conversation is brought to you by The Garage at Northwestern University.
Zach Scott transferred to Northwestern (https://www.northwestern.edu/) his junior year as a mechanical engineering major. During his senior year he landed an internship with SpaceX (https://www.spacex.com/) that he attributes to helping him not only gain experience but also key soft skills that would help him in all of his future jobs. Zach then applied to 89 jobs and ended up working at a startup creating custom popsicles, Pixsweet. From there he went to work for Formlabs, a company that created 3D printers where he helped with the launch of three separate products until finally he landed his dream job on the iPhone design team at Apple after being rejected from Apple twice before. Zach is a firm believer in the importance of rejection and putting one’s self out there enough to be rejected. He also has lots of great insight on how to not only make sure you have the technical skills for your dream job but also the interpersonal and soft skills that will set you apart.
Zach’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/zachary-samuel-scott/
Mike Raab (00:06):
Welcome to How I Got Here, a podcast from the garage at Northwestern exploring interesting journeys of young professionals, working at exciting companies, and the role that entrepreneurship played in getting them there. My name is Mike Raab, and I love dissecting nonlinear and non-traditional career paths and the lessons that we can all take away from those who forged them.
Mike Raab (00:24):
In this episode, I’m joined by Zach Scott, a product design engineer on the iPhone team at Apple. Zach studied Mechanical Engineering in college and scored an internship at SpaceX during his senior year. Since graduating, he has worked for a startup that made custom shape popsicles, 3D printer company form laps, and now Apple. Zach shares how entrepreneurial concepts such as finding your pitch, being ruthless at prioritization and being okay with rejection are essential for anyone looking to make the next step in their career. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Zach Scott.
Mike Raab (01:05):
Well, Zach, thanks for joining us here today. I’m super excited to hear a little bit more about your story. I thought a good place to start maybe would be if you could tell me a little bit about when you got to Northwestern, what you were studying and what you thought you wanted to do after graduation?
Zach Scott (01:21):
So I started Mechanical Engineering. And I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. But I didn’t really know what engineering was other than what I looked at it in books and seen. I’d never met a real engineer I don’t even think at that point.
Mike Raab (01:36):
Zach Scott (01:37):
So I think I thought maybe I’d go work in the Automotive Industry. That was the one thing I knew about that had to do with engineering.
Mike Raab (01:44):
Right. So your senior summer, you ended up getting an internship at SpaceX? How did that opportunity come about and how did you secure that internship?
Zach Scott (01:53):
Sure. So the way it came about was I applied after meeting people that came to Northwestern. So these two guys, plus a great recruiter, I met them at Northwestern and just tried to ask them as much questions as I could, stayed after, and ended up getting an interview. Did the design challenge, gave them some work and just decided to really spend as much time as I could over the course of whatever it was those three days. And I got really lucky and they said, they’d got an opening for a Propulsion Design intern.
Mike Raab (02:26):
And then it sounds like you spend a lot of time on the technical challenge that they gave you. How did you kind of prioritize everything you had on your plate at the time when you were trying to secure this internship?
Zach Scott (02:36):
Sure. It’s a great question. I’m laughing a little bit because I was really busy at the time and it was crazy. And now it’s an order of magnitude more work. So, I was doing a lot of stuff and ultimately what it came down to was figuring out what is going to give me the best return on my investment here. And I think entrepreneurship is a great discipline to learn skills like that because we are doing a startup, you’re working in a startup or you’re working in the garage, doing events in a startup atmosphere. There’s always 10 times more things that you can get done. And you are never going to meet a position where there’s one thing to do and you so you do it. You have to prioritize. And being ruthless, is a word I like using, being ruthless at prioritizing is how you will be able to make good decisions.
Zach Scott (03:25):
And in this case, I had a really big test the next day. And it was an important test. It wasn’t… I don’t think it was a final. It might’ve been a midterm or something like that. And I decided I was not going to study for the test. I was going to stay up all night and work on this project. And I think I did, I got 80 on the test, something. Not an amazing score, but I didn’t fail the class. But I got the internship which opened up a ton of doors. So ultimately that was a really good data point for me to just realize, “Okay. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is actually the best way to get what you want.”
