Barbara Allen | How to Find An Engineering Mentor & the Bay Area’s Best Kept Secret
Who is Barbara Allen?
Barbara Allen earned a degree in chemical engineering. She later realized that manufacturing and design are more interesting than chemicals.
Beginning her career supervising a manufacturing team, she quickly learned the importance of humility when working with others, and developed a love for helping those on her team. She continues to develop professionals as she leads her team at Irwin & Associates. Join us in this episode as we hear how she found her dream job, then eventually bought the company, and how she continues to develop her team’s skills in supporting medical device product companies while offering an incredible work-life balance.
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company, people, irwin, assignments, consultants, mentor, technical, barbara, associates, career, product, engineering, writing, thought, client, design, learn, mentor mentee, startups, feel
Aaron Moncur, Barbara Allen
Aaron Moncur 00:00
The Being an Engineer podcast is a repository for industry knowledge and a tool through which engineers learn about and connect with relevant companies, technologies, people, resources and opportunities. Enjoy the show.
Barbara Allen 00:14
It’s, it’s very much a partnership instead of more of like a, I’m the owner and you guys are just gonna go off and do you know the assignments that I tell you. It’s not like that at all.
Aaron Moncur 00:41
Hello, and welcome to the being an engineer podcast. Our guest today is Barbara Allen, who holds a degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University. Barbara has expertise in production management, technical writing, process development, equipment design, statistical analysis, technical project management, and as if all of that weren’t enough, is also the president and owner of Irwin and Associates, a consulting organization that helps medical device companies succeed at all stages of the product lifecycle. Barbara, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.
Barbara Allen 01:15
Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Aaron Moncur 01:18
All right. So what Barbara, was it about engineering that made you decide? That’s what I’d like to do when I grew up.
Barbara Allen 01:27
So I actually thought that I wanted to be a doctor for most of my earlier years, I volunteered at a hospital throughout college or throughout high school, and going into college thought that that’s the direction I wanted to go. Medical Devices intrigued me from the first time I had interaction with them at the hospital. However, my parents had told me that I could not do pre med, and that they wanted me to get a more sure degree that if at the end of college, I decided I didn’t want to go into med school, I still had a backup. And so they said you needed to do engineering first. And so I told them, that’s, that’s fine, I’m still going to go into med school. At the time, biomedical engineering degrees were not really a thing yet. They were just kind of starting to come into curriculum at universities. So I chose chemical engineering. My emphasis had an emphasis in bio engineering at Purdue. And I would volunteer the biomedical engineering graduate lab in the summers in during school. And so it was kind of I was still trying to figure out how to merge my my interest in patient care and medical products, with the engineering and design that I was being introduced to in college. So after finishing the chemical engineering degree, I was a little burned out. And Abbott was coming to the campus, I interviewed with them. And they said, We have this, like engineering development program that we would put you into, you’ll be able to work all over the world, try different types of assignments, see what you’re really interested in doing. And so I said, that sounds great. But I still in the back of my mind was like, I’m gonna go to med school one day, that’s my plan. And I just really enjoyed the assignments. I my first assignment, I was like a shift supervisor, for this pharmaceutical plant across two shifts. And I really enjoyed more than I thought the people aspect of it. Some of these operators had been there for like 30 years, you know, I was 22. And we just really formed a really great bond, we were able to increase the production, increase the efficiency. And so seeing those improvements, it kind of made me think, well, maybe, you know, maybe engineering would be a long term solution to what I want to do for a career. And so through through that process, I was able to work in their IV bag design department, I worked in Puerto Rico for a year, making a thyroid product. So it was just a really fun, exciting time to learn a wide variety of skills.
Aaron Moncur 04:06
How cool. I remember when I got my first full time job engineering, I was not put in charge of but but I was asked to direct the work of a technician. You know, they said, okay, Aaron, here’s this project, you know, you figure out what needs to be done and then work with the technician guide him to do that work. And I felt like I still felt like a kid back then. And I thought to myself, why, why am I going to drag this guy who has like, you know, 1520 years experience being a technician. I’m just out of school. I felt like kind of a fraud to be honest. when when when you were this shift supervisor right out of school. Did you have any any sense of that same kind of experience? Or were you just 100% confident I’m the right person for this job. I know what to do.
