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Company Talk Series

Company Talk Series: Embr

 

​​Next up in our company talk series is Ben Flaumenhaft, Senior Vice President of Engineering at Embr Labs, a Boston-based technology startup. With wearable thermal technology, Embr Labs brings personal temperature control to the masses.

With many years in the industry, Ben has a lot of knowledge to share, from his daily responsibilities, his experiences in hardware during the pandemic, and his thoughts on moving to new tools.

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How did you end up joining Embr around two years ago — and what was it like before Embr?

I started out as a software engineer for eight years or so. I ran a small software firm in the Bay Area and picked up my MBA in 2008. Since then, I've split my time jointly between engineering leadership, on the one hand, and operations and business management on the other.

I've held jobs at a bunch of startups and big companies working on software, electrical, MechE, highly integrated electromechanical products, a lot of robotics type of things, some IoT type of stuff, and some grab bag of other things that were none of those. Typically, it was either sort of leading product design and development or transitioning into early-stage contract manufacturing.

At Embr, I've been mostly focused on the engineering side. I had gotten to know those folks through casually consulting and giving them advice, and they ended up luring me in!

What's your typical day or week right now?

I straddle the line between software-hardware systems engineering, project engineering, QA and test, regulatory — a lot of different stuff. The day consists of a lot of meetings. Just tons of Slack and meetings, to be honest with you. I'm not really doing hands-on engineering work. It's more coordination, oversight, and trying to help out where I can.

How has the pandemic changed the way you collaborate with all these teams, including teams that are outside of your purview like marketing or finance?

It's remarkable that we managed to finish a round of integrated hardware-software product development during the pandemic.

There were a lot of ad hoc matters, like ‘can we ship this thing from one person's house to the other?’ ‘Can we rush to UPS in the middle of the day with masks on and try to get some new prototype piece of equipment?’ A lot of online stuff. Even five years earlier, I don't know how we would have been able to do this.

Being in the age of Zoom definitely helps! Do you have specific standard practices when it comes to communicating or collaborating with the team that you looked after?

It's a little more eclectic than I would like. We rely heavily on Jira, Asana, and Slack. Google Drive and Google Meet are really our bread and butter. Throughout the project, those were our main communication and collaboration tools.

We recently deployed Arena PLM system, and we've gradually moved a lot over to SaaS tools, like OnShape and web-based collaboration tools.

What about factories and external vendors? How do you regularly communicate with them? If it weren’t for COVID, would you usually fly there to communicate on designs?

We have a contract manufacturer in China, and we let them do a lot of sourcing on our behalf but we do a certain amount of it ourselves. The last 12 months have just been nuts from a supply chain perspective. It’s been really hard.

We literally launched our second gen product without a single visit to the factory, which is astounding. We would have definitely been there a lot more had it not been for COVID. There have been bumps that might have been avoided or easier to solve in person.

We do a lot over email and regular remote calls. And we use Asana; our vendors log into our Asana system, and that's gone pretty well.

What has the transition to your new tools been like? You had mentioned problems with management of different source files in Google Drive, and so forth. Have they been alleviated with these new tools?

I think those pain points are always there. But we do have solid tools and processes around them. If anything, we have too many tools; but they each do something complex and individual. It's still a lot of work managing versions and integrating these tools.

It seems that you guys are very cutting edge. Being a pretty young company, what do you think Embr does better than its competitors when it comes to actual hardware and software development?

We've done a good job of focusing on the benefits to our customers and creating something that addresses their concerns. We just launched the second gen where we really got the design piece right, which is an area of improvement over the first gen. We’ve addressed a real customer need and stayed focused on what we do well.

Also, our actual engineering work has been done solidly. We follow good development practices, we've got robust design control, we're properly tested and analyzed, we've done design FMEAs — a lot of stuff that a startup doesn't always do.