March 26, 2010, 2:48 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Whoever said that electrical engineers were a bunch of pocket protector wearing, Star Wars watching, RPG playing Dilberts? Kenyon Kluge, Director of Electrical Engineering at Zero Motorcycles, has raced motorcycles professionally, spends time surfing in Santa Cruz, and has never worn a pocket protector.
Kenyon jumped from a large IT company to a startup to combine his love of technology with his love of motorcycles, and now is a member of IEEE and the Director of Electrical Engineering at Zero Motorcycles, a Scotts Valley, California manufacturer of gas-free electric motorcycles.
Where did you go to school?
I started out at Cabrillo College here in Santa Cruz for a Civics degree, but eventually decided that wasn’t what I wanted to pursue. Then I went to ITT Technical School down in Los Angeles.
What made you decide to go to ITT for engineering?
I was looking for a career path, and I always liked putting things back together, so it seemed like a good choice. ITT had a program that offered more of a specialized education, so I could cross over easily and focus on engineering. I completed the Associates degree program at ITT.
What were your interests in high school?
Surprisingly, not much that led to my current career path. I had a big interest in physics, and at one time thought I might be an artist. Neither of them touches a computer, and I didn’t even own a computer until I went away to school. I kind of took a right turn when I went for my engineering degree.
But you did have an interest in motorcycles. You were a motorcycle racer?
Yes. I started racing motorcycles when I was about 24, although I didn’t even get a motorcycle until I was about 21. Just after I got my first motorcycle, I knew I wanted to race. After a couple years I gained the skill and proficiency, and started racing after that. I earned the California championship about four years in my racing career, and in my fifth year I raced professionally in the US circuit.
Do you still race motorcycles now?
I do, but I just race in the Northern California circuit now.
So after you were finished with ITT, what was the next step after that?
About six months before I graduated, I was lucky enough to get hired on as a junior engineer at Extreme Networks, which was a startup networking company.
What did you do there?
When I first came in, they put me on environmental and certification testing. And then I quickly started designing circuit boards for them. I handled all the testing on every one of the products for the first four years and then I also ended up designing probably about a third of the circuit boards.
How did you go from there to being an engineer at Zero Motorcycles?
I was at Extreme Networks for a number of years, then I moved to a company called Altera, that does programmable FPGAs, and I was in charge of their development board team. We would develop development kits for customers to use in order to speed up their design processes. While I was there for about seven years, I had started putting some feelers out about working in the motorcycle industry either on the traction control systems or fuel injection systems. About a month or two later I had a friend call and say, ‘I work at an electric motorcycle company, and we’d like you to come try our bike and tell us what you think as a professional rider.’ So we met up and I rode the bike, and we did some video footage. While I was there the founder came along with my friend, and he told us that they had a contractor that had been doing their circuit boards and didn’t want to do it any more. I said, ‘I’m an electrical engineer,’ so I did a little contract work for them and limited board production. When they got their first round of funding, they asked me if I would come and join the company.
So it was still a startup when you started working for them?
Yes, and we’re still very much a startup at this point. There was only about eight or nine people there when I started, and we’re up to about 50 people now.
What do you like most about working for a startup?
One of the big motivators is to come here and be able to help define a product. Working for Altera, which is a really big company, I got to run a team and do some very exciting work, but I never felt that I had much input into the product as a whole. There was always a huge committee that decided on everything and it was all very bureaucratic. Here, I feel like I’m getting in at the ground level, and I’ve had an opportunity to influence everything from the ground up. I’m helping to define things that just don’t exist in the industry. And it doesn’t hurt that I get to ride motorcycles for work.
What about your least favorite thing?
I would say my least favorite is the amount of time that a startup demands of you.
The electric motorcycle sounds like a pretty cool concept. You always think of motorcycles as big noisy hogs. What’s your electric motorcycle like?
We have two models, a dirt bike, and a street bike. The dirt bike we’ve been shipping for two years now, and the street bike is just coming out right now. They don’t make any noise, just a ‘whir’ that you don’t even hear when you’re up to speed.
So these are purely electric, not hybrids?
So what’s your next move, career-wise?
I anticipate staying here for quite some time to help grow the company. I started here as a Senior Engineer, and I’m the Director of Electrical Engineering now. Some of my goals within the company are to get past our first hurdle of large-scale production, that’s what we’re working hard on right now. And then to make the electric bikes just infinitely better. There are so many cool things you can do with an electric bike. And then, to combine the passion, we’re going to start up a race team here, and take our factory out into the competition realm and race the electric motorcycle.