Mike Raab (04:01):
Right. I love that. Ruthless prioritization. And it sounds like when a rare opportunity presents itself, just making sure to focus your energy on that. So can you tell me a little bit about the experience at SpaceX and what you learn there from either an engineering perspective, or a culture perspective, or what kind of insight did that give you into what you wanted to do in your career?
Zach Scott (04:24):
Sure. So, SpaceX if you can’t [inaudible 00:00:04:27]. It again, it’s feels like it was not that long ago, but now they’ve gone so far. I mean, when I worked there SpaceX had not landed a rocket yet, which now it’s like nothing. And I was on the propulsion design team. So what that meant was we were the engineers who designed all of the rocket ships.
Zach Scott (04:45):
I’m trying to think of how to describe my experience at SpaceX. I would say it is a theme that has come up there and also at many place afterwards is like, in the real world at these companies, you are way, way less managed than you ever think is possible. And even at school, you think you’re not managed, but you really kind of are. Like you get there and you have a manager and you have people who are there to guide you, but they’re like, here’s your project. Just work on this.
Zach Scott (05:13):
And I don’t know, I guess I can say this now, but at the time I really didn’t have any experience in Aerospace Engineering. So I had to learn. And what I found in that experience was, the best thing you can do is ask people for advice, not for help necessarily, but for advice. So find ways to find the people who are experts and know exactly what they’re doing and then use your interpersonal skills to make them want to talk to you and give you the information that will save you one month of work. And at SpaceX that was the only way that I was able to get hardware out.
Zach Scott (05:53):
But going from never having designed a real, a real mechanical component to having redesigned this, pretty high performance part in three months, just by essentially reading a bunch of stuff, try to figure it out and talking to people I think was really set me up for success in later places where I didn’t know what I was doing.
Mike Raab (06:16):
Right. I’m curious when you show up in there’s kind of less direction or instructions or management than you were expecting, and you also felt, it sounds like under-qualified to design something for a space rocket. Was there a little bit of imposter syndrome there and did completing that task help you overcome that and realize that it’s okay to feel that way?
Zach Scott (06:40):
Definitely. I mean the way I think about this is, there are some people that you’re always going to work with who are just geniuses. Like you meet these people and they have always been really smart. They are just top of the field and you’re just like, wow. These guys and girls, they’re able to just figure stuff out in a way that I would never be able to, no matter how much I worked. And that’s great, it maybe would be nice to have been born with the brain like that or whatever it is, but I’m not that person. I am not going to be the super genius who can do all the calculus and just seize it.
Zach Scott (07:15):
But what I can do is work really hard, learn from what I’m doing and constantly be utilizing other skills like prioritization, project management, my own technical engineering background, which I am definitely sufficient at and provide value in a way that just pure, smart, technical ability can’t.
Zach Scott (07:35):
And I think when you start out it’s scary because, like I said, I’m not one of those kids who was building rockets in high school and designing stuff. And SpaceX hires those people and they do great. But they also hire people like me who have a solid background, but also have a different skillset where you’re able to learn leverage, skills that are not technical engineering. And I think that’s what really helped me with kind of imposter syndrome, which I definitely had and still have. There’s a metaphor, being able to just parachute in anywhere in the metaphorical engineering world and you just survive, you figure it out. And once you start building that confidence, then things are less scary when you go into new fields because you’ve done it before.
Mike Raab (08:23):
Right. I love that. Because it’s like expanding your comfort zone so that when you face a similar situation, you have that confidence.
Zach Scott (08:29):
I would say, I wish it was like that. But it’s not expanding your comfort zone. It’s expanding the ability to get work done when you’re uncomfortable. So it’s being comfortable with ambiguity maybe is a better way or being able, I think that’s a stretch. You’re never comfortable. It’s always scary when you go in. But you can just trust that your uncomfortableness is okay and you just got to do the work and then you will start getting closer to what the finish line is.
Mike Raab (08:58):
Right. So I’m curious after SpaceX, you come back, you have another quarter or so at Northwestern. What was your job search like after you have this internship at SpaceX?
