Addressing the lack of collaboration tools for hardware engineering.
In this episode, Harry Thompson, chief of staff at Flow Engineering, shares his background as a mechanical engineer and how he transitioned into an operations role. He explains that Flow aims to address the lack of collaboration tools for hardware engineering, as existing tools are designed for software teams. Flow Engineering is like GitHub for hardware. The company wants to provide dedicated tools for hardware engineers to work more efficiently and effectively.
The key moments in this episode are:
00:02:19 Collaboration tools lacking in hardware.
00:08:01 Embrace vulnerability for growth.
00:10:29 Importance of culture and diversity.
00:16:27 Speak to customers for insights.
00:26:03 Success is measured by impact.
00:27:29 Emphasise execution over excessive planning.
00:00 Welcome to the Tech Story podcast, the place where we interview founders and interesting people in tech. Today, I'm very excited to welcome Harry Thompson on the show. Harry is the Chief of Staff of Flow, a company which is basically GitHub for hardware. Harry, thanks for taking the time. Thanks very much for having me.
00:20 Share a bit of background about yourself and Flow. Absolutely, yes. As you mentioned, I'm the Chief of Staff at Flow at the minute. Obviously, now my role is very ops-based. I actually have an engineering background myself, which helps for the type of company Flow is, which I'm sure I'll cover. Originally, by education, by degree, by initial career, I'm a mechanical engineer. My initial part of my career was with Mercedes high performance powertrains in Formula One. I actually originally joined Flow itself as what we call at the time a computational design engineer, which was effectively working with our customers and partners in industry on their engineering problems directly. However, I quickly found that my specialism was actually in being a generalist as opposed to the specifics of engineering. I very quickly found myself moving in an ops direction and ended up as Chief of Staff. The reason that could happen at a company like Flow is we are a software company ourselves, but we're actually making products and platforms for people within the physical realm of engineering, whether that be mechanical, aerospace, thermal, anything you can think of, which is a physical product really. The reason that we're doing what we're doing is because to a large extent, we think that industry is broken and in a lot of ways, very backwards and is being left behind really by software. Loads of software teams have great products that they use on a day in, day out basis. The GitHub's and the GitLab's of the world's newer products like Linear, which enables
02:09 massive scale collaboration on often a completely remote basis, massive open source code bases that get worked on from all over the world. Those tools don't really exist in hardware, so we're really trying to go in and fix that gap. I guess, why don't they exist in hardware? Is it because hardware is hard? Or is it because you need that physical proximity before these types of products develop? Why not?
02:39 It's a really good question and it's actually part of, I think, a larger shift within the industry as a whole, which is historically, there's always been a big bunch of engineering behemoths, thousands of people. You don't really get non-enterprise size companies in engineering, historically at least, which meant that there's been some effort put into collaboration and utilising things like cloud and utilising things like remote softwares, especially in the later stages of hardware, and really hard physical design for people that are familiar with that and further on into manufacturing. There's been at least some progress in that area, but the early stages of design, the actual design and conceptualisation itself, is really stuck in the old ages. There are a few massive enterprise players that make some tools for that space, but really they're built around the old, slower moving engineering companies. What we found is there's been a huge shift in the industry in two predominant ways, I would say. One, there's been a boom in startups, initially on the west coast of America, but really all over the world now, of new, smaller companies working in hardware, working in physical products, coming up with new ideas for products that want to work in a much more agile way than those companies have worked historically.
