Michael Kubba | Working for Apple, Tesla, and Google

 In Being an Engineer Podcast


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Who is Michael Kubba?

Michael Kubba is an experienced and hands-on product development leader who has led hardware, systems, manufacturing and operations teams across multiple industries including wearables, robotics as well as consumer electronics. Michael has a passion for user-centric design and a focus on taking products from concept to production. A few companies for which Michael has worked include Apple, Google, and Tesla. Meanwhile, he currently serves as COO at Fellow, a company that makes high-end coffee hardware devices.

Aaron Moncur, host


apple, design, working, product, machined, people, engineers, team, pretty, hiring manager, company, interviewing, learned, project, buttons, google, remote, released, world, building
Presenter, Michael Kubba, Aaron Moncur

Presenter 00:00
Hi, everyone, we’ve set up this being an engineer podcast as an industry knowledge repository, if you will, we hope it’ll be a tool where engineers can learn about and connect with other companies, technologies, people, resources and opportunities. So make some connections and enjoy the show.

Michael Kubba 00:18
I pick up the phone and you know, Hello, yeah, this is Elon Musk. And I’m like, Hi. And it’s so like, I literally have to start interviewing while my wife and my friend are in the car and I’m trying I’m driving I’m trying to navigate through the through the rain.

Aaron Moncur 00:46
Hello, and welcome to the being an engineer Podcast. Today we’re speaking with Michael Kubba, who is an experienced and hands on product development leader, and his lead hardware systems, manufacturing and operations teams across multiple industries, including wearables, robotics and consumer electronics. Michael has a passion for user centered design, and a focus on taking products from concept to production. A few companies for which Michael has worked include Apple, Google, and Tesla, obviously, some of the heavy hitters out there in the industry. Michael, thanks so much for being with us today.

Michael Kubba 01:22
Yeah, thank you for having me. Excited to be here.

Aaron Moncur 01:24
All right. So what made you decide to become an engineer?

Michael Kubba 01:29
Yeah, good question. I have the kind of typical story, you know, which is like, you know, growing up being a tinkerer, wanting to break things, see how things were built. So I kind of had a natural curiosity for these things. And so you know, but funny story, I actually thought that, even though I loved kind of doing all of those, you know, all of those things, I thought that maybe I’d get into psychology going into college.

Aaron Moncur 01:57
Yeah, what made you think that?

Michael Kubba 01:59
Yeah, you know, I don’t know, I just kind of, you know, for whatever reason, had this affinity for kind of how the mind works. And, you know, was was kind of very interested in that. And I started kind of, like, you know, exploring that a little bit more and, and then I realized, you know, probably, you know, in fact, my parents highly, highly discouraged me from even pursuing that. Finally, my parents convinced me to stick with kind of my other passion, which was engineering, but I think it’s actually helped me, that kind of natural curiosity for how the mind works, has kind of helped me in my my career, especially as a manager and leader.

Aaron Moncur 02:35
Yeah, absolutely. I was gonna ask the same thing. How do you think it has helped you, especially in your leadership roles?

Michael Kubba 02:43
Yeah, I mean, I think, I think a lot of it, at least for me, some of the same kind of engineering principles apply for kind of how how the mind works, and how, how we all feel different things, and why we feel different things. And so it’s helped me kind of just, you know, break down methodically, you know, what is what is this person dealing with? What are the challenges? If I were this person? How would I be acting? Or how would I approach this and trying to kind of get inside their mind have some empathy? It helped me kind of dive in and figure out how to best guide somebody or how to how to work with them to get to, you know, whatever the goal is.

Aaron Moncur 03:24
Yeah, that’s great. Well, you’ve worked for some of the largest and really most prestigious and influential companies out there in the world. How did you get hired at those companies? Was this like a very methodical, intentional approach that you took? Or? Or did you just kind of landed one and then that led to the next which led to the next?

Michael Kubba 03:45
Yeah, it’s kind of changed a lot, from company to company. But, you know, I started my career in aerospace industry. So I was working on heads up displays for military planes, fa teens and F 22s. And, you know, I think I spent two years working on a project. And I think after I left, eight years later, it still hadn’t been released. And so, you know, it was a very slow process, I learned a lot it was, it was really, really exciting. In that sense, I mean, just absorbing so many aspects of kind of the trade offs of designing something like that, and that kind of environment, from, you know, structural to thermal to kind of, you know, whatever it might be vibration considerations, things like that. And optics was a big one. So, but it was just too slow for me, and I felt like, you know, I wanted to, I wanted to number one be in a faster paced environment, but also I wanted to be working on something that was closer to the user, you know, I can’t really can’t really put myself in the shoes of a fighter pilot necessarily. So even though it was really Yeah, even though it was really cool stuff to work on. I so I really was intentional about wanting to make the switch to Apple. At that time, you know, the iPhone was not yet released, I think was just getting released. So it was still kind of earlier earlier on. And, but I loved the products, I was always a consumer. And I was like, you know, my dream was to find a way to work there. And so I reached out to basically everybody I knew friends of friends and, and I tried, you know, my best to get my foot in the door there. And I was able to get my foot in the door, at least to kind of talk with the hiring manager. And from there, it was a series of, you know, 15,18 plus interviews, because I was interviewing with like, yeah, I was interviewing with like three different teams I was interviewing with like the iPod team, the desktop team. And the portables team. And there’s this famous Apple design challenge that you have to go through as well. So I had to do that kind of on in my spare time and present that. And so it was a lot of just kind of trying my best to, you know, network and see who worked there just to get a phone call. And then after the phone call, it was like, Okay, now this is on me to really figure out how to, you know, best present myself. And I think one of the things that I tried to focus on is, you know, going from the aerospace industry into like a Apple product design role, it’s a little bit of a, you know, it’s a big, it’s a big jump in some ways. And so I tried to find the role there that was kind of most similar to what I was doing, which was a thermal thermal, lead thermal engineering lead for a product and kind of got in that way, and then kind of moved, you know, to product design lead and things like that. So, but from from there on out, it was very much like, you know, people that I had worked with before, that had moved on to another company who I had worked with very closely. And that was like, kind of, you know, I really firmly believe, you know, if you’re, if you’re really good at what you do, and you know, you’re a good person, and you’re good to work with and, you know, people people will gravitate towards, you know, they’ll call you up when when there is a challenge that they’re running into, or when they see something good opportunities coming. And it was never my goal to kind of like network and, you know, try to see what I can, you know, what I can get or anything like that it was more just, you know, keep my head down work as hard as I possibly can. And, and it ended up being you know, that these opportunities opened up at Tesla, there was somebody that I worked with closely at Apple that that went there. And I was quite interested in that company. And same thing at Google and shaper. And interestingly enough, fellow, I didn’t know anyone that worked there. So it was just, that was, that was kind of broke the mold there. But

