FORT MILL, S.C.—Ric Mousseau has been in the industry long enough to remember seeing computers that still used vacuum tubes, but he wants to make one thing clear: He did not use a slide ruler.
"We had reached the calculator age," he said, laughing.
After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan-Dearborn in 1979, Mousseau got a job as a project engineer at an automotive machine tool company called F. Joseph Lamb Co. At one point, his boss put him in charge of fixing a machine with a chain drive that constantly was failing.
"He said, 'Can you do a computer model?' I said, 'Yeah, I probably could,' " said Mousseau, who was working on his master's degree at that point. "It got me into a world where you can do experiments on the computer to help solve a problem."
It's a world he never left. Over the past 40-plus years, Mousseau has moved in different spheres—the U.S. Army, Ford, GM, Michelin, academia and his current job as a lead engineer for tire modeling at GM—but he's never stopped embracing change and new technology.
The way he sees it, he doesn't really have a choice.
"You have to be flexible, to be honest," he said. "Things won't go well for you if you won't. I've learned that, sometimes the hard way."
He's learned plenty of other lessons, both in the classroom (he got his Ph.D from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 1994) and in the industry. He's published more than 23 papers, had three patents issued over his career, taught classes to university students and professional engineers and even served as the Tire Society president from 2012-14.
When asked if his 22-year-old self would approve of him now, he laughed and said, "With some of it I'd say, 'I think you could have done better,' but overall I think I did OK."
Here are some of his biggest lessons:
Be pragmatic with new technology
"You could be working on something that's state-of-the-art, but it's about applying the state-of-the-art in the vehicle," he said. "That's where the real interest is. It's not just about developing new technology, it's integrating that technology into the product in a way that enables you to develop a better product with less cost."
All companies are enamored with new technology to a certain extent, but they want to see the technology improve the business, Mousseau said.
"That's something I didn't fully understand when I was younger," he said.
'Advance the enterprise'
"There are people in a company who work extra hard, which is great, but they do it all the time and expect to get promoted and recognized," he said. "What companies look at is, you need to be somebody who could advance the enterprise. They want someone who can see the big picture and moves the enterprise to improve its capability, plus gets the work done. Those people are more valuable."
Use the job, don't let the job use you
"When you look at any job or career, ask yourself, 'How am I benefiting from this?' " he said. "Am I learning something? Is there potential to make more money? Am I getting overstressed or understressed? You have to weigh all those factors, and at some point, you might say, 'Well, this is not going to work out for me.' If the company is putting a stupid amount of stress on you or you're not learning more on the job, not learning new technology and new tools—if you're able to move on, move on to another job."
In December of 2014, Mousseau took his own advice when he left a job at Michelin Americas Research Corp. for a third stint at GM.
He even made an arrangement with GM that allowed him to work virtually from his home in South Carolina.
"I'm doing the stuff I enjoy doing," he said. "I feel comfortable doing it, and I'm not in an extremely stressful situation."
Which leads to Mousseau's final lesson—one that you don't need a Ph.D in mechanical engineering to figure out.
"It's colder in Michigan," he said.