04:04 All of a sudden those historical processes, the bigger companies use the in-person meetings, they're still using the manual emails, the face-to-face, falls apart with these smaller teams that want to work in a much quicker, more agile way. What we found is they really don't have the tools to serve them. We're trying to fill that gap because at the minute the best bet they have is often hacking some of the great tools that the software teams have. We've seen people hacking tools like Jira to try and work for their hardware-specific problems, downloading all of their data we've even seen into CSV files and trying to version them with a tool like GitHub or similar. So people are really hacking these great software solutions to try and make it work for their more hardware-specific problems. We're trying to make a really dedicated tool that actually really is built around hardware engineers' problems to fit that gap and hopefully enable all of these new companies that are popping up in places like renewable tech and space travel, all of these big, massive projects actually trying to give them the dedicated tools they need for success. I know a renewable tech company in Nottingham starts up, so after the show I'll see if you've heard of them or if they use you, but I think it would definitely be worth having a chat if the situation is that they don't actually have any collaboration software then I don't know how they operate. And since joining as a computational engineer and now becoming chief staff, what do you
05:39 wish you'd known? Yeah, that's a great question. It's more a general one probably than even specific to my role. It really applies to any role going into especially an early-stage small company, which is Germany first. I wish I'd known to a certain extent how much nobody knows everything, you know that age-old imposter syndrome type problem. The issue with that is it can often prevent people I think going into an early-stage company for the first time from just putting themselves out there and making an impact. It stops people wanting to make independent decisions without having to go and check it three times first. It stops people speaking up sometimes when they see things that are wrong. And I think that that is so, so critical in an early-stage company that somebody who can get over that and realise that actually everyone in the company to a certain extent no matter how senior is definitely living with imposter syndrome, the more impact they can have from an early stage. And to look at that from the opposite end from those people that do end up in senior positions, founders, CEOs, whatever it might be, really enabling the psychological safety in those, especially at the early stage, massively increases the impact that your team is able to have. Because as an early-stage founder, what you want is people driving forwards, making independent decisions, pointing out things that are broken that somebody else might not have noticed. Those are all critical things to be able to keep moving faster in an early-stage company. And yet the biggest thing I think most people feel coming into those companies is, oh you know, these people have started a company, they know what they're doing, I don't know what I'm doing, so I'm going to kind of be a bit reluctant at first.
07:19 The quicker you can get over that barrier, the more impact you can have. I also think when you are a founder, you hire people because you don't know what you're doing. Yeah. Yeah, I think as the companies grow, then the role grows and every day I wonder, you know, what am I going to do? Because it's not that I don't know what I'm doing, but it's also, you know, what can I be doing that I'm not doing to go to the company? Yeah, that definitely shouldn't be a barrier to entry to startups.
07:47 Exactly, yeah. And it's actually really difficult because it requires quite a lot of vulnerability to repeatedly, as the founder, as the CEO, who is meant to have, you know, the big vision and know what they're doing, to repeatedly put across to the other people in the company, especially the new or more junior people, how much that they themselves don't know, how much they're still working out, mistakes they've made, because it then encourages
08:11 those people, I think, to go away and actually be willing to make their own mistakes and know that it's not going to be, they're not going to immediately be thrown out of the company. And, you know, it's never quite that extreme, but I think that is definitely always a thought on the back of people's minds when they first start. I mean, I also think as a founder, sometimes you are reluctant to be vulnerable because ultimately you need to earn the respect of your team and if you're saying that you don't know what you're doing, you know, why would they respect you? But hopefully there are other reasons beyond that. Exactly, yeah.
08:41 And, you know, I guess what was being your favourite moment since joining Flirt? Probably a couple really, one on a more business level, one on a more personal level, I would say. On a business level, I imagine this is a pretty common one, but that first ever strike notification email of some money hitting the bank account, somebody actually paying for a subscription for the first time is huge because up until that point you feel like as much as you want to kind of make sure you're market facing and speaking to people within industry and getting positive product feedback, it kind of feels like you're away in a silo and the rest of the world doesn't know you exist.