Aaron Moncur 07:49
once you earn that trust, right, it becomes a lot easier to bring you on to some new project because Person A or Person B, they’re not putting their necks out on the line, they know that you’re gonna get the job done.

Michael Kubba 08:00
Totally, totally. And I think, you know, I never sought out to, you know, for that, but I think it was kind of an outcome of just, you know, you know, making sure that I was doing the best job I possibly could and that, you know, people, people hopefully like to, to work with me, you know, so, and then, you know, that only gets you so far, you know, then you then you have to really show up in an interview. And yeah, in the Tesla days, Elon was interviewing everybody. So I had to also interview with Elon would really, which was a very interesting process. So, you know, it was early on early on enough. I think I was, you know, employee 500 something. So he was still interviewing everybody at that time. Wow,

Aaron Moncur 08:42
what do you remember what kind of questions he asked you?

Michael Kubba 08:45
Yeah, it was really, it was pretty, it was pretty high level. And actually funny story about that I was supposed to interview him. It’s more of a final sign off, I would say from him. Even though he’s a really brilliant guy, it wasn’t technical, or, you know, I already had those kinds of interviews. And so this was kind of final sign off. And there it was a Friday evening, supposed to interview him at like 530. And, you know, 530 came around, I didn’t get a phone call 637 30 and I had my wife and my friend were over and we were supposed to go see a movie, you know? And so like, 830 rolls around, and I’m like, Okay, well, I’ve waited three hours. I just don’t think this is happening. And you know, I tried to put myself back in that mindset, like, I probably should have just canceled everything and just like, hang out there till midnight and just wait for the phone call, you know, but for whatever reason, I was like, Okay, well, this isn’t happening. And so we hopped in the car, and we started driving, and it was raining that night. It was like really, really bad storm. So I’m driving, driving down and and all of a sudden I get a phone call from from La La number. And I’m like, Oh my goodness. So I I pick up the phone and you know, Hello, yeah, this is Elon Musk. And I’m like, Ha And so like, I literally have to start interviewing while my wife and my friend are in the car, and I’m trying to I’m driving, I’m trying to navigate through the, through the rain, I get off at the first on ramp or off ramp. And I find like a building with cover, and I get out of the car, and I just, you know, finish out the interview. And he was just asking me, you know, what, why do you want to join Tesla and what questions I have for him and what excites me and stuff like that. So yeah, it was, it wasn’t too bad. But great story. It’s pretty, it was pretty funny.

Aaron Moncur 10:32
I want to go back to the first phone call you had with the hiring manager at Apple, because I think it’s not instructive specifically for Apple. But people listening to this, I’m sure there are those listeners out there who are trying to get a job right now who are trying to get into this company or that company, and I think it might be useful for them to hear. Do you remember? How did you get that? That first call? I know, you said that you kind of reached out to everyone. But you remember any more granular details about about that first call getting the first call?

Michael Kubba 11:02
Yeah, it was actually a call. It was a an email from a recruiter first. And there were some questions about kind of my experience and what kind of positions I was looking for. So that was kind of like the first touch point where, you know, I had to be very definitive. I tried to be very definitive, you know, these are the three types. These are the three roles that I’m interested in. And this is why. So I think that that was helpful, because, you know, a lot of times the recruiters, you know, they, they’re trying their best to, you know, figure out is this candidate a fit for the role that I’ve been assigned to, and they’re not, they’re not necessarily an engineer, but they see some experience and maybe some key words and things like that. And so yeah, I think sometimes it can be helpful to guide that conversation, you know, and get in the head of the hiring manager, why would the hiring manager want want you? And so I think that was part of it just be a little bit definitive. And, hey, I saw this role. This is what I, this is why I think I’m the fit for it. And I’d love the opportunity to talk with the hiring manager more about my experience, and when so that was kind of the first, the first thing, okay,

Aaron Moncur 12:12
it wasn’t like someone you had gone to school with was working there, and you reached out to them, and they put you in contact with the hiring manager was a recruiter.

Michael Kubba 12:20
It was a recruiter that, yeah, got in contact with and, and, you know, it was, that was the first, you know, the first check. And then I had a hiring Hiring Manager screen after that. But no, it definitely had at Apple, it was a little more removed, right? Like, I didn’t have a bunch of friends that I was, you know, working with at the aerospace industry that that were there. So it was like, literally anybody I could, I could talk to there, and it just happened to be a recruiter. So that was the first step. And then with the hiring manager, you know, a lot of it was just kind of listening, you know, to what they’re looking for, and why they’re trying to hire this position. And then just trying to play to the, to the strengths at least, to get to the next stage where I can actually, you know, show some of my technical, you know, aptitude. So,

Aaron Moncur 13:14
apparently, there were like, 15 of those next stages.

