How Springboard has increased applications from female engineers and scientists (Part 3 of 3)

This blog originally appeared on the Cambridge Association for Women in Science and Engineering website.

In my previous blog I discussed how women can help male leaders to realise the value of their individual strengths and the potential for diversifying their work force beyond the usual range of characteristics that they look for. This article goes on to look at how we changed our recruitment process in light of this new realisation, and the dramatic results that followed.

We started with increasing our ability to understand what mattered to various people in their professional careers. We split the problem into three steps: recruitment, retention, and promotion. It rapidly became obvious that we had to start at the first of these, and then shift focus upwards as the benefits moved up through the company.

Keith Turner

We introduced several changes to our recruitment process. Adverts were updated to remove gendered language. For example, saying “We are looking for candidates with outstanding technical skills” seemed just an honest request to me, but I came to realise that some really good candidates would be put off because they weren’t confident that they would meet the requirement. All candidates were given a guidance document to help them prepare. Upon arrival, they got a tour by a member of staff similar to themselves who could act as a role model. Candidates were asked to start talking about one of their own projects, to help get into the swing of the interview before tackling the more challenging technical questions. We spoke at more length in the interview about the many training and mentoring opportunities at our company.

All this was progress in the right direction, but it didn’t really get to the root of the problem, which was insufficient applications from women. If they don’t apply, we can’t offer them jobs. So our focus turned to how to get more women to apply for our jobs.

We started a ‘Women in Technical Consultancy’ scheme, with the aim of reaching out in a personal way to potential applicants. The key attribute of this scheme is a variety of soft ways to get to know the company before taking the step of applying and coming for interview. For example, applicants are welcome to have an informal phone call, or drop by for coffee and a look around. We give talks at the university and hold open evenings at our labs. There are internship options as a possible first step to something longer-term, and there is the potential for 6 – 18 month placements. The literature for the scheme also makes prominent reference to some of the great features of our company: our ethical policy, STEM and outreach work, focus on learning. Every person in our company loves these features, male and female alike, so why not make it known in a way that attracts candidates?

Lucy Bennett did a placement at Springboard. Find out more about her experience in part 2 of this blog.

The scheme has been a satisfying success. Applications from women grew every year, starting originally at 13% and rising, four years later, to 33%. And so now that we’ve got many more applying, and a great interview process, we are starting to get some cracking members of staff joining us thanks to this initiative. With that part of the process showing results, we are able to move onto the later stages of retainment and promotion. I’m looking forward to that challenge!

The key to this success is for the manager to put themselves inside the heads of the candidates. It is really not that difficult, if only the manager has a sufficiently open mind to give it a try, which many don’t. I tend to think of it like this: applying for a job is scary. You might be asked things you don’t know. You might be rejected. You might make a silly mistake. We can all relate to that, men and women alike. So by making the application process a little gentler, and allowing confidence to build steadily over several touch points, candidates are more able to perform at their best. This is a good thing for all candidates, and helps us get high quality people including those who were always good enough, but find it hard to prove in the interview.

How to help others understand your personal strengths during an interview (Part 2 of 3)

This blog originally appeared on the Cambridge Association for Women in Science and Engineering website.

In the previous blog I talked about the idea of women conveying the value of their strong personal characteristics to help make the benefits obvious to male colleagues. What would be an example of this? And how can you take control of the situation yourself?

Let’s imagine you’re in an interview, and you’ve just been asked a difficult technical question. What sort of reaction does the interviewer want to see? Personally, I look for a resourceful, intelligent and slightly humble answer. I hope to see good solid baseline academic knowledge of the subject. Then I like to see candidates expand on that knowledge, perhaps by giving examples of where they have seen relevant technical use of the knowledge in industrial process or products. I am even more impressed when candidates can put the first two together to make an educated guess at the answer to the question along with some predictions of likely areas of difficulty. The icing on the cake is when the candidate explains how they have tackled something relevant in the past, and are able to admit what went wrong and how they have learned from the experience to do it better next time.

Dr Keith Turner

I can still remember one of the early interviews where the answer was roughly as follows. First, the candidate threw up some equations, apparently unconcerned that a few were wrong. Then he talked about the time he mended his motorbike, before making a not-very-accurate guess at the answer. I appreciated his willingness to have a go, but really it wasn’t a particularly impressive answer and I was worried that he might be bluffing. More recently we had a much quieter candidate who gave only very limited explanations of the underlying science, and didn’t expand into real-world examples. When we coaxed her through the question, she did actually know the equations, but it was hard work to draw the knowledge out. I suspect given sufficient time, she would go away and work it out accurately and check each step, but there wasn’t the opportunity to show that in the interview format.