Barbara Allen 04:55
Oh, no, I was I was terrified. I mean, I think the youngest person was Like, mid 40s, which seemed old back then. But you know, I was 22. I know things change. Yeah. And I mean, they’d all been working in the same plant, like their whole career. And so I really, I just took the approach of, Hey, I’m here to learn from you. Because you guys are the experts. And so I just would, like stood up into the, you know, the overalls and the hardhat. And I would do a follow up around one of them each day. And I would say, I’m just here to learn from you. Like I don’t, I don’t know what I’m talking about. So I’m here to learn from you. And I think that, that, like, humility kind of showed them that I’m not here to like change things, or, but then I also took the opportunity to say like, What’s the hardest part of your job? Or are there any new, like, instruments that would make your job easier or that kind of thing. And I would I scheduled like one on ones with them. And it was really just a time for them to kind of vent, I don’t know, I feel like this was kind of a forgotten part of the plant. And maybe no one had really wanted to hear their opinion, a long time. And it was really neat, because one of them actually said, I’ve always wanted to go back to engineering school. And so I was in that position for 10 months. And so I said, What’s, I mean, we can make it happen. And he was like, I don’t know, it’s like, confusing. So by the end of the 10 months, we had that guy’s application filled out, and he had gotten accepted. And so that was really exciting to just kind of help. It was my first taste of helping people move forward in their career and just go the direction they wanted to go. And I really, I loved that, that I could, in some small way help encourage him to, to take that next step. And so I think that’s still like, what, what really gives me the main satisfaction of what I do today.
Aaron Moncur 06:42
What a great story. Thank you for sharing that. And I have to say, that is an incredibly mature, I guess, mental framework that you already had back then to, to have the foresight to do one on ones and to approach the position with the mindset of, I’m here to learn from them and not necessarily the other way around. That’s very impressive. Very cool. So your experience, it really sounds more closely related to a manufacturing engineer role, at least in the early days, then the chemical engineers role. How did you make that transition from chemical engineering to? We can call it manufacturing engineering?
Barbara Allen 07:26
Sure, yeah. Yeah, some of my early assignments, I was designing heat exchangers, distillation columns. So doing the classic, like, I’d be opening up my textbooks, you know, to see like, did I solve the equation, right, and that’s really, the fluids part of it, the heat and mass transfer is really classic Kemi, but then once I was in the hospital products group at Abbott, where they needed new designs for their IV bags, we were doing ultrasonic welding. And that’s the first time that I really got to see the design aspect, cuz in Kenny, we don’t learn SolidWorks we don’t, it’s not a lot of there’s, there’s like large scale design of, of processes, but it’s not, you know, like, mechanical design. And so I was like, this is awesome, I really like seeing how that worked. And so I was in charge of someone else was doing the design of these new ports. And then I was coming up with the process parameters for this ultrasonic welding process. And then we would take them and try them out, we do the drop testing, all like the classic, you know, product testing, and I was like, This is what I want to do. It doesn’t exactly match what I learned in school, but this is what I really want to do. Because eventually the IV bags will be brought to the hospital and could go watch them be used on patients and like just this whole, like, and end user type aspect that you can see more quickly with medical device, compared to pharma. It’s like, you know, do you spend 10 years making these tablets and I would do like the crash test, and then they get sent out to the pharmacy. And, you know, you don’t really get that end user feedback. I’m like, Well, how did it How did it go, you know, do you feel better, whereas like, with physical medical devices, you you do get that feedback and can can kind of see the process from beginning to end and I was like, this is this is the way I want to go.
Aaron Moncur 09:13
Oh, I love it. Oh, you can me students. Take notice here. I you know, it’s funny because I interviewed a guy named john spear a wise A while back. And he is now the founder of a company called greenlight guru. They do qm s software. And he was a chemical engineer as well, but started his his functionally his career as a mechanical designer, and you had kind of the same trajectory. And now you are also an owner of a company. I’m starting to see a trend here. Maybe it makes sense to be Akemi students, your career as a designer. All right. Well, actually, that’s a good segue into Irwin and Associates, the company of which you are the president and owner. Can you tell us a little bit about your company and I mean, they Because you didn’t start out as the owner at Irwin, how did that transition occur?
