Author: Stacy Paul
Array of Engineers (AoE) celebrates its fourth year anniversary on January 18th. In some ways I feel like it was yesterday when we were working in the basement of our house. While in other ways I feel like AoE has been in business for 20+ years. There have been many learning experiences we have grown from over the last four years. There have been some really good days and some really bad days.
Our amazing journey started working out of our house, cramped in our basement for over a year with eight other engineers. Our daughters may or may not have wanted to evict us 😉. Needless to say, we have faced significant challenges since we formed this company. From determining when to grow, finding an office location, deciding which projects we could take on, figuring out our true core values, to following those core values, and most recently making it through a global pandemic. We have overcome a lot. But through it all, I would say AoE has grown to become an extremely resilient, innovative, and dedicated team! I am so grateful to work with a set of individuals who lift each other up. Now, I am not saying there are not times we disagree, because we do. But in some ways I think that is what makes our team special. We are not afraid to challenge the other person and when a decision is made we are also not too proud to accept it. We are open to others' opinions and ideas when trying to solve a problem, creating a process, or figuring out what went wrong. I am so proud of this culture at AoE.
When I look back on January 18, 2018, the day AoE was formed, I really don’t think in my wildest dream that AoE would be where it is today. How did we get here? One word, RELATIONSHIPS.
Relationships are so important for any small business, whether it is just starting out or 100 years old. I want to clarify, when I say relationships I don’t just mean external relationships with customers, suppliers, or community. Professional relationships with fellow teammates are equally as important. There are so many relationships that have contributed to AoE’s success over the past four years.
AoE Team Relationships
The main reason AoE was formed four years ago was to create a place that encouraged employees to think outside of the box, while always challenging them to grow professionally and personally. Creating a place where the full well-being of a person is just as important as their professional and academic well-being. Each teammate has their own personal challenges they are maneuvering. It is very important to be cognizant, supportive, and respectful of these. This responsibility has become even more important now amidst the isolation of the COVID pandemic.
AoE is a place where teamwork is a priority and encouraged. Collaboration within our team helps solve some of our most difficult problems. Teamwork provides us with a diversity of thought, increases our creativity, opens our perspectives, and helps us find the most optimal solution. Throughout my career, I have seen instances where teamwork is not encouraged. This can create an environment where employees become focused on promoting their own achievements and competing against their fellow colleagues, which can ultimately lead to an unhealthy and inefficient working environment. Teammates are not willing to share and offer suggestions if they do not feel secure and trusted. How can anyone be innovative and creative if they do not feel their ideas will be respected?
Research and development projects are an important part of AoE's culture, so fostering innovation and creativity is extremely important to our team. Over the last four years, we have been able to experience first hand what can be produced by a cohesive team. I know I have personally grown, and have witnessed how AoE teammates have grown individually, in so many ways. But what I think the AoE team should be most proud of is how our relationship as a team has developed, grown, and solidified. AoE is not a company where we work in silos or stovepipes. Yes, we have teammates who have different expertise and backgrounds, and ultimately work on different projects, but sharing their expertise and backgrounds with each other has been the key to our team's growth. I love seeing our hardware engineers working closely with our software engineers or our senior teammates working with our junior teammates trying to figure out the best strategy and approach to solve a certain problem. This is a very common sight at AoE, collaborating around a white board.
This type of close knit cohesiveness and free collaboration of ideas is the only way AoE has grown to become an original equipment manufacturer or OEM. There are so many components that need to fit together correctly when producing a piece of technology involving custom circuit board design, firmware design, FPGA design, embedded code, host code, cable harnesses, and configuration management. In order to be successful in this way, a team must work together in this cohesive manner. AoE has found it is necessary to not only work in this manner but also foster an environment that encourages risk taking and learning from failures and ideas that do not work out.
During COVID-19 we had some customers take longer than expected to begin their projects. However, this ended up being one of the best things to happen to AoE. We used this down time to accelerate the team’s research and development efforts, which ultimately led us to producing some of the most innovative products that we are now incorporating on current and future partner projects, such as our Automated Test Controller (ATC). This is one of the benefits of working for an agile small business that values innovation and creativity. I do not think just any team could have pivoted away so effectively from being customer service focused, especially while dealing with a global pandemic. However, since the AoE team was built around being collaborative, this was a seamless transition.
Anyone who has been a part of a start up in the past surely understands how important it is that as the startup grows and matures the teammates must also in order for it to be successful. The team at AoE exemplifies this to the nth degree (I might be a little biased here though 😉). What I really love thinking about is how we have grown organically as a team and as a company. We have teammates who have grown into vice presidents, leaders, project managers, tech leads, and mentors.
One of the reasons AoE was formed was to create high tech innovative jobs for our community and to promote STEM in younger generations. I personally know when I am a part of something bigger than myself that contributes to a community, whether at a local level or higher, I feel an immense sense of accomplishment. Based on my own experience, when we feel connected within our community to each other, we feel more of a desire or need to help each other out. Following this philosophy, AoE has been heavily involved with our local Grand Rapids and Michigan community from the start.