You can help the interviewer by being yourself. For some candidates, their advantage could be diligence and honesty, so a good answer could go like this: “Hmm, that’s a difficult question. I know from my university course that the fundamental equation is xyz. There’s another important extension to that theory which is more accurate. I can’t recall it right now, but I would go and look that up to make sure it’s accurate and then apply it to this problem. I haven’t made a widget like this myself before, but can I tell you about a different practical challenge I have faced which I think shows the same range of skills? I once made a dongle out of material x because I wanted to learn more about machining that type of substance. It didn’t work first time because the holes were too big. This is because I didn’t allow for shrinkage in that material, so now I always find out about the things that might go wrong and then check with someone else before spending any money.”

Lucy Bennett talks about her year at Springboard. She hopes this movie will inspire others!

An answer along these lines would indicate to me a candidate who has a solid attitude backed up with examples of technical credibility. You could even prepare your own private case study of some practical and theoretical work and then weave it into whichever question you are asked.
Perception is in the eye of the observer, and the more you can do to show the employer that your skills are valuable to them, the more chance you will have of success.

Lucy Bennett at work at Springboard

This initiative by the candidate to ensure the employer understands their strengths is one of the two strategies to improve diversity in the recruitment process. The other is to mitigate unconscious bias on the part of the employer. My journey of discovery on that matter is the subject of the next blog.

Male leaders need your help to address gender inequality in the workplace – here’s how (Part 1 of 3)

This blog originally appeared on the Cambridge Association for Women in Science and Engineering website.

Women make up 50% of the population, 15% of the engineering graduates, but only 11% of the engineering workforce. We are missing out on huge amounts of talent which is desperately needed in our workplaces. So what can we do about it?

In my experience, it is pretty rare to find deliberate discrimination towards female workers. Most professional managers I know are just trying their best to find the right people to do high quality work for their clients. But unconscious bias can creep in unseen. Everyone has got their own personal experience of life on which to draw, and this means that men and women naturally relate to the strengths that have helped them achieve their own successes. One of the key challenges to tackling unconscious bias is to open people’s eyes to the benefits of characteristics which they don’t have themselves. It can be remarkably difficult to persuade people to do this.

Dr Keith Turner

Here’s an analogy. Humans can see colours from red to violet. Bees have a spectrum shifted to shorter wavelengths, and can see from orange through to ultra-violet. As a result, many flowers have developed ultra-violet colours to attract pollinating bees. Now, if I choose a bunch of flowers as a gift for my mother, am I going to visit the shop armed with a UV light so I can pick one with beautiful UV patterns? Of course not. I am a human, and I am going to value the colours that I can see, especially those that my mother appreciated last time. Am I discriminating against bees? Not at all. In fact I like bees. They are good for the environment and make honey. It’s just that their view of my mother’s flowers isn’t relevant and so doesn’t even enter my mind. On the other hand, if I want to select a gift of flowers for my mother to put in her garden, then I really ought to give a bit more consideration to the bees’ visual spectrum. Otherwise, she’s going to have no pollination and a barren flower bed.

Katya Goodwin describes what a gap year at Springboard has done for her.

So to help companies gain the benefits of diversifying the workforce, one important thing people can do at work is to try to help future colleagues to understand the value of their individual strengths.

I personally have gone through a great learning curve on this. Through various experiences and conversations, I have come to appreciate with great clarity the strength diversity amongst the team adds to our business. In much the same way as natural selection does in nature, diversity adds quality and durability to the solutions we produce. I reached a stage where I actively wanted to seek out that diversity. But how to do so was a remarkably difficult challenge, which I now realise required two strategies. One is to help women to be aware that any colleague is subject to unconscious bias, so they need to make their strengths obvious. The second is to change the company’s approach to mitigate that unconscious bias.

Katya Goodwin at work at Springboard

The good thing about the first strategy is that it is largely under the control of the individual, so in the next blog I’ll talk in more detail about how candidates can make their strengths obvious to interviewers during the recruitment process.

Strategies for faster R&D: Change one variable at a time

 

When the Wright brothers were trying to make their great aeronautical leap forward, they didn’t just throw feathers and motors at the problem to see what happened. Rather they tried to determine which of the three key challenges to mastering flight was most critical: wings, engines or control? Looking at the effect of changing one variable at a time helped them to determine that the critical weakness was in control, meaning that they could innovate in this aspect and set the way to their landmark achievement.

Wright brothers

It brings to mind a project where we were developing a cryosurgery probe to kill breast tumours by freezing. We had a functioning system that worked off a heavy gas cylinder but had recently made the exciting discovery that a simple 1 litre flask could be used to drive the probe directly from liquid nitrogen. This was easier to use, smaller, and cheaper, and so a sure-fire commercial advantage for our client. However, when we scaled our new technology up to full size it didn’t work. It wasn’t just slow, it was completely hopeless, and failed to get even remotely cool to the touch. Yet the only difference was the size.