Zach Scott (09:10):
Sure. So I transferred from Rice university after two years. So I can say anybody who’s transferred, it is not easy to do. And I actually didn’t get into Northwestern my first time. So that’s another data point for definitely keep trying stuff after the first time you get rejected or fail because I am so happy that I ended up getting a Northwestern the second time. But because I was transferring from a semester school to four year school, I took an extra quarter in order to get all my stuff done. At that time, you can’t work at SpaceX if you’re out of school completely. So having the extra quarter allowed me to now get this opportunity that ended up paying off. So it really worked out.
Zach Scott (09:50):
In terms of job search, it was a little weird being off cycle where I was still working at school. But I was able to still apply for jobs during that quarter and in the end, I tried not to stress about it too much because I knew I was coming from this internship that really was built doing a good job.
Mike Raab (10:10):
Right. And so I think another benefit of having another quarter was that you actually got to experience the garage, which opened in 2015 as well. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience there, what you were working on and kind of some of your takeaways from your experience?
Zach Scott (10:26):
Sure. So what was I working on? I like came up with something, but I had no time to work on it. So I had to make sure I passed all my classes. And their thing was just kind of trying to see get as much as I could out of the garage, but also trying to contribute anything I had. And I think, I didn’t get out of, it was a startup obviously. But when I did get out of it was a network, it was kind of like my first real network. And I think just having the ability to have almost like a club that you could go to and like be around people who were like you and people would just talk.
Zach Scott (11:04):
Like I always struggled, I think in college and before it was like, I would get very excited. I want to talk about tech. I want to talk about this idea I had. And people would just be like, they wouldn’t really get it. They’re like, you’re annoying me. Like I don’t want to talk about, the latest, talk about the space shuttle or this idea for like a really dumb type of water bottle that has a spout that’s reusable, whatever.
Zach Scott (11:30):
At the garage, I was still kind of annoying to people I think, but it was like accepted that you could be excited like that. And so I think the most successful experience I got was having the ability to just kind of be myself and really flex those skills and learn more about entrepreneurship while also building up this network of incredible people that I’ve definitely come to value.
Mike Raab (11:52):
I think that’s that it took me a little longer in my career to realize is how long the people you meet early on in your career. Those are career long connections that you have. So I want to get to your first job out of school. How did you end up landing at Pixsweet and can you tell me a little bit about what it is and what you did there?
Zach Scott (12:15):
So Pixsweet is still around. It is a startup that makes custom shaped popsicles. So basically, you’re supposed to be able to send them an image and they turn it into 3D geometry, and then they make you 200 gourmet popsicles in this special packaging. And it uses this technology that this 3D printing guy developed. So this guy was a big deal in 3D printing. So I got to meet him through a connection and then he was like, “do you want job here?” I was like, “sure.” Because I had just actually gotten rejected from Apple after an in-person interview. So that was my first Apple rejection. And I think I applied some other places and didn’t really get anything.
Zach Scott (13:00):
And so it was not quite what I had in mind for the value prop, but it was a cool company. I joined it and ultimately I only stayed there for four months. So I think the story with Pixsweet was it’s not about what is the perfect place. It’s about whether or not you’re making good decisions to get you to the next spot that you want to be at or to learn something, wherever it wants.
Zach Scott (13:28):
So my goal then was, I need to get a job. I need to start building up some social capital and some human capital for my technical skills and build up some of my resume. And this place is five people. The guys, because Ryan is kind of like a crazy guy like “I like this let’s go.” And it ultimately ended up not really being what I expected in that just, it was a lot less engineering and a lot more of putting out fires.
Zach Scott (13:58):
So my point is Pixsweet, it was a startup. Didn’t stay there for very long, but while I was there, I was able to build up some more skills, make it a little bit of money, which is always nice. But most importantly, even though it was only four months, I was able to help them take this product from prototype to initial production. And that was all about the story that I could tell to my next place.
