Interview with Justin Rothwell, CEO and Co-Founder of the Startup ProAxion
Written By: Nicole Castagnozzi
For today’s undergraduates, concerns about finding steady employment after graduation are common and well warranted. With an increase in the number of people earning college degrees, white collar employment has gotten more competitive, and companies often ask for experience even for entry level positions. Further complicating the situation is our current “robotic revolution,” a technology driven innovation economy where newer, smarter technology is constantly evolving and edging out older manufacturing practices, consumer products, services, infrastructure, and operations within businesses. Students in STEM fields already have a leg up when it comes to entering into this rapidly evolving economy, because an analytical, methodical and scientific educational foundation is often required in technology based “innovation” fields. However, maintaining curiosity and creativity is important for efficient and novel engineering design and optimization. For students who are inspired by the idea of entering into the exciting, fast paced world of modern technology – and perhaps even dream of starting their own company one day – obtaining a STEM foundational education, while curating a variety of skills along the way is an ideal preparation for a successful modern career. Although it may seem counterintuitive, following a non-linear career path can also be a great way to explore passions and find the job best suited for an individual. To get an inside scoop on what it’s like to be a career-wanderer turned entrepreneur with an engineering background, I spoke with Justin Rothwell, CEO and co-founder of the startup ProAxion based in North Carolina.
ProAxion builds small adaptable devices that attach to machinery in manufacturing plants, and monitor indicators of that particular part’s health, such as vibration speed and temperature, in order to monitor and alert floor supervisors to problems before there is a catastrophic break that holds up the entire production line. This simple device can save time and money by anticipating problems before they occur. Justin, a mechanical engineer by training who holds a PE license in Massachusetts and an MBA from Worchester Polytechnic Institute, co-founded ProAxion with a friend and fellow engineer Elliot Poger in 2015. Below are some interesting points from our conversation.
Early Jobs Working as a Design Engineer: Expectations vs. Reality
“I was always fascinated with machines, kind of how things worked, I was really just taking things apart, not so good at putting them back together!” Justin says of his choice to major in Mechanical Engineering in undergrad. “Engineering became a path that interested me, and the people in my life said ‘you know that’s a good field, you can make some good money, and it’s a good career path’”. Justin was very interested in space exploration and the exciting technology NASA uses for its rockets and satellites, and he was also inspired by a family friend who worked as a design engineer for airplane turbines. With the goal of working as a design engineer, he graduated from Northeastern University with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. When he graduated, he did find work as a design engineer, as he’d planned to do, for a company that designed and produced specialty pumps. However, the experience was not what he expected. “It wasn’t very glorious, no satellites or anything,” he says.
He found that the purely academic approach to design and problem solving he learned in school was not effective with the product he was working with. “I remember being told, because I brought a bunch of textbooks from my college courses with me to the job, and the senior engineer there, who had been doing this for 30 years, said ‘yeah, no textbooks, we don’t have any textbooks here. This is the real world of engineering’. I didn’t know what to make of that”, Justin explains. “You’re taught in school, there’s a problem, you outline it, come up with a proposed solution, reference some equations, and then you get a solution, and there you go. And these machines, they were very high speed pumps, with very close tolerances between the moving parts and non moving parts, and you know they didn’t follow any type of equation.” Real world design was more about experience and resourcefulness, and Justin found the mathematical equations he relied in in undergrad had a narrow applicability. Learning to think outside the textbook was a common challenge among his peers as well, he says. “If you’re [majoring in engineering] to become a teacher, tenure track, then, it stays very much the academic approach.” but, “in engineering there is a wide spectrum from the pure academics, all the way to the other side which is field engineers, [who use] a lot of creativity, resourcefulness, throw the book out and just make it work,” he explains. Later, Justin decided to take an opportunity to work as an engineering consultant designing entire water treatment plants. “It was, to me, very fascinating to learn about how the whole plant worked,” he explains. Again, expectations still failed to line up with reality. “I was expecting, hey, we are going to design the best system we can, the best plant, you know, because it’s all public water supply. But at the end of the day it was a business and there was a lot of pressure to do things quickly and cut corners. And that created a lot of frustration,” says Justin. The lessons learned in that job, although tough and at times discouraging, spurred an interest in business and he decided to enter graduate school to earn an MBA.