One way AoE helps younger engineers within our community is by continually bringing on and developing co-ops and interns. AoE has developed a co-op/internship program that allows students to experience first hand how to apply what they learn in the classroom to real world situations and projects. AoE’s more experienced engineers help mentor and grow these co-op and intern students. What I really like about AoE’s co-op/internship program is it allows students to experience and become knowledgeable of the various innovative high tech engineering work we do right here in Grand Rapids - meaning they do not have to move to the East Coast or West Coast to work on cool projects. This not only helps a student figure out what they would like to work on after graduation, it helps them decide whether AoE would be a good fit for them. Similarly, it helps us as a company determine if the student is a good fit for the AoE team. When it is all said and done, AoE seeks to help individual students reach their highest potential and maximize their exposure to engineering opportunities.
There are a few more ways AoE has helped foster and grow our STEM community over the past four years, such as:
Being a Change the Code board member
Mentoring and sponsoring a FIRST Robotics Team
Being a member of AIAM’s (Aerospace Industry Association of Michigan) Talent Pillar
Creating and organizing the Woman of Aerospace virtual event with AIAM
Encouraging and promoting job shadowing opportunities for high school students
Hosting lunch and learns
Being a member of WID (Women in Defense) and helping with their STEM committees
Mentoring Tech Savvy Girls event in Northern Michigan
Being a member of The Technology Council through the Right Place
Sponsoring numerous STEM events in Grand Rapids
Customer relationships are critical, not only for small businesses but for all businesses. When AoE was created four years ago, we had one external customer in the medical device industry and one internal research and development project. Now four years later AoE has diversified its customer base across the aerospace, space, medical device, defense, automotive, agriculture, commercial trucking, and IoT industries. We also take pride in the fact that each customer has become a returning customer. AoE has organically grown within each of our customer base markets. This could not have happened if the AoE team did not foster and embrace strong relationships with our customers.
AoE’s philosophy and strategy on successfully performing on a customer project is to always introduce a unique strategy that maximizes everyone at AoE’s potential to think outside the box. This is a core value at AoE that delivers results in a very efficient and effective manner. AoE’s business model is to use innovation and creativity to solve projects as effectively and efficiently as possible.
We realize that no one company, especially a small business, is an expert in every facet of a project. AoE is passionate about forming partnerships with other small businesses, from local businesses in West Michigan all the way to Pasadena, California. This allows the combined team to leverage unique strengths from both companies. We have found this combination to be a force multiplier on achieving amazing results where everyone wins, both the teaming companies and the customers.
Legal and Financial Relationships
From the very first days of AoE to 2022, our legal and financial partners have been so very important to AoE’s success. I think in order for a person to be successful it is important to know when to ask for help - don’t try to be an expert in everything. This is kind of my motto. I am an aerospace engineer, entrepreneurial, and small business owner, not a lawyer, banker, or accountant.
My friend is a lawyer and he was one of the first people we called when thinking about forming AoE. He and his team have been essential in many situations for AoE, from figuring out what paperwork we needed to complete to create the company, to reviewing contracts, introducing us to our accountant, and guiding us through COVID.
Our relationship with our banker has been important on so many levels. We landed our first customer before we actually had a company bank account. Fortunately, our banker quickly helped us figure out everything AoE needed to have in place. She even brought our financial paperwork over to our house so we could sign it and get it processed quickly! Throughout the COVID pandemic, AoE did not have to cut anyone's pay or lay off any employees. This was 100% due to the PPP loan that our banker helped us secure as soon as the PPP became available to small businesses. There were many sleepless nights during COVID with so much unknown, but it was very reassuring to know, that because of our relationship with our banker (and accountant), we were able to immediately secure the PPP loan to alleviate some of the financial stress.
I also cannot stress the relief it is to have our trusted accountants support us in this ever-changing world. Our accountants not only help us prepare our business tax returns and help us understand our tax obligations. They also answer any questions we have regarding QuickBooks and help us collect and analyze our financial reports.
As I finish my reflection over the past four years, it makes me even more excited to see what the next four years will bring to AoE. How will the AoE team collaborate with our community? What new projects and customers will we work with? What will future collaborations with existing small business partnerships look like? What new teaming relationships with other small businesses will we form? What new innovative products will we develop? How will the AoE team grow? These are all questions that are yet to be answered over the next four years. The future is ours to create!
Stacy Paul is an aerospace engineer and the CEO of Array of Engineers. Stacy has over 20 years of engineering and leadership experience, which includes supporting day of launch operations in the Mission Control Center at NASA's Johnson Space Center, as well as commercial aerospace projects in West Michigan. Stacy is a Michigan native and is most passionate about inspiring STEM in younger generations.