Michael Kubba 13:18
You know, that was, it was really, it was actually a pretty intense process, because specifically, it ended up being three different teams that I started interviewing with, and it all kind of so many Yeah, kind of all unfolded. So, you know, I started interviewing with the iPod team, and at that time, you know, then it turned into ipod iphone team. And I came in at first for just kind of like a I don’t know, maybe it was like a culture fit check. I went and just for lunch with the with a bunch of people, you know, including Steve’s a deskey, and a few other people that were, you know, pretty high up there. At that time. They were, you know, a little bit more junior but and it started with a lunch and then after that it was a design challenge, which is pretty pretty famous for Apple now. I mean, they I think most product design roles do this challenge. It’s a battery door design and you have to do it on your own and then you have to come in and present it to everybody and I as a as an engineer at Apple i i Then screened many people with the same design challenge. So I got I got pretty good at it. But But then, you know, meeting with so many other folks across these three different teams, it was yeah, it ended up being like 15 people, you know, five or six people per per kind of role. And then were you

Aaron Moncur 14:49
were you working full time during your full time, squeeze lunch meetings or just take time off here and there personal time to think and interview.

Michael Kubba 15:00
Yeah, exactly. And then, you know, not to mention the design challenge. And I was doing that basically nights and weekends. You know, to try to get that done. And, and but, you know, at the time, I was like, I was so jazzed on it. You know, I was like, I was energized by it. So I wanted to do it, you know, it’s awesome. And I remember showing my, my friends, some of the some of the designs, they’re like, Yeah, but that’s not really what Apple would do. You gotta go back to the drawing board. You know? So, you know, had to had to start over a couple times. But yeah, it was it was it was really fun.

Aaron Moncur 15:35
That’s cool. Very cool. Well, I’m going to nerd out a little bit on one of the products that you helped design, which was the Apple TV remote. And I was, I was kind of excited to see that you had helped design that because in all honesty, I’ve looked at this thing several times and picked it up and studied it and been really impressed with how, like, I guess integrated the whole thing is, I mean, I can’t tell. I think it was machined, but I’m not 100% Sure, maybe it was extruded, and then post machined with different features. I’m not sure but the whole thing is so smooth, and just well put together, that I couldn’t figure out exactly what the manufacturing process was, which I think is really a pretty, pretty good hallmark of a good design. The manufacturing process just kind of fades away in the background, and you’re just left with the experience as a user. My wife is always making fun of me, because I’ll pick plastic parts up. And it’s pretty easy to see parting lines, you know, and eject Ray marks and things like that. Okay, yeah, this was injected molded. But the Apple TV remote, I always thought was a really cool piece of hardware. So maybe you can talk a little bit about what definitively for me, what was the manufacturing process for the housing at least? And then I’m even more interested to hear about what was the process for developing that manufacturing process? Because it seems like a challenging part to make looking at all the little intricate features that are in there.

Michael Kubba 17:02
Yeah, yeah, totally. So you’re right, it is it is machined, it’s actually extruded. The net shape is extruded. The profile is extruded. Okay. Okay, extruded, and then it’s post machined after that. And so, kind of the way I didn’t really realize it at the time, but I’ve looked back on that project, I’m like, wow, that project was probably the most definitive, most defining moment for me, as a product designer, you know, it was the first time I was leading a project, but like, I look back on that product, and a lot of people, you know, mentioned the same thing, like, wow, that thing was amazing. And like, you know, it was just so seamless. And like, it’s like, a ship in a bottle. And yeah, exactly. That’s no way to describe it. Yeah. And it’s, you know, we sold it for, like, 19 bucks, you know, so it was it was crazy. But, yeah, so there were a couple other incarnations of that, you know, the firt, the first remote was the kind of the white plastic one. So this kind of came after that. And we were, you know, developing it for, you know, to be standalone, but also potentially, in box with kind of the first unibody MacBooks that were, were kind of being released. And so there’s a lot of attention, a lot of interest in like, you know, hogging out of billet material and under cuts and that kind of stuff. Similarly, right after I think remote got released, the Mac Mini, the newer, you know, the updated version of Mac Mini, where they hogged out pretty much the whole thing out of out of a billet aluminum. So there’s, there’s a lot, it was very interested in this kind of, like, you know, no parting lines, and all of that kind of stuff. And there were a couple incarnations of the remote that never made it out into the wild and different explorations that kind of led to this. But, you know, when I started getting involved in the project, there was also another product that we were where the team was working on the iPod Nano at the time, which was a hollow extrusion, everything was assembled from either end, the button kind of came in from the outside. And then there were two plastic caps on the top and the bottom. And so there’s some inspiration there. But it’s like, well, this is a remote like, it doesn’t need, you know, it doesn’t need to be as complicated, like how do we make it as simple as possible, and you don’t really need a big board. So like, can we literally hog out, you know, a circle, put a PCB in there, and then the buttons come in from the outside, it’s like, okay, well, but then, you know, how do we work with coin cell battery and an IR receiver, you know, or transmitter and receiver. And, and so, you know, we started exploring a bunch of ways to kind of create these cavities and you know, okay, we know where generally these buttons want to be like, how do we connect them? And so we started exploring a lot of the, you know, undercuts and T cutters, T cutters that are used on the market to to be able to connect those cavities and so I became way more You know, experience with T cutters and shank to cutter ratios and all of that kind of stuff. And I remember even in CAD, you know, you know, me, you know, cutting up these T cutters and the profiles of the cuts and everything like that just to get every last fraction of a millimeter. So that’s kind of generally how it started, there was a lot of, you know, ongoing process development, you know, but basically the, we were able to kind of put a flex in the front of the board for the IR transmitter, and a really long sheet metal contact for the battery. And we were able, basically able to, you know, assemble this board and from the main opening for the, for the buttons, basically snake it in their seat it down properly, and then snap the buttons out from, you know, from the outside. And that was a really challenging one of the most challenging products I’ve ever worked on. I mean, it seems really simple. But getting, getting that assembly process dialed, we had a lot of issues with the buttons popping out during drop test, you know, during the EBT and DVT phases. So I remember sitting in China, for months, really watching this drop tester over and over doing all of these experiments to see how we how we fix it, you know, a lot of good lessons learned there, we ultimately fixed it, kind of in the nick of time. But yeah, it was a pretty crazy project.

