Nick Sohn on applying cross-functional skills in systems engineering

Meet Nick Sohn, who leads our SLA integration team. Nick studied at a liberal arts school that happened to have an engineering department. There, he immersed himself in biology, philosophy, and linguistics. We discussed how Nick transitioned from working with sea lions to Formlabs on the print process team and evolved into a systems engineering leadership role.

What did you end up doing after school?

I spent a summer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute as a systems engineering intern, building desktop pressure simulator apparatuses for optimizing depth controllers. After that, I returned to school to clean up my research, presented in Sweden, moved to Boston to look for work, and got a job at Formlabs.

I hear you have wrestled sea lions. Is that true?

(laughs) It is! I used to work at the Marine Rescue Mammal Center, a rehabilitation hospital in Sausalito. A lot of it was animal husbandry — cleaning and feeding — but we’d also help the vet techs examine and restrain the animals. I’d jump on top of a sea lion and keep it down so they could do the tests they needed to do. I think restraining is a more appropriate word than wrestling. For a long time, I wanted to be a marine biologist.

Let’s talk about when you started working for Formlabs. What role were you hired for?

I was hired as a Print Process intern. There were about 40 people in the company then. This was after Form 1 launched and we were starting work on the Form 1+. The team was 2 people and there wasn’t too much structure. The directive was something like “Here, learn some stuff and then figure out how to make the printer work better.”

My job was essentially to identify edge cases where the printer struggled with a user’s geometry. I looked into artifacts like compromised thin walls for enclosed cavities and rastering artifacts on horizontal artifacts. As a team, we were growing out our SLA knowledge and picking up new skills and ideas from each other. Most of the skills I regularly use today I learned from other people at Formlabs. That’s part of what makes Formlabs a special place to work — we attract talented people who are invested in having the tools they build work and help others understand them.

Now you’re doing systems engineering. How did you transition?

I thought a systems engineer was somebody who worked on customer requirements and product requirements to understand how the pieces all fit together at a high level, and then get the design teams to sign off.

What I’m doing is a little different. There isn’t an exact analogy for my role. It’s similar in that I work with people who design things, mostly by helping them figure out solutions outside of their primary wheelhouse. Formlabs adds a unique emphasis (for consumer products) on early design validation and testing, and making sure our products work before they hit the field. It turns out that’s a whole job in of itself.

What does a typical day of a systems engineer look like?

For anyone working on a hardware design project, it is important to stay involved, understand what you’re doing, and consistently test what is important. Right now, I have projects where I run the experiment myself and others where I check in with whoever is running it, look at data and ask: “Does this look right”? Does the data tell us the story we expect to see?’ It’s a mix of running my own tests versus checking in with different people and the projects they’re working on, and ensuring product features are on the right track.

What’s the most difficult thing about working at Formlabs?

There are many difficult and challenging things. Because my role is so cross disciplinary, I end up working with people who have very different goals. The goal can be making parts come out dimensionally accurate or come out fast, or on the other side, being able to sell certain features to certain customers and user bases. Getting people on the same page and making sure we ship a product that works can be challenging. People have differing opinions on what level of validation you need for a feature to go out or how complex a feature needs to be. Plus we’re growing very quickly.

It is important we continue to balance having enough structure where people can be successful in their jobs and not be left behind, but also not so much structure that it prevents us from doing the things that we need to do.

With these challenges, what makes you still work here today?

A large part is the people who are pretty talented and the culture of continual learning. It is great that our CEO is an engineer and not someone trying to extract as much money as possible from the company. It would be easy to take our products, lower costs, sell them, and sail for awhile. It is refreshing and nice to see that while we are not going to start from ground zero, we are rethinking fundamental strategy, redesigning the hardware platform, and we’re willing to take risks to push the technology forward. We did it with the Form 2 and we’ll continue to do it with future products. I think we do a good job of continuing to innovate and solve new and hard problems. That keeps me around.

When did you know that you made the right decision to work here?

When I started, I wasn’t convinced that the Form 1 actually worked from hearing about the failure modes, printing with it, and seeing how finicky it was. I wasn’t sure it was a super-solid product. After the company launched the Form 1+ and I personally got into a groove of finding problems, seeing fixes get deployed, and helping people, I had an epiphany.

I saw that 1) this product actually works. It’s not a coincidence that we got a couple of machines that did something and 2) you can make a pretty big impact at Formlabs. There’s not a lot of red tape preventing change.

When you are interviewing people, what is important to you?

I look for how deeply engaged they are in their work. I’m looking for candidates who go beyond what’s asked of them and deeply understand the system they’re working with. Someone who can tell you the ins and outs of how their system worked, and especially parts that they didn’t directly work on, will probably do well at Formlabs. Aside from that, I’m interested in people who are comfortable reasoning about physical systems, telling you their assumptions, why they think a certain way, and have a methodical process of getting to a solution. For technical challenges, I tell people that we’re more interested in the process and understanding why you did something than getting the ‘right’ answer.

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