Barbara Allen 10:05
Yeah, so Irwin and Associates, it was founded in 2000. The original owner, her last name, his or her name is Jill Irwin. And it was really founded out of kind of two aspects. One is that there’s not allowed a lot of part time flexible work for engineers. And so she saw that as an opportunity to provide that for people, whether they’re heading towards retirement and want flexibility or people with young kids or just whatever life stage you’re in. And then she also had that same idea of helping others to succeed, whether it’s the client or the consultant to get people where they want to go in their career. So I, I actually found urban and Associates, kind of through a variety of networking. In 2014, I was at that time looking for part time work, I had two really young kids, babies, and I was trying to figure out, I ended up going part time at my current company. But I felt like I was working part time hours, but had all my same projects. So I was being paid. I was being paid halftime, but then had all my original projects again. So it was like, I think, like $2 an hour if you calculate it out, you know, so I thought, well, you know, maybe there’s something else out there. And so through a variety of networking, I found urban and Associates, and they were like, yeah, you know, you, you, you basically you tell us what schedule you want. And we’ll help find you a client that will give you that schedule. And I was like, that sounds way too good to be true. And so I was like, sign me up. So I started doing that I consulted like two to three days a week, I was working for this really fun robotics company. And I just thought this is the best kept secret in the Bay Area, I was sure because you get paid well to consultant, you’re able to see new technology, meet new people. And then after a year, I went on to another client in a totally different space. It was urology. So then I was learning all about the urology technology. And so I just thought like I’m I’m sold like consulting is, is what I want to do. And about three years after I was consulting for urban and Associates, the current owner at the time, she decided she wanted to move on and take a full time position at her current client. And so she approached me and she said, You know, we’ve we’ve gotten together over the years and talked business and because it was just an interest of mine to understand how this business was working and how she recruited people and, and so she said, Do you want to buy the company for me? And I hadn’t really thought of it before. But I went home and thought about it. And the next day, I was like, yeah, I’m definitely interested, let’s start talking about what that would look like. And and I felt like it would be a good fit just because over my career that the positions that I’ve enjoyed the most were direct people interaction, I was a production, a production manager for a few years at a startup, we had like, I think a little over 100 assemblers and supervisors that were under me. And that was probably one of the funnest jobs I’ve had, just because it was mentoring people and working with people and getting people you know, energized about their job and making their goals and all that kind of thing. And so I felt like it would be a good fit, but it was still a little bit intimidating to take this this on, and what would it become. But Irwin and Associates, I think is just kind of known, it’s a smaller consulting firm, there’s about 10 to 12 of us. And it’s just known for being completely people centered. So it’s, it’s different than what people might experience at a really large or a different type of consulting firm. All the consultants are people either I’ve worked with directly when I was working full time or, you know, through word of mouth, kind of know them directly. Some of them are my old co workers, old managers. So it’s really, I mean, they’re really my friends is how I feel about it. So it’s a very, like, close network team type feel. There’s some of the best engineers and scientists in the Bay Area, in my opinion, they’re highly professional. So and then the, the mentorship that I received from the previous owner, she would mention, she mentored me for the next three years after she she sold the company to me. And that was really key because I wanted to make sure she’s super likable person. And so I said, you know, these are huge shoes to fill. And um, you know, she just always said if you recruit amazing people and treat them amazingly and pay them really well, like it just always works out. And that’s kind of been been the way it’s been. So that’s kind of how we operate. Nice.
Aaron Moncur 14:47
Now, I don’t know acquires the right word to use, but as you took ownership of Irwin and Associates, what for any people out there that might be considering a similar move. What were the pain points? What were some of the gotchas that you look back and think I wish I had known, you know, to do this instead of that, or about this thing?
Barbara Allen 15:13
I think yeah, it’s it’s definitely been a huge learning experience along the way. One thing that kind of my gut told me early on was that it’s not about scaling up, it’s not about because sometimes you can look at a business and you want to operate it like, Oh, well, if I just eventually have 100 people, then, you know, this could be wildly successful thing. And you can get kind of caught up in that. But luckily, I think with the previous owner, mentoring me, and you know, you don’t want to just leave for our company, I didn’t want to just grab up warm bodies, and throw them at assignments and say, like, hopefully, they do a good job, let me know, or, you know, and, and not give the client, like, the really specific skill type person that they’re looking for requesting. And so, but I do get calls all the time from other companies saying, like, Hey, we can be your inside sales, or we can go out and find you, you know, consultants, and we can go out and find new clients. And, and I think the business side of me would say, like, yeah, that sounds good. Like, let’s just scale it up. But the gut side of me would say, like, no, that’s, that’s not what this company is about. And it’s going to, the whole premise is going to run away. And the beauty of it’s going to deteriorate if if you have that mindset, and so I think that’s one thing that the current and previous consultants appreciate is that it hasn’t turned into that and that we, we, you know, can contact each other, if we have questions, we have a really good time doing social events, we, you know, can really kind of rely on each other in a way, and I’m always accessible, you know, they know that they can contact me day or night with, you know, really anything that’s going on. And so I think taking that away, and going in different direction with the business would be would be a mistake.