Aaron Moncur 21:28
Well, nailbiter. That’s really cool. Thanks for sharing all that. Yeah. Another question that I have for you is, when I think of design teams at Apple, I think of these big rooms just filled with engineers and designers, and I’ve heard at least for some of the projects, that’s not necessarily always the case, it’s smaller teams, what was that your experience? Or was there just this, like gigantic design team assembled?

Michael Kubba 21:55
Um, you know, it really depended on on the product. You know, I was working on desktop and accessories a lot. And so the teams there were typically pretty small. I mean, like, when I was working on remote, I was the only product design, I was the product design lead, but I was like leading myself. Oh, really? Just you? Yeah, yeah. I mean, there were other product designers that had worked on some earlier concepts and stuff like that. But in terms of kind of, you know, taking it from where it was into mass production and executing on it was me. And then after, after I left, they did another version of of, of that same remote, but the buttons were slightly proud, they had like a bump to them a puff to them. And so there was kind of a second, or, you know, version 1.5 That, you know, that was released at some other some other folks worked on. So I can’t take credit for everything. But yeah, at least that executing on that on that one, you know, as myself. And it’s where I learned that the most I mean, I didn’t, you know, we had the industrial design team that was very much trying to treat this thing like an iPod, but we didn’t have the team. You know, have the iPod. Yeah. So, you know, they had the same level of expectations. I was like, Okay, how do we get this done? You know, and that’s why, Michael Yeah, that’s why I spent so much time and other manufacturers in China and learn how to, you know, create quality jigs and project manage, and, you know, got into the CNC process, and all of that kind of stuff. But, you know, at the time, the iPod teams were actually quite large. And some of the, you know, Mac teams were pretty large. And now, you know, if you look at iPhone, for example, I mean, the teams have to be large, because, you know, they’re going so deep in each kind of module. So you’ll have product design teams that are dedicated to each module, you’ll have a battery product design team, or PCBA design team. I don’t know exactly what they call them. But you know, they’re really specific to the, to the modules themselves, and they go really, really deep, trying to drive every fraction of efficiency out of out of that. And then you have the system, product design teams, which kind of take all of those modules and integrate them. And so those teams are quite large. And I think, you know, reflective of the of the scale of the product. Yeah. So I think it really depends on which team when I was at Apple, you know, the iPad team. It was before the iPad got released. But that team was growing pretty dramatically, just because I think they were seeing kind of how detailed how deep you have to go and you know, what the market is going to be like, and so, yeah, I think it really depends. I was lucky to the first project I worked on which, which was Mac Pro, was a team of maybe three or four product design engineers, but a fairly large cross functional team, you know, probably 20 or 30 people across, you know, different functions and electrical and, you know, thermal and all that kind of stuff. But you know, the How to design teams that I, that I, you know, worked on with remote and Apple TV really, really small Apple TV, it was like two people. So, you know, it really, really varies. And I thought the same thing when I was there, I was like, you know, you think there’s like an army behind this?

Aaron Moncur 25:16
Well, there was, it’s named Michael. Yeah.

Michael Kubba 25:19
Yeah. Well now and now you have now you have operation army, you know, operations armies that are that, you know, I think, I think the product design, they’ve really been pushing the manufacturing process so much that the manufacturing processes don’t product now. And so you have huge teams really dedicated to, you know, to the, to the manufacturing design, and they even call it that the manufacturing design team. So, automation fixtures and inspection fixtures and how to actually assemble this at scale with, you know, these crazy tolerances and gap and, you know, offset requirements and things like that. So yeah, yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s pretty crazy.

Aaron Moncur 26:04
That sounds very cool. I would love to take a look at some of the apple fixtures. Yeah, can teach us. Yeah, I’m guessing that back in that day, when you were working on the remote, you are not working 40 hours a week, this is probably a larger responsibility than that. Do you remember what kind of hours you’re working? Just out of curiosity?

Michael Kubba 26:27
It’s a good question. It’s, it’s hard to remember. I mean, I was I was burning the midnight oil. I mean, I, I was, I was up to the wee hours of the morning pretty consistently. I will say this though, I think a lot of that had to do with my inexperience, it was the first time that I was a product design lead, first time I was a lead for anything. I didn’t have deep experience in injection molding and CNC machining. And I was actually just, like, worried I was gonna mess it up. And, and so a lot of, I think a lot of the, a lot of that just came from inexperience, I was I was questioning my designs, I was maybe over prototyping. You know, and, and so I think I was pretty inefficient in that way. I think the, on the on the flip side, I spent a lot of time in Asia, you know, with the manufacturer, and spent tons of hours there. And that was really warranted because we didn’t really have a big cross functional team, I think it’s quite different now, there, but you know, I was, I was really burning the midnight oil, they’re just really trying to, you know, we were on a compressed schedule. And, and, you know, I have this kind of anxiety that, okay, this is gonna ramp into high volume, and I don’t want it to be like the one product at Apple that, you know, they had to pull back or whatever, you know, so I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I think it was a combination of, you know, a small team being fairly, you know, and then also really fast paced and demanding, but but also my inexperience

Aaron Moncur 28:02
Yeah, well, it shows what can be accomplished, when you’re willing to spend the time to figure something out. Even a young, inexperienced engineer, there’s a quote I have on the wall up here at the office, I can’t remember exactly how it goes. But something to the effect of the person who’s willing to spend 20 minutes on a problem is going to figure out a lot more than the person who’s willing to spend like the typical person who’s willing to spend two minutes on the problem, right? It’s not necessarily the intelligence or the like, innate tactical capabilities of a person that leads to his or her success. It’s, it’s that willingness to, to put the time in to figure out a hard problem to keep banging your head against that problem until you figure it out. I think that’s where a lot of really true greatness lies.

