The dream, the engineer and the holy product

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Photo by Brandon Hoogenboom on Unsplash



There, I said it and it’s the only time this term will be mentioned here. Now let’s get down to business and talk about what really matters, crisis, or no crisis when you get to design your product, in your very own startup.

Some might say that startups are stressful and, to quote the academic equivalent “Publish or Perish”, it’s not that different from “Execute or Die” and to add a bit more to this stressful fun: “Be quick about it, would ya?”

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Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Going back to our holy trinity, the bottom line is: You can’t have them all, buddy, so let us all relax a bit and enjoy the ride!

The controlled (and fun) process

Constrains, gotta have them, so let’s first admit they exist, that’s the first stage of the process. Having settled that, I wanna have my product, I want it to be… good? No… I want it to be the best!

I start by making a list of all the things that make my product “the best”. That’s a fundamental approach: Laying out good foundations for your startup, for your product. Once the foundations are solid, are in place, are “the best”, you can start building up.

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Photo by Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa on Unsplash

So how is it all that fun?

Well, I hope you share the same attitude as me towards building new things. I think it’s a lot of fun starting with a blank piece of paper and slowly see it fills with my ideas, hence the controlled (bottom-up building) and fun (sketching your dreams) process.

At this point, it’s not just looking at your product/invention, it’s looking far ahead and seeing all the different phases. You need to know where you start, see the road ahead and see your final destination.

I needed to see where my product will land in a year right from the start, and that’s the way I built the entire process. It’s like starting a jigsaw puzzle by laying out the frame and then filling all the missing parts inside.

This is a high-level approach, but it’s also a state of mind.

“God is in the details” and we’ll get right down to that.

To make a system out of your dream

A dream is wishful thinking, a system is what the client wants and the engineer is the link between these two worlds. As an engineer, I need to make a system (not a product) that will:

  1. Work
  2. Stay on budget
  3. Be ready in time
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Photo by Artur Tumasjan on Unsplash

“Work it must”, says the master…

But the budget and timeframe in a startup are, mostly, very strict — no one wants you to throw away their invested money or worse, not finish on schedule.

There are two secrets to making everything happen at once:

  1. Excellent integration is always preferred to “reinventing the wheel”: Yeah, you’re in a startup, innovation and all that, saving the world, no doubt and you must secure your IP, you have to get some patents registered, you just gotta have that research done properly, right? Well… nothing’s “gotta be done”, remember the constrains? Here they are again — make the best out of existing solutions even if they’re more cumbersome than what you’ve initially planned, it’s way better than trying to reinvent a certain component to fit exactly what you need.
  2. Flexibility and planning for short response times: You did your integration right, but as all things go in life — nothing goes well on the first try. Nobody can nail it in the first shot. What you can do is hardwire the flexibility feature into your system.

There are a lot of risks during the execution and each has its root cause. Just to give a few hints, the main root causes in system design are:

  • Poor technical design
  • Longer than expected lead times
  • Poor execution of subcontracted work

Mitigation of those risks has to be highly flexible and be executed very quickly. Once you’ve figured that part out it’s time to actually build your product.

To make a product out of your system

As I noted earlier, the system must work, not the product, strange huh?

That is an attitude, not a physical claim. Your product, by definition, will not work because “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”.

No, the client is not your enemy.

The product is a component in your system and there might even be a few products in that system. The system gives your clients a holistic and flexible approach which, in turn, lets your products operate well enough to be considered a part of your system.

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Photo by Tistio on Unsplash

To conclude, your system includes the product in it. To give an example, you design a bow and arrow — that is the physical product — but the system requires a target, a set of instructions to use your product, etc… Your product does not live in a vacuum, it has links to external elements that are part of the holistic system.

So what happens to your product during a crisis? What happens when the world changes around you? What makes all the pieces come together in the end? There are a few points worth mentioning:

  • Components are independent of one another as much as possible.
  • Work can be carried out in parallel on different aspects.
  • Plan for very fast integration (in my case — a physical product — this is crucial)

The Execution (relax, nobody’s going to die)

My startup needed to get a physical product, that included mechanics, electronics, and software to be up and running while the whole world put up a “Went out of business, be back soon” sign.

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Turns out, people still want to work, no surprises here, so the execution should be easy enough if the foundations were built correctly. As expected, not all things went well when we first plugged them together, but there was always a guideline and all the critical elements were satisfactory.

Yes, all was “good enough” for a first try, from my perspective. It’s all very subjective. I’m excited to see my product work, but my feet stay on the ground and I can already see where my next versions should look like.

Execution is not just the physical act of making your product work, it’s about communicating with your partners a clear vision and full understanding based on your current abilities.

“A crisis is always an opportunity”, says the old and wise.

“To make opportunities you need to be ready for the crisis”, says the savvy.

The stickers to put on your fridge

Did we get our holy product right at the end? Only time can tell that, but for those of you who skipped every 2nd row and went straight to the end, here are a few takeouts to guide your way:

  • Plan, plan and finally, plan — you can’t get enough of that
  • Excellent integration is the key
  • Move fast and mitigate with your plan guidelines
  • Make your system work — the product needs to support it

That’s more or less my thoughts on engineering and system design. More to come as we move along our path.

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