09:19 So, I think the time that first notification comes through, everything feels at least a little bit more riddled and there's obviously a big long journey to go from that first payment, but it all of a sudden feels like you're at least interacting with the outside world in a proper way and somebody really wants to pay for the product. So, the first time that happened I think was definitely one of my favourite moments. And on a more personal level I think to some extent every time somebody joins the company is just a massive moment because again it feels like an interaction with the world. These great people who have a wide collection of skills, lived experiences actually want to come and join the company and go on that journey with you which I think always feels like watching those people join the company, watching the impact that the company has on them in enabling the next stage of their career or their growth or their development and then vice versa the actual impact that person has on the company as well and those positive small continuous impacts on culture, that's always awesome to see. Yeah, I think first client is definitely a common answer on the show but hiring is also big because as you said when you're on the inside you're in your own bubble and every time someone from the outside comes aboard it's like increasing the size of the cult. So, you know, growing and then you're right, you mentioned culture, I mean I imagine Florida has its own culture but when you're looking to hire people are you looking for people who grow the culture in a specific direction or just align with the current culture? I think it's always a mixture of both. You've got to think of it as continuing to grow the culture in a way. You know, somebody who's completely adjacent and opposite to that culture potentially tears the whole thing back down again so that's kind of not ever positive and productive but in the same way if everyone fits into an exact rigid framework you can end up with those group think type issues, you're never going to actually expand a kind of diversity of mindset and as I mentioned before lived experiences and skills. You've got to bring that level of diversity to keep growing the culture, to keep having positive new thoughts otherwise you're not bringing any new abilities and knowledge into the business to a certain extent. Interesting and you mentioned also that a lot of your role as chief staff is on the ops front so I guess what does that mean in practice? I mean to a certain extent, especially in the early stage I think, ops is just picking up everything that isn't covered somewhere else in a lot of ways. So it's down from the kind of more traditional side of the ops things, you know, payroll and HR type things, all the way through to building functions from scratch in a lot of places. In some cases you're building marketing for the first time before you bring on a full time marketing hire or you're setting up some kind of sales function when previously it's only been directly founder led sales for example. So I think it's really plugging the gaps, working out what the key priorities for the company are and making sure that the company if nothing else at least delivers on those key priorities that are going to give you some amount of progress. You touched on contracts, what are maybe the key contracts that you interact with and are there any sort of patterns or lessons that you can share?
13:01 Yeah, I mean for us we flow as in a very kind of more deep tech research based type of company for quite a long time and only in the last couple of months really have we really pivoted to being a market facing at least on the sales side company. So all of a sudden those things like sales and purchase agreements and even terms and conditions have come much more to the forefront and can be really critical. You can create a great experience for your first set of customers working with an early stage company by actually doing good things on that side. It all kind of adds in especially on our side as well because of the type of companies that we deal with and the type of data they hold, data security is a massive issue. So again it's being professional in things like covering NDAs and information security policies that gives the trust of some quite big companies with some pretty great data security concerns that they kind of want to keep themselves to be able to trust you as an early stage business. So coming across and legitimately being professional and knowing what you're doing in those situations becomes really critical to some of those early
14:17 stage sales. Yeah, I guess the contract is often the first interaction or first impression of not the business because they were spoken with in meetings or sales schools but the first impression of the operation will be internal of the company and having a well presented, well organised and really robust contract sets good impressions and so I guess the key takeaway is have good contracts and follow the process. Exactly and those speaking with the founder, the sales can get you over a load of bumps early in the process but at the end of the day that company is going to end up interacting with the back end of the rest of the company and they need to have the trust there that that is working efficiently and everything is going to be done securely. All of those kind of last level barriers to a sale need to be thought about right at the start of the process. And I guess on the security front, when you are an early stage company how do you meet the requirements of this big enterprise engineering company? I saw on your website you have got various policies and who took the lead on that and where do you start?
