Archive for December, 2008

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Keep your resolution this year

December 28, 2008

This year, don’t just make a New Year’s resolution to work out and sign up for a gym membership. You need a commitment to keep you going. You need metrics to show you how well you’ve improved. 

Register for a marathon. Plan your year: a 10-miler in January, a half-marathon in May, and a marathon in October. 

Tell your friends about it. Even get them involved. Don’t be afraid to fail in front of them. You can’t fail. By showing up at all, you’ve succeeded in meeting your goal. 

Make this a year to remember. 

The Al Lewis 10-miler is on January 3rd. Hope to see you there.

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Designing an anal probe

December 24, 2008

If someone offered to pay you to design an anal probe, would you do it? I once made the decision to, and my life was never the same again. It turned out to be a very interesting project with a lot of mechanical challenges, and by the time my prostate turns 50, hopefully that work will have meant something. “How about some details?”, you ask. Just a second.

Since I design a lot of medical devices at Key Tech, there are definitely going to be projects coming across my desk that might make some people squirm. It certainly made me, at first, but this was not to be my last work in anal probes. I have since worked on the design of an endoscopic tool to treat hemmorhoids and other lesions using infrared coagulation, and I even got to see a couple of relevant procedures performed. I don’t mind designing a device to be inserted into the rectum, stick needles into the brain, or palpate an eyeball, and I always appreciate the chance to observe a real medical procedure. Maybe I have a little bit of morbid curiosity. Yes, I do, but I am also happy to work on cool stuff.

Now, without getting too graphic, a few project details.

Fabricated prototype of the helical transrectal needle insertion device

Fabricated prototype of the helical transrectal needle insertion device for prostate brachytherapy

In grad school, I designed a device that, using trans-rectal ultrasound imaging, could insert a needle through the rectum and into the prostate for the purpose of implanting radioactive “seeds” that kill the cancerous tissue. This procedure, known as brachytherapy, is normally done through the perineum. It’s painful because of a dense cluster of nerves at the site and not very accurate because of the much longer distance between the controlled insertion point and the target location. Our (myself and my advisors) hypothesis was that entering through the rectum would avoid those nerves and decrease the distance to the target, improving patient comfort and procedural accuracy. Preliminary testing on simulated tissue was inconclusive, meaning it wasn’t more accurate than the transperineal approach, but it should decrease pain and healing time. My work never made it to clinical trials, that I know of, so it’s impossible to quantify pain or healing time. That’s the 5-second summary, but if you want to see some calculations and read the details – there are absolutely NO pictures of anyone’s rectum, it’s all completely safe for work – then you can read my paper on the subject, which I also published and presented at ICRA 2004.

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Open-source my life

December 22, 2008

Not so long ago, much value was placed on keeping information private. For some things, it’s still a good idea: pictures of your kids, your social security number, what you’re buying your spouse for their birthday. Yet, web 2.0 communities like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and even WordPress thrive on people sharing tons of information about themselves online. The more information, the better. Preemptively answer, “How was your weekend?” with a few pictures and comments for your closest 200 friends. Everyone is a stalker, and based on the popularity of these communities, they love it. But, online communities are more than just cute pictures of your new puppy.

Software applications used to be developed behind closed doors and released with great fan-fare. Today, although its source-code is freely available online, the most popular internet browser is FireFox, a free, open-source application developed by independent programmers around the world. Yes, even with open access to its most formidable competitor’s code and tons of cash, Microsoft still can’t innovate a more popular product with Internet Explorer. Instead, a security flaw appears to be pushing customers away. And, the success of open-source software has been broadened to other venues.

MIT, Yale, UC Berkley, and Stanford all have two things in common: they are all Top 25 nationally ranked universities, and you can download thousands of their course offerings absolutely free. You can brush up on your Linear Algebra at MIT via streaming video, or you can podcast mp3’s from UC Berkley about the mating habits of a manta shrimp. What these universities grew to understand is that the value they offer is in the diploma, not the information. An MIT graduate hangs their diploma up to certify that according to MIT’s high standards, they learned everything they need to know to qualify as a geek (excuse me, “Electrical Engineer”). That degree might cost a pretty penny, but the information itself was among the stacks  in most public libraries.

If we haven’t yet fully understood our value, perhaps we’re selling ourselves short. If your value is quality or proven expertise, how much of an advantage is secrecy? For example, I once met a contract manufacturer specializing in thermoformed plastic that regularly provides a fairly comprehensive primer on designing parts for thermoforming.  Sure, he could try to sell you the service of optimizing your parts for you, but he’s instead giving you the knowledge to design the part yourself. If you can design a good thermoformed part, you might come back to him for manufacture, impressed by his expertise. Plus, it’s faster and cheaper for him to tool a part that’s been designed well, which makes him look better in the end.