Michael Kubba 28:51
Yeah, absolutely. And I think being smart about kind of the information you can leverage around you. I mean, at Apple, I didn’t have a big cross functional team. But, you know, we were lucky to have a lot of other resources. I had really good bosses who had done this many times I had, you know, I could go you know, I one thing I learned there was just, you know, how to I almost had to kind of beg people for information and I was like, I will return the favor to you know, like, Hey, can you can you teach me about this nickel plating process? You know, I heard you’re working on it for for for iPod, can you can you tell me about it? And then, you know, they tell me about and I would try to absorb as much information as possible. And then, you know, when we released remote, I was like, Hey, here’s, here’s a couple of remotes. Thank you so much for your, for your help. So I had to kind of barter a little bit but but I think in terms of work ethic, absolutely. I I certainly felt like you know, I’m not the smartest person in the world. And I don’t have as much experience as a lot of these other people. But I for sure will. You know I want to be the person that’s kind of you know, in there the first and out of there the last year and working the hood in the work and working the hardest to kind of compensate and I think it, yeah, developed some good muscles for me to be able to kind of take with me to other, you know, other other places?

Aaron Moncur 30:08
For sure. What, what are one or two tools or processes that Apple uses for new product development that you think we can learn and maybe even implemented to our own companies?

Michael Kubba 30:21
Yeah, I think it’s a good question. I mean, I feel like apples University in some ways, they’re, they’re like the product development University, I think a lot of the consumer electronics product development that you see now and in, you know, a bunch of startups and even a lot of other you know, larger companies like Google and Facebook, you know, a lot of those folks that have been developing hardware, there are x apple. And so it really is kind of this. So I think the number one thing is the product development process. They’re like, they’re the masters of it. And so, you know, in the consumer electronics world, we follow kind of the concept to proto, to EBT, engineering, validation, testing, DVT, design, validation, testing, and PVT production, validation testing, and each one of those phases has particular criteria. It sounds like, you know, maybe too much process, but just even getting the basics, right, for each one of these phases, kind of, you know, the whole thing exists to be able to find issues early, and dial things before they get into mass production. And so, I think, for me, every company I’ve worked at, since I’ve kind of taken that learning from, okay, what is Evie T? And what is it for, and what is the successful, you know, basically, these are all design, build test cycles, you know, in the very beginning of the concept, it’s, it’s, you know, really, maybe nebulous, and, at the prototype stage, it’s maybe you know, a prototype every couple of weeks, or something like that, or, you know, a two month cycle, and then maybe EBT, and DVT, they get longer three or four months cycles, where you’re building more units, but they’re all design, build and test cycles. And I kind of, I really have taken that to every, you know, every kind of company I’ve gone to, and tried to instill a similar process to, to that, and, you know, it changes from company to company, because resources change, and, you know, maybe the scale of what I’m working on changes, but, you know, that’s certainly the biggest tool that I’ve, I’ve taken with me, it’s, you know, be very, very clear about the particular cycle that you’re in how, you know, each in each phase has a reason, you know, in the early stages, it’s figuring out why and what you’re building. And you know, and later on, it’s how are you building? And how is it going to fail? And how is it going to scale and all of those kinds of things? And so, yeah, that’s been extremely helpful helpful for me. I think another thing is probably, I was really spoiled at Apple, because we had like a world class machine shop, you know, any prototype you want, you basically fill out a ticket, you walk over, you bring some cookies, and you’re like, Hey, guys, can you can you machine this for me? Or can you 3d print this for me? And it was such an amazing resource. And it allowed me to, you know, prototype things extremely quickly. Okay, there’s a review tomorrow, we want to check out the snap design, okay, like, Let me release three different versions of the snap, and then we can review it in person, you know, like, moving at that speed. And, and I think now, okay, not everyone has access to a world class machine shop, but it has become democratized a little bit. I mean, there are like, you know, there’s proto labs, there’s, yeah, there’s companies like this, that you can leverage, you know, even buying 3d printers at home, you know, and so, you know, there are these types of resources that can be leveraged. And I learned a lot about, you know, quick, rapid iterations. And in leveraging those tools to kind of make your design decisions, kind of robust early on. At a certain point, you might just have to make, you know, a kind of executive decision on on a design direction, but at least you can be prototyping, moving very, very quickly in the beginning.

Aaron Moncur 34:14
Yeah, that’s, I think that’s such a huge point to the ability to prototype very quickly, just does so much, adds so much value to the project as a whole. I know a lot of the shops we use that they’re outside machine shops, typically and so they’re getting bogged down with other jobs are doing and we might end up waiting two or three weeks to get a part back. Sometimes we’ll go to a company like proto labs, and they’re a lot quicker typically. But even internal shops, places I’ve worked in the past where they had an internal machine shop, they would get bogged down with internal requests. And so even though they were internal, it still took, you know, a week or two weeks to get a part back. I wonder did did Apple almost overstaffed their machine shops so that they were really cranking hearts out quickly and you weren’t having to wait a week or whatever it was.