Aaron Moncur 16:57
I think that’s very insightful. And I love the phrase, you use the beauty of it, I think there there is something beautiful about a well run process. And that’s really what a business is, is a well run Well, hopefully a well run process. Let’s, let’s talk a little bit about technical writing. That is a skill that you have. And as I was reading through your profile, and I read about technical writing, it occurred to me, it’s something that’s been at the back of my mind for a long time, that technical writing is really important. But it’s even within engineers. It’s not a skill that a lot of engineers have. I mean, I’ve interacted with a lot of really gifted engineers, mechanical designers and other engineers. And surprising to me, it’s surprising that technical writing is not something that all engineers can do. Well. I had, I had a technical writing course I took back in college. And it was the first time I’d ever even been introduced to this concept of technical writing. I’d like I didn’t really get it I didn’t understand like, what what is technical writing? You know, after that class, I understood it a little bit better. And the professor was this crotchety old guy who liked to bark at us a lot. But he was wonderful. Also, he was really gifted and how he taught one of the exercises he had us do, and I loved it. I loved this, it was such a fun exercise reminds me of some of the physics experiments we did back in high school that were also so fun. But he said, he gave us this assignment to pick an object, any object, a physical object, and using only words, no pictures, no, you know, gesticulation or anything like that using only words written down on a piece of paper, describe to me the shape the contour of this, this object in enough detail, that anyone can read that description and draw the shape correctly. And I chose a toilet plunger, which seems like a relatively simple shape, but it was surprising it at how challenging that actually was, even with a relatively simple shape, you know, go up for this amount and off to the side that this degrees for that length and, and come back. And anyway, it was a really fun, neat experience. And ever since then, I have enjoyed technical writing. I think that’s something I’m pretty good at as well. And something that again, not a lot of engineers are really very good at Tell me a little bit about how did you learn your skills in technical writing? And kind of how has that served you as an engineer?
Barbara Allen 19:33
Yeah, I didn’t actually take a technical writing course. But I felt like through all the different classes I had to take, there was always huge reports required and my professors were pretty picky. And so they would, you know, feel free to read line it up and explain to us, you know, who or who’s the audience is going to be reading this and what is it that they want to understand about it? How much time will they have to get to the bottom line of what you’re trying to convey? That’s kind of stuck with me I’ve sort of when I think of technical writing, there’s like the validation verification reports and protocols that are really going to be reviewed mostly by the quality department of the company. And then the FDA, you know, when they come through and say, like, is this process acceptable, so they want it to be concise, but they want it to be convincing. No messy data, that kind of thing. So being able to convey that information in a concise manner is important. And then at the back end, I’ve also done technical writing for the robotics company, I was that I was writing the user manual for this enormous system. And I mean, just going through, like all the functionality, I mean, I think it ended up being like a 1200 page manual. And so it’s not really concise. And I kind of had an idea that, you know, the audience that’s supposed to be reading it is the doctors and nurses. But do they have time to read a 1200? Page manual? No. So I think it was probably recycled, which was very motivating. As soon as they unpack it, they’re like, Oh, you know, but then after, you know, writing the manual, we would condense the key information into what we call like a quick guide. And that was more important than anything, because it was laminated, and they would have it like up on the wall. And that would be kind of the really key functionality that we needed to convey in the warnings. And, hey, be careful about this. And so it’s, that’s the first time that I’d really kind of seeing the full scale of technical writing from the very beginning, where you’re still in like product development, process development all the way through to the end user, and what, what are they going to do, and then you need to convert those manuals and quick guides into like, 12 to 15 languages, and then make sure that the translators, you know, made it like, so that it really makes sense in all different countries that you’re shipping this to. And so that, that was during a consulting position that I saw that kind of that back end use of technical writing. And, and there’s, I mean, I was around experts that are, you know, graphics designers, and people that have been doing this for a long time. So it was actually a really neat learning experience to be plopped into that consulting assignment. And just quickly get up to speed. And so I said, Okay, well, I’ll just learn extensively how this robot works. And then I’ll just have to, you know, write about it, and, and make sure that, you know, each step of the way that it can be followed, and that I’m thinking through all the different ways that they can use this improperly, or the ways that it can harm a patient. And so it just goes through all the medical device processes, looking back at all the risk documents, all the things up through the beginning of design that then trickle down to the end user.
