Engineering in a Start-Up Environment – What Makes It Different?

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People perceive a typical engineering workplace as one defined by stock footage: a smiling, ethnically diverse team examining some form of blueprint on a large table, a dynamic group brainstorming complex schematics (again, usually while gathered around a large table), row-upon-row of powerful desktops, each displaying impressively contoured simulations, and, of course, a group in high visibility jackets and hard hats overlooking an arbitrary production facility. There is an air of glamour to each of these scenarios, but the real common factor is the overall sense of grandeur; a vivid depiction of bright, open office spaces overflowing with engineers, each of whom is an expert in their own respective field. Tens, or even hundreds of engineers are seen to split into small teams, breaking down an immensely complex system into smaller, manageable subsystems, providing each engineer with a specific, detailed task. This topdown approach, coupled with catchy declarations of “teamwork” and “synergy” form the backbone of a successful, large-scale, engineering firm. In such a venture, opportunities to climb the ladder are in abundance while, unsurprisingly, so is your competition to even make it off the bottom rung. As an entry-level engineer, making that first step can be a monumental task, and can take years of dedication and effort, often while working within a single specialization. The reality for an engineer in a start-up environment, is quite the opposite.

A start-up engineering firm is often conceived by a professional engineer who broke-away from the seemingly infinite ladder to pursue their real passion. For engineers this is, more often than not, innovation. As a result, start-ups tend to adopt a bottom-up approach to the design process, thus harnessing the individual creativity of each and every engineer, and allowing them to develop ideas themselves from that initial lightbulb moment, through the concept, design, and prototyping phases, right up to the manufacturing and testing of a finished product. In direct contrast to the multi-level corporate structure inherent in larger organizations, start-ups adopt a laissez-faire approach to engineering, whereby an engineer becomes a product designer who self-defines the scope of each project, and takes responsibility for each phase of the design process. The resultant engineer is one who can demonstrate extensive critical thinking abilities, has a flare for decision making, and can commit to self-imposed deadlines. While his or her corporate counterpart can claim an impressive level of specialization, the start-up engineer boasts a wide variety of expertise, and project management skills. From a very early, entry-level stage, the engineer is tasked with their own project planning, design, sourcing and manufacturing – tasks which may take years to cover in a larger firm. This was certainly the case when I first joined SIC. From the very outset, I was awarded the opportunity to take-on a considerable degree of responsibility in overseeing the entire design of an automated food preparation and service machine. I was tasked with working independently, and given complete control over the project. Despite encountering a number of challenges, I have garnered invaluable engineering experience and am excited to see a (hopefully!) working prototype very shortly. The diverse array of opportunities in a start-up was further evident as I found myself setting-up a graduate training programme for software developers in Cambodia – regardless of the fact that I am yet to graduate myself!

Despite my experience, it’s easy to be dissuaded from the start-up world as a freshly-hatched engineer. An inherent security exists in larger firms, with delegated tasks, multiple levels of validation, and a safety-in-numbers mentality among the lower ranks. While job security is hard to argue with, the compromise is delayed growth and personal development in a professional context. It brings us back to the perception of grandeur in engineering firms. The reality in a startup is a distinct culture of individualism.

Thomas Edison allegedly once proclaimed, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Behind every great product is a great engineer; behind every great engineer is a thousand failed ideas. One should not be averse to failure as an engineer in a start-up: some ideas are winners, but the majority are losers. A successful start-up takes the bad with the good; it perceives failures as progress and success as an iteration of failure. Should an engineer ever be castigated for a failed idea, then that start-up is itself destined to fail in the not-so-distant future.

Posted by Eoin

Eoin is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Aero-Mechanical Engineering at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. He has just completed a one year exchange at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and is presently working as a mechanical engineer. With a flair for design, project management, and logistics, he has a keen interest in the business aspects of engineering. Eoin has a great passion for aeronautics and possesses a pilot’s license from the Irish Aviation Authority.