15:36 Yeah, it is about thinking about it from an early stage because as I say you are not going to really get any sales across the line until you have dealt with that especially in the type of industry that we work in at least. So it is about thinking about it from an early stage and realizing that it is going to be important. It is about trying to build up those processes in a way that does not artificially slow the company down and add a load of bureaucracy but also provides the kind of trust as we mentioned within the customer that you are actually doing things properly. So do kind of the research to make sure you know what you are going to have to meet but a large part of those kind of more unseen, not directly written into the legislation concerns, you only get that by going out and speaking to customers. So I am not offering anything revolutionary here given that everybody knows from a product perspective you have to go out and speak to customers but when you are trying to go and get product feedback and you are trying to develop those early stages of the product itself, bear in mind that you can get some great learning speaking to the industry early on by actually also covering things like their security concerns, their sales processes, how they typically buy software, the steps they have to go through, as IT involves, what other parts of the business are involved. All of those are great things that you can
16:55 get by being a very kind of industry facing and product focused team early on even before you start making sales. Yeah I think speaking to clients is always really insightful because once you can do your research and understand what a X, Y, Z person in a company does, you don't really know what they do until you speak to them. The other interesting thing you were saying before was that a lot of your clients are in the US, you are a UK based company, so how did that happen? Was it relatively organic? Did you have any connections over there? I guess what are the peculiarities of doing business with the US when you are a
17:42 UK company? Yeah there is a lot going on there. I think for us, as I said, from a kind of macro industry perspective, it just so happened that a massive big part of this sudden explosion in hardware, physical adjacent type of start ups happened on the west coast initially in the kind of more traditional start up hopes like San Francisco but also places like Seattle and a lot of the space industry for example is based out there. So that was a reason why I focused on that to start with although to be honest in the time since then those types of companies are springing up all around the world whether that's in the UK, wider across Europe and really further afield as well. But it's something that we had to think about quite early and again building the things that you need in place early in the process saves you so much later on. So it was things like creating a physical American presence, making sure that we had US staff on board to be able to go into the deeper regulatory things like AWS GovCloud accounts and that side of things that really gave companies that we then wanted to work with out there the trust that we knew what we were doing that we kind of cared about their data security just as much as they did and that we were going to do things properly. To give the kind of other side of that I also think from a kind of risk management perspective one of the hardest things to do is actually to get the balance because I think a lot of companies to a certain extent the risk of running out of money and failing as a company from moving too slowly and being overly kind of risk averse is just as high if not more than the actual risk of dying because of getting something wrong. So it's about being really aware of the risks but then being really kind of prioritising well what you deal with at the time and what you can push out. So like to give an example back in the much much earlier days of our product we would sometimes find ourselves having conversations about a particular bug within the product or that we were going to introduce something new to the product let's say that would require quite a lot of kind of manual transfer of data from the existing product to the new way that it worked, could introduce bugs, could lead to things and we'd often discuss those things and try and work out a solution for a long period of time before kind of suddenly correcting ourselves to be like actually to be honest the stage we're at nobody's asking even using the product. We haven't got a load of people in there with a load of data why are we thinking about this too early when we should actually be pushing forwards. So it's about getting that
20:29 balance of being aware of the risks you know discuss them write them down make sure that you know that they're there but be selective on which ones you spend a lot of time over. Some of them are critical things like payroll for example you know right from the early stage it's always going to be critical whereas other things you can actually push out wait until the impact of that thing going wrong would actually be big before you actually put a lot of resources into addressing it. It's about getting that balance. Yeah I think the balance especially I mean when you don't have any clients I always
21:01 reminisce when we didn't have any clients and we could just break things and no one would notice whereas now if something goes wrong everyone knows and then as a family you're often you know responsible for support as well and therefore the first to find out. Yeah I mean yeah there's a reason that Facebook was so successful on move fast and break things it's the risk of dying from not moving fast enough in the early stage I think in pretty much all cases outweighs that getting everything perfectly right from day one. Great and you're in the UK, US and you know growing quite quickly what's sort of the vision plan for the next five years? Yeah well as I say we've actually only really despite kind of having been around for a while in a more research deep tech kind of phase are really only newly a kind of go to market facing company so the next five years is going to be a massive amazing journey I'm sure for us in terms of that scaling of actually going out there the growing the sales and marketing functions within the company going out and serving this broad multifaceted industry that is at hardware engineering hopefully enabling all of those companies to then go forward and do amazing things I think a large part of how we judge our success as well over the next five years will be by seeing the success of all of our customers and the companies that we help move faster take those products to market two years sooner avoid the