Reward the team first. Simple things like waiting for the whole team to assemble before digging into lunch builds a culture of respect. Of course, you bonus the team first before the CEO or execs. CEO and execs get pay cuts before the team when times are tough.
I had the pleasure to interview Ian Campbell the CEO of OnScale. Ian is a venture-backed Silicon Valley CEO and expert in MEMS and semiconductor technology. Prior to joining OnScale, Campbell served as founder and CEO of NextInput where he led the startup through multiple rounds of funding (totaling $12M and an additional $4M in research contracts with government and industry partners) and built a world class team of engineers and scientists who developed 3D Touch and ForceTouch technologies for smartphones, wearables, industrial and automotive applications. He also secured the first major smartphone OEM design wins. Campbell earned his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Middle Tennessee State University, his MSAE in Aerospace Engineering and MBA from Georgia Institute of Technology.
Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?
I’m an engineer. I received a BS in Mechanical Engineering at Middle Tennessee State University and earned dual masters degrees at Georgia Tech (Aerospace Engineering and MBA). My first job as an engineer was designing robotic assembly lines for major OEMs — highly automated systems with sensors, robots, actuators, etc. and what kids these days would call “Machine Learning”. I worked at the world-renowned Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory (ASDL) at Georgia Tech designing UAVs (Unmanned Arial Vehicles, what kids these days call “drones”), and I engineered all aspects of several UAVs we built and flew for research purposes. I used Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD solvers, some of which I wrote) to optimize airflow over wings and other parts of the aircraft. I used CAD (computer-aided design) and FEA (finite element analysis) tools to optimize parts of the aircraft. I designed and implemented embedded systems (small, low power CPUs and MCUs connected to sensors) to actually autonomously fly the aircraft, and I helped PhD researchers implement flight control algorithms — some of which are in use by the US Airforce, Navy, Army, and other three-letter government agencies I can’t discuss.
After I earned my MBA I entered the business world and consulted with Microsoft for two years, but couldn’t get rid of my engineering and entrepreneurial itch, so I started a company called NextInput with a fellow Georgia Tech PhD, Dr. Ryan Diestelhorst, to commercialize novel MEMS force sensor technology for smartphone applications (3D Touch and ForceTouch). I worked for NextInput for five years — starting out as founder/CEO, leading the company through multiple fundraising rounds and ultimately getting our technology into smartphones.
A key bottleneck for us at NextInput was always our CAE tools. They were expensive, slow, and ultimately didn’t get us the data we needed to make the most informed engineering decisions. We always had to physically prototype rather than virtually prototype — that’s a really hard, expensive, time-consuming way to see if your device design will work or not (and many times, the our prototypes did not work). If we had had OnScale back then, we literally could have saved millions of dollars in prototyping costs and reduced our time-to-market by years.
In 2017, I left NextInput to join the fantastic team at OnScale — Robbie, Gerry, Andy, and the solver/GUI team (about 8 people). Together, we created OnScale by putting the team’s multiphysics solvers on the Cloud. We grew the company to now over 25 people with $4.4M in funding.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
So many funny memories! I think the funniest personal moment I had is when I went to Scotland to visit the UK team for the first time and they were surprised I didn’t have a Scottish accent (they assumed I was Scottish since I’m Ian Douglas Campbell — a VERY Scottish name). I even met a guy at Scottish Enterprises who knew the real Ian Campbell (Duke of Argyle). I also met a guy at a pub there who told me I should be careful who I introduced myself to (apparently, Clan Campbell had a bit of a reputation that I’m still just learning about).
I’d also include our “engineering jokes of the week” that we do at our team lunches every Monday. Some of those are pretty hilarious , like:
- “what’s the difference between a mechanical engineer and a civil engineer? A mechanical engineer designs weapons and a civil engineer designs targets”
- To a philosopher, the glass is either half full or half empty. To an engineer, the glass was poorly designed (too large)
We also like Panda videos (and videos of other animals, but primarily pandas). We always close our Monday lunches with a funny video.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
We have an amazing team split up over three time zones and two countries (UK and USA). We work very effectively together — one recent example is a customer requesting a new feature (a pretty daunting feature). Our engineering team captured the customer input, translated it into dev requirements (a product spec), the dev team grabbed it and added it to their sprint (we’re full Agile), and we had a prototype feature to the customer in two weeks. Customer loved it and is now spreading the news around inside their organization!