Zach Scott (14:22):
So when I was applying to Formlabs, if I had said, “yeah, you I didn’t really do anything for four months and this place was not so great. And I did some engineering, but I ended up leaving.” Their going to be like, “well, it doesn’t sound like you’re really the kind of person I want to hire.” But I told them the truth, which was, “Hey, I joined this place. I did all this crazy stuff. I learned about 3D printing because there wasn’t a lot of 3S printing that was going on. And I was able to help them take this product from prototype to initial production in four months. And then at the end of it, I decided I really wanted to get working at a company that was making hardware product that was a little more established.”
Zach Scott (14:57):
And I think what’s important maybe for students that are considering these jobs is, you really have to think about the story your telling. And it’s just like an entrepreneurship. It’s like a pitch. When you are in an interview, you are pitching yourself to this company. You are not going to do yourself any favors by giving them a ton of detail that is not telling the story you want to tell. You should absolutely never lie. You should be telling the truth, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t present yourself in the best possible light. And so you need to have integrity and actually say what you were doing, but tell a story that is going to show yourself as you deep down, hopefully know that you really are.
Mike Raab (15:36):
I couldn’t agree with you more on finding and framing your narrative and talking about what you’ve learned. But I think more importantly, why you made the decisions that you’ve made throughout your career college time to justify why you’re a good fit for the company now.
Mike Raab (15:54):
So I’d love to dive into Formlabs and hear. I think it grew a ton while you were there, right? You were there for about three years. What was the experience like working for a startup that’s kind of growing and scaling and was it messy and complicated? Was it exciting? I guess I’ll leave it there for you.
Zach Scott (16:11):
It’s all of the above. And it’s something that’s important that I learned from the garage and entrepreneurship is having retrospectives and thinking about what you have been doing and how well that has turned out, is just as important as getting the, the next task done. So learning these retros, starting the retrospectives at Northwestern, I think was really important.
Zach Scott (16:32):
And actually at Formlabs, I started doing my perspectives when I was helping do some, some product management, project leadership on a team. We did them every two weeks. The first one nobody came and it was really embarrassing for me because I tried really hard to do it.
Zach Scott (16:49):
The second time. I tell everybody that going to be gourmet donuts and beer, cider and soda, we had kegs and stuff. And if you show up, all you have to do is show up and you get free donuts. And of course it was like every person on the team came. And I started off with an activity, which was, you always have to have an activity. Bad retrospectives, it’s like write down everything you did this week and think about how it worked out. I dumped a bunch of Legos on the table and said, you have six Lego pieces. You have to build an animal that describes an emotion or something about how the last two weeks went.
Zach Scott (17:24):
And it just went from a bunch of nerdy engineers who they don’t want to talk to everybody was having a great time. And we got all this information, this data, that we never would have gotten if I had pulled together people and said, “how did this go? Do you guys have any feedback?”
Zach Scott (17:39):
And so the takeaway from that is you have to be really creative and you have to work at leadership, at being a manager, and project management. And you can’t just ask people how things are going. You have to use skills. Just like if you’re an engineer, you have to design stuff and be creative. You have to be creative as a leader or as a project manager. And that really hammered home for me.
Zach Scott (18:02):
And so if you go back to the original question, how was Formlabs? It was everything. I mean, I couldn’t even begin to describe it. I think the takeaway would be, you can never predict how anything’s going to go especially when companies are a little bit smaller like that. Formlabs had an incredible number, has an incredible number of people. That was kind of like my second network. So after leaving Formlabs, I now have dozens of fantastic men and women, engineers, recruiters, leaders that I’m able to call upon or have as friends. And I also got to work on shipping three products. So in engineering that’s really important.
Zach Scott (18:43):
And so I take away from Formlabs was, build up your network, build up my experience, learn how to be ambiguous. And then also be able to show on my resume that I was able to help ship real hardware, which in technical engineering is really important.
Mike Raab (18:58):
Right. And so you mentioned earlier, first of all, a couple of things. One, that your first application to Northwestern, you didn’t get accepted. But you would also apply it to Apple previously and you did not get hired there. So I’m curious how this time, because after Formlabs, you leave and join Apple. How did you approach trying to secure a job there?
