Woman engineer who piloted the all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning

Timothy
Linda Zhang the chief engineer for the 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning in Troy on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

Linda Zhang the chief engineer for the 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning in Troy on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

Linda Zhang is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women across the country who have made a significant impact. The annual program is a continuation of Women of the Century, a 2020 project that commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.

Linda Zhang, the pioneering chief engineer behind the revolutionary all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning, has made historic moves in a male-dominated auto industry. Yet ask about her proudest accomplishments – there must be so many – and you might be surprised.

“My proudest moments probably go back to my kids and when they have done well in school, or just in even soccer or hockey, and just us as a family just having a great time,” Zhang said. “Those to me are my most memorable bits, and when I reflect, it’s not so much about me or what I’ve done, it’s more what we were able to accomplish together.”

Zhang’s dedication to family, to the simpler side of life, mirrors her parents, who immigrated from China to Indiana. Speaking only Mandarin, the family navigated their new world by leaning in to each other and opening their hearts to those who helped them get settled.

“I think I am really lucky,” Zhang said. “I grew up in a really wonderful family and came to the United States when I was 8 years old. And with that, I was able to make a lot of really great friends and learn a lot from the really great academics that’s here in the U.S., and really apply that toward something I’m really passionate about, which is engineering and science and really bringing new tools and new solutions for our customers.”

It’s not an overstatement to say the F-150 is a Ford franchise on its own. But transforming America’s bestselling workhorse pickup into a still coveted battery-electric vehicle – one with no internal combustion engine and no emissions – was no easy feat.

“We had a point there where we weren’t quite sure if this truck was going to be capable and durable,” Zhang said. “And we actually had to really do some deep thinking about what we wanted this truck to be, and what the DNA was that we wanted. … That was a tough time for us.”

Zhang, 45, has been a Ford employee for 25 years. She started in the Ford College Graduate program and has worked in various sectors, including finance, manufacturing, strategy and engineering. She earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, a master’s degree in computer engineering and an MBA, all from the University of Michigan. Her parents were engineers, as is her brother.

Zhang was climbing the ranks at Ford, but at a point in her career she started declining promotions. She was ready to start a family. She continued to work full time but was able to craft a schedule where some days she went to the office early and left early. There were days where she worked from home – a common practice in a pandemic world, but groundbreaking at the time.

Her children are now 15 and 17.

“For me, I actually took a break during my career and slowed down a bit because for me, it was important to have a family and be there for my family, and help raise my kids, and take them to school and pick them up and all of that,” she said.

Balance.

It’s something that can seem elusive to working mothers. It’s something that can seem impossible for working mothers in high-profile, high-demand jobs.

But Zhang lives her life with one goal: to be happy.

“For me, I think a lot of … especially growing up less fortunate, and having come to the U.S. without a lot of money, I think a lot of it is just, you can be happy regardless of where you are,” she said. “You just have to take what’s positive around you and really do something with it, and think about it and appreciate it in a way. You can have all the money in the world but if you don’t have that good positive mental mentality, you might not be happy. And for me, it’s always just … appreciate those things that you do have and be happy about it.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Linda Zhang the chief engineer for the 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning in Troy on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

Linda Zhang the chief engineer for the 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning in Troy on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

Electrifying the world’s most popular truck is a complex, yearslong tussle, I’m sure. How did you prepare yourself to say yes to that challenge?

Well, I try not to overthink things. So for me, it’s actually been a journey for the last couple years as we’ve worked on this really awesome EV truck and making sure that our truck customers can depend on it for everything that they do, but also kind of elevating it in a way to make sure that it’s going to provide them with that credible EV opportunity.

So it’s been a lot of fun, and for me, it’s just been trying to take it one day at a time.

In an industry that is so male dominated, how has the journey been?

Ford was a perfect place and with the EV truck, it’s just wonderful to be able to be in this role. And Ford’s been so supportive of me throughout my career and giving me different assignments and opportunities to really get me to this point where I can … really pilot this all new F-150.

What would your children say about you both professionally and as a mom?

I think they would be really proud of me. I know they are, actually, because they tell me that, which is really sweet. And I know that they know that I’ve been there for them and I’m always there for them if they need anything. And that to me is probably the most important, to know that they know that if they needed something that I was there, but at the same time, they’re very proud of all the things that I’ve been able to accomplish.

Linda Zhang the chief engineer for the 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning in Troy on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

Linda Zhang the chief engineer for the 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning in Troy on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I think I would tell myself not to sweat so much about things, the small things. I think one of the things as far as getting older is that perspective and really understanding that there’s a lot of things that when you’re young you stress out about that really at the end of the day, it’s just small potatoes. And to focus on the big stuff, focus on what makes – in this case – me happy and to go after it. And not worry about all the different things and not to overthink it.

What is your definition of courage?

I think courage is doing the right thing, even when it’s hard to do.

How far do you think women have come, and how far do we have to go?

I think we’ve come a long way. When I first started at the company, there weren’t very many female executives. We had a director who was, and that was the only one that I really knew at the time. And since then it’s been a lot more balanced. And I think that’s showing the progress of how society as a whole has really moved. I do think that we still have some ways to go for me. Our team is actually really well balanced, and it’s happened by happenstance.

How do you take care of yourself to get yourself through every day? And to find that happiness that you talk about?

For me, it’s family. I spend time with my family to get myself back energized, and it could be whatever with them. Whether it’s binging on TV or Netflix, or running on the treadmill or just going out for a nice walk outside somewhere. And then also through 25 years of being here, I’ve actually made a lot of friends at the company as well. So some of it is just, even during the day, being able to reach out to them and pick up the phone and say, “Hey, how’s it going?” And talking a little bit through whatever it is that you’re going through that day, has always helped energize me.

National columnist/deputy opinion editor Suzette Hackney is a member of USA TODAY’S Editorial Board. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter: @suzyscribe

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USA TODAY Women of the Year: Linda Zhang piloted Ford F-150 lightning

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