Scott Phillips

The reality of working at StarFish – two employees talk about their experiences

The reality of working at StarFish

(l-r) Scott, Heidi, and Christian in the Project Manager and ID team office area

Working for StarFish Medical is unique because of the culture and the nature of consulting relationships. We’re continually growing and hiring employees at all levels thanks to successful projects, innovative employees, and referrals from clients and colleagues.
Applicants might wonder which types of people flourish in our environment and what successful employees have discovered after they were hired.
Christian McMechan (Electrical Engineer) and Heidi Giesbrecht (PMO and Project Manager) are both award winning StarFish Medical employees. Christian initially joined us as a co-op student in 2011, while Heidi came to us in 2014 with a solid resume working at other companies.
They shared their experiences and thoughts on working at StarFish with me in a recent conversation.

Scott: How do you describe the people you work with at StarFish?

Christian: I like to think of us as ninjas. Good at our specializations but able to adapt to understand other disciplines in order to solve technical challenges. Usually in this environment you get to do a lot more than you would at a larger company. Even though medical devices are regulated you still get the opportunity to be nimble and creative. People who want to do the same thing every day wouldn’t thrive in this environment.

Heidi: StarFish attracts people who like diversity. Given the range of projects we work on, if you like to focus solely on a single project you might be challenged. The great part is you get to see and work with a pretty wide variety of technologies and people.

INNOVATION AND FLEXIBILITY

Christian: There is also an aspect of being driven to innovate. We’re not always satisfied with reference designs and we’re encouraged to rethink or improve on a typical implementation. We want our client to get new IP to differentiate themselves in the market. Some engineers don’t get the opportunity to reinvent that often. For us, it’s a bit like being in a startup but with much less risk.

Heidi: It’s always an interesting balance on innovation. We have to be efficient. We are always having conversations with clients on how to focus to extract value and where to keep things light and lean. It’s not a realistic pathway to innovate everywhere. Our project managers help steer that direction for the team.

Christian: I agree. You do need both types of people on a team. Otherwise you would get stuck in Phase Zero (Product Definition) and not finish. Implementers who are more conservative on the innovation front are necessary. A mechanical engineer I work with a lot is great that way. He is solid and reliable, but crafty when he needs to be.

Heidi: People here appreciate the unique talents of those around them. That’s what allows us to create exceptional teams. Technical talent is not enough.

Christian: We have a lot of multidisciplinary people. If they are in electronics they engage with the software and firmware teams and want to know how those things work. People who tended to be less flexible were more challenging fits.

Heidi: Integrators definitely tend to be successful here. You’re working with industrial design, mechanical engineering, and software. You have to find the right compromises between all of them.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS AND OPEN WORK ENVIRONMENT

Scott: How did you get to StarFish?

Christian: I really wanted to get into medical during university. I started my search during school for medical device jobs in Canada. I picked The University of Victoria due to a bridge program from my college electronics diploma and was surprised to learn that StarFish was right here Victoria. I was able to get into StarFish as a co-op student. It was daunting. Very quickly I realized the huge gap between where I was and the engineers all around me.

Fortunately I had three great senior engineers in my group to learn from. The open atmosphere was amazing. Now I just think it’s cool. It’s non-stop. People are always getting feedback from others. There are so many projects and you’re immersed in it all. In the end I had a successful co-op and was asked to stay on.

I had a lot of responsibility early on. For example I was put on a dermatology laser system. The company showed a lot of trust in me. I basically became the system engineer with significant oversight and input from the senior EEs. As a junior engineer I was able to design the cabling console, laser control, and safety electronics. While designing for patient thermal safety, I worked with the mechanical team to develop a skin simulation analog. You learn a lot very quickly. I’ve been here almost 5 years. I feel like a peer with people who intimidated me initially.

Heidi: We tend to empower our juniors and give them whatever they’re willing and able to take on. We had a new co-op engineer recently and within his first week we already had him involved assembling micro robotic capsules.

Christian: It’s great to have someone else getting involved! Someone else is joining the struggle and giving good ideas.

Heidi: For me I always had in mind to go into medical. My first degree was mechanical engineering, then I bridged into biomedical engineering. From grad school I joined a startup in Montreal. After a few years I joined the StarFish team.

With my background I relate to what our clients struggle with and are working toward. StarFish was a big jump in terms of project diversity. The open concept work environment is great. My manager was at arm’s reach. I was able to get quick answers to the “How do we do this here?” questions. I’ve seen and done a lot, and I’ve learned a lot through osmosis. The team is quite generous sharing their experience.

We also have some guiding principles that I find quite powerful. Things like digging deeper to solve the right problem, transparency, and welcoming accountability. I use those principles to guide my decision making and lead the team.

A GOOD FIT

Scott: Would you recommend working here?

Christian: Absolutely. In fact I was at a university engineering competition yesterday trying to find a good co-op. I would totally recommend StarFish to the right person.

Heidi: We tend to know pretty quickly whether people would fit. We want sharp, engaged people who are good communicators.

Christian: Due to our small core team model we generally have a single main mechanical, software, and electronics engineering resource on a project. You are that resource for the project for your discipline. You must be comfortable taking the associated design responsibility and prepared to discuss the design tradeoffs. In general, being at a desk 9-5 and taking direction is not good enough. You need to be comfortable bouncing ideas off of others as many great ideas come out of spurious discussion. There is never a shortage of people interested in contributing to solving a problem around here.

Heidi: I was at the Medical Device Commercialization Playbook event in Vancouver last week. It was a lot of fun to be in the networking sessions. I love having meaningful conversations with small and large company people and the different roles between engineers and marketing for example. I always feel proud when I have a meaningful conversation with people and help them out based on my experience with electrical safety standards or reimbursement, for example.

Christian: If you’re attracted by the industry, you want to design things that help people and have an impact.

Heidi: But we don’t take ourselves too seriously either. There is a levity in the office that makes the seriousness of medical device development more digestible. It comes back to culture. We’re still professional and do our jobs well, but we have fun too. We recognize that people have lives beyond the office. We all genuinely like each other.

Christian: I don’t have a yardstick on the politics but it seems pretty flat. Everybody enjoys working with each other.

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