Zach Scott (19:23):
Yeah, I did, I applied to Apple twice and got rejected twice before the third time. So it was actually two times first. It was really hard because I really wanted to work there. And each time I thought that I had the skillset. Only after each time do you look back on and say, “wow, I actually didn’t need to learn more stuff.”
Zach Scott (19:45):
The third time, I had been working at Formlabs now for multiple years. I had shipped product. I had been to China and dealt with our contract manufacturers and vendors, which is a whole skill set I had never had before. I was just a completely different engineer. And so I still had to work really hard during the interview process and like I said earlier, choose where your opportunities are and make sure you really commit to them. But you can’t just hit one home run and win the game. You have to be building up your worth, building up your opportunities. And then when one comes along, you do your best that you can. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. But if you do it enough times, you’ll get it. And then you can move on to the next one.
Mike Raab (20:30):
It seems to me that you have a really healthy perspective around the concept of rejection or being rejected. I’m just curious if you could elaborate on how you think about applying to jobs and getting rejection and how that affects you or not?
Zach Scott (20:46):
Sure. Rejection sucks. It feels terrible. I get rejected still. Getting rejected from a job is substantially worse because you work really hard. Something that maybe a lot of people who aren’t engineers don’t know is, for engineering interviews, it is never, you go in, you talk to a recruiter, you come back, we talked to the team and you get an offer. Every single engineering company that is really competitive, they have a technical challenge or technical test of varying degrees of work. But it is always a real design challenge. So getting rejected after multiple rounds of interviews and this work, it does suck.
Zach Scott (21:26):
And so you basically need to become, again, not comfortable projection, but okay with it happening to you. And I went as far as trying to seek out rejection. So there’s a concept called like the rejection game, where every day you try to get rejected from at least one thing. And it could be as big as a job interview that you get rejected from, or as small as asking if somebody wants to go to dinner with you tonight or play a game of tennis.
Zach Scott (21:52):
And the goal is to kind of have exposure therapy. Or the more you do it, the more you’re okay with it. And I still hate getting rejected, but I do try to seek it out because if you’re not getting rejected, then you are not reaching enough. And I think that’s something that really changed my perspective was when I realized, “Hey, I didn’t fail.” Or let me rephrase. “I didn’t make a mistake maybe by not getting this job.” If anything, this might’ve meant, “Hey, you actually did it. You got all the way to the end.” I mean, I got the last interview both times. So that told me, Hey, it’s not like you’re out of your league here. It’s just, something was either unlucky or there’s a little bit more, there’s that last 20% that you have to get.
Zach Scott (22:39):
And so the advice I’d give to anybody, who’s a student who’s listening is you should never, ever, ever turn down an opportunity because you’re scared. And that is so easy to say, but it’s so hard to do. But if you are doing that, you are robbing yourself of value. I applied to, it was like 88 jobs, 89 jobs. I mean, it was crazy. It was an insane amount of work. And I got rejected from many of them that I thought I was overqualified for at the very least. Some company making bicycles, they’re doing rental bikes. I was like, I don’t want to work there. I’m just doing this because if I got the offer maybe I would take it if I had to. They didn’t even give me an interview. But I ended up getting the end and got two offers from Tesla and Formlabs.
Zach Scott (23:26):
And so when I was in it and I was just getting rejected. And until you get to the end, you have no idea. Again, it’s a one or a zero. You either get the offer or you don’t. And you have to invest all this time. I just feeling terrible. I was like, look at all this data that says, I’m not good enough. I’m getting rejected. Why am I even interviewing at Tesla or Formlabs? These guys are amazing, these people that work there. They’re not going to want me if I can’t get an interview at this other company.
Zach Scott (23:52):
And it was only after I got the two offers that, then I realized looking back, none of those rejections mattered from a utility standpoint because you can only it’s having a job is mutually exclusive. You only have to get one offer. You can apply 99 times and get rejected. But if you get one offer at a place that you like, you can’t have both. So if you get 10 offers versus one offer, it’s nice to have options, but having the one offer is what matters. And having those two, then it was all like, wow, I can do this. And I got to Formlabs, which helped me springboard to my next role.
Zach Scott (24:27):
And so you have to get out there and do as much as you can. Because even the smartest people in the world, aren’t going to get rejected from jobs.