Michael Kubba 35:03
Yeah, I mean, that’s, that’s why I mentioned bringing the cookies, you know, it like, a lot of fun on the line. Yeah, a lot of it. I mean, we had, there was a very, you know, there was a queue and all of that kind of stuff, you know, but sometimes there were just really, really hot things that you needed to get going like, there. Okay, there’s a review with ID and a review with Johnny, you know, and so that automatically gets you to the top, you know, but they had to outsource a bunch of stuff as well, you know, it’s, I think, for them, you know, a lot of the stuff that they’re working on is so secretive, they go to great lengths to not let anyone know what they’re working on. And so it makes sense to have it, you know, in house. Yeah. And, and, you know, most a lot of other companies aren’t that way. I mean, Tesla, Tesla had a pretty, we were building out, you know, a pretty large machine shop, but, but also, I mean, for really complicated stuff, you know, it was just like, Okay, well, you know, we’re really large stuff, it’s like, okay, well is it makes sense for us to go to an outside partner to get to get this done, you know, and so we did that anyways, but, you know, at that time, it was like, you know, driving, driving down to a machine shop and evaluating them, you know, now with like fictive or proto labs, it’s literally like, uploading a file showing where you want your threads and, you know, pressing a button, and then, you know, eight days later, it comes back from China or wherever, it’s, it’s pretty crazy. So yeah. And I guess, to the, to the point about the, the different phases, you know, like, I’m just really big on, you know, why are you building this prototype? Like, you know, what are you trying to answer out of it? And I think in the earlier stages, a lot of it’s prototyping to figure out your feature set, you know, the, what are you building? And does this make sense, and less about kind of the exact architecture? And that’s kind of in the product definition phase, you know, but as you move further along, you know, it’s, it’s figuring out kind of what exactly is this product? And what’s the, you know, what’s the architecture for it? And how do we, how do we evaluate the architecture? How do we de risk it? Maybe there’s certain new technologies that go in there, and how do we integrate those together, and over time, it gets kind of more and more dialed, you know, as it gets closer to mass production, but you know, I think something that was unique about Apple is, I think there’s a lot of people that work at Apple that never really see that very, very early stage concept work, because it’s really amazing how the ID and product marketing and Johnny and Steve, how they, how they developed things, you know, before it got to the masses, of the, you know, internally, a lot of the a lot of the product definition was kind of already there. It’s pretty amazing how that worked out. You know, on Apple TV, when I got involved in, I was pretty much the first person to get involved in that. It was really already flushed out to be kind of the small, black set top box. And not not to say that no one worked on it before. I mean, there were other iterations like remote that, you know, never shipped, um, that kind of led to this. But there’s so many quick prototypes that the IDT ID team did early on to like flesh out, what is this thing even and why should it exist? And yeah, it was really pretty cool to see I think I’ve gotten more exposure to that early stage concept work at other companies, but, but at Apple, they have some special sauce there.

Aaron Moncur 38:30
I hope we continue to have that that special sauce. Yeah. I’ll take that real short break here and share with the listeners that Team pipeline.us is where you can learn more about how we help medical device and other product engineering or manufacturing teams develop turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines to characterize inspect, assemble, manufacture and perform verification testing on your devices. We’re speaking with Michael Kuba today. And you also worked at Tesla and Google on May we’ll spend a few minutes talking about those places at well, starting off, I guess, with with Tesla, what were what were a few of the best and worst things about working there. Yeah,

Michael Kubba 39:16
you know, I worked at Tesla during a really unique two years, I was only there for two years. But like, during that time, we went public. We kicked off the Model S and you know, when I left, we were like six months or four months away from production start. So all the architecture was done and all of that kind of stuff and, and a lot of the validation was done. So it was a pretty cool time. We moved into a new headquarters there in Deer Creek in Palo Alto. At first we were in San Carlos. And so it was a it was a unique two years I feel like it was more like equivalent of like, you know, four or five years. But for me, it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Uh, I, I really loved the vision. And I really appreciated Elon laser focus. And, yeah, that really resonated with me, I think one of the things that I liked the most about it is how vertically integrated everything was. So, you know, you know, we, the design team sat upstairs, on the second floor was our production lines. And then or sorry, on the floor below was the production lines, and then the floor below that was our test labs. And, you know, so it was like, every day, I’d be, you know, upstairs designing stuff, and whether it’s, you know, mechanical design, or I’m doing some, you know, you know, CFD, you know, fluids, evaluation, and then I would, you know, go down and test it out in the lab and maybe put thermocouples on this, you know, power electronics module, or take it to the dyno and test it out there. And then you go upstairs, and you’re, you’re managing a pilot production run, you know, it’s just so cool to me, and oh, then this part doesn’t fit, okay, like, let me run over to the machine shop. And it was like, very, you know, and I think they did that for a reason, you know, it’s like, let’s bring, you know, Elon is really a proponent of vertical integration. And it started with kind of having all these capabilities under one roof. And that was kind of a highlight for me, I learned so much in that process. And I love being involved in all of those aspects, you know, testing, project, managing the manufacturing, build, and design engineering, and it was just so versatile. It was early on enough, where, you know, you could jump into all of these different roles and, you know, full ownership across, you know, the whole thing, I really appreciated that. You know, low lights, I really don’t know that there were too many low lights for me. I mean, it was, it was a very difficult two years, you know, it was a lot, it was a lot of stress. And, but, you know, I can only say good things about my, my time there. I don’t know, you know, I’ve had friends that have stayed there for 12 or 15 years. And, but that, I don’t know that I could do that. I think it’s it’s, you know, kudos to them. And I think they’ve really figured figured it out. And it’s the company has changed, but, you know, it’s it’s fairly intense environment. And, yeah, that’s not why I left. But, but, you know, it is, you know, it’s very mission focused, which means, like, everybody’s all in all the time. And, and, and I think they’ve kind of had these like, you know, existential crises over and over again, they’re finally getting to this point where, kind of they’re, they’re sitting on top of the world, but it’s still a lot of work. So

Aaron Moncur 42:49
how do you get to a point? Do you think where everyone is all in all the time? I mean, that’s a really difficult, ideal to to set. And well, maybe it’s not so difficult to set ideal, difficult to facilitate? Maybe? Yeah. How do you think they did that?