Aaron Moncur 22:38
I’m glad that you mentioned the technical user manual, I think that’s I’m very interested in engineering, training, and engineering education. And we’re working on an intern program internally for to train interns that hopefully will grow into something even bigger down the road. But for now, it’s an intern program. And you just gave me a great idea that one of the an opportunity to train them would be to give them a simple process and say, write me a user manual for this. And then he could take it and go back and forth. And maybe I always appreciate when people cannot just tell you what to do, but but how, what to learn about how to learn it. And maybe one way to learn, or at least to enhance or subsidize a individuales skills in the area of technical writing, is to find a few user manuals and read them and say, Okay, how did this person write it? Why did they choose, you know, that word in that picture, and so on, and so forth, that would probably be a really effective way to increase one owns one’s own technical writing skills.
Barbara Allen 23:45
And some user manuals, I think have been, when you like release a new version of a product, you just break out the old one, and just kind of like update the picture here and there. But really, at some point, you need to kind of just rehash the whole thing, because the person’s mistakes and their mistakes. And the run on sentences that that person use it just it just like 10 years down, the road just gets off. And so at some point, you do need to, someone has to just painstakingly go through and say like, we don’t need all this, we don’t need this section, this doesn’t apply and try to shrink it down. And now I think they’re actually most companies are setting a USB stick or something like that. That’s electronic. That was our goal, because we would then have to print out 1200 pages and, and, you know, have them with each unit. And so just for the environment sake, I’m glad that a lot of companies are going electronic.
Aaron Moncur 24:31
Yeah, for sure. I think it requires a certain type of person as well. For me, I think about writing a technical manual. And I think that sounds fun. You know that that’s like a challenge a puzzle to put together. And other people might be like, give me give me away from this.
Barbara Allen 24:45
They can get a little mundane in certain sections, depending what you’re writing, but..
Aaron Moncur 24:50
1200 pages I think would be a bit much. Well, let me take a short break and share with the listeners that test fixture design calm. is where you can learn more about how we help medical device engineering teams and other non medical engineering teams who need turnkey automated equipment, or custom test fixtures to assemble, inspect, characterize or perform verification or validation testing on their devices. We’re speaking with Barbara Allen today president and owner at Irwin and Associates. The next thing I wanted to talk to you about Barbara is production management. You have that’s one of your specialties, production, and probably just general project management. But what are some things that engineering teams commonly do wrong? When it comes to managing production?
Barbara Allen 25:44
I think there’s, I mean, there’s so many things I could say that they do, right, and different things that I’ve seen that are sometimes a tripping spot. Once a product is through r&d, it’s sent over to you manufacturing, you make the first few devices or whatever is you’re making, I think, especially at a startup environment, they’re like, let’s get going we need like we need to start generating revenue. So to scale up, let’s let’s scale up, let’s add a second shift, let’s add a third shift, let’s let’s outsource all this stuff, let’s, I think they want to move so quickly. And especially with the people aspect of it, there’s been times where I’ve been told, like you need to hire like 50 new assemblers this week. So just like you know, bringing people interview them and like put them on the floor. And it’s like, that’s, that’s chaotic, because they don’t know the product, they don’t know, their, you know, much about the company. And you know, it’s such a lot to get up to speed. And so I think one thing is going a little slower with adding that second shift or that third shift, because there’s always going to be competition between the shifts, for whatever reason, it’s, it just creates this dynamic in the company that is sometimes hard to overcome. If there’s, you know, a device in doubt, in quality inspection that’s rejected, there’ll be like, that wasn’t on our shift, it wasn’t our shift. And so trying to trying to facilitate team building exercises between all the different shifts, and having common goals instead of shift goals has found to be one thing that’s really helped. And again, just really getting on the floor and spending a lot of time I would sit with assemblers, and I’d say like, I’ve never made this part. You know, I have my materials that I got from this stockroom. Okay, show me Show me how to make it, show me how to make so I would try to make the entire device myself and I would take my parts and move to the next station and, and through that way I would really get to know the person and what’s going on. And I’d be like, you don’t even have the correct microscope here to do this assignment. They’re like, I know, but that’s the only one we had, I was like, No, no, it says you have to use this magnification. And so that was really a way to, for me to be come aware of like what what these people even need to be successful. And sometimes they didn’t didn’t have it. And so then I could put that plan that for the budgeting or plan that into the process to make just as successful overall, but and I think helping people really feel valued. I think everybody wants to come to work and feel like they’re doing good job, their value, they’re appreciated. And that can go a really long way. Even on the manufacturing floor, because it is stressful to them, they kind of are the last ones to hear about the goals, or the last ones to hear if there’s an issue in the field. And so they kind of sometimes feel like, like, you know, the engineers are coming in to figure out what went wrong and who did it. And so sometimes it creates this like defensive environment instead of, Okay, let’s see what’s going on. And, and they’re not quite as open to sharing maybe information as they could if it felt more of a, you know, cohesive environment.
