Goodbye Formlabs, Hello LeafLabs

I recently started a new job at LeafLabs, an engineering services company, where I do a lot of PCB/electrical design. I’m really excited about it - the team is talented, smart, kind, and experienced, and I’m excited to work with them.

I spent around a year at Formlabs, working on the next-generation SLA printer - and I’m excited to share more when that product is released. I really enjoyed being part of Formlabs’s electrical engineering team, and learned a lot from my colleagues both inside and outside of engineering. It’s been a lot o’ learning, and I’ve written up some of the key takeaways!

Some of the main things I learned at Formlabs:

Building scalable products

Designing something for tens of thousands of units is very different than designing 10 units or turning in homework for something that will never be manufactured. When products are being made by contract manufacturers, there is an expectation of repeatability and reliability in design. Going through the new product introduction (NPI) process taught me about designing for scale, communicating with overseas vendors and manufacturers, and anticipating common pitfalls in the manufacturing process and trying to fix those early on with design and documentation.

Managing a very technically complex project and hitting tight deadlines

This goes hand in hand with ruthless prioritization - what needs to be investigated now, vs what can be left to later? What do we want to supervise in the field, vs what should be tested in-house? What can we lock in now for the design, vs what do we want to leave flexible and decide further down the line? Where can we spend money to make a problem go away, vs what is worth the time to cost-down? My main design area required collaborating with nearly every engineering discipline at Formlabs, so I got to know a lot of people across the organization. Mechanical and electrical engineers tend to think very differently based on our tools and processes (maybe this is a future blog post), so I had to understand their point of view to weigh different goals and timelines to deliver an integrated final product.

Advocating for my ideas and getting resources for what I need

It’s very easy to think that everything is important all the time, but realistically there are only 40 hours in the work week and only one of me, so prioritization is necessary. In the same vein, developing hardware takes far more than just doing the schematic/layout capture - there’s a lot of meetings to gather requirements, testing, writing documentation, answering questions, and debugging problems when your hardware is out in the world. I found that being honest with my colleagues about capacity and pointing to key decisionmakers for prioritization to be very helpful in managing my time as an individual contributor. Similarly, in advocating for my point of view in technical discussions, tying your preferred path to a stated goal (cost-down, reliability, performance, etc) and qualifying its impacts on existing products is useful.

Having compassionate leadership is irreplaceable

We all learn from making mistakes. Early on, during verification of new hardware, I had made a mistake that damaged some boards and apologized profusely to my manager, who said “well, are the boards blowing up by themselves, or are you doing that?” I sheepishly admitted it was my fault, and he told me that as long as it wasn’t a systemic design issue, it was fine, and encouraged me to be more careful and take my time. Over the course of my time at Formlabs, I also appreciate how Jon gave me very useful feedback, advocated for me to other leaders in the organization, and proactively looked for opportunities for me.

Overall, this was my first engineering job out of college, and my team put a lot of trust in me and gave me challenging and serious work from day one. When I told a colleague I was leaving, he told me “you’ve definitely made your mark on this program.” That was a goal of mine, and I’m proud to have accomplished it. I’ll always have a lot of appreciation for my Formlabs colleagues and the friends and mentors I met there, and I’m excited to see what the company does next and share more about my role in it when the new product is released!

That said,

there’s a lot to be excited about at LeafLabs!

Working on a wide variety of projects and solve really hard client problems

LeafLabs’s clients really run the gamut of organizations - from small startups to Fortune 500 companies - and I’m excited to have a glimpse into many different hardware stacks, processes, and cultures. Companies bring in LeafLabs when they need our expertise, which means we get to solve a lot of difficult and critical challenges, and I take the responsibility of being trusted with these challenges seriously. It’ll be fun and rewarding! Also, engineering ethics matters very much to me, and LeafLabs never works on destructive military or financial applications. It feels really good to have my values reflected in the organization I work for.

Deepen my skills across the electrical and embedded engineering stack by learning from colleagues

Many of my colleagues have expertise at multiple organizations in embedded firmware, FPGA development, hardware design, and more. They’re cross-functional computer engineers who know a lot about how embedded systems are built and used. Embedded and firmware is an area I want to grow in, so I’m really excited to learn from them. At the same time, I’m an electrical engineer by training, so I’m excited to bring that perspective to the organization and work on developing new and scalable hardware products.

Working on more research-oriented problems

Neuroscience research is a big focus of LeafLabs, our flagship project being Willow, a 1000-channel data acquisition system for data acquisition. I’m excited to be working the next generation of neuroscience at LeafLabs, making more data more available and easier to gather for neuroscience researchers. This is a space that’s ripe for innovation and one that the NIH is particularly interested in, so it feels very rewarding to be working on technology for the public interest.

I’m only a few weeks in, but the work has already been rewarding and my new colleagues are really funny and helpful and nice. I’m excited for what’s to come!