Mike Raab (24:38):
That’s great advice. And I think why your story is so interesting to me, first of all, it’s just one of the most interesting careers over the past five years of SpaceX to popsicles to Formlabs to Apple. Like very diverse and interesting. But I think it also highlights that I feel some students feel like if they don’t get their dream job right outside of school, that they are a failure or that they’re behind.
Mike Raab (25:04):
And I feel like your story, especially with having applied to Apple twice before you actually got hired there, really highlights a long-term career view. So with that, I guess last question would be, what advice would you have for a young Zack who is still in school, who wants to work for Apple one day or wants to follow in your footsteps?
Zach Scott (25:24):
I would say the thing that I would tell myself to make myself feel better is, this is horribly butchering a Steve jobs quote, which is you can’t look forward and see what your future path is going to look like. All you’re going to see is a bunch of noise, right? It’s a bunch of options that you have. You can only look back and connect the dots in reverse.
Zach Scott (25:46):
And I think as an engineer, that makes a lot of sense. And so you have to trust that if you make good decisions, you’re taking opportunities, making good decisions, not being scared of rejection and really working hard, that you’re going to work out. Statistically, you will eventually get through and keep building onto your next piece of your career puzzle.
Zach Scott (26:12):
Second thing is talk to people. If you get an interview at SpaceX let’s say, and you really want to work there, go on LinkedIn and you better be hitting up every second connection you know. Obviously first, but second connections to. Be okay with getting rejected. You’re going to reach out. I talked to a ton of people that I was totally not even qualified to talk to you where I just said, “Hey, here’s my story. I love the chance to speak with you, have a quick chat on these specific topics. Do you have 10 minutes to talk?” And you need to be able to make those connections at companies because for better or worse, it really is about one, meeting the technical bar. But then second, you have to have people flag your resume in the first place. People that aren’t going to eventually vouch for you. You will never get it if you can’t meet the technical skillset, but you can miss it if you do meet the technical skillset and you don’t have, somebody actually taking a second to look over your stuff.
Zach Scott (27:10):
So I think that’s that we advise. Summarize that trust that it’ll be okay, as long as you take opportunities, know your fundamentals and make sure that you are really reaching out to people and getting those connections.
Zach Scott (27:23):
Another good piece of advice that I got from somebody at Rice who was a fantastic professor, was he said, listen, if you get lucky enough to meet somebody, who’s maybe the CEO of some tech company. These people are going to meet like thousands of people a day. And you can say, you love their work, tell them the story. They are not going to remember you. Send them a handwritten note or maybe a small gift. Not money, nothing like that. Just like maybe you made something or it’s a key chain from your company, something cool. Guarantee, one other person of those thousand people that he talked to has done. And that’s the other person who learned this skill from somebody who told them that.
Zach Scott (28:07):
And I just can’t stress enough. It’s like, you don’t have to have money to do that. You don’t have to be skilled to articulate. All you have to do is show up and put in the time, the right to know. And these are the things that are how you can really show yourself to be different from all of these other people who are just as qualified as you are just as charming, just as connected. So really think about how to make that extra little step when you’re talking to these [inaudible 00:28:34]
Mike Raab (28:35):
I think that’s great advice and a great place to end. Thank you so much Zach for being with us today.
Zach Scott (28:40):
Sure. No problem. Thanks a lot.
Mike Raab (28:45):
If there’s one lesson I would take away from Zach, it’s his healthy perspective on rejection. From the outside, it may seem like it has been a smooth path to finally landing at Apple, a company has always wanted to work for. But the reality ,is he was only hired on his third attempt after being rejected twice earlier in his career. Yet that didn’t discourage him from applying again. When he was hired at Formlabs prior to Apple, he had applied to 88 jobs and was rejected from all but two of them. I hope that Zach’s story and his advice that if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not reaching enough, gives you the permission and inspiration to reach for something you want, today.
Mike Raab (29:20):
How I Got Here as a podcast from the garage at Northwestern and is produced by Melissa Kaufman, Ben Williams and Elisabeth Wright. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on your favorite podcast platform.