Client: Atlanta Computer Currents Magazine
An important monthly feature I wrote for ACC was the Dogwood Valley Profile, a one-page interview and company profile featuring a rising star in the Atlanta high-tech community. These profiles served as excellent promotional material for the subject companies.
In public relations, an article like this one is known as a “model press release.” It is written in hopes of intriguing an editor enough to either assign staff to write an article, or in the best case, actually run much of the press release as written.
SpectraLogic’s Success: Concurrent Engineering
The striking thing upon entering SpectraLogic’s offices is quiet–near-silence pervades the suite. One would expect that the largest tenant of the Advanced Technology Development Center on the Georgia Tech campus would generate considerable noise, yet the lack of commotion belies the amount and the quality of work being done.
The atmosphere of SpectraLogic’s main office is a natural result of the management style of Jeff Radcliffe and Doug Armstrong, co-founders of the company. Since its inception in 1986, SpectraLogic has pursued innovative avenues for success as a multidisciplinary product development company.
SpectraLogic offers a wide variety of services from product management to hardware development. Begun as an electrical engineering hardware design company, Radcliffe and Armstrong quickly recognized that it was imperative to expand their services to include software development and enclosure design. SpectraLogic is dedicated to producing integrated solutions for a variety of clients.
With their expanded services, however, came important decisions about personnel, management, and company structure. Herein lies the key to the company’s success: a team approach involving a unique group of contributors for each project.
“Our staff is perhaps our greatest asset,” says Radcliffe. Bringing together a group of people with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise and setting them to work on a project can be a tricky blend of chemistry and attitude. Closed-minded individuals won’t fit in at SpectraLogic. “We look for industrial designers with a leaning toward software, for example, or hardware engineers with a leaning toward design,” Radcliffe says.
The diversity of interests among SpectraLogic employees often leads to volunteers for projects. Rounding out the group for a task is usually a matter of analyzing availability and suitability of personnel; experience is of high importance, but there is no set “recipe” for creating project teams.
“We’re not into empire building,” says Armstrong. The pitfall for many companies is that they allow departments to be closed systems: engineers do engineering, designers do designing, and the respective department heads are loathe to relinquish their power and authority over their staffs. While SpectraLogic certainly wishes to build up its various departments, Armstrong hastens to add, there aren’t barriers between the disciplines. “We like to think of ourselves as facilitators,” says Radcliffe, rather than being dictatorial managers.
One example of their facilitating is the way workspaces are arranged. SpectraLogic does not disseminate components of projects around the office, but instead brings the staff together to a central project station. Not only does this approach encourage collaboration, it also prevents any one department from playing “guardian” for an assignment, says Radcliffe. Information can’t be held up at one person’s desk, stalling progress, because the group members are all physically together in one place, working with the same data and equally aware of the progress and goals for the project.
The workspaces are also intelligently arranged for security–the bulk of the original and proprietary work is performed several rooms away from the reception area. “Someone would have to get a long way to see anything recognizable,” Radcliffe comments. Although this is not a new concept, the fact that security can be maintained is impressive because of SpectraLogic’s use of the office-without-walls paradigm. To promote “fluid teamwork and data,” project stations are positioned close together, doors are usually left open, and rooms are partitioned primarily by arrangement of furniture, not construction of cubicles.
Keeping data fluid is not an insignificant task. One of the most important facets of the company’s success, according to Radcliffe, is keeping up to date on materials, techniques, and other essential information. Weekly meetings with manufacturers and distributors and regular updates to documentation have contributed to stock an impressive technology library. A unique database on the company’s network not only lists the library’s titles and their contents, but also tracks the books’ physical location. “For instance, if you know you need a certain connector, say a mini DB-9, and you know a right-angle connection would work best, with just a few keystrokes you can find out which companies make that connector and where the catalog is,” Radcliffe explains.
Such on-going research into related industries helps keep SpectraLogic at the fore of its field. Designers begin working with new materials soon after their introduction; programmers utilize the latest advances in languages. But above all, it is the collaborative project team technique which leads the company, a technique referred to as concurrent engineering.
Radcliffe describes SpectraLogic’s implementation of concurrent engineering not as the result of extensive research into successful management techniques, but rather the natural way of doing business. He says that many companies, including Rockwell and Motorola, have attempted to adopt concurrent engineering practices but haven’t integrated them fully enough–often there are still the departmental barriers to overcome.
Building SpectraLogic on the fundamental concept of concurrent engineering, though, has allowed the idea to blossom. Initial prototypes, for example, are not mere wood and plastic models, but functioning equipment. A project is not sent separately to the departments but presented to a multidisciplinary group for brainstorming. Unfeasible ideas are not pursued, while creative innovations can quickly be developed and modified into a design that all of the participants agree can be successfully manufactured.
“We outperform what the client can do alone,” Armstrong says. “We can take a project and show them exactly how long it will take and what the results will be.” The company maintains detailed logs on all of its projects, so if a certain circuit board is needed, they can consult experience to tell the client how long the assignment will take. “It kills me to see a product come out and fail for lack of six or eight weeks more development time,” Armstrong adds.
Established relationships with companies such as Chase Manhattan Bank and IBM bring in a number of projects, but they also work with entrepreneurs. It isn’t easy for someone with a great idea to bring it to fruition, Radcliffe says. “You don’t see people sitting down and deciding they’re going to carve out their 30 percent of the auto market,” Armstrong continues. Niche markets are the primary outlets for entrepreneurs, yet even these products require much more development and financing than most individuals can muster. SpectraLogic offers the entrepreneur development expertise as well as the contacts to investors who can help launch an enterprise.
The company has been honored recently with awards from BusinessWeek and the Industrial Design Society of America; further evidence of SpectraLogic’s success is that a third of new clients are repeat customers, and another third are referrals. “We have five or six projects going at any one time,” says Armstrong, “totaling around 50 or 60 a year. And that doesn’t count consulting jobs, so we stay busy.”
Although they don’t intend to rest on their laurels, no departure is expected from their successful implementation of concurrent engineering. SpectraLogic has built a fine reputation that undoubtedly will grow in years to come.