Alison Armstrong: Pioneering Operations Executive Shaping Automotive and Tech Industries

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Alison Armstrong, an accomplished co-founder and Chief Operating Officer at Uscanuy Contractors is a dynamic and results-driven Operations Executive. Her remarkable career spans over two decades in the Automotive and Technology sectors, including influential roles at renowned organizations such as Ford Motor Company, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Tesla, On Tap Consulting, and Zero Motorcycles Inc.

Alison’s expertise encompasses a spectrum of vital domains within Operations Management. Her strength lies in her knowledge of Design for Manufacturing and Problem Solving.  But she can also orchestrate seamless Product Lifecycle Management, as well as steering Process Re-Engineering, Supplier Management, and Quality Management. Her multifaceted prowess is a driving force behind her achievements.

A once-certified ISO 9000 auditor and a 6-Sigma Greenbelt holder, Alison has distinguished herself with dual degrees in Economics and Electrical Engineering. These degrees reflect her deep-rooted commitment to continuous learning and holistic understanding. Her international exposure has honed her aptitude for cross-cultural collaboration and sensitivity, augmenting her adeptness in global business dynamics. In addition, the implementation of Lean Manufacturing concepts is central to her approach, an ethos that pervades every project she does. Alison’s adept engineering finesse and skill in guiding teams have consistently steered organizations toward elevated productivity, reduced costs, and sustainable improvements.

In a candid conversation, we delved into Alison’s life journey and professional insights, covering topics ranging from electric vehicles to gender parity and women’s empowerment. Her reflections left us profoundly impressed, offering ample food for thought. As we present this narrative, we are confident that our global readership will find themselves equally captivated by the remarkable journey of this exceptional leader.

Navigating the Path of Electrical Engineering and Leadership

Alison’s journey into the world of electrical engineering began during her final year of high school when she enrolled in a Physics class with a strong focus on electricity. She found the subject magical and desired to delve deeper into its mysteries. While she wouldn’t describe herself as a natural, she was keen on understanding its inner workings.

She thought she might study medicine but was inclined toward Electrical Engineering, and she ultimately pursued this field at Queen’s University in Canada. During her summers, Alison gained valuable experience as an intern in Ford Motor Company’s Electronics division. These opportunities exposed her to intriguing projects and the excitement of problem-solving. She also grasped the significance of efficient manufacturing practices such as Six Sigma, 5S, and OEE (Efficiency metrics), which Ford was pioneering as they opened the facility to Toyota and TPS (Toyota Production Systems).

“Efficiency is such a fascinating statistic and one that plays a key role in Manufacturing – how does one balance cost, speed and equipment / people workload,” Alison notes. Alison’s time at Ford enriched her insights; however, she yearned for broader horizons. This pursuit led her to California, where she joined Sun Microsystems, a company undergoing significant growth. She embraced various roles and, crucially, sought mentorship to chart her professional trajectory. In her ten-year tenure at Sun Microsystems, Alison rose to the position of Operations Engineering Director, overseeing a global team of over 80 engineers. Her adept leadership played a crucial role in streamlining the integration of StorageTek – a critical acquisition – into Sun Microsystems and ensuring the alignment of processes with Sun’s overarching business strategies. By expressing her interest in people management, Alison steadily advanced, equipped with newfound networking skills.

Alison’s admiration for Tesla was conspicuous. “Tesla’s vehicles were like computers on wheels,” she observes. Her background was in Computer and Automotive – a match made in heaven.  Intrigued by this culture of innovation, she secured a role in Tesla’s Powertrain Division. Impressively, within five months, she was promoted to oversee Powertrain Manufacturing, managing a team of 1800 individuals and 1900 robotic cells. The responsibilities were substantial, often demanding extended hours and dedication. She played a pivotal role in the production of Model X and Model S. Notably; her leadership earned her direct reporting line to Elon Musk for a significant six-month period.

After nearly two years at Tesla, Alison recognized the need for a break. “My kids were young, and I just wanted a breather,” she reflects. Eager to run her own business and support her husband’s construction venture, she embarked on a new chapter, leveraging her experience and determination.

Diversification into Construction and the Resurgence of Manufacturing Passion

Following a break, Alison shifted her focus to her family’s construction business. She recognized the need for a full overhaul of marketing and business operations; as well as better customer communication.  Alison committed herself to streamlining processes, resulting in an impressive 300% increase in revenue for Uscanuy Contractors. This shift marked a significant turning point as she fully engaged herself in the business.

Founded in 2010, Uscanuy Contractors has been actively involved in various residential projects of varying sizes and types. Their services encompass:

  • Full Remodels
  • Additions
  • Outside Projects
  • Earthquake Retrofits

While Alison found construction rewarding and enjoyed witnessing projects come to life, she confessed, “I started to miss Manufacturing.” This feeling prompted her to transition back to her manufacturing roots, a choice that underscores her adaptable nature and her capacity to seamlessly transition between different industries.