Look around, consider your own business. Maybe you have some capital hidden away in your vault.

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Thoughts and feelings

December 17, 2008

I tend to make decisions based on reason, logic, and data whenever possible. Seems to make good sense to me, and it’s pretty reliable. As an engineer, I HAVE to use this technique professionally, as it’s pretty hard to quantify feelings and, thus, defend any decisions based on feelings. I don’t think I’d want to get in a car designed by someone who simply felt the brakes were strong enough.

So, I tend to get into the habit of analyzing data for every decision. But, it’s important to break habits sometimes. Keep instinct in the back of your mind as tool, maybe as a tie-breaker when all other things appear equal or maybe as way to keep yourself balanced.

When I made the decision to go back to school, the data seemed to say it was a bad idea. I’d have to give up my salary for two years, and I could only expect a $5,000 pay increase for the extra degree. Plus, I didn’t have a research fellowship when I started, so I was also paying for tuition, room, and board on my own. A lot to invest for a meager pay increase. However, I could see my career path going in a direction I wasn’t in love with, and I had a strong feeling I would be happier and more satisfied after developing a specialty.

Seven years later, I’ve never questioned that decision. There were a LOT of long nights, and weekends were filled with homework, but I’ve never been more challenged. And, I’ve never done the calculation of how the financial investment worked out. I don’t have to.

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That one great idea

December 15, 2008

As engineering consultants, we are approached by a lot of inventors that are looking to sell their great idea. Frequently, it’s novel, but sometimes, it’s an improvement on a product already on the market. Often, it involves some modification to a toilet seat because, let’s face it, that’s the only time many people have to just stop and think.

The issue is that it’s not terribly easy to get a meeting with the NPD people at Bemis Mfg.

We tell inventors that presenting intellectual property (IP) and a functioning prototype goes a long way toward selling an idea, particularly in the device market where we operate. The more risk you’ve driven out of the final product, the more value you’ve added. However, if you’ve proven the concept, shown some efficacy, or (DING! DING! DING!) commercialized a product and made a few bucks you have a much better shot at getting a meeting.

As Seth Godin pointed out, getting that meeting is only half the job. You still have to sell the idea. However, if it was a good enough idea to convince you to invest your own time and money, maybe it’s not that hard.

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The art of communication

December 10, 2008

My family went to North Carolina this weekend. With two small kids, the drive can quickly become an all-day affair. With my wife getting bored in the car, she took the opportunity to explore one of the personality compatibility webapps on her iPhone. It’s about as sophisticated as a teen magazine, but luckily enough, the app says we’re compatible (whew!). Best of all, since we answered certain questions the same, we should have an easy time communicating and an intuitive understanding of the other person’s concerns. Well, let’s just say there’s been a miscommunication or two over 5 years of marriage.

In business, many of my clients are often engineers, or maybe they’ve been one in a previous life. Maybe they’ve even worked in product development for 10 years. So, we have a lot in common; it would seem we’re even speaking the same language. However, I’ve found that no matter how many similarities there are between you, it’s all too easy for two people to be on different wavelengths. It may even take special effort just to realize that fact alone, much less correct it.

Sometimes, this fact can be exacerbated by the use of email. After all, if there’s any question down the road about who said what and when, I can just point to an email I sent notifying you of the change. But, having something said and having something heard can be two wildly different things.

Communicate early, and communicate often. speak clearly (leave out the jargon). LISTEN AND ASK QUESTIONS. Repeat.

If I tell you something, and you don’t understand, it’s my fault.

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Good afternoon. How can I help you?

December 8, 2008

Are you listening to your customers? Are you there for them?

Do your customers always have to go through a phone-tree before talking to a live person? If a random person calls from Baltimore with a question about your product but your Maryland sales rep is out until tomorrow, does your operator put the potential customer into his voice-mail or forwarded to your rep for Texas because she just got back from lunch? Is there a difference between an automated phone-tree and a misdirected live one?

Are you paying expensive experts for market research, surveys, studies, etc. in an attempt to learn what the customer might want from your product but discouraging their free, willing, and applicable feedback on your current products through a cumbersome customer service menu, long hold-times (more than 30 seconds), or (gasp!) an email form and an unpublished phone number?

Is it easier to sell to a new client or make a sale to an existing client that’s treated well and happy with your products?

Just a few things to think about when deciding how to answer the phone.