Roadshow Asks: How did you get to be Director of Getting $#^% Done at Zero Motorcycles?

Sean McLaughlin's journey to an electric motorcycle engineer supervisor is, uh, very non-traditional.

Zero Motorcycles

Welcome to our interview feature, Roadshow Asks, where we find out how people in the automotive industry snagged their dream careers. We interview everyone from designers to race car drivers to get an idea of what their job entails, their education background and the role technology will play in their future.

If you're in to technology and two-wheeled transportation you've probably heard of the global leader of electric motos, Zero Motorcycles. Headquartered in Scotts Valley, California, Zero currently offers six models with a maximum range of 202 miles. They start at $8,500 and max out at just under $16,000. Take your pick from street, off-road or a combination of the two, all battery-powered and ready to rock.

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Yeah, he might look super-casual, but McLaughlin gets it done!

Emme Hall/Roadshow

In business since 2006, Zero offers a, let's say, flexible work environment. Only at a startup could you go from working in the marketing department to working in the engineering department within three years. But then, Sean McLaughlin, the Product Development Project Manager at Zero, has always been a bit on the quirky side. He went into Northern Arizona University as a Physics major and came out a few credits shy of a Psychology degree. Although he still has yet to grab that degree, he spent 25 years in the bicycle industry before coming to Zero Motorcycles. 

I caught up with McLaughlin after I took a tour of the Zero factory floor. He, apparently, had just come back from surfing in nearby Santa Cruz.

Emme Hall:  What was your first motorcycle?

Sean McLaughlin: I grew up in the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona and the end of my street literally just dumped into the desert. So all the kids in my neighborhood had dirt bikes. When I was 10 or 11 I had a Yamaha YZ80. When I was 21 I rode a 1978 Honda CV400 and now I ride a Zero DSR (Zero's amped up dual sport offering). I love the way it fits me.

EH: What was your first moto-industry job and how did you get it?

SM: Product marketing manager for Zero. I have been an enthusiast my whole life, but on the sidelines, just watching Zero grow. After leaving bicycles and moving to Santa Cruz, Zero was right in my backyard. I was visiting the website just to see what was new and I clicked on the employment link. I didn't know anybody, I just applied cold. I had some friends in common with people who worked at Zero but I came in through the front door.

EH: Take us through an average day at work.

SM: My position is brand new for the company and it's really evolving. From a high-level perspective my job is to work among all the engineering teams, mechanical, electrical, powertrain and prototype and testing. I work with all those teams to make sure the plan gets us from concept to product. It's like herding cats.

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Imagine actually hearing the ocean as you take a ride up the coast. With an electric bike, it's possible.

Zero Motorcycles

In any given day I'm chasing down the development process of individual components. One of the benefits of me being so stubborn is that I'm pretty focused at getting over and around obstacles. My unofficial title around here is Director of Getting Shit Done. It's something I take joy in. We are a small business that operates at a fast pace and we need to keep moving. It's got to be right and it has to happen yesterday.

EH: What is the most tedious thing about your current job?

SM: We have a homegrown web-based project management system. It's like looking at a big color-coded spreadsheet, for hundreds and hundreds of parts across dozens and dozens of activities. And it's a little bit like the movie The Matrix when you see the numbers dribbling down the screen. Understanding this system is like trying to interpret the Matrix.

EH: How does tech affect the future of your job?

SM: We are in a space where the technology is evolving rapidly and I need to be really well informed about where the technology is going. My role is a critical part of the overall product development team so we always need to be looking 18, 36, 72 months out to know what is happening with battery technology. We have a product strategy team here that looks down the road and reports back, either with trends they are seeing or what their intuition or instinct tells them.

EH: What motorcycle trend makes your blood boil?

SM: I hate it when people ride like jackasses. I acknowledge that riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous. And when people go out and take needless risks around themselves and in congested traffic. It just sets a bad example.

EH: What is the one project you've always wanted to tackle professionally but have never been able to do?

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Electric motors deliver all available torque immediately. These bikes must be a hoot to ride.

Zero Motorcycles

SM: One of the unique benefits of an electric powertrain is that it delivers virtually all its available torque at the first rpm, so it's not like a conventional gasoline engine. I would love to build a bike that goes from zero to 60 or zero to 100 in a freakishly fast time. Zero to 60 in two seconds is within the realm of possibility. That kind of time is not limited to the battery or motor. It's limited by traction. It's limited by wheelies. How do you get the weight low and forward enough and how do you get enough traction at the rear wheel so you don't burn out or wheelie over? I'd like to see that happen. 

EH: If you weren't working in the automotive industry, what would you be doing?

SM: One of my other passions is music. I've always been fascinated by sound design or sound engineering for punk rock. I'd want to go on tour with Fugazi.

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