Navigating Opportunities

During Alison’s dedicated tenure with Uscanuy Contractors, a notable opportunity emerged: a consultation request from a former manager and mentor. This marked a new chapter, prompting her reentry into the professional arena. The collaboration materialized through Ops On Tap, a consulting firm connecting her with promising startups, where she joined a seasoned group of consultants.  She worked on amazing projects such as a robot that made gourmet hamburgers, medical equipment critical for use in an MRI, and a robot that trained shelter animals.

Another intriguing prospect came her way through LinkedIn when the CEO of an established electric motorcycle company extended an invitation. Despite initial hesitations, Alison found herself drawn to the opportunity of leading a manufacturing team, closely collaborating with the CEO, and contributing to a project she felt passionate about. This involved spending several days a week away from her family in Scott’s Valley as she lent her expertise to Zero Motorcycles – an All-Electric Motorcycle – known as the “Tesla” of motorcycles.

Her initiation at Zero Motorcycles posed challenges. Just days after commencing, she had to furlough a significant portion of her team due to COVID-19. Fortunately, they managed to be reinstated within a month. The team’s work held immense importance, particularly in supplying motorcycles for police and military applications. Unprecedented supply chain disruptions and fire-related hurdles tested her adaptability and problem-solving prowess.

After three intensive years at Zero Motorcycles, Alison felt the strain of the demanding schedule and long commute. Despite her fervor, she wanted to take some time to do a complete teardown of her primary residence. “Now, I am taking another break to re-energize and focus on home and health. But I am beginning to miss Manufacturing, Supply Chain, and major problem-solving.  As the plans come together for our massive home renovation, I will begin to look at the next supply chain and manufacturing opportunity,” Alison reveals.

Nurturing Teams and Fostering Growth

Alison’s journey has cultivated a genuine love for managing people and teams. She recognizes the distinct yet interconnected nature of these efforts. Successful teams require both cohesion and individual growth. For Alison, it is crucial to build strong teams through team-building activities and enjoyable interactions. She is a fan of Scott McNealy’s motto, “Kick butt and have fun,” which she instills in her teams and leaders. This approach emphasizes dedication, getting results, and a fun, positive atmosphere.

Beyond teamwork, Alison focuses on personal development. She believes each team member should have their own set of critical growth targets. Understanding their passions and strengths is a vital part of her role, and she often sees strengths in people, they never really saw in themselves!  She asks herself, “How can I help them grow, while driving key business metrics?” This commitment underscores her dedication to nurturing individuals and helping them reach their potential.

Alison’s approach is grounded in practicality. She values data-driven decisions, employing this strategy for both teams and individuals. By setting measurable goals and tracking progress, she cultivates a culture of accountability and achievement.

Addressing Gender Disparity: Fostering Empowerment and Diversity

Alison offers a grounded perspective on the evolving attitudes toward gender disparity in business. She acknowledges that women remain a minority in the tech industry. Often, in meetings, she finds herself the only woman or one of a few. While there was an increase in women entering engineering in the past, recent years have witnessed a slowdown in fields like computer and electrical engineering.  She has gained useful insights to help companies achieve diversity.

Being a minority in the field means she has to exert more effort to be heard. Even though she collaborates with talented men, she recognizes the presence of unconscious bias and the need to work harder than her counterparts “For women trying to ‘fit in, it can lead to significant burnout,” Alison worries.

Alison is committed to promoting diversity in teams, knowing that it brings significant benefits. She cites Forbes, which shows that diverse teams perform 60% better and make better decisions 87% of the time.

Her journey began when she reluctantly attended a leadership conference for women, initially harboring a desire to be “one of the guys.” However, an analysis of her team’s compensation dynamics based on gender revealed a stark truth—her female team members were significantly underpaid. This revelation propelled her into action, catalyzing her involvement in conferences, advocating for minorities, and actively exploring ways to enhance inclusivity within the tech industry.  She wanted to drive solutions, instead of hide from the discomfort.

Since that transformative conference, Alison has consistently supported women’s affinity groups in each company she has been a part of. Encouraging men to join, these groups focus on networking, career growth, and addressing unique challenges. Her engagement and executive sponsorship of Oracle Women’s Leadership, Women at Tesla, and Women in Zero underscores her commitment to nurturing an inclusive tech landscape. Through these groups, she provides not only practical insights but also empathy—a vital asset in creating positive change.

Exploring Electric Vehicle Realities and Future Contributions

Alison’s take on electric vehicles and the use of robotics is pragmatic and future-focused. The growing popularity of electric vehicles resonates with her due to the positive impact they have on the environment and the legacy they leave for future generations. Alison’s engagement in the Electric Vehicle sector has been exciting, fueled by a mission that extends beyond professional pursuits.

Looking ahead, Alison envisions a role in shaping the trajectory of this field for the betterment of society.  Her inquiries reflect a pragmatic approach.

  • Can we get rid of rare-earth magnets?
  • Can we do better on the environmental impacts of mining lithium and nickel?
  • Is the vehicle charging all coming from green sources?
  • Can we recycle everything?
  • Can we reduce the cost of manufacturing and thus reduce the cost to the consumer? Are robots the right answer?
  • Can we make money while also making vehicles last longer?


Quote  - Alison

Also Read: The 10 Empowering Business Women Leaders of October 2023

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