Aaron Moncur 28:54
Yeah, well, another skill that you and your team have is building and working within quality systems. And I interviewed a gentleman by the name of Matt Heidecker last week, who’s awesome guy and shared what I thought was really interesting way about thinking of quality systems. He said that the purpose of a quality system is to prevent unforced errors. And I hadn’t thought about it in just that way before. We’ll never be able to eliminate all mistakes from a process because humans are performing those processes and humans are inherently we make mistakes. But what we can avoid are those errors that we know can happen and are easily avoidable by following up, you know, a checklist or some kind of procedure. In fact, I heard a story just last week. It’s kind of a sad story, actually, but I’ll share it because it illustrates the point. Hopefully it doesn’t come off as sounding flippant here. My father in law told me this story was when he was in high school a friend of his I guess he was really into, like quick drawing a pistol he had this pistol and he would practice quick drive. It looks like cowboy from, you know, back in the day, I guess he was pretty good at this, you know, quickdraws pistol and, and one day, he was doing this quick draw practice and it was the gun was loaded. And it went off when he he drew it from the holster and he shot himself through the hip and ended up bleeding to death. And I mean, you know, tragic, right. But I thought about that. And I thought, that seems like an unforced error, right? Like, when practicing quick drawing from a holster, here’s the checklist a, you know, make sure the gun is unloaded. I wonder Have you thought about quality systems in that way before is is a means to prevent unforced errors? And or do you have a different way that you’d like to think about them?
Barbara Allen 30:48
Yeah, I think, definitely, definitely, I think that’s a way we could think about it, sometimes a client will contact us and they have no quality system whatsoever. And so they are either coming right out of academia, and are just starting to create a company and want to know, like, what do we need? How do we get to FDA approval. And so we’ll go in and create for the first time, their procedures, their forms, lat number control, all the things that are needed in order to prevent, you know, mixing and materials and just things you would think of would be well, obviously, you know, you would, you would know what materials and the product, but you don’t if you don’t have any way to trace it so well, it’s in terms of preventing unforced errors. Creating a framework and a foundation that helps them to, to navigate their company within those, those boundaries is extremely helpful. But then on the far end, I’ve worked in quality groups where we actually receive the returned devices from the hospitals, and they’re mangled and bloody, and you figure out, you have to figure out, like, what went wrong in the in the surgery, and you’re calling the doctors and calling the nurses and a lot of times, it’s been several weeks since they did that surgery to when you get it? And they’re like, I don’t know, we’ve had like 50 patients since then I’ll look it up. Oh, yeah, it was like a male, you know, 60 years old, but they’re just reading the chart, you know, it’s hard to get real information. So you have to look at just with artifacts that you have it within the quality system. Okay, so let’s let’s go through the checklist of how it should have been made, and like, you know, the different parts that shouldn’t be sticking up this way or that way. And then being able to look back at all the materials to see you know, are all the returned devices all from the same lot, you know, with that particular component or you know, so the quality system, having a robust quality system allows the net troubleshooting aspect to be done quickly to draw conclusions so that you can make changes upstream. If you can, like many times we do find out identify that it is potentially a material lot issue at a third party and we say like, you know, every we need, we need to hold everything from this particular lot. Are you still shipping us stuff from that lot? Are you shipping to other people, or you know, whatnot, so just helps us through that problem solving strategy.
Aaron Moncur 33:10
Very cool. Irwin and Associates was was named on a list of Top 10 medical device consulting companies in 2020, which is huge accomplishment, I wondered, what, what are some of the practices or habits or rituals that your team has cultivated over the years that led to this success?
