Wanted for hire: Engineers with ideas of their own

Cambridge Consultants depends on the creativity of its engineers to solve problems for its clients.

It’s a playground for engineers inside the new offices of Cambridge Consultants.

The UK-based firm recently relocated its U.S. headquarters to Boston, where it plans to expand headcount from 30 people today to more than 100 over the next three years (the company currently has 400 employees worldwide).

"We're looking for engineers of all different disciplines -- software engineers, mechanical engineers, electronics engineers, program managers. There's a whole breadth of high quality jobs being created by the move,” says David Bradshaw, a director at Cambridge Consultants.

The 54-year-old firm’s specialty is product development. "Clients tell us about a problem they're facing in the marketplace. That might be a competitive threat that they want to respond to, it might be some IP protection that they need to build, or they might be worrying about an expiring patent. We apply technology to solve that problem for them," Bradshaw says.

To foster that kind of innovation, Cambridge Consultants outfitted its new Boston offices with state-of-the-art laboratories and development resources. The 20,000-square-foot facility includes an anechoic chamber, which engineers can use as a radio test facility to improve performance of the wireless products they develop, for example. There’s also a simulated operating room and rapid prototyping shops for making mechanical products and electronics. (See photos of the new space plus recent projects here: How one firm makes beer and basketball better)

"We built a new space all around the everything-under-one-roof mentality. So no longer do engineers have to go out to the hospital to test something in a representative environment. No longer do you have to wait two weeks to book a wireless test facility. No longer do you have to send out parts to be made," Bradshaw says. "You can do a complete design iteration -- design, build, verify in the wireless chamber, test in the operating room -- in one day, with all of your team around you. It's an incredibly efficient way to work."

Visitors to the new Boston office (designed by Sasaki Associates) can see glimpses of the high-tech labs from the reception area. That’s intentional, Bradshaw says. "We're not as well known in the States yet as we are in Europe. We need to be able to really effectively and efficiently deliver the message of what we are, what we do, and what are our values within the first few seconds of walking in the door."

So who does Cambridge Consultants want to see walk through the door? Hiring managers tend to look for people who are naturally curious, with an entrepreneurial spirit, Bradshaw says. “The ‘lifelong learner’ is one way that I like to describe this group of people,” he says. “People who are intellectually hungry always want to stay ahead of their game."

At a time when certain engineering skills are in high demand, recruiting is difficult, and employers lament a shortage of technical talent, Cambridge Consultants knows it has to win over prospective hires. "It's incredibly competitive,” Bradshaw says of the engineering job market in the Boston area. “We're in a fortunate position that we have a really fantastic story."

The firm’s story is, in a word, variety.

Talented engineers tend to get bored doing the same thing for any length of time, Bradshaw says, and Cambridge Consultants offers exposure to different technologies, industry areas, and clients. One day an engineer might be working on wireless implant technology for a start-up company, and then the next project might be a surgical robot.

“It's really the case that no two projects we do are remotely alike, and they're all at the cutting edge of technology,” he says. “If you're the type of person who wants to learn and wants to stay current, and gets bored doing the same thing all the time -- that type of person finds our business incredibly refreshing."

anechoic chamber

Cambridge Consultants' anechoic chamber

Another key lure for top talent is Cambridge Consultants’ corporate development program, which allows engineers and scientists to pursue their own project ideas.

"Being a consulting company, we sell our hours to our clients. Obviously we carry a surplus of those hours, and we need to find a productive way of using them. What better way than to let the staff be creative on their own ideas? This gives them an outlet to develop in an area that interests them," Bradshaw says. “It leads to better retention, because people are working on things that they're genuinely passionate about. That's the whole idea of the program."

The parameters aren't completely open-ended; the firm tries to find some correlation to what the business is trying to achieve, he says.

"That teaches our people to take some corporate responsibility in these things as well,” Bradshaw says. “So we don't just get a crazy array of things that we would never be interested in. We tend to get things that are well thought through and are strategically aligned to what we're trying to do as a business."

To ensure that people have time to pursue these side projects, it’s built into the company’s annual planning process. The leadership team reserves 5% to 10% of the firm’s overall engineering hours for these activities, even without knowing the focus of the projects.

Over the years, the corporate development program has resulted in more than 20 spinouts. Bluetooth specialist CSR, for instance, was spun out from Cambridge Consultants’ corporate development program. "It was a discussion between two of our engineers, in the company canteen, having lunch. One had just been working on some silicon technology, and the other had just been working on some software communications technology,” Bradshaw recounts. “They were discussing their projects, and they realized that if they combined both bits of new-found expertise, they could find a way of creating the world's first single-chip Bluetooth solution. The whole business was born from that conversation."

More recently, a side project resulted in the creation of Aveillant, which was spun out from Cambridge Consultants in 2011. Aveillant’s holographic radar technology -- which is being used to control radar inference in the wind energy industry – grew out of work a team was doing to prevent auto collisions. An engineer had an idea for applying the technology in a new area and ran with it.

When employees pursue projects that interest them, it benefits the company as well. “These people are training themselves as they're doing this work. They're educating themselves, often going out and finding out about new areas and actually indirectly contributing to the company strategy as these programs are undertaken."

Bradshaw credits the firm’s corporate culture with making these program work.

“We have a corporate culture of empowering individuals very early on in their careers. We take great people on, we trust them, and we empower them. That gives people the confidence to have these discussions, to believe they can achieve something, to not be afraid to bring their ideas to a manager or somebody who's actually then able to make an investment decision based on that. It's very much an accepted and encouraged part of what we do."

Cambridge Consultants recently sent two engineers to India, where they observed 25 operating-room procedures in different Indian hospitals over a two-week period.

“These guys were really passionate about developing projects for the emerging market, and they wanted to immerse themselves in that environment," Bradshaw says. "The return on investment is fantastic. We've now got two really clued up people on what life in an Indian hospital is really like. We have two very happy people because they're pursuing exactly what they're interested in. I have a report coming out that informs our clients about what they need to consider when they're developing products for emerging markets.”

 “We're achieving many objectives through one action."


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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