mistakes that pushes out their deadlines by five years and some of the projects that these teams are working on are incredible things we have you know people working on things like the first fusion reactors on hypersonic supersonic flights on space travel these are like really big critical projects that if we can have some kind of positive influence on I think that shows flow having success over the course of the next five years. Well huge ambition and I'm not sure you will deliver and you're on the Tech Story podcast where one of our questions is you know what is your favorite tech product can be software or hardware so yeah what is your favourite tech product? I'm a massive superhuman advocate the email management service I think I have to be careful here because there's definitely a danger with becoming too kind of closely bound and handcuffed to your inbox when it comes to being in a startup and having so many competing priorities but the reality is a large part of my day to day prioritization runs through my inbox so having something that seamlessly separates things out so what I can ignore for a few days what I need to address then what I can delegate clearing out all of that noise and that's really useful to me so I'm a massive superhuman advocate and the other one is probably a very small internet browser booking called Wontab which manages all of my tabs for me that was something that I really struggled with coming into an early stage company for the first time was the constant context switching can be really difficult and can really kind of scramble your brain and mean that you're working really only 50% effectiveness on any individual task something small like that it's literally a tiny free tool with like two features actually I think probably has one of the biggest impacts of anything I use on my day to day to be able to clear out one kind of specific hack that I have on and one specific context open a new one with no distractions and then switch backwards and forwards between them I think probably actually has a pretty big impact on my productivity yeah I mean I love superhuman as well I didn't I thought I didn't think I needed it because I've always been very good at answering emails as far as where I had inbox zero but I didn't understand what inbox zero meant after using them where it actually just means archiving everything which was a big shock but I look at reminders and I haven't had one tab so I'll need to check it out yeah it's one of those tools that I think is fantastic in its simplicity which is when you first start using it you get really frustrated at all the things you can't do with it and you then realise that there's actually quite a lot of good positive reasons for that it doesn't let you fall out of the habit of kind of keeping loads of tabs open and because it's not easy to manage groups of tabs and things it forces you to be pretty focused so very simple tool very big effect. Great so for our founders and people in tech what piece of advice can you share with them? Yeah probably a couple of things to be honest I think one of the biggest things that I would always say is that you get you have to judge your own success and your own output by the influence that you can have on a wider group of people around you because nothing's ever achieved alone to kind of pick out that phrase but to a further extent really you can have very little impact as one person purely from a having great ideas perspective unless there's some kind of structure and team around to actually go in and execute on those things so I think it's measuring your own outputs and success by the output and success of those people around you and you can enable that in a load of different ways it can be by directly developing and training those people but also things just like inspiring them building a great workplace building a great work environment setting up really great processes for them to do their day to day work so I've really stolen that from that concept at least from a great book called High Output Management by a guy called Andy Grove who was one of the co-founders of Intel who basically said the same thing the output of a manager should really be measured by the output of the people kind of directly reporting to that manager and then the adjacent functions and people that that manager can have a second order influence on but it's really important at an early stage company to be able to set people up for success and realise that your own ideas and your own outputs are only ever going to be a fraction of what you can actually achieve as a person because you can have such a positive influence on a wide group of people as well which leads nicely into the second one which is really make sure that you emphasise executing and doing over purely planning and thinking too much and again I'm stealing the concept it's a concept of blue work versus red work that a guy called David Marquette introduced in one of his books Leadership is Language which is another massive recommendation from me he does another book called Turn the Ship Around which I really recommend as well but effectively it's about if blue work is thinking and planning red work is executing and doing you need to have a great balance between the two and you will never achieve anything or make any progress without devoting a significant amount of time to red work of actually going away and doing what you're thinking about and a lot of companies I think find themselves stuck in some kind of permanent state of purple where they're never really sure which one they're actually doing and they're thinking but they're also doing and they never go too far down one path because they're worried about going in the wrong direction and I think making a lot of progress in slightly the wrong direction is often a lot lot better than just permanently meandering around and not making much progress at all later stage as you begin to grow you become a massively scaling company everything's much more stable then maybe you can pull the balance back in the other direction and lean more into the blue work side of things but especially at the early stage you learn so much more by going away and doing and executing rather than trying to perfect the strategy I think well just do it is the key and yeah as an early stage company we definitely spend a lot of time doing but we need to remind ourselves to take a step back sometimes and process the information and do some planning but it seems like there's two, three books I need to add to my reading list and yeah, we need to find the time yeah, all the style I've found in the time yeah, great well thanks a lot for being on the show and best of luck wearing pro thanks for having me it's been really fun thank you