But was it? The new flask was bigger, that’s true. But actually, the bung that sealed it was also a larger diameter. It was also deeper. And it was a different material. And the dip tube was longer to reach to the bottom of the larger flask.

On reflection, there was quite a lot different about the new system, and we had changed it all at once. This meant we didn’t know which thing we had to change to resolve the problem. There was a deadline approaching, and it was tempting to just jump to the end and try stuff in the hope it would work, but with planning we figured that we had a chance to solve the problem in two weeks by starting with the working miniature system and changing one feature per day until we had created the large system. 10 days, 10 features- surely one of those would be the key?

On day 1, we machined a new bung for the small flask out of the same material as we were using for the scaled-up system. It worked perfectly. On day 2 we scaled it up to the larger diameter- still great. On day 3 we extended the dip tube- still chugging along nicely. On day 4 we machined a deeper bung… nothing. A complete failure to freeze. It was now a simple deduction that the deep mass of rubber was sinking heat into our cryoprobe and preventing it from freezing. We added insulation around the tube as it passed through the bung and made ourselves a perfectly working full-size system. All in less than a week, which means we still had time to write the final report for our client who was visiting the next week.

This technique is widely used in science, and is particularly powerful when you have one prototype that you know works, but can’t figure out why another comes up short. If changing one variable at a time does not reveal the problem, there is probably one or more interactions between the variables. We can use techniques in a field of engineering called Design of Experiments to reveal them, but that is a subject for another day.

In the next article we look at how to speed up the development cycle by saving tooling until later.

Please contact Keith Turner if you think we could help you or if you would like to be alerted to the next strategy.

Strategies for faster R&D: High speed video

When the world’s fastest men competed for the 100m Olympic gold medal in Athens, 2004, four athletes crossed the line in a blur. But the event organisers didn’t just squint and pick a winner. Rather, they used high speed video to slow down the motion and changed the method of observation so that it became clear that the new champion was Justin Gatlin.

Olympics

It brings to mind a project I once worked on where we were trying to control air flows inside a dry powder inhaler. The powder kept ending up in the wrong place, and nobody knew why. We had tried different geometries, but to no avail. Finite element modelling hadn’t helped either.

“You can’t see what’s going on because it’s opaque”, people said. Well, true to a point, but with only a little effort it was easy to prototype transparent parts and set up a video camera at 2000 frames per second to visualise the particles. It was beautiful, and you could see each particle whirling about on its journey from the hopper to its final resting place stuck on the side wall. It soon became apparent that the problem started as the particles crossed a particular join in the moulding. This enabled us to focus our attention on that particular problem spot, and we soon found a leak. It was then a simple engineering job to seal the leak and recover the performance that was expected.

We have used high speed video on numerous projects at frame rates over 100,000 per second. Sophisticated techniques can be used to quantify stresses in moving parts and relate their behaviour to material properties. There are also more sophisticated variations, such as stroboscopes and particle image velocimetry, which uses pulsed lasers to visualise the movement of particles over tens of microseconds.

Have you ever had your prototype working, only to see it do something unexpected in its next iteration? In the next article, we look at a technique for staying at the best performance.

Please contact Keith Turner if you think we could help you or if you would like to be alerted to the next strategy.

Strategies for faster R&D: Critical Observation

Nearly 200 years after its inception, Darwin’s theory of evolution still lives as one of science’s greatest breakthroughs. Yet Darwin made this monumental advance in understanding without the use of any computer, internet, or modelling software. He used direct, critical observation and a sceptical mind.

Darwins finches

It brings to mind an occasion when I was trying to work out why an ink-jet filter was blocking. The blue pigment sludge that built up on the filter over 30 minutes was causing the printhead to fail way short of its 100 day lifetime target. We had tried all the obvious things: bigger holes, shaking the mesh, scraping it clean, measuring the reduction in flow-rate, but all without success.

Because the pigment particles were only 1 micron across, we found it hard to work out what was going on. But is it really that difficult? There was a microscope on the bench next door and one of those swan lights that lets you change the illumination angle. With some new brackets and a special transparent cap, it was possible to set the filter up and running on the microscope and watch the particles. As they approached the mesh, some would stick to the wire material. Then the next would stick to the first particle, and another until long chains were formed that bridged the hole and it blocked. Then I tested a mesh with smaller holes and to my amazement, it actually took longer to block. As the particles approached the small holes, they sped up to get through the restriction, rather like a rapid in a river. All this extra speed caused them to dislodge other stuck particles and prevent blockage.

So the answer was to make the holes smaller, not bigger! And it was understood simply by looking very carefully.

In a modern lab there are all sorts of ways to help you look. Optical microscopes, electron microscopes, laser strobe systems are just a few of them.

In the next article, we look at one particularly useful way to assist critical observation.

Please contact Keith Turner if you think we could help you or if you would like to be alerted to the next strategy.