There are a few critical methods to sync a large team:
- Communicate — sync often to avoid rework or duplicating efforts. Establish clear roles and set clear expectations. Keep meetings short and sweet.
- Delegate — don’t try to do everything yourself, share the load with the team. The flip side of this is to watch for when team members get overloaded and (gracefully) take things off their plate so they can focus. Our managers/leaders are trained to do this.
- Focus — speaking of focus, make sure the team is aggressively “filtering the noise” — focusing on the 20% of things that will make 80% of the difference to the company and simply not doing the other 80% of things that are just busy work.
What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?
I think a thing a lot of internationally dispersed teams don’t think about is the value of a face-to-face meeting. I believe it’s super important that one of our execs is physically in our UK office every month to get a read on the team morale, what’s working, what’s not, and to get them pumped up about what we’re doing. It’s really easy for teams to feel isolated from HQ and not feel important or valued (I’ve found that to be true in my first company as well). An in-person visit (even a brief one) is a great way to reemphasize the overall team/company vision, answer questions, handle any issues, etc.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Be a servant leader. Focus on getting the team the resources they need — physical resources, new hires, etc. Keep the morale high with frequent “lunch and learns”, “beer Wednesdays”, etc. Develop some culture with fun/interesting side stories — we hand out little awards like the “Mohawk of Awesomeness” when team member does something great or the “Poop Emoji Pillow” when a team member does something dumb to poke a little gentle fun — I’ve received the Poop Emoji pillow many times… Give out praise, but also correct things when they need to be corrected. Listen.
Don’t be egotistical — that just drains the spirit of the team (I’ve seen this first hand with bad CEOs, and I’ve been egotistical and my team has checked me on it — they can do that).
Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?
I’ve done this. I know how it feels to love your job but really dislike the people you’re working with. This is why culture is so important. One bad apple can spoil the whole batch, and I’ve always had zero-tolerance for bad apples. The absolute worst-case is when the bad apple is the leader. I’ve actually witnessed startups fail for this reason.
Silicon Valley is a super-competitive hiring environment and the top talent here knows that. Top talent will ask about culture, who the CEO is, what his/her management philosophy is, etc. It’s absolutely critical that startups and startup CEOs maintain that culture or they’ll simply fail to recruit top talent and jeopardize their businesses.
Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”.
- Be a servant leader. I can’t say this enough. Put the team first. If you do that, you’ll create a culture of servant leaders (everybody helps each other out) — that’s a golden culture. If you don’t do this, you’ll create a culture of politics where everybody is just in it for themselves and out to trash the other guy.
- Reward the team first. Simple things like waiting for the whole team to assemble before digging into lunch builds a culture of respect. Of course, you bonus the team first before the CEO or execs. CEO and execs get pay cuts before the team when times are tough.
- Lead, don’t manage. Don’t ask the team to do stuff that you won’t do (like work long hours). Don’t drill into them when schedules slip — reevaluate what you’re asking them to do and adjust the scope. If they’re a good team, they’ll work hard on whatever you point them at.
- Build and maintain trust. Trust is really hard to earn and easy to lose. Once it’s gone, your team will start looking for the exit. You have to set expectations for them for things like getting stock options and then deliver.
- Foster the team and create an environment for leadership. The team will grow, and many of them should also become great leaders. I tell my guys to make sure that their direct reports become better than the bosses in areas like software dev, engineering, marketing, etc. When the pupil surpasses the master’s ability, the master should be extremely pleased.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d say I’m a person of very modest influence! That said, I’m a big believer in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. Innovation brings us so many wonderful things in life — new technologies that connect us, new medical treatments to help us live longer, and tools for fighting poverty and protecting the environment. All of these things are impossible without brilliant scientists and engineers, and the world needs so many more brilliant scientists and engineers. It greatly disturbs me when I see young people who don’t get a fantastic education in our country (let alone all of the young people around the world that live in ignorance for no good reason). If I could inspire one movement, it would be to better educate the world’s children and hold them to a higher educational standard — that’s how we will end poverty (and, by extension, wars, environmental destruction, etc.).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I know it’s cliched, but I like Steve Jobs’: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”