Barbara Allen 33:32
I mean, I just have to give the credit to the level of consultants on board. I mean, they are people who are highly experienced, highly professional, really just subject matter experts in what they do. We really don’t onboard people unless they have you know, 15 plus years of experience in their particular niche and and so when they go to a client, it’s like, oh, yeah, I’ve done this 50 times over and so they really feel comfortable, you know, performing the work when they when they go to a client and and I think that’s a huge thing. And they’re just there. The other thing is that we onboard people who are choosing consulting as their first choice in their career and that might sound kind of strange. I have talked to some people that want to come on board and they’ll say like, Well, you know, I don’t really know what I want to do like, I kind of interviewed around a lot and I didn’t really find what I wanted to do or didn’t that didn’t work out. So I’m just going to consult until what I really want to do shows up at my door, and I just, I’m like, thank you very much for the phone call. You will not hear from me again. in a nice way. So these are people that it Erwin that that really want to to be a consultant that’s the like the lifestyle whether it’s the flexibility, whether it’s being able to experience So many different technologies and a shorter amount of time that maybe if you’re a full time at a company, you wouldn’t see, you know, cardiology, neuro neurovascular products, urology, robotics and pain management all within three years. And so I think that’s, that’s one of the things that is maybe unique about the company, but we really, we really do take pride in the level of people on board. And so I think that’s just when you when you provide excellent service, then I think, the next client hears about it and says, Oh, I heard about my, you know, my friend, as us, you know, Irwin and Associates, hey, we have this needed our company to and that’s, that’s really the main way that we have found business over the last 20 years, referrals, through through referrals, I’d say almost primarily, we do have a website, and I’m always when someone emails me through the website, I’m like, wow, you Wow, email your website? Yeah, like it we have we have connected with some people that way. But the majority is just through Yeah, through through referrals, have. We, you know, are we have one of your consultants here, we’d love to have two more, or people that have worked with an urban consultant, and they move on to another company. And then they’ll call us up and say, You helped us at my previous company? Can you come and help us at my new company?
Aaron Moncur 36:20
Yeah. What? What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
Barbara Allen 36:26
Ah, I think the best compliment is when a consultant that I don’t know, we’ll contact Irwin associates and say, one of my good friends, consults through Irwin. And when she’s told me about the type of company it is, in terms of how the people are treated, that just the environment, the, the, the care, and the attention to detail that they receive in terms of risk, like helping them to move further on in their career, they they want to join. And so that’s, that’s a compliment, that it the type of environment has been cultivated, that is attractive to people. And so that makes me feel feel good. Because ultimately, we wouldn’t when there’s a new consultant coming on board, you know, I don’t, they have a huge say, in the type of assignment they take, how many days a week, how many hours, what type of product they want to work on, it’s not just like, well, the next client that calls you’re going, you know, they, they always can say that I’m not interested in that, or this is what I really want to do. This is the type of product I want to learn about. So it’s, it’s very much a partnership, instead of more of like a, I’m the owner, and you guys are just gonna go off. And do you know, the assignments that I tell you, it’s not like that at all. Nice.
Aaron Moncur 37:52
That I think is the foundation of an enjoyable work workspace. The consultants that you hire, they’re already senior level individuals, right. So they already have industry experience, they have already experienced some level of of development in their own career. And I know that you really enjoy helping people advance that development. So given that they’re already fairly senior people to begin with, how what ways have you found to foster the development of the consultants that work there?
Barbara Allen 38:31
It really depends on what the person is looking for. Like their One example is there was there’s a new consultant who contacted me not too long ago, and she said, I have been working like non stop at these startups, I’m so burned out. I feel like I don’t have the work life balance that I want. And so I would really like to still, you know, continue with my career. I don’t want to just quit. I would like to find work life balance for the next few years just to kind of recenter myself, like, do you have anything so that’s her her goals, or maybe not what you would think of in terms of advancing but I, but is what that’s what she was looking for. And I think it wasn’t important for her to have kind of that, that change of pace. And so she does, she works about 25 hours a week now as a consultant at a great company. And she’s extremely happy. And so that that’s what she was looking for in terms of in terms of her ideal work situation at this time, that might change you know, maybe in a year or two, she’ll say, Alright, I’m ready for 40 hours. I want to get back in it because she’s extremely accomplished, extremely hardworking individual who can really I mean, sky’s the limit, she can do anything. She’s She’s really amazing. But this point she was looking to, to kind of regain that work life balance that you know, sometimes You’re just on the wheel year after year after year, and especially to startups where you’re wearing 10 different hats. You know, she’s like, I just feel like I’ve reached burnout and don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to get off the wheel. Because when I interviewed, other startups want to hire me because they see what I’ve done at these first startups, and it’s just kind of perpetuates, and then other other people that are looking to advance their career. We do I think mentoring is a really important piece, I was part of a an engineering mentor mentee program in college, I was given a mentor who was pretty high up at Abbott, when I joined, my previous owner mentored me through this transition. And so meant mentoring each other through whether it’s new skill development, or things like that, I think are really important. And so there’s been times where consultants have said, I’ve done some regulatory in my career, but I’m like, they’re mostly a quality engineer. But I’ve done some regulatory, I would eventually like to consult and regulatory, for example, is there a consultant on board at Irwin, who could kind of mentor me through pulling them out to a client, you know, to do it, but it’s more just kind of having a mentor type relationship of talking about that getting together for lunch in kind of getting that person more up to speed so that they can, can move in that direction with their career. And so that’s kind of another thing. I’ve I’ve done that myself with other consultants that are saying, like, I haven’t really done a process validation in a long time. I’m like, oh, I’ve done so many, like, let’s let’s get together and talk about process validation, and about how it’s changed and talk about, you know, all those kinds of I’m like, happy to, to impart that information as well. So mentor mentee programs, I think have been successful, have been proven to be successful and continue to be successful. And we’re kind of bringing someone along with you, as you succeed in your career.