On graduate school and the value working in a cohort (like i-Trek cohorts!):
Justin’s MBA program was a part-time, cohort program that was 32 months long and focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Working together in a cohort allowed Justin to develop deep relationships with his classmates and he learned about himself and what personalities he meshes with in a working environment. “At the end of the 30 months, I was friends with everyone, but there were certain people that I worked better with,” he says. “You get a few layers deep in terms of people’s strengths and weaknesses and how everyone is different. How puzzle pieces fit together in terms of a team. And that experience although it helped us in our cohort, provided a lot of learning in a professional context, especially if you are going to work as part of a team, or grow a team.”
On the value of an engineering education and diverse working experiences:
Aside from the obvious technical expertise engineering students learn, there’s another more intangible learning that goes on. “To me, that was the biggest benefit of engineering school, learning to be a problem solver. Not memorizing formulas, or how to solve this specific problem, just generally how to be resourceful, think critically about a problem and be creative. But it wasn’t until I got into the professional world that I realized that that is a skill set you learn”, Justin explains. While many of the technical engineering skills may only be applicable to very specific professions, this resourceful, problem-solving mindset is widely applicable to a huge range of professional roles. “You become a critical thinker, it’s a good experience, that is translatable in a lot of non-technical ways,” Justin says.
Additionally, as careers develop many engineers may chose to move out of technical engineering roles. “If you apply this [education] differently, that’s ok, that’s all kind of part of the experience. If anyone tells you that they had a plan on day one, and executed it perfectly 10 years later, I mean, I think they’re full of it,” Justin says. Given his experience with his own career development, Justin advocates taking a non-linear path to find your own success. Diverse job experiences allow young professionals to find out about themselves, what they like to do, and what kind of role is a good fit for them personally. Coming out of undergrad, the focus is frequently on the formulaic technical skills. “I think switching jobs or roles gives you that kind of experience” that allows young engineers to grow and develop self awareness, so they can work better in teams and be more dynamic. “It can be scary, but I tend to advocate for that”, he says. “Get some other data points that are much different than the ones you have, so you can triangulate, and I think it’s a lot of self discovery. Like, that was an awful experience. Well that’s great, because now you know, ‘I’m never doing that again’.”
On creativity, risk taking, and making mistakes:
Sometimes neglected in the academic engineering environment is the creativity and agile adaptability that Justin has found indispensable while building his own company. To develop the product that ProAxion is now selling, he and his co-founder focused on what he calls an “80/20” approach: “Don’t spend too much time engineering the perfect solution up front,” he advises. “Get an 80/20 approach, but then repeat that rapidly. If you do enough 80/20 passes on a problem, you’ll get there much more efficiently than if you spend a lot of time trying to get to the 99 percent solution without even trying it, without the experience”. Using this approach they were able to design their product, which is now ready for commercial applications, in about a year. “The first one was just a proof of concept, we were never even trying to sell it, it was just a developer board in a small box with a mac mini in a waterproof suitcase. Just something that, what could we get done in a week? Something out there to prove that it has a business need, something with a customer would let us put in and pay us for”, he says. “Our current system is generation 4, within 18 months. And… it’s a commercial product now”. In essence, his experience has taught him that putting your designs out into the world and trying them out is an efficient way to optimize. “There’s so much learning in the mistakes, and trying to get something out there”, he says. “Focus on the learning of mistakes. Not the mistakes”. In addition to the learning opportunities that can be obtained from small failures, taking smart risks and persevering through challenges may help young professionals get noticed by people who can help them grow their careers. “There are a lot of people out there who are successful who really appreciate that quality: Smart risk taking, because you focus on the experience”.
On finding mentors:
Professional mentorship is valuable in most fields, and engineering is no different. Especially when starting significant projects, it’s important to have someone – or ideally a few people – with more experience than you to bounce ideas off of. “I have some mentors and people that are helping us build our company and I’ve been very fortunate to have them… be a resource”, says Justin. “They ask good questions, ‘well how do you feel about it? And what’s the downside? And what’s the upside? What don’t you know? Then go for it. That support group is really helpful. I would recommend getting some people 10 or 15 years senior, and a lot of people want to help.”