Michael Kubba 43:08
Yeah, you know, I’ve tried to replicate this at like, every other company I’ve gone to, and it’s hard. I don’t know that there’s an exact formula, but But I do think one aspect of it is like, being super clear with the mission, or the vision of what you’re doing. And it’s like, sometimes it’s so simple. But like Elon kept saying, we’re not trying to build the best electric car in the world, we’re trying to build the best car in the world. Like, even in my exit interview, he told me that, you know, so like, he just said it over and over and over again, you know, and like, you know, to the point where it became like, truth. Like, that’s, that is what we’re doing. So like, let’s it’s super simple. But like, let’s remind ourselves, like, what, what is the mission here? And it could be, you know, in that case, it was pretty audacious. But you know, once you started building some momentum, people are like, oh, yeah, I think we can I think we can do this.

Aaron Moncur 44:02
Yeah. How else? Did he make that mission? So clear? I mean, he said it, but he’s not talking with every employee every day, where they’re like, I don’t know, banners up whether emails getting sent out whether like memos being passed around, how did that message get communicated frequently enough and clearly enough, so that everyone bought in?

Michael Kubba 44:23
Yeah, I think it was a lot of repetition. I mean, he was quite involved. I mean, we had many reviews with him. Very detailed technical reviews, he was very, he was very hands on very involved in so like, it was repetition. It was emails about like, Hey, this is what the priority is for the company. Everybody needs to be, you know, all in on this thing. And this is why, you know, and he was kind of honest about the threats that existed and why we should do something so he’s, you know, very clear about that. So I think it was repetition of the mission. Very, very strong. prioritization communicated through all of the management layers. And, you know, through email, direct email through conversations. And so it kind of built this culture that, you know, even says stuff like, if you’re not up, if you’re not needed in a meeting, just walk out of the meeting. And that’s all that’s all in the spirit of being really efficient and prioritize, you know, and not getting, you know, bloated as an organization. So yeah, I think those, those things really helped, at least for me, I tried to emulate that, you know, being clear about what the mission is, and being very vocal, and not being scared, if it sounds too simple, you know?

Aaron Moncur 45:39
Yeah. Well, let’s move on to Google. And what what projects can you share? From your time working at Google? What maybe what was one of the hardest projects you did there? Or most interesting, and any stories in particular that that come to mind? Maybe lessons learned, from your time there at Google?

Michael Kubba 45:59
Yeah, I was there for about five years I started at at the time, they had just started Google X, which is now x. But it was kind of this kind of, you know, skunkworks. Work with Sergei, you know, kind of learned me away from from Tesla at the time, and it was about 80 people at the time, I think it’s probably a few 1000. Now, I don’t know, but. And at that time, there were a bunch of different projects going on that, but the one that I was mainly working on was Google Glass. So I didn’t know what I was working going to be working on until I joined but it was like this, oh, you’re going to work with Sergey, it’s going to be a new kind of like, you know, consumer device that no one’s you know, worked, you know, seen before. And so about half of the Google X team was working on class. And then there was a bunch of other projects going on, like Loon, which is another project that was going on. And I was also supporting kind of on the side. This project that was that was disclosed, a few years back, for glucose monitoring and contact lens. So I was kind of just doing a little bit on the side for that, which was kind of interesting. But I was mainly working on Google Glass, I worked on kind of the first version of Google Glass, which was kind of kind of off the wall and crazy. We then started working on a second version. And then Tony Fidel ended up, you know, through the nest acquisition, taking over our team or kind of being the executive sponsor for our team. And through that, we started working on a bunch of different wearable products and things like that. Many of them didn’t, didn’t ship, but but we started kind of pivoting after that. And in focusing glass on kind of b2b, as opposed to, as opposed to a direct a direct to consumer device, which kind of, you know, there’s a lot to say about, you know, the failings of Google Glass, but there are some cool technology in there for sure. Yeah, I mean, at Google, it was quintessential, like technology, being at the forefront and trying to lead the product development, you know, there was no clear use case defined, you know, there was no problem necessarily, that we were trying to solve others than, you know, other than, yeah, a meta level problem, which everyone’s trying to solve now, which is, you know, technology is in your way a screen is in your way all the time, right. So how do we get technology out of your way, and make it transparent, and get people like looking in the eyes, you know, looking in each other’s eyes again. But, so I can buy into that. And I think every company is working on AR glasses. Now. You can see Google just released a prototype of their concept video of an updated version. And, you know, the meta and ray-ban released their version, I’m sure there’s other companies working on it as well. So yeah, for me, the process was totally different there in terms of product development, it was run more like a software company. And so this was like, you know, I remember sitting there and kind of trying to educate the team on you know, my boss at the time asked me, you know, put, can you put together this like, slide deck of like, what, what is the proper product development look like? Yeah, that’s cool. So it was pretty, it was pretty fun. But it was, it was certainly a struggle in terms of trying to figure out the why, and the what of the product and it seems, you know, it’s really, you know, starting with the technology, and trying to trying to maybe go a little bit too far in terms of form factor, where people weren’t ready. There are a lot of very, very difficult, you know, technology challenges. I mean, any anybody working in wearables will will say that, I mean, you know, so many challenges in terms of ergonomics and thermal So, you know, RF and, you know, balancing all those trade offs. We had a very small optics projection engine in there. And, you know, it was it was pretty, pretty awesome. But you know, why does someone want this? And how do we say it to them in one sentence, why they should have this, you know, we really struggled with that. And I learned a lot through that, that you can convince yourself in like a slide deck, or in a video or something like that, that, you know, something should exist, but unless you can really simplify it, and tell somebody in like a sentence. You know, you’re probably not, you know, on the right track. And that’s what, you know, I learned a lot about kind of the what not to do in terms of product definition there.