Aaron Moncur 41:50
Yeah, it makes you wonder why they’re not more common mentor mentee programs, because they are so valuable. I mean, I’m guilty of it. We don’t really have a formal mentor mentee program here at pipeline, I interviewed someone at wl gore just a little while ago. And they talked about their mentor program, which is very formalized, and integral part of the company. When you get onboard at Gore, the first one of the first things that happens is you get assigned a mentor. And something I learned, which was kind of cool is that you get assigned a mentor at first, but you can change your mentor. As you develop there. You can say, Hey, you know, mentor a thank you so much, really appreciate everything you’ve done. I think I’d like to try another mentor now, which is, I think, very cool.
Barbara Allen 42:39
Yeah, but it was very formal. And then other companies, it’s been more informal and some of the startups, sometimes you have to advocate for yourself. When I was at a startup, there was a more senior person, she was just really impressive to me and kind of had a career that I was wanting to think, well, maybe one day, I’d want to do that. And so I approached her and just said, Would you be willing to mentor me? And she was kind of like, what, what does it What would that look like? And I said, No, we could just get together for lunch once a month. Talk to me about your career. Talk to me about pathways to get there. And she’s like, Oh, yeah, that doesn’t sound so intimidating. And so sometimes you just have to even approach someone and ask about it. And it should be a flattering thing. So you know, most likely they’ll say, Yes,
Aaron Moncur 43:22
great advice. That’s fantastic advice. Yeah. Well, Barbara, I really deeply appreciate you spending some time talking with me on the podcast, I think that we’ve shared some things that a lot of people are gonna find very useful, especially that the mentor shifting, that’s, that’s very important. How can people get ahold of you?
Barbara Allen 43:44
So you can get ahold of me on LinkedIn under Barbara Allen, my profile, you’ll see the link to urban and Associates, you can also reach me through the website at www dot Irwin associates inc.com. It goes directly the messaging on there goes directly to my email, but my email is also B. Allen. So b A Ll e. n, at Irwin associates inc.com.
Aaron Moncur 44:13
I’m curious. It sounds like such a joy to work at Irwin and Associates. Do you just get bombarded with inquiries about working there?
Barbara Allen 44:22
it you know, the pandemic has been yet So to answer your question. Yes, it’s, it’s pretty it’s pretty common to have consultants are prospective consultants contacting us and and so that’s been really fun just to talk to all these kinds of new people and, and lately there’s actually been quite a few graduate students and people from the east coast and I’m like, How in the world did you find us?
Aaron Moncur 44:48
So we’re just getting out.
Barbara Allen 44:49
Yeah, but local people I you know, I make it a practice to get together with them in person when I when they reach out to me. And so that’s been kind of sad with 2020 that I you know, I haven’t been able to meet them in person, because I can tell, you know, just can really tell a lot about a person and just what they’re interested in and from a face to face. So I’m really hopeful that in 2021, at some point that can can go back to being like that.
Aaron Moncur 45:14
Okay,well, we’re wrapping up here. But before I formally close this off, is there anything I should have asked you that I haven’t?
Barbara Allen 45:22
I think you did a great job covering a lot of detail about it. So I appreciate your time. And I it’s been fun to kind of think back to the earlier days and and, you know, just kind of talk about how everything’s led me to this point.
Aaron Moncur 45:37
Trip down memory lane. That’s always nice. Yeah. Well, Barbara, thank you so much. Best of luck with Irwin and Associates. Doesn’t sound like you really needed but best of luck anyway, and and thank you again for joining me on the show.
Barbara Allen 45:47
All right. Thank you appreciate it. I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of Pipeline Design, and Engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please leave us a positive review. It really helps other people find the show. To learn how your engineering team can leverage our team’s expertise in developing turnkey custom test fixtures, automated equipment and product design, visit us at testfixturedesign.com Thanks for listening
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