Strategies for faster R&D

Could you really cut R&D times by a factor of five?

Senior R&D managers are constantly under pressure to deliver their new innovations to the market. A plan with stage gates is agreed: proof of principle; detailed design; verification; validation; launch in 18 months from now. But it is frequent that five years later, despite everyone’s best efforts, the product still isn’t on the market. A new plan is in place to launch in 18 months from now.

Does this sound familiar? If it does, you are not alone. Executives want to reward those who can cut time to market yet many innovations get stuck in a cycle of insufficient performance, unexpected failures and unacceptable cost. Months turn into years.

At Springboard we employ strategies to reduce these timescales and we repeatedly find that five-year old problems can indeed be overcome in a year. The trick is not to deal with the string of problems more quickly, but to avoid them all together. In the coming months, we will be sharing some of these strategies through a series of blog articles. If you’d like an alert when the next article is released, contact Keith Turner and ask to be sent the link or connect on LinkedIn.

Springboard is a technical consultancy that solves difficult engineering and physics problems in short timescales, helping companies to get successful innovations to market more quickly.

Strategies for faster R&D

Could you really cut R&D times by a factor of five?

Senior R&D managers are constantly under pressure to deliver their new innovations to the market. A plan with stage gates is agreed: proof of principle; detailed design; verification; validation; launch in 18 months from now. But it is frequent that five years later, despite everyone’s best efforts, the product still isn’t on the market. A new plan is in place to launch in 18 months from now.

Image result for angry boss

Does this sound familiar? If it does, you are not alone. Executives want to reward those who can cut time to market yet many innovations get stuck in a cycle of insufficient performance, unexpected failures and unacceptable cost. Months turn into years.

At Springboard we employ strategies to reduce these timescales and we repeatedly find that five-year old problems can indeed be overcome in a year. The trick is not to deal with the string of problems more quickly, but to avoid them all together. Keith Turner has written the following series of articles describing some of the most common techniques.

Critical observation

High speed video

Change one variable at a time

Save tooling for later

Break it into manageable steps

Springboard is a technical consultancy that solves difficult engineering and physics problems in short timescales, helping companies to get successful innovations to market more quickly.

3 sure steps to faster R&D

Are you an R&D manager who would like to get your products to market more quickly?

You may have suffered project delays such as: just can’t get it working; people seem to be busy on other things; you thought it was all fine but after it was all tooled problems started to occur.

Or the worst one of all: a product recall because of an adverse patient safety event.

Everyone wants to avoid problems like these, but the big question is how can you greatly increase the chances of success?

Here’s one good answer:

Many organisations go straight in to step 2. Design the product, do a few tests and then commission production tooling. But often, the production environment is slightly different from R&D. A few changes are made. Aspects that “just worked” before, now “don’t always work”. Problems grow and it is mighty painful to iterate your design within the constraints of already-made tooling. You can spend ages trying to get it to work with minor modifications, and eventually accept that you have to spend that $5m on tooling and automation again. Ouch.

Step 1 is the key to fast, low-cost R&D. If it costs, say $100k to properly understand the science, that is peanuts compared to spending the $5m twice for step 3. A good understanding comes not only from scientific insight, but rigorous and methodical testing of the failure modes, backed up by sufficient statistical evaluation to be sure you have confidence in the results.

Very many companies I work with don’t do step 1 to sufficient detail. As a result, they often suffer delays of, quite literally, many years. For a product worth $50m a year, it’s mad to suffer that loss for the sake of a few $100k up front for a few months. So my advice is to invest effort in step 1 to reduce risk as much as you can. Get the best people you can find to do so. And make sure that when you spend the big money in step 3, you are certain that you’re only going to do it once.

Springboard’s primary school partner gains national science award

Springboard believes in inspiring the next generation of scientists and so engages in outreach activities at all ages. For the youngest children, we work with Fen Drayton primary school to run an after-school science club in autumn term. The aim of the club is to encourage the most enthusiastic scientists in Year 6 to go beyond what they learn in school and do “real science”, and was run last year by our Year in Industry student, Lucy Bennet. We also contributed to their science day by purchasing safety glasses and running one of the experiments.

Fen Drayton has been working hard on a number of science initiatives, and this was recently recognised when they were awarded the Primary Science Quality Mark, a UK-wide scheme to enable primary schools to evaluate, strengthen and celebrate their science provision. Engagement with outside organisations such as our company gained a specific commendation in their report:

“You have really embraced the value and importance of enriching your provision for science and have organised an impressive programme of visits, visitors and activities for your pupils. You are now working on using these experiences to develop the pupils’ science capital and their awareness of where science learning can take them in the future.”

We are proud to be part of the invigorating and outward-looking scientific community of Cambridge, and would like to congratulate Fen Drayton on the award which will help to inspire the next generation of scientists for Cambridge and beyond.