Aaron Moncur 50:50
That’s the big insight. What, what are some of your, the biggest problems that you face at work now?

Michael Kubba 50:59
So, yeah, I mean, so right now, I’m at a company called fellow and we built, you know, high end coffee gear. We are, you know, in a bunch of retailers across the US, we have a direct to consumer business. We build kettles, we build grinders, and we have a huge drinkware business, we’re also getting into a coffee business as well. And so, but at the end of the day, it is hardware, it’s beautifully designed hardware. And building hardware right now is very challenging. And I think anyone in the hardware world kind of feels that I think, you know, not being able to travel to our contract manufacturers and troubleshoot problems real time, you know, I really miss that. And I think our whole team misses that, you know, we have a team, a large team in China, we’re so lucky to have that team. And we’ve built that team out over the past two years, but you know, in that they work with our manufacturers directly, they work with us, and it’s a huge resource. But even still, you know, nothing, nothing is like going on site and trying to work through, you know, whether it be manufacturing issues or design issues, whatever it is, I think it’s a huge challenge. You know, obviously, the kind of supply chain world is a big challenge now, as well, and having to really think through, you know, even from a design perspective, you know, what types of components are you choosing, and why are there going to be potential shortages? How do we deal with it if we can’t get this component? And so it’s, it’s really, like, you know, that’s come to the, to the top of the list is, you know, assurance of assurance of supply? And how do we, how do we remain nimble enough to be able to deal with, with issues as they arise, you know, it’s a challenging time to be, you know, kind of developing hardware and ramping, but, you know, a lot of companies are doing it, we’re still doing it, and doing it well, are still thriving. So, you know, that’s really good, but it is, it is a challenge. And then I think, you know, it’s, it’s a, it’s a competitive world out there right now, you know, and so, you know, building, building a team, and hiring at the pace that we need to hire, you know, not just at this company, but at my previous company, and, you know, even even Apple is struggling with this, you know, and there are there’s a lot of audacious goals out there, there’s a lot of things to get done. But, you know, it’s, it’s a, it’s a challenging time, people, people, it’s a challenging time to hire. And, and, and I think people are looking for, and I’ve talked to so many of my friends that are at Google, and I really don’t want to bad mouth, Google, it’s a great place, there’s a lot of cool things that I learned there. But, you know, within the hardware world, it can be challenging, because there maybe isn’t as much of a cohesive strategy. You know, as like, say, apple or something like that. And so, you know, a lot of people that I know, they’re, they’re really frustrated. And, and so it’s really, I think it’s a good time for people to work on the stuff that they really want to work on, that they really have a connection to. And I think that’s what I’m most excited about, you know, that fellow because I mean, you know, we there is, there is no shortage in coffee in coffee lovers and, and I think that being able to kind of meld form and function together and really have a lot of ownership in what you’re doing. You know, it bodes well for us, and we have a good, good story there.

Aaron Moncur 54:43
Great. Well, I’ve just got one more question for you. We’re just we’re about running up on time here. So last question. If you could say if you could share one message on a billboard, let’s say and, you know, millions of people millions of engineers this I still from Tim Ferriss, you’ve ever listened to his show, you may have heard him say the same thing. But we’re talking specifically about engineers within the context of engineering. If you could put any message on a billboard that millions of engineers were going to see, what do you think that message would be?

Michael Kubba 55:13
That’s a really good question. I think I’d probably be become an expert and move on. And I’ll explain that I’ll explain that a little bit. So I think, for people to be really successful. I think when I look at the people that have been most successful, most impactful for me, as in my career, as engineers, it’s all engineering is cross functional. And especially in product design, it’s cross functional. And so I think the people that are most successful are the people that can absorb complex information across multiple functions. So you know, it’s really about like, Okay, how do I learn the most I can about this thing and become an expert. I’m not going to become the world’s expert, or a subject matter expert in this thing forever. But I’m going to become an expert in this one thing for right now, to help me do my job. And then I’m gonna move on to the next thing, because there’s a million other things that I need to balance in terms of trade offs. And I think that’s been really, really impactful for for me, as I’ve kind of tried to absorb, you know, information to make the right level of trade offs as an engineer, you know, I’m not an RF expert. But you know, for the time that I’m working on this project, I’m going to sit with the RF expert and learn as much as I possibly can. And so I can talk with him in in, in a kind of an educated way. And so I think that’s, especially for younger engineers, I think that’s really, really important. Become an expert, and then move on, and then do it again, you know.

Aaron Moncur 56:59
Yeah, that’s wonderful. That’s great. Well, Michael, thank you so much. I sure appreciate you spending your time and sharing all of this insight and wisdom that you have worked, one and earned through hard work over all of your years, your years in the industry. So thank you again, so much for joining me today on the podcast.

Michael Kubba 57:15
Yeah, thank you for having me. It’s been a blast.

Aaron Moncur 57:21
I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of pipeline design, and engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please share the episode. To learn how your team can leverage our team’s expertise developing turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines and with product design, visit us at Team pipeline.us. Thanks for listening.


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